As Canadians entered the 1990s the world around them had changed drastically in a short period. The fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States as the dominant military and economic superpower. During the decade the end of apartheid[i]and the election of various populist governments in South America further altered international relations. Significant social discontent was directed towards the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and various “free trade” agreements, due to their impacts on social programs, indigenous peoples and the environment. Despite predictions of the demise of organized religion as the century closed many scholars were revising their assertions about secularization. The dominant assumptions, that greater modernization resulted in less religion or that a larger religious role equated with slower-paced modernization, were proven empty as some of the most modernized nations (e.g. Japan and the United States) remained amongst the most overtly religious. Furthermore Pentecostal Christian movements, as well as significant growth in Anglican and Roman Catholic congregations, gripped large parts of the two-thirds world.[ii]
Equally important were the rising numbers and power of Islam particularly in its more radically conservative expressions. For many Westerners awareness came primarily through reporting on often-violent clashes between pro-western governments and more isolationist Islamic elements. From a Canadian perspective this conflict became strikingly immediate with the destruction of the World Trade towers in New York City on September 11, 2001, the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, terrorist actions in Madrid and London and elsewhere, and an ongoing state of heightened security alertness.
Large numbers of Canadians supported, in general terms, a vigorous response to terrorism and threats to national security spearheaded by the United States and Britain. However, social activists and different religious groups (including the United Church) kept a vigilant eye on the ways in which “security concerns” became an excuse for violations of civil rights and assaults on minority groups. A less obvious but more far-reaching change was the increasing presence of Islam through immigration and conversion in Canada and other Western countries. In Canada, this compelled a fundamental rethinking of the secularist understandings that religion was a privateaffair, even while believers lived and worked in publicinstitutions such as governments and schools. Islam, particularly in its more radical expressions, brought to the conversation a very different understanding of those realities.[iii]
The United Church was not immune to these changes. Some social trends impacted the church more than others. Urbanization and rural depopulation (with the exception of southern Ontario) were particularly significant for a church that began this period with two-thirds of its congregations in rural communities. Economic disparities increased as well. Partly as a result of various neo-liberal trade agreements, thousands of jobs were lost in the heavy manufacturing sector. Canada's economy became increasingly dominated by the information technology and service sectors. Nationally, politics was dominated by a series of efforts to reshape federal-provincial relations designed to bring Quebec (which had never agreed to the patriation of the Canadian constitution) more fully into the federal fold. In the Quebec Referendum in 1995, separatist forces came near to securing their dream when federalist forces won a razor-thin victory. [continued]
[i]Most South African blacks were not enfranchised until 1994.
[ii]Cf. Eric J. Hobsbawm, The Age of Extremes: A History of the World, 1914-1997,(New York: Vintage Books, 1996), 558ff; Harvey Cox, “The myth of the twentieth century: the rise and fall of ‘secularization’” in Gregory Baum (ed.), The Twentieth Century: A Theological Overview, (Maryknoll: Orbis, 1999), 135-143.
[iii]For instance when, in the 1980s, the Ontario provincial government proposed to fully fund Roman Catholic separate high schools, the United Church found itself allied with various Jewish and Islamic (as well as other public sector) groups. Those groups were seeking a broadening of funding to all religious schools (a pluralization)while the United Church was arguing for a strong, ongoing, secular, public education system.