The Canadian Red Ensign

The Canadian Red Ensign

Friday, December 12, 2014

Puritanism, Theocracy, and Social Conservatism

Was Canada a theocratic state, scarcely different from the Ayatollah’s Iran, until 2005?

That does not sound like a description of the Canada of ten years ago as I remember it, nor can I think of anyone who was alive and living in Canada back then who does remember it that way. There are those, however, who appear to be suggesting that such was the case.

That was the year that Parliament, led by the Liberal government of Paul Martin, passed the Civil Marriage Act that made “marriages” available to same-sex couples across Canada. This had more or less been accomplished by the courts on a province-by-province basis in the year or two preceding the bill which standardized it. It was, of course, a controversial move - both on the part of the courts and Parliament – and remains so to this day. Many who opposed this change being made would like to see it reversed today. Progressives who supported the change have been known to describe the position of their opponents as theocratic.

Now think about that for a second. If it is theocratic to take the position that marriage is a union of a man and a woman, that it was wrong to re-define it otherwise, and that it ought to be changed back, then this means that our country was a theocracy for most of its history, up until about ten years ago. Similarly, if it is theocratic to say that abortion is murder and ought to be against the law, then our country was theocratic until 1988, especially prior to 1969.

Canada, of course, was not a theocracy prior to these changes, nor has she ever been a theocracy. A theocracy is a form of government in which a deity is the acknowledged head of state, the priests are the ruling class, and laws of religion are also the law of the land. Canada’s head of state is Queen Elizabeth II and neither we nor Great Britain have ever regarded her or her predecessors as a divine being in the way the Japanese used to think of their emperors or the Roman Empire her Caesars. Clergy may run for public office in Canada, have often done so and have often been successful, but nobody holds public office here by right of being a priest. The law of the land consists of the Constitution of Canada, the Common Law, and laws enacted by Parliament. Since we are not now and never have been a theocracy it is therefore not theocratic to oppose the sweeping changes to the traditional moral, social, and cultural order of Canada of the last half century and to seek to undo those changes.

Another accusation, similar to that of theocracy, that is frequently levelled at those who remain loyal to the old, traditional social, moral, and cultural norms is that of Puritanism. This charge often comes from the left wing of conservatism, from those who would consider themselves to be “progressive conservatives” and who, knowing a little bit about the history of English conservatism know that the Puritans were the radical enemies of the Tories or conservatives in the seventeenth century. What this accusation really means, therefore, is that those who oppose changes such as liberalized abortion laws and the redefinition of marriage and are therefore thought of and think of themselves as “social conservatives” are not true to conservative tradition and principles.

What this fails to take into proper consideration is the nature of the conflict between the Tories and the Puritans. It was hardly the case that the Puritans wanted a Christian society based upon the teachings of the Bible whereas the Tories were defending a secular order in which Church and State were kept rigorously separate. The Tories fought on behalf of European Christendom’s traditional alliance of throne and altar – or at least the modern English variation of this alliance that had come out of the English Reformation and the Elizabethan Settlement of the sixteenth century. That is about as far from secularism as you can get!

The English Reformation had begun with an Act of Parliament that declared the king to be the highest earthly authority over the Church in England which was, of course, the same thing as declaring that the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, had no authority over the English Church. This ultimately had the effect of breaking the communion between Canterbury and Rome, and the Church in England became the Church of England. The Elizabethan Settlement at the end of the sixteenth century was the official answer to both Roman Catholics who sought to put the English Church back under papal authority – and had briefly succeeded in the reign of Mary I – and strict Calvinists who wanted a more thorough Reformation that would strip the English Church of every last vestige of Catholicism. The Settlement declared mandatory attendance at the services of the Church of England, which Church was given a moderate Calvinist confession in the Thirty-Nine Articles, and which would conduct its services in the English vernacular, but which would retain its Catholic hierarchy and structure and as much of its rituals, ceremonies, and traditions as were consistent with its Protestant confession. The Calvinists who wished for a more thorough Reformation were the Puritans.

One thing the Church of England retained from the pre-Reformation tradition was the traditional Christian understanding that in the here and now we are living in exile from Paradise and will not be restored to Paradise until the Second Coming of Christ brings history to an end. In the here and now the taint of Original Sin will always be with us, and so, to meet human needs that arise out of Sin, God has appointed the civil government and the Church to two distinct and limited roles. To meet our need for protection from the violence of Sin in others, the civil government has been appointed to the task of passing and enforcing laws against evil acts like murder and theft. To meet our need for confession and forgiveness of Sin in ourselves, the Church has been appointed to proclaim in Word and Sacrament the forgiveness of God given to us in the Sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In this traditional understanding it was recognized that these were limited roles and that neither of these institutions had either the ability or the responsibility to do what only Christ Himself will do at His Second Coming – restore Paradise.

The Puritans rejected this sensible and traditional way of looking at things. Their doctrine taught them to look upon the king and the priestly hierarchy of the Church as tyrants colluding together in the oppression of the people and to consider themselves to be God’s chosen, godly, few, called upon either to separate from the irredeemable corruption of Church and State or to wage war against it and establish the Kingdom of God on earth. They rejected the tradition of understanding and teaching the Scriptures that had developed from the Church Fathers to the Reformation as being a construction of the conspiracy between king and priest and substituted for it a demagogic method of interpreting the Scriptures in which every condemnation of the enemies of God was applied to the king and priest while every promise to God’s holy elect was applied to themselves.

This doctrine was a tree that bore much fruit, none of it good. The Puritans became politically seditious, going to war with the king and committing regicide in the 1640s, and later leading the republican revolution in the American colonies in the 1760s. They rejected the tradition of Christian liberty that had been built on the foundation laid by St. Paul in his epistles, in which Christians were free do whatever was not explicitly condemned as a sin in Scriptures and thus had liberty in matters of food and drink. It is place they recreated the ethical system of the Pharisees, placing excessive emphasis upon Sabbath keeping, and railing against games, dancing and other “amusements” which no Scripture condemns either explicitly or by general principle, while justifying, for the sake of the merchant trader class from whom they drew their numbers, the grasping rapacity which is both explicitly and repeatedly condemned in Scriptures. Hand-in-glove with the Puritans’ Pharisaism in morality went their Philistinism in art and culture. They objected strenuously to music and drama and when in power they closed the theatres, got rid of the art collection of King Charles I, and removed organs, tapestries, artwork, and everything of beauty that they thought detracted from their perverse ideal of “simplicity” in the churches.

In Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, the Elizabethan divine Richard Hooker defended the Church of England and the Elizabethan Settlement from Puritan attacks. Puritanism reduced to the idea that whatever in the tradition of Christendom could not be shown to be commanded by the Bible must be eradicated and forbidden. Hooker argued instead, for the principle that everything in the tradition of Christendom that could not be shown to be forbidden by the Bible, ought to be permitted to be retained. While the Puritans condemned the king and the priests as being “tyrants”, their own system had far less room for freedom. Hooker wisely saw that tradition and freedom stood and fell together, along with the civil and ecclesiastical order. This insight became the keystone of the Tory position in their fight against Puritanism.

The Tories fought on behalf of tradition and freedom and the civil and ecclesiastical order. The Puritans fought to overthrow the civil and ecclesiastical order and regarded tradition as the enemy of freedom. So where is the spirit of Puritanism to be found today? Among those who continue to affirm the traditional social and moral standards that until very recently were recognized as being those of our own culture and society, who were raised themselves under those standards and who wish for their own children and grandchildren to be raised under the same standards? Or among the progressives who rail against tradition as the enemy of liberty, who have turned the public schools into indoctrination centres to re-educate children in case they have been taught the traditional social and moral standards by their parents and churches, who try to use the human rights tribunals to silence all dissent from their revolution, and who have radically changed the nature of one of the most basic of social institutions from what it has been from time immemorial to make it conform to a rigid doctrine of egalitarianism?


  1. @GTN - A good essay.

    But I would regard your definition of theocracy as much too restrictive - since it would exclude the Eastern Roman Empire and Holy Russia, which would mean there had never been any Christian theocracy in all of history (which makes the term pretty useless!).

    Rather than talking about what is and is not A Theocracy, perhaps it is better to have a 'theocratic-continuum' - more and less theocratic.

    On this scale, the Church OF England was - in principle - more theocratic than the Church IN England - because the headship of church and state was united in a single person.

    (Of course this is theoretically still true, but since the CoE is regulated by and conforms to secular practices it is irrelevant.)

    On this account the CoE is more akin to Eastern Orthodoxy than to Roman Catholicism, and indeed this was recognized by many Orthodox intellectuals who (amazingly) worked with some CoE Bishops in the mid-twentieth century (including Michael Ramsay - the greatest ++Canterbury of the century) to coming amazingly close to reuniting the CoE and Orthodoxy.

    It is also noticeable that the CoE does very well when the government is CoE - and society can become highly Christianised and harmonious; and very badly when the government is secular: the same has been seen in Orthodoxy.

    By contrast the Roman Catholic Church is on the one hand more resistant to hostile and secular government - because it is ruled from Rome - however the same factor prevents the greatest harmonious synergy of state and church which was - at times - seen in Byzantium and Holy Russia (and, very briefly, in England).

  2. I hate to be pedantic, but speaking of Puritans and Tories as thought they were contemporary parties is a bit anachronistic.

  3. A most interesting article, particularly your insight that in the traditional understanding it was not the responsibility of the state or the church to concern itself with achieving an earthly paradise. That's the default position for legions of people with a college degree today.

    This is exacerbated by the disintegration or scattering of the family and consequent reduced hope of economic security based on extended family and family resources accumulated over time.

    Those who argue against dependence on the state always fail to convince others of the need for self reliance. I surmise that such arguments are seen as arguments in favor of depriving others of security and thus the response is hostility not a turning away from the danger of increased state power.