I went back this morning to read political scientist James Kurth’s brilliant 2001 speech delivered to the Philadelphia Society, on the subject of what he calls “the Protestant Deformation” and how it affects US foreign policy. Kurth, a Swarthmore professor, is a conservative Presbyterian layman active in his church (see here for biographical information). He delivered this speech before the 9/11 attacks. Later, Kurtz openly opposed the Iraq War from the right.
The gist of the speech is that American foreign policy is an expression of desacralized Protestantism. From the beginning:
We will argue that American foreign policy has been, and continues to be, shaped by the Protestant origins of the United States. But the Protestantism that has shaped American foreign policy over two centuries has not been the original religion but a series of successive departures from it down the scale of what might be called the Protestant declension. We are now at the end point of this declension, and the Protestantism that shapes American foreign policy today is a peculiar heresy of the original religion, not the Protestant Reformation but what might be called the Protestant Deformation. With the United States left as the sole superpower, this Protestant Deformation is at its greatest, even global influence. But because it is such a peculiar religion, and indeed is correctly seen as a fundamental and fatal threat by all the other religions, its pervasive sway is generating intense resistance and international conflict.
The very nature of the Protestant Deformation conceals its religious essence from its adherents, such that they don’t readily grasp that it is parasitic on Christianity, despite its pretensions to be wholly secular. Kurth focuses on how liberal democracy and free markets developed out of the Protestant worldview, and demonstrates how the “American creed” (= the natural and obvious superiority of liberal democracy and free markets) taken for granted by most Americans is only something that could have emerged from a Protestant society.
In the 1970s, American political and intellectual elites began to promote the notion of universal human rights as a fundamental goal of American foreign policy. This conception took the central elements of the American Creed and carried them to a logical conclusion and to a universal extent.
It was a conjunction of factors that caused American elites to embrace universal human rights at that time. First, those elites
who had condemned the U.S. intervention in the Vietnam War needed to develop a new doctrine for American foreign policy to replace the doctrine of containment, which in their eyes was now discredited. Secondly, the surge in U.S. trade and investment in newly-industrializing countries beyond Europe and Japan caused some elites to see a need to develop a new doctrine for American foreign policy that could be applied to a wide variety of different (and often difficult) countries and cultures. Most importantly, however, were changes within the American people themselves. America was changing from an industrial to a post-industrial economy and thus from a producer to a consumer mentality. It was also changing from a modern to a post-modern society and thus from an ideology of “possessive individualism” to an ideology of “expressive individualism.” The new post-industrial, consumer, post-modern, expressive-individualist America was embodied in the “me generation,” i.e., the baby-boomer generation. For them, the rights (and definitely not the responsibilities) of the individual (and definitely not of the community) were the highest, indeed the only, good.
In the new ideology, human rights are thus seen as the rights of individuals. The individual’s rights are independent of any hierarchy or community, traditions or customs, in which that individual might be situated. This means that human rights are applicable to any individual, anywhere in the world, i.e., they are universal, and not merely communal or national. There is thus a close logical connection between the rights of the individual and the universality of those rights. Individual rights are universal rights, and universal rights are individual rights.
Numerous social analysts have noted that the United States has become in the past two decades a new kind of political society, what has been called “the republic of choice.”2 It is characterized by the “rights revolution” in law, “freedom of choice” in politics, “consumer sovereignty” in economics, “question authority” in attitudes, and “expressive individualism” in ideology. In regard to spiritual life, one manifestation of this new mentality is “New Age.”
The ideology of expressive individualism thus reaches into all aspects of society; it is a total philosophy. The result appears to be totally opposite from the totalitarianism of the state, but it is a sort of totalitarianism of the self. Both totalitarianisms are relentless in breaking down intermediate bodies and mediating institutions that stand between the individual and the highest powers or the widest forces. With the totalitarianism of the state, the highest powers are the authorities of the nation state; with the totalitarianism of the self, the widest forces are the agencies of the global economy.
Expressive individualism — with its contempt for and protest against all hierarchies, communities, traditions, and customs — represents the logical conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion. The Holy Trinity of original Protestantism, the Supreme Being of unitarianism, the American nation of the American Creed have all been dethroned and replaced by the imperial self. The long declension of the Protestant Reformation has reached its end point in the Protestant Deformation. The Protestant Deformation is a Protestantism without God, a reformation against all forms.
I would dearly love to read a Kurth essay on the Protestant Deformation in the Age of Trump — fourteen years after the Iraq War, and amid the emerging political crisis across the West. The conclusion of his Protestant Deformation speech made me think of the Benedict Option:
The Protestant Reformation was a prime movement in the making of the modern era. Five hundred years later, the Protestant deformation is a prime movement in the making of the post-modern era. The Protestant Reformation was the most unique of all religions. The Protestant deformation seeks the end of all religions, or rather it seeks to replace the worship of God with the expression of the self.
The Protestant Reformation brought into being the first nation states and the first great powers of the modern era. The most Reformed Protestant of all nations was the United States, and it became the greatest of all great powers as well. Much of the power of the United States can be traced to the energy, efficacy, and organization that was a legacy of its Reformed Protestantism. However, the Protestant deformation, because of its universalist and individualist creed, seeks the end of all nation states and to replace loyalty to America with gratification of oneself. It relentlessly undermines the authority of the United States, the superpower which promotes that creed throughout the world.
In his The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon once wrote that the Roman Empire spread the Christian religion throughout the ancient world, but that the Christian religion then undermined the Roman Empire. Now, the American empire is spreading the Protestant deformation throughout the modern world, but the Protestant deformation is beginning to undermine the American empire.
Perhaps one day, on the open and hostile terrain that has become the global economy and amid the empty formalisms of what was once liberal democracy, there will be found an individual. Once so intoxicated with his boisterous self-expression but now so exhausted from stress and strain, he at last recognizes how lonely and isolated he has become. Then perhaps he will turn and seek his refuge and his safety in the protection of a hierarchy, the support of a community, and the comfort of traditions and customs. And then perhaps too he will turn and seek his salvation by becoming open to receive the grace of God.
In other words, the Protestant man comes to realize that the grace of God can in fact be mediated to him through hierarchy, community, traditions, and customs. This doesn’t mean he becomes a Catholic (or an Orthodox), necessarily, but it does mean that he turns away from the dead end of radical individualism.
Next week, I’m going to Louisville to give four lectures on the Benedict Option at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and Boyce College (they’re the same place; SBTS is on the grounds of Boyce). Since I began this Ben Op project, I have been amazed and delighted by the enthusiasm that younger Evangelical Protestants have shown for it. I don’t know the Evangelical world, though I have been getting to know it much better over the past two years. I sense a real creative ferment there for grounding in tradition, and a pushback against Americanist individualism. Again, I don’t see a desire to leave Protestantism, but rather a curiosity about what resources there are within the Protestant tradition to reclaim a greater rootedness.
I cannot presume to tell Protestant Christians how they should live out the Benedict Option within their tradition. That will be up to them to work out. All I can do is present the Benedict Option as I understand it, and hope that within their circles, they come up with ways to adapt it to an authentic Evangelicalism. This is my hope for the Ben Op book: that it seeds these conversations among all kinds of Christians — conversations that lead to action.
So, to you readers today, especially Protestant readers: take a look at Kurth’s final paragraph. What do the social and political problems of our own current moment make you think about Protestantism as a historical and social phenomenon. What are the resources within the Protestant tradition that could provide a basis for resistance and recovery to the disintegrating forces ravaging our society?
UPDATE: Sorry that I inadvertently called him “Kurtz” on several occasions in this essay. Thanks to a reader for catching the error.