July 31, 2008

WELL, 40% DEAD (via Jorge Curioso):

The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline (Joseph Bottum, August/September 2008, First Things).

America was Methodist, once upon a time—Methodist, or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or Episcopalian. A little light Unitarianism on one side, a lot of stern Calvinism on the other, and the Easter Parade running right down the middle: our annual Spring epiphany, crowned in bright new bonnets.

The average American these days would have ­trouble recalling the dogmas that once defined all the jarring sects, but their names remain at least half alive: a kind of verbal remembrance of the nation’s religious history, a taste on the tongue of native speakers. Think, for instance, of the old Anabaptist congregations—how a residual memory of America’s social geography still lingers in the words: the Hutterites, Mennonites, and Amish, set here and there on the checkerboard of the nation’s farmland. The Quakers in their quiet meeting­houses, the Shakers in their tiny communes, and the Pentecostals, born in the Azusa Street revivals, like blooms forced in the hothouse of the inner city.

And yet, even while we may remember the names of the old denominations, we tend to forget that it all made a kind of sense, back in the day, and it came with a kind of order. The genteel Episcopalians, high on the hill, and the all-over Baptists, down by the river. Oh, and the innumerable independent Bible churches, tangled out across the prairie like brambles: Through most of the nation’s history, these endless divisions and ­revisions of Protestantism renounced one another and sermonized against one another. They squabbled, sneered, and fought. But they had something in common, for all that. Together they formed a vague but vast unity. Together they formed America.

In truth, all the talk, from the eighteenth century on, of the United States as a religious nation was really just a make-nice way of saying it was a Christian nation—and even to call it a Christian nation was usually just a soft and ecumenical attempt to gloss over the obvious fact that the United States was, at its root, a Protestant nation. Catholics and Jews were tolerated, off and on, but “the destiny of America,” as Alexis de Tocqueville observed in 1835, was “embodied in the first Puritan who landed on those shores, just as the whole human race was represented by the first man.”

Even America’s much vaunted religious liberty was essentially a Protestant idea. However deistical and enlightened some of the Founding Fathers may have been, Deism and the Enlightenment provided little of the religious liberty they put in the Bill of Rights. The real cause was the rivalry of the Protestant churches: No denomination achieved victory as the nation’s legally established church, mostly because the Baptists fought it where they feared it would be the Episcopalians, and the Episcopalians fought it where they feared it would be the Congregationalists. The oddity of American religion produced the oddity of American religious ­freedom.

The greatest oddity, however, may be the fact that the United States nonetheless ended up with something very similar to the establishment of religion in the public life of the nation. The effect often proved little more than an agreement about morals: The endlessly proliferating American churches, Tocqueville concluded, “all differ in respect to the worship which is due to the Creator; but they all agree in respect to the duties which are due from man to man.” The agreement was sometimes merely an establishment of manners: “The clergy of all the different sects hold the same language,” he added. “Their opinions are in agreement with the laws, and the human mind flows onward, so to speak, in one undivided current.”

Morals and manners, however, count for a great deal in the public square, and, beyond all their differences, the diverse Protestant churches merged to give a general form and a general tone to the culture. Protestantism helped define the nation, operating as simultaneously the happy enabler and the unhappy conscience of the American republic—a single source for both national comfort and national unease.

We tend to remember the Mainline as the strong, unified denominations that emerged from the 1910s through the 1950s: Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and so on; their churches gently jostling one another along the pleasant, tree-lined streets of the typical American town. But the madly splintering sects that Tocqueville saw in the 1830s—they, too, are what we might stretch to call the Mainline, for even at its greatest, the undivided current of Protestantism never reached the ecclesial unity of a single church. It achieved, instead, a vocabulary: a way we had to understand ourselves outside our political struggles and economic exchanges.

Think of the American experiment as a three-legged stool, its stability found in each leg’s relation to the other legs. Democracy grants some participation in national identity, an outlet for the anxious desire of citizens to take part in history, but it always leans toward vulgarity and short-sightedness. Capitalism gives us other freedoms and outlets for ambition, but it, too, always threatens to topple over, eroding the virtues it needed for its own flourishing. Meanwhile, religion provides meaning and narrative, a channel for the hunger of human beings to reach beyond the vanities of the world, but it tilts, in turn, toward hegemony and conformity.

Through most of American history, these three legs of democracy, capitalism, and religion accommodated one another and, at the same time, pushed hard against one another. There’s a temptation to call Protestant Christianity the most accommodating religion ever known, but, again and again, the churches managed to withstand the politics and the economics of the age. Indeed, what made them good at accommodation was also what made them good at opposition: In the multiplicity of its denominations, Protestantism could influence the nation in churchly ways without actually being a church—without being a single source of religious authority constantly tempted to assume a central political and economic role.

The great fight to abolish slavery, or women’s suffrage, or the temperance struggle against the Demon Rum, or the civil-rights movement: Every so often, there would explode from the churches a moral and prophetic demand on the nation. But, looking back, we can now see that these showy campaigns were mostly a secondary effect of religion’s influence on America. Each was a check written on a bank account filled by the ordinary practice and belief of the Protestant denominations.

As it happens, the denominations were often engaged in what later generations would scorn as narrow sectarian debates: infant baptism, the consequences of the Fall, the saving significance of good works, the real presence of the Eucharist, the role of bishops. And yet, somehow, the more their concerns were narrow, the more their effects were broad. Perhaps precisely because they were aimed inward, the Protestant churches were able to radiate outward, giving a characteristic shape to the nation: the centrality of families, the pattern of marriages and funerals, the vague but widespread patriotism, the strong localism, and the ongoing sense of some providential purpose at work in the existence of the United States.

Which makes it all the stranger that, somewhere around 1975, the main stream of Protestantism ran dry. In truth, there are still plenty of Methodists around. Baptists and Presbyterians, too—Lutherans, Episcopalians, and all the rest; millions of believing Christians who remain serious and devout. For that matter, you can still find, ­soldiering on, some of the institutions they established in their Mainline glory days: the National Council of Churches, for instance, in its God Box up on New York City’s Riverside Drive, with the cornerstone laid, in a grand ceremony, by President Eisenhower in 1958. But those institutions are corpses, even if they don’t quite realize that they’re dead. The great confluence of Protestantism has dwindled to a trickle over the past thirty years, and the Great Church of America has come to an end.

And that leaves us in an odd situation, unlike any before. The death of the Mainline is the central historical fact of our time: the event that distinguishes the past several decades from every other ­period in American history. Almost every one of our current political and cultural oddities, our contradictions and obscurities, derives from this fact: The Mainline has lost the capacity to set, or even significantly influence, the national vocabulary or the national self-understanding.

The nation has passed through even harsher ­periods, of course. In 1843, for instance, the Antislavery Society adopted a resolution that famously read, “The compact which exists between the North and the South is a covenant with death and an agreement with hell.” But since the 1970s, we have faced a unique kind of political dilemma, in which no agreement can be reached even on the terms by which we will disagree with one ­another.

Notice, for instance, how quickly these days any attempt to speak in the old-fashioned voice of moral criticism turns sour and bitter—segueing into anti-Americanism, regardless of its intentions. Many Americans are profoundly patriotic, no doubt, and many Americans are profoundly critical of their country. We are left, however, with a great problem in combining the two, and that problem was bequeathed to us by the death of Protestant America—by the collapse of the churches that were once both the accommodating help and the criticizing prophet of the American ­experiment. [...]

In 1948, as he completed his draft of the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Canadian law professor John Humphrey went home and noted in his diary that what had been achieved was “something like the Christian morality without the tommyrot.”

That seems a nearly perfect phrase: Christian morality without the tommyrot. Humphrey meant, of course, all the unnecessary accretions of prayer and miracles and faith and sacraments and chapels. But the phrase might be the motto of all who answer surveys by saying they are “spiritual, but not religious.” It might be the motto of all who have a vague and unspoken—indeed, unspeakable—feeling that it is somehow more Christian not to be a Christian.

It might even be the motto of the Mainline churches today. Of course, without all that stuff about God and church, the morality proves to be empty: cups for us to fill with almost any meaning we want—which, in the actual give and take of public life, will almost always be political and economic meaning. In other words, having gotten rid of all the tommyrot, the liberal Protestant churches can at last agree in nearly every particular.

Unfortunately, they obtained their ecumenical unity at the price of abandoning most of the religious work that ecumenism was supposed to advance. Indeed, the churches’ desperate hunger to mean more in politics and economics had the perverse effect of making them less effective opponents to the political and economic pressures on the nation. They mattered more when they wanted to matter less.

Social nature abhors a social vacuum, and the past thirty years have seen many attempts to fill the place where Protestantism used to stand. ­Feminism in the 1980s, homosexuality in the 1990s, environmentalism today, the quadrennial presidential campaigns that promise to reunify the nation—the struggle against abortion, for that matter: Leave aside the question of whether these movements are right or wrong, helpful or unhelpful, and consider them purely as social phenomena. In their appearance on the public stage, these political movements have all posed themselves as partial Protestantisms, bastard Christianities, determined not merely to win elections but to be the platform by which all other platforms are judged.

Look at the fury, for instance, with which environmentalists now attack any disputing of global warming. Such movements seek converts, not supporters, and they respond to objections the way religions respond to heretics and heathens. Each of them wants to be the great vocabulary by which the nation understands itself. Each of them wants to be the new American religion, standing as the third great prop of the nation: the moral vocabulary by which we know ourselves.

Just as religion is damaged when the churches see themselves as political movements, so politics is damaged when political platforms act as though they were religions. And perhaps more than merely damaged. Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union, the killing fields of Cambodia, the cultural revolution in China: We had terrible experiences in the twentieth century when political and economic theories succeeded in posing themselves as religions.

We’re not on the edge of something that frightening today. But the death of Protestant America really has weakened both Christianity and public life in the ­United States—for when the Mainline died, it took with it to the grave the vocabulary in which both criticism and support of the nation could be effective.

That vocabulary was incomplete in many ways, and the churches often failed to provide true Christian witness. But in its everyday practice, Protestantism nonetheless gave America something vital: a social unity and cultural definition that did not derive entirely from political arrangements and economic relations. And America gave Protestantism something in return: a chance to flourish without state interference, a freedom to fulfill the human desire for what lies beyond the material world.

Among conservative Christians, much attention is devoted to the question of whether the hole in public life can be filled by either Catholicism or the evangelical churches. I have my doubts. The evangelicals may have too little church organization, and the Catholics may have too much. Besides, both are minorities in the nation’s population, and they arrive at our current moment with a history of being outsiders—the objects of a long record of American suspicion, which hasn’t gone away despite the decline of the churches that gave the suspicion its modern form.

Perhaps some joining of Catholics and evangelicals, in morals and manners, could achieve the social unity in theological difference that characterized the old Mainline. But the vast intellectual resources of Catholicism still sound a little odd in the American ear, just as the enormous reservoir of evangelical faith has been unable, thus far, to provide a widely accepted moral rhetoric.

America was Methodist, once upon a time—or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or Episcopalian. Protestant, in other words. What can we call it today? Those churches simply don’t mean much any more. That’s a fact of some theological significance. It’s a fact of genuine sorrow, for that matter, as the aging members of the old denominations watch their congregations dwindle away: funeral after funeral, with far too few weddings and baptisms in between. But future historians, telling the story of our age, will begin with the public effect in the United States.

As he prepared to leave the presidency in 1796, George Washington famously warned, “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Generally speaking, however, Americans tended not to worry much about the philosophical question of religion and nation. The whole theologico-political problem, which obsessed European philosophers, was gnawed at in the United States most by those who were least churched.

We all have to worry about it, now. Without the political theory that depended on the existence of the Protestant Mainline, what does it mean to support the nation? What does it mean to criticize it? The American experiment has always needed what Alexis de ­Tocqueville called the undivided current, and now that current has finally run dry.

It seems, rather, that something quite different has happened. While both the Catholic Church and the Jewish state have been Americanized/Reformed--with a Tocquevillian Pope and a post-socialist Israel--a portion of the American electorate has become secularized/Europeanized, so that there is an internal anti-Americanism. But this is not a sudden fissure that has opened. After all, the coastal elites have been hostile to Kansas since at least the Scopes trial.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at July 31, 2008 10:20 AM

I don't believe the undivided current ran dry; it simply ran in another direction. While attendance at mainline protestant churches (Episcopal, Methodist, Presbyterian, to some extent Baptist) declined significantly during the past several decades, there has been an explosion in numbers at evangelical, non-denominational churches. Younger believers wanted a steadfast doctrine but culturally relevant services. The mainline protestant denominations opted instead for doctrine that changed with the culture but steadfast (yawn) worship services.

Posted by: Rodux at July 31, 2008 12:18 PM

"Which makes it all the stranger that, somewhere around 1975, the main stream of Protestantism ran dry."

You. Have. Got. To. Be. Kidding. This is a joke, right? "Somewhere around 1975?" Good grief. Try January 22, 1973.

Posted by: b at July 31, 2008 12:28 PM

Which makes it all the stranger that, somewhere around 1975, the main stream of Protestantism ran dry.

Notice, for instance, how quickly these days any attempt to speak in the old-fashioned voice of moral criticism turns sour and bitter—segueing into anti-Americanism, regardless of its intentions.

Of course they ran dry in the late '70s.

I grew up in one of those Anabaptist pacifist sects. Around the late '70s/early '80s, I decided to never wanted anything to do with them again when the church leadership discovered Liberation Theology and started making excuses for (or even actively supporting) every Central American left-wing thug, all in the name of "peace". Early 2003 I discovered by accident that they were still at it, this time as part of the leadership of the far-Left coalition "demanding" that we keep Saddam Hussein in power. Again in the name of "peace". To Hell with them. (Preferably the Dante's Inferno version, with them alongside all those corrupt popes and heretics.)

Posted by: Raoul Ortega at July 31, 2008 12:32 PM

The "oddity" of unity through rivalry that Joseph Bottum (a fellow South Dakotan) speaks of could not continue unexplained because people need direct explanation to cut through the noise. Among the various human needs, people absolutely crave structure, and equally crave applicability of that structure to their human lives. Catholicism (and Judaism and Islam, for that matter) provides that structure in spades; Evangelical churches like Vineyard Church are masters at providing applicability of structure to everyday life.

Could Lutherans, Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians help bring back structure and applicability, and thus right their ships? They could, but they're fighting against a Catholicism, Evangelism, and Islam that already "spells it out" for people, and doesn't necessarily have to go into rivalry to do so.

Posted by: Brad S at July 31, 2008 12:36 PM

Good call on Roe v Wade, b. I'd put it a decade earlier with the liberalization of the pill.

There's an even better article than this one on First Things, about the disaster of contraception (and the protestant mainline, mainly Anglican).


Posted by: Jorge Curioso at July 31, 2008 12:44 PM

All Protestantism tends to Unitarianism. The Evangelicals will be virtual Unitarians in about three generations.

Protestantism is so flexible it inevitably becomes a shrine to oneself, which is what everybody secretly wants and what Unitarianism openly is.

Posted by: Palmcroft at August 1, 2008 5:20 AM

No, they won't, they'll be Catholic once the next Pope makes the last few fixes--like letting priests marry.

Posted by: oj at August 1, 2008 8:30 AM

Fixing the cult of Maryology isn't going to be easy. Even John Paul II was way off base there, with his semi-deification of Mary.

Posted by: ratbert at August 1, 2008 12:33 PM

The "cult of Maryology" began with the Angel Gabriel. Actually, it began with the Immaculate Conception. So God started it, groupie that he is.

Posted by: Palmcroft at August 1, 2008 3:34 PM
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