By Graham Glover –
We Americans have a problem. It’s a problem we probably can’t do anything about, but one we ought to admit. How big of a problem is it? It depends on your theological and political leanings.
At its core, America is a deeply Protestant country. Protestantism in all of its forms remains the dominant religious force in our land. This is true both in numbers and in doctrine. The problem however isn’t so much with Protestantism’s theological flaws (which are many), but rather, its political shortcomings. These are what plague our political landscape and what deserve our attention.
The fundamental problem with Protestantism’s political ethos began when it challenged the summum bonum of its time. I don’t want to argue the theological issues of the Protestant Reformation (we’ve done that before and will undoubtedly do it again), but one must recognize that the theological reforms the Protestants introduced were instrumental in the collapse of the political regimes of the 16th and subsequent centuries. In other words, when the reformers challenged the Truth of the Church and the Christian faith, it challenged several underlying assumptions about the State as well. Perhaps you think these assumptions needed to be challenged. Some of them certainly needed to be addressed. But their end result is polluting this great nation some 500 years after they were first introduced.
Protestantism began with an all out assault on authority. It challenged those in authority and the reasons they were in their position. Blanket consent to secular authority is never a good thing, but the Reformation had a way of making such challenges a good thing – especially if those in authority did not agree with their position (whatever happened to the 4th commandment…to honor and respect those in authority over us?) Protestantism also drove a wedge between things secular and things ecclesial. These two realms had become too intertwined, but never before had there been such a desire to separate them in ways the Reformation ultimately did. The fruit of the Protestants assault on authority are today’s citizens who regularly and publicly contest anything they don’t like, no matter if such a position is contrary to the Church, the Word of God, and Natural Law. Due in large part to the Reformation, we have become a people and a nation that is overly skeptical of all types of authority – political and ecclesial – even when that authority is right.
This skepticism is due to the reformers focus on the individual. Coupled with the Liberal thinkers that followed (Hobbes, Locke, etc.), the Protestants changed the focus of politics and the faith from the collective to the individual. What is good/right for the individual trumps what is good/right for the community. It’s not that the individual wasn’t important prior to the Reformation, but their needs/interests were always secondary to the larger collective. But when authority is challenged and everyone is coined a priest, it’s no wonder that laws and decrees and questioned, resulting in a people who are concerned first and foremost with what is good/right for them. It’s also no wonder that what we know as capitalism began to take root at this time. With such an emphasis on the self, one’s personal fortune and opportunity for advancement is bound to take center stage, even if the community suffers. Personal advancement and success, individual access to the divine, and an endless definition of what is right, became the hallmarks of the theological and political landscapes shaped by the Reformation. This is why democracy has become the most sacred thing in our American political culture. Although properly a republic, we are more concerned with democracy and our participation in the political process than the preservation of the American Republic. The self, both monetarily and politically, has become the end all, be all. And this should be a problem to us all.
The gravest result the Reformation gave us is what Pope Benedict XVI coined, “the dictatorship of relativism”. When the pillars that upheld Truth were questioned and damaged, everything became open for debate and rebuke. Internal reform is one thing, but public revolt is quite another. And because the reformers never consented to their ecclesial authorities, their reformation took on a form they likely never imagined. The political and ecclesial foundations were broken and what resulted over the next 500 years is an endless assault on authority and deference to absolute Truth. Today, nothing is sacred. Nothing is eternal. Each of us can decide what is right and wrong. We have living/breathing laws and constitutions that mirror our numerous ecclesial communions, which change and evolve at the drop of a hat and at the whim of what is democratically popular. To claim adherence to the one Truth is to be anathema in today’s political world and you don’t need me to highlight the cultural and social ills this has produced.
Yes we Americans have a problem. And that problem is Protestantism.
The question is, what, if anything, can be done about it?