Twice this month I’ve had cause to wonder what’s happening to my native state. The Todd Akin flap, in which the suburban St. Louis congressman revealed a less than adequate grasp of human reproduction, could hardly have been timed better to dramatize the implications an Aug. 7 referendum giving Missouri schoolchildren the right to opt out of science classes on religious grounds. Parents should be free to keep their children out of the public school system entirely, but an a la carte approach to classwork entirely defeats the point of general education. Needless to say, no student has to believe whatever he’s taught in science or any other class. But demonstrating basic knowledge of a field, whether you agree with its consensus or not, seems like simple cultural literacy.
Then again, it’s not so simple: who decides what knowledge ought to be general and suffices to qualify a man or woman as an educated person? There’s no natural, obvious answer. It’s a matter of custom. But whose custom?
What others may see as a problem of ignorance looks to me like a problem of authority. And it goes to the roots of our national habits, arising from the same source as America’s style of self-government. Those roots are Protestant, not just in a historical sense but in a deep, counter-Catholic way. What’s operative here is anti-clericalism, as well as attitudes that arise from living out the priesthood of all believers.
Credentialed experts are a clerisy — not, perhaps, when they are mere practitioners (doctors, dentists, even lawyers), but certainly when they are instructors inculcating beliefs. Teaching is an exercise of what the Romans, and the Roman Catholic Church, have called magisterium, a kind of authority. It always carries moral overtones, and it’s an explicitly hierarchical concept. Why the more extreme Protestant instinctively rebels against this sort of authority should be obvious enough. And when, as in the case of science education, reflexive anti-clericalism combines with doctrinal objections, the reaction is powerful.
Protestantism is a matter of degrees, however: between an infallible papacy and the self-ordained soapbox preacher there are many levels. But the intermediary layers that once counteracted America’s more radically Protestant tendencies have lately collapsed. Episcopalians and other old-line, more traditionally “authoritarian” churches no longer provide a common culture for the country. What has changed is not just a question of numbers but also of status. Liturgical Christians once wielded prestige out of proportion to their percentage of the population, even when that percentage was much greater. Protestant radicalization is not only a consequence of evangelicalism’s postwar growth but also an effect of cultural leveling and rebellion against privilege (at least, old sorts of class privilege) throughout the 20th century. A mass-market commercial mentality and left-wing concerns for equality have undercut the status of the old Protestant elites from a secular direction, leaving the purer Protestantism with a greater sense of self-confidence.
There’s another key factor: the transition from a small scale “micro-Protestantism,” in which various forms of hierarchical authority were at least informally present even among more radical denominations, toward mass movements and megachurches. This is parallel to the breakdown of the older, locally focused federalist system in American politics and the rise of mass politics, particularly in the form of ideologically homogeneous parties (and para-parties like movement conservatism). Thus even within Protestantism the locus of authority has shifted from the small-scale, informally hierarchical, and communally consensus-seeking to a vast domain shaped by mass communications, national struggles, and outsized personalities.
American Catholics are not exempt from all this: they too are Protestants, and the Catholic right in particular has becoming strikingly anti-clerical. The contempt that right-wing Catholics hold for much of the church hierarchy is one manifestation; another is the tendency of ultra-traditionalists to believe that their knowledge of natural law or theological punctilio consecrates them next to the pope, if not beyond him, in authority. They claim, in effect, direct access to spiritual authority through their intimacy with texts.
Catholics traditionally have not had a problem with the teaching of evolution, for reasons not only doctrinal (Catholics have a more allegorical understanding of Biblical truth than Protestants) but also structural: as a hierarchy itself, the Catholic Church is more inclined than many Protestant denominations to leave certain kinds of questions “to the proper authorities,” so to speak, observing hierarchy and a division of competence outside as well as within the faith. The radical Protestant tendency implies that every man can be his own molecular biologist as well as his own confessor.
What’s more, the distinction between popular politics and the religious congregation breaks down under the influence of radical Protestantism. A Catholic can, or should, never feel fully at home in political democracy; he must recognize a different kind of organization (not just a different domain of competence) in the hierarchical church. When fellowship or fraternité is the organizing principle in faith as well in government, however, confusing the two becomes much easier — much as Catholics once were prone to confuse the hierarchical principle in the church with hierarchy in political forms. This assimilation of American Catholics to Protestant attitudes about governance has, of course, facilitated religious-right coalition building, and it helps to account for the newfound hostility many conservative Catholics, especially intellectuals, feel for the theory of evolution.
My root objection to Protestantism of this kind is political-philosophical: it’s the principle of mass opinion or personal opinion over disciplined knowledge, of mass taste over good taste, and of constant schism, resentment, and fracture, attitudes that far from leading to freedom actually enslave the state to the demands of well-organized groups. Every 18th and 19th century High Tory or Burkean Whig who fought against radical Protestantism in the old country warned of this very thing.
But keep in mind that authority systems are dynamic. Catholic authority can lend itself to obscurantism if the clerical authority of priests is opposed to the clerical authority of scientists. And Protestant freedom — the complementary habits of making up one’s own mind and of working things out as a group rather than everyone accepting a higher, narrower authority — can also work in many circumstances. But each extreme must be tempered by its opposite: Protestants, if they’re not to turn obscurantist, must recreate hierarchies and must not be anti-clerical, even if they need not become clericalists; similarly, Catholics can remain clerical but must not neglect thinking for themselves or reasoning outside of established authority. Either of these mixtures might work well. But as an absolute principle anti-clericalism is deadly to the mind. It results in Todd Akin believing that a uterus can decide when to get pregnant.