Putting the “Protest” Back in Protestant: Reclaiming the Spirit of Resistance

For Christians, Pentecost (May 31 this year) is a reminder that we once had fire in our bellies.

According to the tradition recounted in Acts 2, the original Jesus followers were seriously dispirited and woebegone some fifty days following the first Easter. While sitting around in a blue funk, they heard a loud whoosh from on high and then saw tongues of fire dancing among them, one little tongue resting on each of these sad sacks. They started babbling in strange languages. Mass confusion ensued until Peter stood up and explained that this must be what Jesus meant when he said he would be sending his spirit, with power, to keep the work going. They turned socialist and started organizing.

Which is why this narrative ended up being called the Acts of the Apostles. Prior to the fire descending, the story was heading in the direction of “pitiful messianic sect, one of many, now fizzling out.” Following Pentecost, the headline became “energized new nonviolent movement challenges the violent values of a corrupt Roman Empire: watch out, world!”

Until, of course, the Christians were seduced into letting theirs become the official religion of Empire in the late 4th century. But that’s another story, albeit one that is highly relevant to the situation of American Christians today.

Those Feisty Protestants: Can’t Live With ’Em, Can’t Live Without ’Em!

Fast-forward 1,500 years or so from that disruptive fire-signed Pentecost. I assume you learned your Reformation history in school (Hus, Zwingli, Luther, Calvin, et. al. and their important Humanist progenitors), so I won’t rehash it. Lots of fabulous religious art destroyed, lots of monasteries and abbeys looted, lots of beheadings and burnings at the stake on both sides as schism let to reprisal and then to war. And also a whole lot of theology for the newly-literate masses. Theological literacy led inevitably to serious political ferment.

I want to focus on politics, because politics is where Protestantism gets interesting. Luther famously cast his lot with aristocrats and decried political rebellion. Worse than that, he sanctioned the mass murder of radical Anabaptists and others. In the history of the Calvinist sects, however, you can discern the stirrings of very significant proto-republican ideas: Huguenots rising for a time in Calvin’s own France; insurgent Protestant Dutch prevailing in an epochal 80-year independence campaign against the Spanish Hapsburgs; doughty Scots setting up their Presbyterian stronghold amid the crags and moors of their windswept aerie; and most significant for the American experience, English Nonconformists (note the term) struggling hard with questions of polity and ultimately breaking with what they viewed as a half-reformed Anglicanism.

Christopher Hill remains the historian par excellence on the political significance of dissent among the English. Read him if you have the time, but absolutely do read Kevin Phillips’ The Cousin’s Wars, a masterful book tracing the common currents and mystic chords of memory uniting the English Civil War, the American War of Independence, and the US Civil War.

Phillips, a Roman Catholic, grasps the social significance of Protestant ideas as few others do. The echoes among the arguments made in each instance for action are indeed striking. Moreover, all three wars pitted puritans against cavaliers; the puritan side in each conflict insisted that conscience and universal rights were at stake in holy combat against unjust oppressors; all three involved victorious puritans in sorting out what a just commonwealth looks like. Their model, needless to say, was the ancient Israelites preparing to set up in Canaan and hoping to make it with God alone as their monarch and no earthly king to push them back into tyranny and error.

Philosopher Michael Walzer’s brief and elegant Exodus and Revolution is the must-read book on puritan identification with liberated Israel. But place names all over New England tell the same story: places like Shiloh and Goshen are reminders that this was to be a righteous planting, not a standard commercial enterprise along the lines of Jamestown or Nieuw Amsterdam.

“As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.” —Abraham Lincoln

The thing that matters about the cantankerous Protestants who rose against their oppressors (and who sometimes, in sad cases like Oliver Cromwell and John Cotton, ended up becoming oppressors themselves) is precisely their cantankerousness. They often suffered spiritual torments; their Genevan theology did not allow them any absolute certainly regarding the divine will; but they clearly recognized what was not divinely willed—economic and spiritual subjugation were always and everywhere of the Devil, and not to be tolerated.

Resistance to economic subjugation had important biblical resonance for these people, and the first and second generations of New England settlers really did try to make the town commons the center of economic activity (even if, in this regard, their godly socialism fell fall short of that of the Native Americans whom they first displaced and later slaughtered). Their preachers inveighed against accumulated wealth, recognizing the danger to town-meeting democracy posed when some voters are the economic “lords” of others.

Resistance to spiritual oppression was an even weightier sacred duty. And here we come to another hallmark of Protestantism, which is the everyday person’s complete and total competence to read the Scriptures and to hear the still small voice of God speaking. These early settlers did not assume that divine revelation had ended. John Robinson, beloved pastor to the Pilgrim subgroup exiled in Holland, made this abundantly clear in the farewell sermon he preached upon his group’s departure to cross over and join the Mayflower in 1620. According to Edward Winslow’s account, the essence of Robinson’s dockside message was that:

If God should reveal anything to us by any other instrument of his, to be as ready to receive it as ever we were to receive any truth by his [Robinson’s] Ministry. For he was very confident the Lord had more truth and light yet to break forth out of his holy Word.

More truth and light: these are watchwords for real Protestants. Nothing between me and God’s Word, which is by no means the same as the much-translated and much-debated words contained in the 66 books. (This is one of the reasons why it has always been difficult for me to accept the idea that biblical literalists are actually Protestants at all in any meaningful sense. But I digress.)

In New England, discerning Protestants, real Protestants, had to be readers by definition. Yes, they had preaching elders, worship leaders, among them—and some very good ones at that. Harvard and Yale were all about furnishing congregations with such learned divines. But their animating idea remained the priesthood of all believers; all readers. And thus they committed themselves, massively, to a program of popular free education, the very same program that made New England and then the United States the world paragon of literacy, and thus also of informed political debate, for roughly three and a half centuries (1620-1970).

I am not able (for reasons of length) to tell the whole story of what widespread literacy, freedom of conscience, and freedom of expression meant to the formation and rise of the early American Republic. Suffice it to say that they meant everything. And although this dimension is never sufficiently developed, the Protestant spirit also infused early insurrectionist stirrings among the Africans enslaved on these shores. Read David Walker’s powerful Appeal (1829) and then tell me if you can find anything in it that a John Milton or a Thomas Hooker or a John Adams could not have written. The same Protestant spirit of righteous resistance imbues every word spoken or written by freedom fighters Frederick Douglass, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman.

It’s Not About Going to Church: Protestants Are Where You Find Them

I put a Lincoln quote at the head of the last section without elaboration. The 16th president, who avoided church attendance as much as possible, exemplifies the Protestant spirit of “figure it out for yourself, talk it out with others, then raise your voice and take a stand.”

Freedom of conscience and freedom of action is bound to take people, quite a few people, out of churches and any other assemblies or institutions where such freedom is not actively encouraged. Sometimes the self-exiled form their own new church or sect, but just as often they find it possible to get along very well without any organized religion (religio = binding) in their lives. Protestantism spawns free thought and free radicals (some of them toxic) the way a prism breaks light into uncountable and unclassifiable hues. So while it is definitely not fair to count the great unchurched free radicals of the 19th and 20th centuries as official Protestants, there is no doubt at all that, unofficially, that is just what many were: not just the towering Lincoln but also such figures as Emerson, Thoreau, Melville, Emily Dickinson, Susan B. Anthony, William Lloyd Garrison, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Henry George, the James brothers (no, not those James boys: I mean Henry and William), Mark Twain, Ambrose Bierce, Ida Tarbell, Helen Keller, Margaret Sanger, Eleanor Roosevelt—it’s a very long list of reformers and independent thinkers.

These are all WASPy names, as you may have noticed. I now want to add that in the American context, some of the greatest “Protestants” (in terms of freedom and spirit) have been anything but WASPy: I am thinking here of Louis Brandeis and Felix Frankfurter and Benjamin Cardozo. And of Peter Zenger and Carl Schurz and John Peter Altgeld. And of Samuel Gompers and Stephen Wise. And of Robert La Follette and Fiorello H. La Guardia.

Pause for Intermission: A Few Common Threads

So if “Protestants” are so free-spirited and come in so many surprising varieties, are there any unifying themes? I have already suggested some common threads, but here is a working list of shared core commitments among those possessed of an essentially Protestant disposition:

• A very strong sense that government needs to stay out of religious affairs; for the integrity of each sphere, but particularly so that religion can avoid being compromised.

• “It Ain’t Necessarily So”: a critical/skeptical view of biblical literalism, coupled with a healthy regard for scientific method and an appreciation of progressive revelation.

• A love for free inquiry and maximum learning at every stage of life and for everyone.

• Respect for the supremacy of the individual conscience and the moral autonomy of each human person.

• Modesty in making any positive claims about God’s nature and will (Marilynne Robinson writes extensively and powerfully about how the doctrine of divine sovereignty necessarily involves due modesty in regard to the truth claims of one’s own beliefs).

• Resistance as a way of life: recognition of the flawed nature of all existing political and social arrangements (for those Protestants who are actually and actively committed to religious life, the correlate here is taking sin seriously).

Areopagitica in Reverse: The Shame of Today’s Domesticated Protestantism

I turn now to the reason for this lengthy but necessary meander down historical byways. The decay of democracy in American has many sources; corporate domination of the culture and corporate infiltration of government and politics certainly being primary among them. But the lack of any spirited resistance to big money politics or to the chronic lying and manipulation that characterize our politics and media has a great deal to do with the near-extinction of what I am here calling the Protestant disposition: cantankerous, questioning, restless, and independent.

To see whether I am on to something, let’s take a quick tour of the religious landscape, shall we?

The principal inheritors of the critical Protestant tradition I have been sketching, enlightened Calvinism, have devolved in quite depressing ways. Congregationalism (that noble line tracing back to John Robinson, John Winthrop, and all the rest) made a major but risky move during the 1950s to form a unified, unifying, and unabashedly progressive new denomination: the United Church of Christ. But the new body never quite took off. Lots of big Congregational churches, on both the most liberal and most conservative margins, refused to sign up for the new configuration in 1957. The more liturgical “German” Reformed wing (the old Evangelical and Reformed Church) mistrusted the Yankees and vice versa. Today’s UCC, at 1.3 million members, is small and getting smaller. The UCC can and should take pride in adopting a national stance for marriage equality and total LGBT inclusion in church and public life. But it doesn’t much matter how noble and correct your positions are if no one is listening.

Presbyterians are in still worse shape. This larger (2.3 million) denomination split over the Civil War; the Northerners would have been well advised to think twice before offering to merge back with the Southern Presbyterians in 1983. The result has been intense and bitter division over LGBT issues, with so much energy expended on this that there has been little left for challenging preemptive war, economic injustice, and other issues crying out for a prophetic response.

American Baptists can claim a glorious history of defending the individual conscience (think of Roger Williams, and of Jefferson’s famous 1803 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association—the document in which the phrase “wall of separation” was first used). But this denomination has also managed to rip itself apart over whether gay-friendly congregations should be tossed out. And of course the proud “soul liberty” legacy of Baptist thought was long ago extinguished in the much-larger Southern Baptist Convention, following the SBC’s takeover by the Dallas mullahs in 1979.

I’ve said nothing about other mostly white mainline bodies that lack much Calvinism at all in their DNA: the large evangelical Lutheran and United Methodist denominations and the Episcopal Church. Suffice it to say that they too are very rarely heard challenging inequitable social and economic arrangements these days, as they have little more to do than try to hold together amid endless contention over LGBT questions.

For several decades the Black Church has been doing a dangerous dance with the Prosperity Gospel and with seductive faith-based funding for church-centered social programs. The Black Church remains an essential institution—and still more prophetic overall than most white Christian bodies. But the clarion prophet’s voice best exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr., is fading fast. It also bears noting that Black Pentecostalism (the still-growing part of the Black Church) is relatively less interested in structural social change than the African-American Baptist and Methodist traditions.

Hispanic evangelicals? See Pentecostalism (above). Self-help, yes; structural social change (apart from reforming immigration policy), not so much.

White Evangelical and Fundamentalist groups present something of a puzzle. The megachurch phenomenon created, for the most part, an inward-looking ethic of community self-sufficiency. Yet conservative ideologues associated with the Republican Party and with corporate interests have repeatedly been able to draw white religious voters into the electoral arena over hot-button social issues. It doesn’t seem to be the case that this works in reverse, however. That is, despite the best efforts of some within the Religion-Industrial Complex (see below), there is absolutely no sign that white evangelicals are ready to switch their allegiance in any significant way to Democratic principles or to Democratic candidates. Unless, of course, Democrats are willing to pander in classic Republican fashion to the particular prejudices of these religious voters.

It is particularly dismaying to have to note that white evangelicals these days don’t even seem to care very much about sin. Oh yes, the idea of social equality and civil rights for gay people exercises them mightily, and anti-abortion fervor remains high. But when is the last time you saw white evangelicals raising legitimate questions about our hypersexualized mass culture? Perhaps more telling, when is the last time white evangelicals spoke out forcefully against the cancer of a casino-based economy—or against state-sponsored gambling in the form of ever-growing state-run lotteries? In Mississippi following Katrina, the good church folk could hardly wait to see those Gulf Coast casinos rebuilt.

And then finally we get to what some have called the Religion-Industrial Complex. The RIC’s interlinked agencies represent domesticated Protestantism at its most supine. I am hardly the first to observe that Sojourners, while it still wishes to brand itself a voice in the wilderness speaking truth to power, is anything but that today. Jim Wallis and Sojourners/Call to Renewal are now completely enmeshed in the Washington spin machine, taking talking points from the Obama White House and steering a careful middle course: don’t bash gays, but don’t give them equal rights; don’t cut off all abortion services, but talk instead about abortion reduction; deplore predatory lending, but don’t call for any real controls on usury and other bank chicanery.

Sojourners is but one of a proliferating number of “common ground” operations in which the independent and prophetic Protestant voice is completely muted. Others include outfits started by Democratic political consultants and operatives like Mara Vanderslice (and dice?) and the even more aptly named Burns Strider. Still others represent the religion-and-culture divisions of well-established Washington groups. Examples here include Come Let Us Reason Together, a religious messaging project of the explicitly moderate Third Way think tank; also the Center for Faith in Public Life, which was launched by the Center for American Progress ostensibly to amplify a progressive religious voice, but which has since lurched sharply in the direction of amplifying a moderate and now White House-approved party line on faith and values.

I don’t think it can be said often enough that there is a significant difference between the culpability of a White House attempting to do religious outreach (an outreach that is significantly enhanced by dangling shiny new federal dollars before the eyes of religious leaders) and the culpability of religious leaders who readily go along with such a program.

Whereas their forbears would sometimes risk fire and scaffold and sword to resist government direction in matters of faith and public justice, today’s faux Protestants (DC division) appear only too happy to serve as the king’s errand boys and check their prophetic critique at the door.

I am calling the self-willed domestication of what should be a fearless Protestant voice “Areopagitica in reverse” because Milton, in his 1644 anti-censorship polemic, was insisting on the necessity of the free interplay of ideas for the sake of a healthy state. In today’s Washington DC, the religious establishment is entirely content to toe the party line, so no censorship is even required. I’ve talked to some representatives of the DC groups I name above, and they have said privately how disappointed they are in Obama’s policies on torture, detention, Afghanistan, banking, and a range of other issues. But in terms of day-to-day operations, they exhibit perfect message discipline. They find no fault at all with the fact that the person now in charge of faith-based programs at White House, Joshua DuBois, first showed his chops as Obama’s religious outreach coordinator; so that this president’s re-tooled Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships is in reality just one more channel for conducting The Permanent Campaign.

A Way Forward

I have been told (actually warned in one case) by leaders of the Religion-Industrial Complex to stop using that term, to stop insinuating that they could possibly be acting in bad faith (ever), and to stop writing about this subject at all. For my own good, they have hinted, but also for the greater good of a “unified progressive movement.”

I agree that name-calling is wrong if it is unwarranted. Perhaps we could come up with a better name. “DC Chaplaincy Brigade” might be one, as the essence of chaplaincy is the provision of unquestioning spiritual ministration, often to a powerful ruler. Chaplains can be many things, but prophetic is not one of them. Another possible name: “Democratic Party Religious Auxiliary.” I don’t care much about the name, as long as these various agents and operatives do not presume to speak for an independent faith agenda.

I want also to consider briefly the appeal made for there to be “no enemies on the Left” in the interest of a united front. The “no enemies on the Left” concept grew out of the fight against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War and World War II. But the situation we face in Washington DC today has little in common with 1933. It is precisely because we have an enlightened and benign individual leader presiding over an essentially unreformed system of government (a system still dominated by money and militarism) that we need greater, not less, critical discernment and more, not less, outspoken questioning from conscientious religious leaders.

Truthtellers are not the president’s enemies. The people William Sloane Coffin once called “the bland leading the bland”—religious leaders who find it easy to cut their consciences to fit this year’s fashions—could, without knowing it, be the enemies not only of this presidency but of democracy itself. What democracy needs now is the voice of independent religious progressives with vision and with the courage of their convictions: the voice formerly known as Protestant.

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