The 1960s: Birthing a Christian political movement

Lester Pearson was Prime Minister. We flew the red ensign as our national flag. Rock and roll music was in its infancy. Non-white faces were still a rare sight on the streets of our cities.

This was Canada, circa 1963. But beneath the surface of Canadian society, something unique was stirring: a movement to extend the Gospel’s Good News well beyond church walls and into the very fabric of our life, including political life. And so, a baby was born, today known as Citizens for Public Justice.

It’s gone through many permutations over the years. The article below sketches the early days, and following issues of The Catalyst will continue the saga as we celebrate our 40th anniversary.

MUCH OF the inspiration for CPJ’s formation came from Alberta, where a small group of Christians had launched the Christian Action Foundation in 1962. It pushed for Christian action in politics, labour and education, energized by the vision of a radically different society based on Gospel values.

“Men must come to see that God’s Word speaks to politics, labour, education, social behaviour and, in short, all human behaviour,” said CAF leaders Jim Visser and John Olthuis in a 1966 report.

“Underneath it all there was a vision,” recalls Visser, who played a leading role in the CAF, along with Louis Tamminga, Andrew Wieringa and Olthuis. “We had many meetings of talking vision, and of how we could develop this organization.”

“The inspiration for CAF came from Christian Reformed people who had come from Holland with a well-developed sense of the duty of Christians to witness for public justice,” adds Olthuis, who later became CPJ’s research director. “We saw the task of the State as one of creating a context in which a plurality of views and visions of life could function with equal protection and support from the State. I got involved because this perspective made sense to me and was a way of expressing a Christian view of the State. The State had a responsibility for protecting its weaker members, including the poor, native people and the disabled.”

Ernest Manning, Alberta’s premier at the time, was well known as a Christian, with a popular radio program. But the CAF was critical of his millenialist approach, conservative values and focus on individual salvation.

History highlights

  • 1962: The Christian Action Foundation begins publishing the Christian Vanguard in Alberta.

  • 1963: The Committee for Justice in Liberty is incorporated as the CJL Foundation. It focuses on defending minority rights in education and labour. Gerald Vandezande begins working as CJL’s first staffperson.

  • 1966: The CAF wins public funding for independent schools in Alberta

Education was a key concern for the Christian Action Foundation. The government of Alberta did not recognize the legitimacy of independent schools, including Christian schools. Meanwhile many Reformed people were making major sacrifices to keep their Christian schools open.

After writing letters and briefs, lobbying MLAs, visiting cabinet ministers and Ernest Manning, premier of the time, in 1966 the CAF won public funding for independent schools in Alberta.

But educational justice was only one of the organization’s goals. Another major project involved publishing The Christian Vanguard, a monthly magazine about social and political issues from a Christian perspective. It spoke out on a wide range of issues: the danger of nuclear arms, the role and task of government, the commercialization of Sunday, communism, lotteries, alcoholism, abortion, the risks posed by television, and much more.

The Committee for Justice and Liberty was the Ontario counterpart of the CAF, with both organizations later joining forces to form CPJ. The origins of CJL were humble indeed, starting with less than a dozen people in 1961. “The key thing that drove it was the need for freedom of religion and expression in the marketplace, not just personally,” says Gerald Vandezande, a sparkplug behind the group. “We saw the need for an independent citizens organization that spoke to the question of public justice in a pluralistic society.”

Slowly and steadily, the Ontario organization gathered support and was officially incorporated as the CJL Foundation in 1963, the date we celebrate as CPJ’s birthday. Its initial focus was around labour issues, based on respect for pluralism in labour relations. CJL petitioned the provincial government asking for freedom of association and an end to compulsory unionism, based on religious beliefs. In 1962 it supported the right of a union member to send dues to a charity, instead of to a union deemed unacceptable. Ontario and Manitoba introduced legislation in the late 1960s allowing this.

CPJ has always depended on its supporters in terms of financial support and in these early days this was more true than ever. The fledgling organizations owed their very existence to committed Christians who backed them with their volunteer time and their donations. Longtime public affairs director Gerald Vandezande served as a paid staffperson for CJL, but only on a part-time basis, until 1972 when he began working full-time and was joined by John Olthuis in the Toronto office.

At first, the CAF and CJL both grew and expanded fairly independently of one another, even though they shared a common vision. During the late 1960s both organizations began discussing whether they could form a distinctive policy movement, “a Christian civil rights movement which should increasingly concern itself with and as soon as possible speak out on a wider range of issues from a Christian view of the government's duty to promote and establish justice and liberty for all in every area of life.”

That set the stage for the “marriage” of both organizations in 1971, leading CJL into even more growth, and political impact, during the 1970s.

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