Truth and Unintended Consequences
Besides hallmarks such as priesthood of the believer, the Reformation spawned something else just as fateful: a trail of unintended consequences. The Thirty Years’ War, the Counter-Reformation, an explosive new world of denominationalism, a propulsive relationship to individualism, nationalism, and capitalism all come to mind.
From the start, in other words, Protestantism was destabilizing. It carried a built-in restlessness, a revisionist instinct always to circle back to sources. It perennially returns to the Bible to find a new enlivening phrase, reimagine a New Testament worship pattern, or meet Jesus again in the garden or on the cross or on the Emmaus road.
This destabilizing spirit, this way of reading, borrows something from the Bible itself, which so often throws civilization off balance. Scripture is deeply ambivalent about human culture and unimpressed with human achievement.1 In its pages, the gap between God and everything else is infinitely great. Yet it says we are answerable to this subversive God. The prophets preach repentance. They also embody alienation. Their words undercut and demythologize human pretentions. The Bible never relents: It wants to make all things new.
Though many today defend the biblical foundations of our nation, the Bible stirs unease – and that’s the point, argues literary critic Herbert Schneidau. Our very habits of criticism and self-criticism, society’s enduring sense of crisis and reform, reach back to the “sacred discontent” of Scripture.
“We love and hate our culture, and the resultant force is toward change,” he writes. “This ambivalence derives from the Bible.”2
Protestantism absorbed much of this biblical attitude, and for centuries it left its mark. But Protestant cultures assumed a dynamic between everyday faith and Bible encounter. That is no longer assumed. Biblical literacy is losing force. A growing number of Americans never read it.
This drift has political consequences. The revolutionary potential of reading Scripture’s prophetic annunciations and historical claims, and being changed by them, gives way to something inert but still potent: nostalgia. A stockpile of freeze-dried cultural images from the traditional Protestant past – law and order, non-inclusive language, racial separation, “simpler times” – awakens the protective passions of an entire voting bloc. There’s a public swerve away from any discomfiting gospel words about embracing neighbors or forgiving enemies.
A century ago, establishment Protestantism included a twitchy mix of sectional rivalry, isolationism, Calvinism, free-will Arminianism, a recessive gene of apocalypticism too. But it often had consensus around the doctrine of original sin, a biblical skepticism of human pretentions.
Oddly, this old theological pessimism sometimes made political progress possible. Belief in sin served as a check on concentrations of power, excessive nationalism, egotism, immodesty. It could be a force of reform. Social gospelers added nuance to the picture: We can’t get it done alone. The real world has dignity, and we need God and each other to fix it.
These notions were slipping away by the 1980s. Religious culture turned more therapeutic and private, necessarily more pluralistic. The white Protestant mainline broke up. “The old mainline split in two directions: ‘bourgeois bohemianism’ to the left and ‘conservative evangelicalism’ to the right,” Yale sociologist Philip Gorski writes.3
Today, the old religious pessimism has been virtually overthrown – replaced by intertwining strands of secular optimism about free markets and software revolutions. Yet cultural pessimism abounds. Millions worry that the US is losing its way and can’t solve its problems.
The new ideologies of optimism imposed their own destabilization – market crashes, robotics, economic inequalities, endless wars – without changing the status quo of power. The new ethical imperative became: Get yours while you can. Lotteries replaced Providence.
In American Covenant, Gorski says the future of American democracy depends on recovering the “righteous republic” – the “dream of a free people governing themselves for the common good.” Selfinterest isn’t enough. We need social ethics that can turn away today’s reckless political corruptions and protect the dispossessed. We’re responsible for remembering this dream in our time, knowing it has never been accomplished, not by the Puritans, the American Revolution, the Civil War or since.
Can Protestantism – can Christianity or Bible – be part of a dream that reverses trends of social distrust, family breakdown, big-money politics, a militarized culture? Can Protestantism be a destabilizing force for good?
1 Herbert N. Schneidau, Sacred Discontent: The Bible and Western Tradition (California, 1977), pp. 1-2.
2 Schneidau, p. 2.
3 Philip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton, 2017), p. 173.