Saturday, July 26, 2008

America's Missing Third Leg

Joe Bottum at First Things has taken an ambitious stab at explaining the demise of Protestant America. You can read the article here.

America was Methodist, once upon a time—Methodist, or Baptist, or Presbyterian, or Congregationalist, or Episcopalian. Protestant, in other words.
So begins, and also ends a rather good historical survey attempting to explain the role Protestantism had in unifying and balancing the OTHER two legs of Americanism: democracy and capitalism. Let me say first that anyone who wants to tackle this essay should first start by rereading, for example, 2 Chronicles. Just to gain some perspective. When we start decrying the long decline and fall of a once-robust American institution such as Bottum's Protestantism, it is good to keep in mind the really short time this American experiment has been ongoing compared to, say, the combined reigns of the kings of Judah.
[Jehoram] was thirty-two years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eight years; and he departed with no one's regret..."
2 Chron. 23
In other words, my only real complaint about the essay is how homocentric it is. I kept thinking that what was missing was the floor, so to speak, upon which the three-legged stool of American stability stands.

"....Generally speaking...Americans tended not to worry much about the philosophical question of religion and nation. The whole theologico-political problem, which obsesses 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 Tocaqueville called the undivided current, and now that current has finally run dry."
Bottum rightly points out that "social nature abhors a social vacuum," and goes on to give examples from the past thirty years of manifestations of pseudo-legs; attempts to add back the essential third pillar of balance. Feminism, homosexuality, environmentalism--basic power politics of various groups come to mind. I am not at all sure these can be considered at all equal to the pervasive influence in Ma and Pa America of Protestantism. It is gone--Bottum does a nice job of explaining how and why--but there is no going back.

I guess the question is: is the life of our nation cyclical, something like the life of the nation of Israel during the time of the Judges, for example? Are we on a big national mandella, circling downward toward Bottum (oh, the pun of it all!) only to find that Almighty God in his divine patience and love has redemption awaiting our sorry asses? A Deliverer will arise from amongst the people, called forth by the Almighty, and the people will return to the Lord, en masse.

My wife and I have had an ongoing conversation about church life and generations. The way she tells it, four generations ago was the epitome of church-going, Bible-trusting American life. The next generation wasn't bad, had absorbed the catechisms of their parents, but assumed that their own children would inherit, as it were, the beliefs, doctrines, and practices that they had themselves received firsthand from their parents. In other words, they didn't personally catechize their children, but trusted that the church would do it for them. The generation after that-- relatively uncatechized-- still habitually went to church, but dropped their kids off at Sunday School and went out for coffee. The kids who were dropped off at Sunday School grew up to be parents who didn't even do that. And here we are. It will take some sort of new thing for the people of America to rediscover the buried treasure of scripture, liturgy, worship; the manifold riches of life in Christ.

It is a backhanded kind of compliment for a Catholic magazine (The editor of First Things may dispute this, but there is no avoiding the fact.) to essentially lay at the feet of Protestantism so large and important a role as Bottum does. "Even America's much vaunted religious liberty was essentially a Protestant idea," he writes. I kept looking for some degree of schadenfreud in his argument. The title of the essay is The Death of Protestant America after all. Yet I think he manages to stay above the fray, sufficiently citing historic examples to back his thesis that there was truly an American Protestantism; that it could be identified concretely and said to be hugely influential. Anyone my age who grew up in a small midwestern town, of course, knows he's right. There was Us, and the Catholics, and the small southside Unwashed who amazingly did not attend a church.

The Bottum essay is nonetheless a sort of sad, nostalgic schadenfreud read for anyone orthodox who has watched, fascinated and with mouth agape, at the jaw dropping speed with which Mainstream Protestantism has jettisoned its spiritual heritage. Where once we might have been able to speak of some degree of mere Christianity, now we don't even have a common language anymore. Modern liberal Christians now sound like they've just graduated with a masters degree from the education department of a public university. Read the essay and tell me what you think. It definitely has No Inklings Book Club written all over it.


Unknown said...

This is an interesting assessment of American culture, politics and religion. For it states a truth often overlooked by American historians that religion played a major part in the formation and the settling of the Unites States.
However, the essay deals with these three "legs" as if the three (culture, politics, and religion) were simply players on the historical stage. The essay assumes an interaction of church and state where Luther's distinction between these two kingdoms meant that the state was not to dictate what the church taught and the church was not to insist on what moral laws the state should enact.
Neither does the essay take into account many religious people who did not quite agree with the "manifest destiny" teaching of the Protestants, their "Christian nation" concept, or their prohibition amendment. In spite of this disagreement, many believers had a uniform sense of fairness, justice and truth that was important to the culture background of this nation.

Bruce Gee said...

Theodore wrote: "The essay assumes an interaction of church and state where Luther's distinction between these two kingdoms meant that the state was not to dictate what the church taught and the church was not to insist on what moral laws the state should enact."

The three legs influence each other, which is different from "dictating" to each other. There doesn't have to be formal overlap for there to be influence, and that is what is going missing now, or so the author argues.