Thursday, July 24, 2008

A political postmortem on mainline American Protestantism

Joseph Bottum is one of those writers in whom one comes to repose a trust, a confidence that he will have something important and intelligent to say and say it well with literate flair. In the latest issue of First Things, he has another great article, "The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline" (FT, August/September 2008, pp. 23-33). As luck would have it, it's available online as a bonus this month, so you can read it for free (lucky you)!

Anyone who would like to know a little more about American Protestantism and its history would benefit from reading this article, in which Bottom provides a thumbnail sketch of its highlights in the United States. Think: Cliff Notes for Catholics.

Bottom charms and amuses. "America was Methodist, once upon a time," he writes, "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." He continues:
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.”
Bottum cites Gordon Wood who points out that by 1800 "There were not just Presbyterians, but Old and New School Presbyterians, Cumberland Presbyterians, Springfield Presbyterians, Reformed Presbyterians, and Associated Presby­terians; not just Baptists, but General Baptists, Regular Baptists, Free Will Baptists, Separate Baptists, Dutch River Baptists, Permanent Baptists, and Two-Seed-in-the-Spirit Baptists.” I remember a missionary in Japan who used to joke about the number of varieties of Presbyterians ("... the PCA's, PCUSA's, OP's, UP's, ARP's, CP's," he would say, "... and the Split P's"). How apt.

Anyway, after going through this wonderfully detailed and concise history of American Protestantism, Bottum abruptly comes to the point:
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.
If mainline Protestantism is dead, it makes one want to raise the question about the state of the Catholic union. There are, of course, a number of stalwart bishops with spines of steel, well-formed Catholic minds, hearts of deep charity and authentic leadership qualities who inspire hope. Whether one could say this of the USCCB as a whole, or whether it may more readily evoke imagery of a "flock of shepherds," I think, would be a hotly debated question. I remember walking through the parking lot of the USCCB Conference once on my way to visit one of my sons who worked there while pursuing his graduate studies at CUA. It was during the last presidential election, and I noticed that nearly all of the bumpers sporting political stickers that I saw were Kerry-Edwards stickers. What was this, the Democratic party at prayer? How odd. Who's influencing whom here? The title of the Dustin Hoffman film, "Wag the Dog," comes to mind.

Katharine Jefferts Schori, the current presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church, applauded her parents' decision to leave the Catholic Church and become Episcopalians when she was nine, says Bottom in his article. She added: "I think my parents were looking for a place where wrestling with questions was encouraged rather than discouraged." The irony is that I can imagine many AmChurch Catholics expressing similar sentiments about having left the pre-Conciliar Church in the dustbin of history in order to find this clean, well-lighted post-Vatican II place where "wrestling with questions is encouraged rather than discouraged" ... only to fall into lock-step with the current media spin on every socially and politically relevant issue.

Which brings me to something I have been thinking about concerning this year's presidential campaign, which strikes me as being rather unlike any other in our nation's history. I do think that there are a multiplicity of important issues involved here between this poor choice on the right and this abysmal choice on the left before us in the public square: Oil. Energy. Taxes. Education. Mortgages. Fannie Mae. The Fed. The national debt. Social Security. Inflation. Terrorism. Iraq. Afghanistan. Iran. China. Abortion. Marriage. Stem cell research. Immigration.

Yet I'm inclined to think that the single most important factor behind the emergence of a candidate like Barack Hussein Obama, as well as the dearth of truly inviting and substantial alternatives, is the final death of the Christian Faith in the public square. This isn't to say that there are not Christians. It is simply to say that the Faith, as a decisively culture-formative force in society, has been eclipsed by other forces: the secular media, the Internet, commercialism, reality TV, and what Herbert Marcuse long ago called "telenewsmagspeak." When candidates refer to religion or to God, it's only by way of token gestures, such as closing a speech with "God bless you"; or to reference one of many other interest groups to be manipulated or "managed"; to tap into the connotative value of a deep-seated American tradition of language rooted in civil religion. Mr. Obama is particularly a master of this art of image spin, and he's preparing to fleece us for all we're worth. As G.K. Chesterton once said, "When people stop believing in God, they don't believe in nothing — they believe in anything." Whether Mr. Obama is epistemologically self-conscious about this, I do not know; but I believe he instinctually knows that secularized Americans yearn for a God-substitute, a Messiah, and that he has tapped into this yearning. He wears his mantle with studied audaciously. The irony of the yearning is that it recoils from traditional religion because of its putative anti-intellectualism and repressiveness, only to run headlong into a blind fundamentalist believism of its own: blind belief in "The One," presumably sent to save us from right-wing reactionary conservatism. Obama Fundamentalists. Lemming-like hoards of them.

Plato, in his Republic, describes the process by which good forms of government are displaced by progresively worse ones. He starts with a government of the wise, which is followed by a government of military virtues (Timocracy), one of self-aggrandizement (Oligarchy). Famously, the last form of government before hitting rock bottom with Tyrrany, for Plato, is Democracy. What Plato fears about Democracy is that it verges toward anarchy and easily permits a man to rise to power on the wings of great promises, who, when elected, turns into a tyrant. The wost result, however, is that when the souls of individual citizens have lost their normative order and orientation, they lose the capacity to understand what has happened to them, because they themselves have become viciously tyrannical, leading them to call evil "good" and good "evil."

I think it was when Ben Franklin was leaving the Constitutional Convention when a woman asked him, "What kind of government have you given us, Mr. Franklin?" He said, "A republic, ma'am... if you can keep it." Tell me: How many of you think we still effectively have a republic?


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