Sex, Drugs, Religion and the Canadian Church in the 1960s

Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ont., and a history columnist for Faith Today magazine. This week on the Faith Today blog we feature some of our favourite Flatt columns.

by Kevin Flatt

Maybe it’s the colourful and chaotic world of the hippie movement, with its tie-dye shirts, long hair and music festivals.

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Maybe it’s the sense of hope that accompanied Canada’s centennial celebrations in 1967 or the grainy TV images of the first moon landing in 1969.

Or maybe it’s darker themes of social unrest, drug use and political assassinations. Depending on your age, you may simply think back to what was happening in your own life during those years – a first kiss, a first car, a first child.

For most of us the 1960s conjures up images of change, and for good reason.

The baby boom generation, born in the years after World War II, came of age then with more of them attending high school and university than in any previous generation. Televisions became a standard feature of Canadian living rooms. New hairstyles, clothing and music appeared on the scene, all driven by a burgeoning youth market with disposable income.

More controversially, people began to abandon the Christian sexual ethic as popular culture and the birth control pill made premarital sex a more socially acceptable and (apparently) risk-free option.

This “sexual revolution” had political repercussions, such as a widening of the grounds for divorce and the legalization of abortion under certain circumstances. A rising political star, justice minister – and soon prime minister – Pierre Trudeau ushered in both legislative changes.

Such developments were not limited to Canada, of course. Similar changes took place in the United States, Britain and other Western countries.

Historian Arthur Marwick has rightly argued that these upheavals constituted a “cultural revolution” throughout the Western world. But the 1960s were not just about sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll. They were also a time of religious crisis as mainstream religion faltered in Western societies, including Canada.

Before 1960 two pillars dominated Canadian religion – the mainline Protestant churches (primarily Anglican and United) and the Roman Catholic Church. After 1960 both of these pillars began to crack.

The Catholic stronghold of Quebec experienced a “Quiet Revolution” when a new provincial government severed the close relationship between the Catholic Church and the State by rapidly taking over the administration of schooling and health care, both of which had been run by the Church in previous decades.

These changes coincided with a momentous gathering of Catholic bishops in Rome for the Second Vatican Council, which shook up the Church by replacing the Latin mass with services in vernacular languages, adopting a more positive attitude toward Protestants, and generally displaying openness to the modern world.

While historians are still debating the “how” and “why,” the net effect of these rapid changes was a sharp drop in Church commitment and participation among Canadian Catholics. This drop was especially pronounced in Quebec, which went from being the most religious jurisdiction in North America to the least, at least in terms of church attendance.

Meanwhile, mainline Protestants went through their own period of upheaval.

Prominent journalist Pierre Berton published a scathing book The Comfortable Pew (J.B. Lippincott, 1965), which condemned the churches for always lagging a step behind social change. Berton argued that unless the churches got with the times by dropping traditional dogmas and promoting progressive social causes, they were doomed to extinction.

Hardly a facet of church life escaped unchanged as mainline Protestant leaders implemented new Sunday school curricula, revised their positions on moral issues, took up the flag of progressive politics and flirted with radical theological movements such as the so-called “death of God” theology.

But to their disappointment these churches soon found Berton’s medicine didn’t work. Many conservative members departed for other churches, while radicals found the pace of change too slow and simply left the faith altogether. Many in the middle scratched their heads and decided it would be less confusing just to sleep in on Sunday morning. The result was a catastrophic loss of members and participants that left Canadian mainline Protestantism, like Quebec Catholicism, a shadow of its former self.

However, not all was doom and gloom for Canadian Christianity in the 1960s.

On the fringes there were signs of hope in Canada’s smaller evangelical churches. In a future column we’ll explore how these Evangelicals successfully navigated the turbulent waters of the 1960s with their faith and churches intact.

Kevin Flatt is associate professor of history and director of research at Redeemer University College, Ancaster, Ont., and a history columnist for Faith Today. Read more of his columns here

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