Home/Rod Dreher/Is Protestantism Over?

Is Protestantism Over?

The Reformed pastor and theologian Peter Leithart says yes it is, and says it’s time for Protestants to embrace what he calls “Reformational Catholicism.” The basic idea is that Protestantism, as a reforming movement that defines itself against Catholicism, has exhausted itself, and should embrace those parts of the Christian tradition that it has historically rejected because Catholics embrace it too. Excerpt:

Like a Protestant, a Reformational catholic rejects papal claims, refuses to venerate the Host, and doesn’t pray to Mary or the saints; he insists that salvation is a sheer gift of God received by faith and confesses that all tradition must be judged by Scripture, the Spirit’s voice in the conversation that is the Church.

Though it agrees with the original Protestant protest, Reformational catholicism is defined as much by the things it shares with Roman Catholicism as by its differences.

To clarify, Leithart’s Reformed Catholics clearly and confidently stand outside of the Roman church, but they’re not angry at Rome anymore. Here’s another excerpt from his essay:

A Protestant mocks patristic and medieval biblical interpretation and finds safety in grammatical-historical exegesis. A Reformational Catholic revels in the riches, even while he puzzles over the oddities, of Augustine and Origen, Bernard and Bede. He knows there are unplumbed depths in Scripture, never dreamt of by Luther and Calvin.

A Protestant is indifferent or hostile to liturgical forms, ornamentation in worship, and sacraments, because that’s what Catholics do. Reformational Catholicism’s piety is communal and sacramental, and its worship follows historic liturgical patterns. A Protestant wears a jacket and tie, or a Mickey Mouse t-shirt, to lead worship; a Reformational Catholic is vested in cassock and stole. To a Protestant, a sacrament is an aid to memory. A Reformational Catholic believes that Jesus baptizes and gives himself as food to the faithful, and doesn’t avoid speaking of “Eucharist” or “Mass” just because Roman Catholics use those words.

Reformational Catholicism meets George Weigel’s Evangelical Catholicism coming from the direction of Rome, and gives it a hearty handshake.

Interesting ideas here. This makes me think about the differences between the intellectual elites (broadly speaking) within the churches and the masses. Here’s what I mean. I know plenty of people who are Orthodox, Catholic, or Protestant, and who know what that means on an intellectual level, in terms of what their churches stand for, and require them to believe. But sociologist Christian Smith’s research into Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, and my own everyday experience, leads me to believe that this is far from normative. Here’s Smith, in a 2009 interview with Christianity Today, talking about the form of Christian faith typical among Millennials:

With Soul Searching, you found that most U.S. teens are Moralistic Therapeutic Deists (MTD). They believe in a benevolent God unattached to a particular tradition who is there mostly to help with personal problems. Are emerging adults still MTDS?

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is still the de facto practiced religious faith, but it becomes a little more complicated for emerging adults. They have more life experience, so some of them are starting to ask, “Does MTD really work? Isn’t life more complicated than this?” MTD is easier to believe and practice when you are in high school.

There is also a much larger segment of emerging adults than of teenagers that is outrightly hostile to religion. Some who previously were MTDS have become anti-religious. That said, the center of gravity among emerging adults is definitely MTD. Most emerging adults view religion as training in becoming a good person. And they think they are basically good people. To not be a good person, you have to be a horrible person. Therefore, everything’s fine.

Do you remember the defining characteristics of Moralistic Therapeutic Deists? Here’s a refresher:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

Smith and his colleagues found that this is the real religion of the overwhelming majority of American teenagers (Mormon teenagers, and some Evangelicals, excepted). I have no data on how far into the adult population those attitudes extend, but this was pretty much the culture I grew up in in the 1970s, as a mainline Protestant. Again, my memory could be faulty, but most of the kids I knew growing up in a fairly conservative part of the world with a good mixture of Protestants and Catholics believed exactly these things. When I went through a brief but intense Evangelical period early in my teenage years, I recognized this in almost all the kids in my class. I’m saying this not in a critical way, but simply as a matter of description. When my wife, who was raised Southern Baptist in Dallas, and I talk about the religious cultures of our childhoods, it’s like night and day. She went to First Baptist Dallas, and to the church’s school. Those kids knew what they believed — and if they later fell away from the Southern Baptist form of Christianity, they at least knew what it was they were rejecting.

I went to public school in a part of the world where it was assumed that everyone was Christian, and this ethos she describes was completely foreign to us. Once, in the late 1980s, I had tea with a Belgian Catholic priest who taught religion at LSU. He told me that when he first came to Baton Rouge in the 1960s, or perhaps the early 1970s, there were sharp divisions between Catholics and Protestants. Everybody got along on the surface, but there was not much mixing between the clergy. That world had passed, and good riddance to it, he said. I agreed (and do agree today), but I still couldn’t get over his descriptions of how Christians in my south Louisiana culture thought about each other, just the day before yesterday. It was as foreign to me as descriptions of a time when blacks and whites went to separate schools, and blacks were forced by law to stay out of certain white areas. The consciousness of religious difference among Christians was still there, certainly, but had greatly faded in my generation. And one reason it greatly faded was because it had done so in our parents’ generation. In my family, I knew we weren’t Catholic, but we were never taught to think ill, or at all critically, of Catholics; to us, Catholicism was just another way of being Christian. We didn’t see our family’s Catholic friends as different in any way from us. It just wasn’t something most people, Catholic or Protestant, were conscious of.

I would like to say that what made this possible was a shift in ecumenical awareness, and openness to what we Christians share. That is true with a certain kind of Christian — Touchstone magazine is a great example of this sensibility among small-o orthodox Christians — but for most of us, I think it is mostly a matter of rising MTD, which is to say, religious indifferentism. In this short post from 2009, Ross Douthat reflects on Damon Linker’s claim that the rise of MTD has been bad for religion, but good for American civic life. Ross said:

Whether you share this optimism about the “salutary” advance of moralistic therapeutic deism ultimately depends on whether you share Linker’s sense that the biggest problem facing America in the Bush years was the “siege” of secular America by orthodox Christians. The more you fear the theocon menace, the more you’ll welcome the Oprahfication of Christianity – since the steady spread of a mushy, muddle-headed theology is as good a way as any of inoculating the country and its politics against, say, Richard John Neuhaus’s views on natural law.

But let’s say you think that the biggest problems facing America in the Bush years were, I dunno, the botched handling of the Iraq occupation and a massive and an unsustainable housing and financial bubble. In that case, you don’t have to look terribly hard to see a connection between the kind of self-centered, sentimental, and panglossian religion described above and the spirit of unwarranted optimism and metaphysical self-regard that animated some of Bush’s worst hours as President (his second inaugural address could have been subtitled: “Moral Therapeutic Deism Goes to War”) and some of his fellow Americans’ worst hours as homeowners and investors. In the wake of two consecutive bubble economies, it takes an inordinate fear of culture war, I think, to immerse yourself in the literature of Oprahfied religion – from nominal Christians like Joel Osteen to New Age gurus like Eckhart Tolle and Rhonda Byrne – and come away convinced that this theological turn has been “salutary” for the country overall.

So, what’s my point here, with reference to Leithart’s claim? Well, several points, actually:

1. He’s right that the Catholic Church has changed so much, and cultural conditions in the West have changed so much, that the adversarial stance that has characterized historical Protestantism has lost its energizing force. There will always be a remnant of Protestants who get worked up about the evils of Rome, but most Protestants today have had enough exposure to Catholicism and Catholics to know that the prejudices of the past are hard to justify.

2. But I suspect — I suspect; I do not know — that the main reason for this is not intellectual engagement, but the rise of MTD. In other words, it’s not that most Protestants have thought about it and changed their minds; it’s that like all other American Christians — including Catholics — they just don’t much care to think about it at all. In my experience as a Catholic, most ordinary Catholics (versus those who were intellectually engaged with their faith and its teachings) interpret the world through more of an individualistic, emotivist mindset than anything authentically Catholic. Which is to say, they think like contemporary Protestants. I’m sure this is true of most cradle Orthodox as well, though my experience among Orthodox is almost exclusively with fellow converts, who are outliers.

3. Because I don’t know Protestantism from the inside, I am in no position to say what this is likely to portend for Leithart’s idea of “Reformational Catholicism.” My guess, though, is that even though I find it an attractive way of living out Protestantism, it will never amount to much outside of intellectual(ish) circles. Similarly, it’s hard to know where exactly American Catholicism is going to go, given that the things that distinguish it from Protestantism have faded dramatically over the last 50 years. Theologically, of course, it’s a very different thing than Protestantism (Dominus Iesus, anybody?). But I think the MTD research shows that awareness of those differences, and why they matter, has collapsed among most American Catholics. In fact, Smith et al. report — read it all here — that MTD is “particularly prevalent” among Catholic and mainline Protestant American teens, and that it is also strong among their parents’ generation. Writes Smith:

Our religiously conventional adolescents seem to be merely absorbing and reflecting religiously what the adult world is routinely modeling for and inculcating in its youth.

Our theologians bark, but the great American MTD caravan moves on, trampling history and theological tradition in its path.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. A veteran of three decades of magazine and newspaper journalism, he has also written three New York Times bestsellers—Live Not By Lies, The Benedict Option, and The Little Way of Ruthie Lemingas well as Crunchy Cons and How Dante Can Save Your Life. Dreher lives in Baton Rouge, La.

leave a comment

Latest Articles