A Diagnosis of Protestant Decline
This coming week, Aaron Renn’s much anticipated, Life in the Negative World, hits the shelves. A full review at American Reformer is forthcoming, but I wanted to offer some preliminary background thoughts primarily considering the first couple chapters of the book which basically function as table setting for the rest of the book’s meat—so, this is somewhat nitpicking. The book is excellent. Its exactly the kind of non-conventional analysis American Evangelicals need right now. Its focus is decidedly practical and strategic. It assumes certain historical developments for the sake of forward-looking assessment. To quote,
“Whatever the factors that ultimately brought about Christianity’s decline in America, we find ourselves firmly planted in this new and unprecedented negative world, where for the first time in the four-hundred -year history of America, the culture as a whole and key institutions of society have turned negative toward Christianity and Christian morality” (19).
This is not to say that the book ignores historical causality but just that it is self-professedly not a history book. I’d also like to voice appreciation for the fact that Renn acknowledges the full four hundred years history of America. This is important not only because it combats the truncated view of America predominant on the left and right, but because it also appropriately extends the socio-cultural analysis of religion in America. Shockingly, relatively few historians of religion recognize this.
Like I said, Renn takes Protestantism’s and Christianity’s decline, post-1970 as a given, which it is. Basically, the Protestant tribes thereafter can be conceived under a few categories, viz., New Calvinist, Neo-Anabaptist, Emergent, and “Mainstream” Evangelical. I am not quite sure how “Mainstream” Evangelical differs from Neo-Evangelical unless it simply represents the success of the latter, but that is neither here nor there.
Renn makes clear that where his periodization—Positive, Neutral, and Negative Worlds—begins, i.e., in the 1950s, is not suggestive that Christianity in America was surging. Even though Positive World was a period of relative decline (23), Christianity was still enjoying favorable conditions. From there, Renn lays out a tripartite taxonomy of Evangelical reaction to Positive and Neutral Worlds. Again, that will be the focus of the later and full review the book deserves. Our interest here is in the background that Renn assumes.
If by the 1950s, Protestant-coded Christianity still had a soft-institutionalization, but was already in decline and then fully disfavored by 2014, what happened? Or rather, why did it happen? This is an historical curiosity that is almost entirely insignificant to Renn’s strategic proscriptions, but it is interesting and might be instructive. Such explanations will necessarily be limited given the restrictions of historical analysis but also because multiple narrations are possible. But there is, at least, one viable case.
In 1960, Winthrop Hudson (American Protestantism) was already writing about “Protestantism in Post-Protestant America.” His dating? The era began in 1914.
“In 1900 few would have disputed the contention that the United States was a Protestant nation, so self-evident was the fact that its life and its culture had been shaped by three centuries of Protestant witness and influence.” Fifty years later and that influence was already beginning to wane, as Renn notes.
Like Renn, Hudson affirmed the enduring influence of the dissipating “distinctly Protestant ethos.” It was a slow death being observed in real time. The difference was that midway through the second decade of the twentieth century, America either had become, or was on the trajectory to be, a pluralistic society. The Protestant cultural, political, and religious monopoly was fracturing.
This was, says Hudson, “in large part the product of the flood tide of immigration… during the last two decades of the nineteenth century and the first decade and a half of the twentieth century.” (Renn mentions this too.) Especially disruptive was the “tremendous influx” of Roman Catholics. For perspective, in 1790, Roman Catholics made up less than one percent of the population; by 1906 they accounted for 17 percent. But bare statistics don’t paint the full picture. Roman Catholics concentrated in major metropolitan areas whereas Protestantism had always been rural in impulse and sensibility even from the beginning. The 16 percent gain made by Roman Catholics in a little over a hundred years was less important than, and did not represent, their “impact” on national religious realignment. Less than 20 percent of the population effectively inaugurated American pluralism in relatively short order. Other major minority populations had enjoyed steady gains too, but they had demanded less of the incumbent establishment and consolidated less effectively.
Catholics may have played a unique role in facilitating the advent of pluralism, but the Protestant response was less than effective. The protectionist, Know Nothing, nativism of the antebellum period was only marginally productive locally and failed to materialize nationally in any significant way. The Philadelphia Bible riots might seem quaint and inspiriting, in a twisted way, today—if only average Americans cared so much about defending the Authorized Version against encroachments from the Vulgate! But that was about as serious as it got in real terms.
In general, Protestants became complacent through their predomination, a classic example of victims of their own success. Vigilance had not been sufficiently fostered. Of course, plenty of establishment Protestants had warned against immigration influx, but the complacency in view was more characteristic of internal laxity, viz., “theological erosion.” And, to be sure, American, a Protestant nation, invited mass immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe and, likely, would not have been able to compete in the subsequent century without it. Sheer land mass alone all but demanded it after the acquisition of western territory and with the looming threat of French and Spanish encroachment.
When competition emerges, as presented by the sheer fact—not yet aspiration—of a pluralism introduced by Catholic immigration, religious groups must possess clearly defined presuppositions and have “their implications carefully defined.” Otherwise, influence will diminish; it will evaporate into the new amalgam of generality. That is, the previously predominant religion, as default, increasingly bleeds distinctiveness and paradoxically becomes reactive, not determinative.
Let’s step back. What precipitated the clear implication here that American Protestantism lacked sufficient self-confidence—it did not have its house in order—at the time of Catholic influx? A few things.
The introduction of an Evangelical mood in the mid-eighteenth century, but really crystalizing in the nineteenth century, produced much energy but muddied doctrinal definitions in the long run. Hudson rightly, in my view, sociologically equates Evangelicalism in this sense with Methodism. Conversionism, revivialism, and emotivism ruled the day. The old side-new side, old light-new light divide sidelined the doctrinal curmudgeons and split denominations—more on that term shortly—weaking the Protestant foothold even at that early date. Thenceforth, doctrinal particularity was diminished and, more importantly, the interests of confessional and traditional Protestant connection were weakened. Hence, by the twentieth century Evangelical Protestants largely rejected natural law and aspects of theology proper, a malady only recently addressed. Hudson:
“[F]ew Protestants were aware of possessing a comprehensive, coherent, and clearly defined intellectual structure which would help to preserve their identity… Stripped of this type of self-definition, Protestantism was in no position to meet either the challenge of the world or the challenge of other religious traditions.”
In other words, loss of identity, loss of self-confidence, loss of defense mechanisms, loss of distinctiveness, loss of historical consciousness. “As a result, by the end of the [nineteenth] century, American Protestantism had become more the creature of American culture than its creator.” And that culture, by sheer material dictates, was becoming factually pluralist. In turn, pluralism—a problem for most societies—morphed into an ideal as Protestants struggled to maintain relevance.
Protestantism then lacked either the ability or the will for its own mechanisms of socio-cultural production. It had been on autopilot for a while, and the Evangelical mood perpetuated its own marginalization, if delayed. The Evangelical mood, as Hudson says, with its priorities mentioned above, “tended to undermine the theological foundation of a self-consciously formulated social and cultural ethic.” The fundamentals held—it is not that Evangelicals were automatically heterodox—but the full scope of classical Protestant doctrine was increasingly shunned, especially on those things pertinent to socio-political maintenance. Protestantism thus settled into a posture of either cultural complacency and assimilation or reactionary; neither signals formative leadership.
The rise of romanticism and the “New Theology” only compounded the process. The latter lacked “normative content” but rather baptized cultural trends that had emerged independent of Protestant direction. Christianity became a rubber stamp for “reform” rather than the instigator of reform. The transition from Protestant establishment to Evangelicalism to the New Theology reached its zenith with the modernist-fundamentalist controversy. Only then did real controversy and resistance emerge, but it was too late. Thenceforth, American Protestantism was divided along geographic and cultural lines, between the urban middle-class that embraced the new intellectual climate and the rural more traditionalist class which clung to bygone cultural memory and gravitated toward fundamentalism. It was a phrase of rural-urban conflict.
Hudson is most insightful when he points out that the battle between liberalism or modernism and fundamentalism was really about the family. Attacks on the Bible and its veracity were really attacks on household worship, family devotions, Bible reading, et cetera, practices that had come to characterize the typical Evangelical home. The legitimacy of Christian childrearing was at stake. Of course, the Scopes trial extended this battle into public schools which had theretofore been de facto Protestant (and anti-Catholic) institutions.
In the end, the modernists won as evidenced by the inability of the fundamentalists to capture a single major Protestant denomination. Denominational splits and new seminaries were the order of the day. In the mainline churches, the interests of “peace” and slowing the bleeding yielded an ironically sub-intellectual environment, theologically speaking. Contentious issues were sidelined. The decline of Protestant moral, cultural, and theological leadership only continued.
Ultimately, Protestantism, unable to compete in the pluralist marketplace, lapsed into relativism, at least politically, and its status faded into the generality of multiplicity. Hudson provides an illustrative anecdote of a Memorial Day parade after WWII wherein Catholic and Jewish war veterans each received their own respective demonstrations and ovations, whereas “The Protestant war veterans were lost in the generality of the community. What was true of the war veterans was true of almost all aspects of community life.” Indeed, even the old mainline churches, operating under comity agreements, had regressed into “community” churches rather than denominational ones. “Cooperation” was high but it was nothing more than a feeble grasp at relevance.
By the mid-twentieth century, religion in general was considered a social good, but to the extent that Christianity was still preferred it was owed only to the fact of majority, not conviction, and certainly not to Protestant determination to lead. Increasingly, committed Protestants looked to non-denominational outlets and voluntary parachurch associations for their spiritual nourishment. But these models necessarily lacked the pedigree or reach of their more consolidated and established predecessors.
Humorously, by the mid-1930s, some of the modernists seemed to be regretting their own assimilationist attitude—it was not cashing out. Hence, Henry Emerson Fosdick was preaching in 1935 that the church had to transcend modernism.
“We have been all things to all men long enough,” he proclaimed. Adaptation, assimilation, had accommodation had gone too far. “[Y]et all the time, by right, we had an independent standing-ground and a message of our own in which alone there is hope for mankind.” Too little too late from Fosdick, but query whether Evangelicals today possess admittedly better theology than Fosdick but lack his late-found zeal and self-consciousness. And yet, in both cases, the continuity with historic Christianity has suffered, so too has American Protestantism as a cultural-political force.
Lack of distinctiveness; evaporating into generality. That’s the bottom line. But as promised earlier, denominationalism, as a model, must be assessed, for it too is a factor in this multifaceted equation. “The whole structure of American Protestantism rests upon a particular understanding of the nature of the Church—the denominational theory of the Church.” Within the pan-Protestant, federalist establishment, denominations were always present. Denominationalism is not sectarianism since a sect claims exclusivity in terms of the true church. Denominationalism is a mode of toleration. In early America this was expressed regionally. The predominant denominations, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and Baptists, by the late eighteenth century, did not consider each other outside of the true church but rather divided only by certain distinctives. This level of ecumenism is workable when the range of options is limited. It was a mix of the Augsburg settlement and the Cromwellian model. But, again, without adequate mechanisms of maintenance unto homogeneity—limitation of the range of options—this model is decidedly unworkable. Mass immigration frustrated this fragile status quo, as we have seen.
So, there you have it. All that is, at least, one theory about how negative world came into being even if positive and neutral world were stops along the way. In some ways it was baked into the cake, which is not to deny intervening causality, to be sure. Indeed, one question I have, upon reading Renn’s book, is whether the skill of adaptation in American Protestantism generally, but Evangelicalism in particular, is a net good. If all he means by it is a certain quality of being nibble and alert, then there’s no objection. But if the above history is factored in, then it looks more like capitulation and a reactionary posture, both bad features, in my view. Or, perhaps, they are just bugs. I’m not sure.
In any case, Protestants who wish to reclaim their birthright in America and assume authority again would do well to think long and hard about the how and why we got here. In the interim, as a sort of midterm survival manual, read Aaron Renn’s book!
Image Credit: Riot in Philadelphia, June [i.e. July] 7, 1844. H. Bucholzer, lithograph.