The End of Harper's Canadian Civil Religion


Justin Trudeau and his Liberal Party’s overwhelming sweep in the Canadian national elections on October 19 was more than just voters’ repudiation of Stephen Harper and the Conservative Party, but it was also a rejection of the strange version of Canadian civil religion the former Prime Minister was attempting to construct. Harper is from oil-rich Alberta and in his nine years as leader of Canada promoted policies that seemed more at home in the Republican Party of the United States than in socially and economically liberal Canada. An evangelical Christian, Harper symbolically placed the origins and future of the country with a mythic North while arguing for an increasingly jingoistic military. With the increasingly melting ice in the Arctic revealing previously inaccessible mineral wealth as well as a navigable Northwest Passage, Harper had tried to position Canada competitively against other national claimants in the region. Part of that center piece was (some might say cynically) rediscovering Canada’s origins as a “Northern Country.” In a way, Harper’s orientation of Canada towards the “North” wasn’t dissimilar in intent and tone to the United States’ mythologizing of the “West,” and similar economic, military, and political motivations underlay both. As the former prime minister had said, “Canada’s Arctic is central to our identity as a northern nation: It is part of our history and it represents the tremendous potential of our future.”

Harper was attempting to single-handedly invent a sort of national Canadian civil religion reminiscent of the ideology which permeates her neighbor south of the border. A former aide to Harper quoted in a January edition of The Globe and Mail said “if you don’t have a set of norms, a set of stories about yourself, the kind of myths and narratives that create a national identity, than you cease to be a nation… The Prime Minister’s a big believer in the idea that nations are built by narratives – stories they tell themselves.” The term “civil religion” was coined by the sociologist Robert Bellah in his 1975 The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial. Bellah argued that the United States was a sort of covenantal society, which forged a national identity through the use of certain symbols and adherence to certain texts which constituted a type of secularized religion. While it’s certainly true that every state has things like a flag, a national anthem, monuments and so on, Bellah argued that the United States’ origins, both actual and mythic, as well as its particular history, had created a state where the official ideology was affectively a secular faith which Americans either consciously or unconsciously adhered to, regardless of what their literal religion denominational affiliation may be. Think of the way a certain scriptural inerrancy surrounds documents like the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence, or the borderline idolatrous founder worship with permeates political discourse of the left or the right, or the sense of providential destiny which conceptualized the United States as the “last, best hope of mankind.”
Whatever your feelings about or adherence to American civil religion in some form, what made Harper’s attempts to create a similar Canadian civil religion so calculated (and in some ways inadvertently funny) was that as a nation Canada’s identity is in part defined by not having a civil religion in the same way as the United States. Indeed Canada presents sort of a parallel version America without the same civil religion, a place that culturally is very similar to the United States but ideologically is more similar to twenty-first century Western Europe. The humorist and writer Sarah Vowell in The Partly Cloudy Patriot writes of the differences in the stories American and Canadians tell about themselves, “There’s a sad sack quality to the Canadian chronology… I once asked the CBC radio host Ian Brown how on earth one could teach Canadian schoolchildren their history in a way that could remotely inspiring and he answered, ‘It isn’t inspiring.’” But indeed that’s perhaps the very quality that many patriotic Canadians were patriotic about. If the United States has a dramatic history, that’s in part predicated on national hypocrisy and violence. Yes, it’s the covenantal state where membership in the polity is not based on religion or nationality, Jefferson’s “Empire of Liberty,” but it’s also a country that enshrined slavery into its economic and political system. In the American cultural and literary imagination Canada has always functioned as a type of Super-Ego, the polite northern nation that kept its beliefs to itself yet seemed to embody American values of equality, liberty, and opportunity more than the United States did. From slave narratives to stories of draft resistors, Canada occupied a symbolic space of sometimes seeming more American than America did, a place where people escaped to freedom, to a nation which didn’t rail about liberty all the time (perhaps because it didn’t need to).
One of the greatest interpreters of what being an American means was the scholar Sacvan Bercovitch, a Canadian. In his 1975 The Puritan Origins of the American Self he identified the contours of what made American civil religion and ideology exceptional and different. As an immigrant from similar and yet totally different Canada, Bercovitch may have been preternaturally disposed to understanding these contours. Writing of the sort of secularized “Scripture” which undergirds our political rhetoric, he wrote “What struck me first about this Scripture was that ‘America’ stopped short at the Canadian border…I had grown up with the rhetoric of Canada, which, for all its extravagance, identified the country by common-sense geography. Canada’s official landmarks and cultural icons attested to the persistence of European traditions…. In America’s foundational story, by contrast, all marks of colonization faded into a mission to renovate, not recapitulate the ways of the Old World.” For Bercovitch what made America different from Canada, indeed different from all other western nations, was that it “had persuaded its extraordinarily diverse population to believe in themselves as a New Israel.”
The idea that Canadians would think of themselves that way seems like a joke, and yet Harper attempted to transform something like that into policy. Perhaps nothing demonstrates Harper’s milquetoast Canadian civil religion more than the statue of Mother Canada planned for Cape Breton National Highlands Park on the Atlantic coast. A massive, ten-story, shrouded figure who looks more at home in a gothic novel or the cover of a Led Zeppelin album than as a national monument, Mother Canada is to commemorate the war dead of the first world war, and she will stand at the ocean looking out accusingly towards Europe. The Globe and the Mail describe it as “hubristic, ugly, and just plain wrong” and “offensively tasteless.” It reminds one of nothing so much as Franz Kafka’s famous description in his novel Amerika of the Statue of Liberty brandishing a sword, yet this proposed statue has none of the noble pathos of the actual colossus which stands in New York Harbor.  In an article from June The Guardian reports that “growing anger over the plan has made it a new focus of opposition to the increasingly unpopular government of Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper.” Perhaps one day historians will identify Mother Canada as the gauge that indicated Harper was on his way out, when Canadians elected not to embrace Harper’s bellicose civil religion in favor of their historically perfectly fine (and thus very Canadian) national identity.

3 thoughts on “The End of Harper's Canadian Civil Religion

  1. Good and true article. No doubt his American style Christian fundamentalism (largely hidden though it was) explains why Harper was so completely out of place in the country he was born in.

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