Is Santorum Right? How to Revive American Protestantism (and Why It is So Important)
By Michael D. Peabody
Like it or not, the GOP Primary season seems to be winding down. Mitt Romney is emerging as the clear winner, and while there may be some chance for another candidate to take the flag, it is “mathematically unlikely.”
So let’s debrief. More than any other time in recent history, specific religious beliefs took the center stage throughout this election. One of the things that deserves closer attention is Rick Santorum’s statement that mainline Protestantism is essentially dead in America, or as Santorum, a Catholic, so delicately put it during a 2008 speech at Ave Maria University in Florida, “mainstream Protestantism is gone from the world of Christianity.”
As a Protestant (i.e. a non-Catholic or non-Anglican Christian), this statement first struck me as borderline offensive. I wanted to jump up and down and shout, “I’m still here!” In fact, there are 45 million of us according to the National Council of Churches which claims that 16% of the electorate belong to their churches. And while the media excoriated Rush Limbaugh for bloviating about a law school student’s choice of extracurricular activities, where were the Protestants when Santorum was essentially saying that they were no longer in the “world of Christianity” and were now in the grasp of Satan?
Not only did Santorum ignore separation of church and state, he focused on the church side of the divide and argued that Protestantism was separated from Christianity – there was Catholic and there was something akin to Satanism. It seems incredible to even be typing what Santorum said, but oddly enough, the only people who seemed to take a serious look at it were the secular media. Protestants seemed to shrug their shoulders and say, “Yeah, that’s us.” But what if Santorum is actually right? Is Protestantism actually dying or negotiating itself away? Then it ought to take lessons on Catholic consistency. There are liberal and conservative Protestant churches and they run the gamut of the American political spectrum on almost every issue.
Protestantism has indeed fallen on hard times as many American churchgoers have grown tired of theology and moral standards that are as wishy-washy as pop culture and look for churches that emphasize a clear moral standard and upright living. And it is true that no church has produced as monolithic a structure along these lines as the Roman Catholic Church. Catholic leaders long ago learned that the best way to address moral issues is to state a moral standard and stick with it regardless of whether people agree with it or live by it. Protestants continue to swim around in Laodicean tap water and are in danger of circling the drain as they are afraid to espouse standards even within their own congregations.
While Protestant churches tend to see themselves as democracies, there is no such thing in Catholic thought. In the Catholic Church there is God, the saints, the Church hierarchy which handles the spiritual welfare, then the Government which serves the civic functions of life, then you. In Protestantism, there is God and then there is you. In Protestant thought, you could assemble with other people and make a church, or not.
Of course, by removing the Divine seal of approval from the church or civic hierarchy, the very foundations of those establishments were threatened. Kings could no longer claim to rule for generations by Divine Right, and the Pope didn’t hold the keys to salvation and require people to jump through various hoops in order to get into Heaven. In Protestant thought, salvation was only through Jesus Christ and it was indeed possible to have a very real, personal relationship directly with Christ. The structures of the Holy Roman Empire gradually lost their relevance in Protestant countries. In Protestant thought, one could no longer involuntarily participate in sacraments and benefit spiritually from those exercises. You couldn’t find yourself in Heaven just because somebody else did something on your behalf. You, yes you as an individual, needed to intellectually accept certain spiritual realities. While sacraments remained important, they were useless without a concurrent “renewal of the mind,” which was aided by prayer and Bible study, which, until the Reformation, was unavailable to individuals. In fact, before the Reformation, the mere act of translating scripture into a common language was considered heresy as John Wycliffe found out the hard way after he translated parts of the Latin Vulgate into vernacular English. Although Wycliff died of a stroke in 1384, he had so irritated the ecclesiastical powers that be that his bones were dug up and burned in 1415 at the command of Pope Martin V.
The priesthood of all believers, or the idea that believers were seen as equals in the eyes of God was fundamental to the formation of American democracy where any citizen could become active in government and any citizen older than 35 could run for President. People could group together to form churches, and separation of church and state preserved the rights of religious groups and protected them from each other, and preserved the right to be non-religious, or even form your own church. So long as you didn’t hurt anybody else, your beliefs were welcome at the table and your right to believe, or not believe, was jealously guarded.
As an American, you could benefit from unprecedented individual civil and religious freedom brought about by two keeping the sphere of church distinct from the sphere of state. What happened between you and God was your business, and the state didn’t get involved in what your church taught and your church was not allowed to set the agenda for the state. It was this combination of the Protestant ethic and the republican form of government that made America a free country and set the standard for true freedom of religion. This reality was preserved through the rule, not of politicians or prelates, but of law, specifically the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights which kept government from being involved in affairs of the church and vice versa. This environment gave religion, faith, property rights, and entrepreneurship the room to thrive. The only times of challenge were when people tried to use force to rob other people of their God-given freedom and inherent human worth.
While Christianity in Europe has struggled with dying national churches, and where birthright determined the likelihood of individual success, the American form of government has proved a blessing to generations of America.
What threatens American Protestantism the most is when Protestants stop believing in God and begin believing in belief. When belief becomes bigger than God, there is pressure to use the power of the church to influence religious politicians and to extend the power of the church to the government and beyond. We need to remember is that America is not the church. Just because we believe something doesn’t mean that we need the government to make a law to force it on everybody. To put it bluntly, in America, it is legal to believe things that could compromise your own eternal salvation. The state won’t stand in the way of your own theological stupidity. And it would be wrong for the state to assume such power because, in Protestant thought, spiritual actions and even knowledge without a change of heart is worthless.
Conservatives who express great concern about an emerging “nanny state” ought to take notes.
If Protestantism is, as Santorum suggests, on life support, then it desperately needs revival as a belief system that recognizes the value of the unfiltered grace of God. Protestantism, indeed Christianity in general, is here to tell the world that there is something more than what we see around us and to point to transcendent truths. If the American church wants to really reach its Divine potential, it needs to elevate humanity, not by confirming itself to the secular society or forcing secular society conform to its religion, but by pointing the world to a better alternative.
If the faith community can truly embrace this calling, and it is a calling, not a prodding, it will achieve the transformation that it seeks to achieve in the hearts of Americans and people around the world.
“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.” 1 Peter 2:9 (NIV).