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The Protestant Deformation

One of my Bucket List things to do before I leave Philadelphia is to have lunch with the conservative Swarthmore political scientist James Kurth (who, as it turns out is an elder at the Presbyterian Church [PCA] where my kids go to homeschool co-op classes). Prof. Kurth delivered a fascinating speech a decade ago — months before 9/11, in fact — to the Philadelphia Society on what he calls the Protestant Deformation.  His thesis:

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.


      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.

A totalitarianism of the self. A great phrase, along the lines of  Pope Benedict’s pungent coinage, “the dictatorship of relativism.










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.

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