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).

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