Lessons in Democratic Citizenship from Canadian Baptists

By Adam D. Rudy

This past June, residents of Ontario exercised their democratic rights by voting in the provincial election. Regardless of whether one was pleased with the outcome of that election, the results were accompanied by some grim news: the lowest voter turnout in Ontario’s history. Some might claim that low voter turnout was due to people not liking any of the political options; a “pick your poison” type of scenario. Others might suggest apathy or an acceptance of the status quo. The reasons behind the low voter turnout will elude us in the near future; however, as we enter this strange new post-COVID world, I wonder how many Canadians have become apathetic, or forgotten what is involved in democratic citizenship.

During the Second World War, many in Canada (not to mention Britain and the United States) feared that democracy was on the chopping block; an understandable concern when faced with the spectre of Nazism. Canadian Baptists (and other Protestants) supported the war as a just cause in defense of democracy and Christian civilization. Notably, Canadian Baptist newspapers indicated that many Canadian Baptists held a vision of democracy as being inherently Christian. In response to the Nazi threat, they laid out for their readers what it meant to be a Christian citizen in a democracy.

For example, one writer for the Canadian Baptist argued that democracy had its origins in the New Testament. He wrote that democracy has “two main principles; the principle of freedom and the duty of considering others. The privilege we are all willing to accept but are we so ready to carry out the duty? Can we come to see this duty not as something burdensome, but as a joyous privilege? The privilege of loving our neighbour as much, that we want to help him in every way possible.”1 This writer argued that democracy’s inherent privilege of freedom was tethered to a duty: loving one’s neighbour.

Another writer declared that “Democracy then is a form of government which can be established and maintained only by those who have learned to govern themselves on a moral and spiritual basis, who have learned to think in terms of the greatest good for the greatest number.”2 This writer then connected this idea of the common good to the Christian theme of sacrifice, writing “I like to think that democracy was born in the Garden of Gethsemane in that hour when the Master cried, ‘Father . . .’ In that hour the complete surrender of self-will and self-interest for the good of humanity was achieved.”3

While these are only two examples of many, what is striking about these two statements is, first, the reminder that one’s democratic citizenship does not consist merely in a list of privileges and rights. It carries with it responsibilities. The author is probably right. If all Canadian Christians took seriously their responsibility to love their neighbours then we might have a better society. While this writer was operating on a premise we do not share, namely the assumption of a Christian Canada, loving our neighbour applies in any context. The second statement highlights the importance of self-control in citizens of a democracy, and emphasizes the importance of sacrifice. For self-control requires sacrifice, just as democratic citizenship requires sacrifice. This statement was directing readers to the fact that our democratic freedom has limits. If freedom is allowed to devolve into license, our selfishness sows chaos. Thus, the need for self-control and sacrifice in practicing good citizenship.

Today, Baptists—and indeed all Canadian Christians—live in a such a different world than the writers I’ve quoted above. I’m sure it makes you wonder if we can learn anything from them. While most of us living have never faced the threat of the Third Reich, that doesn’t mean our democracy is not facing any threats. Cumulatively, these writers offer timely advice for Christians. Loving one’s neighbour, governing ourselves on a moral and spiritual basis, and living sacrificially are all ways to live out our earthly citizenship.

* * *

Adam D. Rudy, PhD, is an independent scholar in Hamilton, ON whose major research interest is the relationship between Protestant Christianity and Canadian culture in various time periods. He has been a member of the CBHS since 2016 and likes to spend his free time fishing.


  1. “The Spiritual Foundations of Democracy,” Canadian Baptist, 2 February 1939.
  2. “Where Democracy was Born,” Canadian Baptist, 2 February 1939.
  3. “Where Democracy was Born,” Canadian Baptist, 2 February 1939.

**The views of this Blog represent those of the author, and not necessarily the CBHS.**

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