The Social Passion

The Social Passion: Religion and Social Reform in Canada
by Richard Allen
University of Toronto Press; 1973

Reviewed by Ulli Diemer

Any student of social change in Canada must come to terms with the influence of Christianity. For, while in both the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches, there have traditionally been sharp divisions on social issues, in Canada, religious influences played an especially important part in shaping the socialist movement. as well as other social forces.

Richard Allen’s contribution to the understanding of the development of Canadian society and Canadian political alignments is invaluable, and the fact that his book is now out in paperback (albeit priced at $5.95) should help to make it more widely, read. The fact that Tommy Douglas likes the book should not be held against it.

The ambiguity in the heritage of Christianity goes right back to Jesus himself, with his prescription on the one hand to “render unto Caesar what Is Caesar’s” and his pronouncement on the other hand that “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God”.

All in all, his teachings would seem to point to a social vision that is akin to communism, but they suffered immensely through the unreadiness of the society into which he introduced them, through the distortions of Paul, and through the corruptions of power.

So Christianity became primarily the “opiate of the masses”, a source of tremendous suffering and injustice through the centuries, the means by which oppressors justified their power. As Protestantism, it became a convenient ideology for capitalism (though Catholicism had little trouble adapting either).

But with the rise of the working class, strains of Christianity began to appear that not only offered solace and a better world after death, or advice to the poor to better themselves, but sometimes suggested that change was possible on earth.

In Canada, especially the Protestant version of this radical approach was important. The social gospel movement which Allen describes so well helped produce the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), and this at a time when it sounded considerably more radical than its successor does today. J.S. Woodsworth is merely the best known of this brand of Christianity.

The Catholic church produced a separate and somewhat similar movement in Canada, although it never reached the proportions of its counterpart. Allen deals only with the Protestant movement, the social gospel, explaining that it interacted little with the Catholics. It is interesting, though, that in recent years the Catholic church has produced a movement that is occasionally revolutionary, not just reformist, notably the revolutionary priests of Latin America. Perhaps Protestants are more prone to leave religion entirely as they become more radical although, to be sure, they were heavily involved in the Sixties campaign against the Bomb and in protests against the coup in Chile. But revolutionary Protestants are even harder to find than revolutionary Catholics.

It is true that the radical side of Christianity, although anything but dominant, has made a contribution to social change. At the same time, it has to be concluded that the social gospel, if taken as a political position rather than a transitional stage in the development of individuals, has had negative influences as well. Although Allen does not particularily bring this out in his analysis, it is clear from his evidence.

The pre-eminent stress on Christian philanthropy and paternalism, the pious moralism and condescending pity, were accompanied by a rhetoric that was nothing so much as an attempt to portray the ideal society as one where a large happy flock of sheep (no longer sheared) were tended and administered by kindly and competent shepherds. One has only to read the tracts of the social gospellers, or indeed of the CCF, to see the syndrome. What was inhibited was a scientific and realistic analysis of the causes of poverty, and a hardheaded approach to turfing out those responsible for the mess society was in. The crippling effects on the movement for social change and socialism in Canada were immeasurable.

But while Allen’s analysis is deficient on this point, his book is still by far the best starting point for acquiring an understanding of these phenomena.

First published in The Varsity.

Keywords: Christian Social & Political AnalysisChristian SocialismChurchesReligion & Social JusticeSocial GospelUnited Church