Protestantism and the Public Moral Space

Hunter Wallace, musing over Southern civilization, says “we see ourselves as moral reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.” I hate to burst his bubble but I’m afraid these guys are the root of the whole problem. To Protestant Americans, the Reformation theologians are the very foundation of human freedom. Moldbug has followed the root of this noxious weed to its deepest source, but just as David Ricardo summed up the 2000 pages of Das Kapital in one paragraph (actually about 50 years before Marx) I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version. But more than that, I think I can give you the why, not just the how. Moldbug is an atheist Jew; he’s quite sophisticated in having a skeptical view of Protestantism, which Jews don’t usually subject to much examination. But he doesn’t know Christianity from the inside.

Christianity has changed in various ways over the millenia. It started out as a communal religion. Being a Christian meant joining a group, and adopting that group’s norms. Your behavior was open to criticism by other group members. If you didn’t respond to this criticism you could be asked to leave. It wasn’t that big of a deal, as Christians were only a small portion of the population and you could just go back to being a pagan.

Then it became so widespread that everybody was a Christian. You became a Christian shortly after birth. You maintained your membership throughout your life, barring the really extraordinary event of excommunication. This was of course a horrible punishment. The excommunicated was outside the moral community of humanity and cursed by God. The frequency of its use and the power that the clergy has is exaggerated by Protestants, but it is precisely this matter of membership in the moral community that bedevils us to this very day.

Catholicism, while it has much pomp and ceremony, and a very formal, public hierarchy, is a very private religion. The believer communicates directly with God through the Mass and the Eucharist. He must seek the forgiveness of one person, but only one person, through Penance, or confession. This forgiveness isn’t hard to get. Catholic parishes aren’t very social. Most members don’t know each other well, if at all, and don’t participate in social activities as church group members. They don’t need, or seek the approval of other lay people. As I explained in “Programs!” this is the polar opposite of Protestant churches, which are highly social. The Catholic experiences God alone, though he may be in a packed church, through the ceremony and the visual artwork surrounding him. The Protestant experiences God as a member of a group, by his participation in it, and by its acknowledgement of him as a worthy member.

Protestants hated and feared the power that the clergy had over the believer’s status as a person forgiven by and accepted by God. To what extent this power was abused I won’t debate; far less that Protestants seem to learn in Sunday school though.

Theoretically and I must say that again, theoretically the Reformation completely eliminated the priest- or any other human being- as an intermediary between man and God, and set man completely free, within the limits of his conscience. In reality no such elimination occurred. Protestants liked what they saw as the purity of the early church. And honestly, a human authority in the question of moral approval can’t be eliminated altogether.

What happened was the place of moral approval ceased to be a private one, the confessional, and became public- the congregation of the church, particularly the elders, and the community in general. People sometimes puzzle why Calvinists, who believe in predestination, would worry at all about their behavior. But people always believe- or are made to believe- that they need the approval of others. The Calvinist needs to be assured of his salvation, and his status in the community provides that for him.

The power of excommunication still exists. As Moldbug likes to say, power is conserved. But instead of being invested in the Pope, it’s invested those who can manage to present themselves as moral exemplars of the community. The modern equivalent of the elders- the educational and legal establishment- decides what’s right and wrong and who’s good and bad. The rather clumsy term “political correctness” was picked up to describe this form of control. It comes from Marxist analysis and isn’t really appropriate to describe the process of shaming and shunning applied to people who violate modern liberal taboos. But it’s what we use. Being politically incorrect is a serious matter. You will be treated like a leper. You may lose your job, and if you are in any kind of public or supervisory position you will definitely lose your job.

If the religious establishment actually gets unchecked political power, you have Cromwell’s Britain or Calvin’s Geneva. These didn’t last, for various reasons. When religious influence came back in a significant way in the Victorian era, it was always presented as educating, enlightening, and improving the lives of people. Not wanting to be educated, enlightened, and improved is of course pretty suspicious. Not wanting to be part of this program clearly makes you a bad person.

Wallace would object that his Protestant belief system isn’t like that, and he’s right. I don’t know Southern Christianity from a cultural level, but it’s not the Whig Christianity of the North. Maybe it really is more about personal conscience and freedom. But it is not the belief system that is running things, which goes right back to Luther and Calvin.


About thrasymachus33308

I like fast cars, fast women and southern-fried rock. I have an ongoing beef with George Orwell. I take my name from a character in Plato's "Republic" who was exasperated with the kind of turgid BS that passed for deep thought and political discourse in that time and place, just as I am today. The character, whose name means "fierce fighter" was based on a real person but nobody knows for sure what his actual political beliefs were. I take my pseudonym from a character in an Adam Sandler song who was a obnoxious jerk who pissed off everybody.
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4 Responses to Protestantism and the Public Moral Space

  1. Pingback: Why Catholics are mystical and Protestants are less than ecstatic | PostGygaxian

  2. TT says:

    I enjoyed this thoughtful piece, Thrasymachus. You’re a deep thinker and an eloquent writer. Thanks for posting, as always.

    (Hyper-condensed background: First, I’m a Protestant myself–my father is minister. And I’ve been involved in numerous American denominations–North and South. Orthodox, no-nonsense Catholic parochial schooling. Partial Jewish background and significant Jewish religious involvement, too. East coast, Ancient Eight, college education.)

    You’re characterization of Protestants as the more gregarious species is spot-on. You’d never find the church dinners, socials, and pot-lucks in Catholic parishes that you do at, say, Baptist or Methodist churches. In many Protestants church’s, time is set aside during the service to welcome visitors. My father was notorious for asking visitors to stand and introduce themselves and their accompanying friends or families. After all the visitors had introduced themselves, we would “pass the peace”: members greeted visitors and each other. Everyone was encouraged to be genuinely warm and welcoming. We had “Friendship Registers” where visitors wrote down their names and addresses so they could be contacted and visited by pastoral staff. I think this is indicative of the greater emphasis on evangelism in general that you see in Protestant churches. I was once in Maine the summer right before my senior year of high school. All my friends went at Mass. Normally, I’d tag along. I’ve probably been to over 200 masses in my life. But I found a Protestant church to attend. Noting the denomination and the female minister, I figured I was in for a lot of liberal tripe. But it was surprisingly orthodox. And to my surprise, even here, they had me (I was alone and 15) get up and introduce yourself to a packed congregation. Could you imagine such a thing in a Catholic parish?!

    I do, however, take some slight exception to your other characterizations. Or at least think the reality is a bit more nuanced. For instance, you say Catholicism is a private religion. First, I think the current state of affairs underestimates the historical reality of Catholicism being very much a public religion. The early communal church you talk about was Catholicism. Catholicism grew up for most of history as the only game in town. You, your family, and everyone else was Catholic. In many cases, the state was formally aligned with the Church. All of Christendom was on a liturgical calendar. You had many, many public fast days and feast days (holy days => holidays) that served to cement not only the religious but the familial, communal and social ties that bound Christendom. Not publicly participating in the these rituals got one public opprobrium at best.There wasn’t this facile “I’m spiritual not religious/different strokes/my religion is a very private matter” nonsense that is regnant today.

    Catholicism can now be justifiably said to be increasingly a “private” religion because of nominal cafeteria Catholic jokes like the Kennedys or Anthony Cuomo, who can get away with publicly flouting church teaching all the while declaring in earnest their authentic and terribly pious private religion. There’s no public enforcement.

    Such wishy-washy religious types don’t cut in most Protestant congregations. That’s because one’s Christian identity is performative for most Protestants. Catholics are like Jews: they possess a cultural identity from the cradle. You’re Catholic because you were baptized Catholic, confirmed Catholic, and you pray to St. Anthony to help you find a parking space. What’s more, your Italian family has been Catholic for as long as anyone can remember. For many Catholics, this is just going with the flow. It takes no more than a cross around your neck, and going to church on Christmas and Easter.

    Protestants place a far greater emphasis on a personal relationship–a personal conversion and choice–that acknowledges Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. There is, for the most part, no infant baptism. You’re expected to independently evaluate the claims of Christianity and convert when you can make a mature decision. Protestants wake up early and go to Sunday school before church service. They are expected to be biblically literate (through frequent bible reading and study, memorizing scripture, etc.) and to possess a theologically competency commensurate with their intellectual capacity. Not only that, many Protestants are expected to share this Gospel (Good News) with others. “Protestants” who don’t go to church, who don’t believe or abide by the rules, are more likely to dispense with religion entirely. They probably wouldn’t say they’re “lapsed Protestants”…they’re just not Protestants period.They can’t endure the longer services, longer sermons, and communal enforcement. They have no reason to wake up early on Sunday morning. If they don’t dispense with the farce, their children surely do.

    On a related note, the differences in congregational singing are, I think, symptomatic of the deeper split between Catholic and Protestant churches. First of all, Catholic music has been eviscerated Post-Vatican II. It’s a tragedy what they’ve done with the venerable birthright bequested by composers like Allegri and Palestrina. Verily, some of the greatest music ever written:
    Shamefully, like Esau, they have seen fit to sell their birthright for a mess of pottage. These days it’s either some horrendous “liturgical-lite” music with no harmony (only a melodic line) or saccharine “Jesus is my boyfriend” tommyrot with guitar accompaniment. Even then, the congregational participation is weak and altogether pathetic relative to Protestant churches.

    If you want lusty, soaring hymns, don’t go to a Catholic church.
    Again, you see here that Protestant congregations are far more performative and participatory.
    Even the Anglicans (much closer in polity, liturgy, and theology to Catholicism) have far better music than most Catholic churches. The solidarity engendered and the beauty displayed by these services cannot be underestimated:
    (How is secular humanist society suppose to supplant this? When liberals fight religion, they undercut the foundation for the brotherhood of mankind. Which ironically is sort of at cross purposes to a lot of their socialist agenda…)

    But the Protestant experience, while quite social, is far from exclusively social. Protestants experience God both corporately and individually. Think of all the contemporary emphasis on “a personal relationship with Jesus Christ”. Or think back to the Wesley and the Method-ists (the very word highlights the performative aspect) and their emphasis on personal piety, bible reading, and devotions. The Reformers were some of the first people to translate the Bible into the vernacular. Thus allowing each individual Christian to read Holy Writ himself. So while you’re right to point out the gregarious nature of Protestants, on the whole, I’d say they’re actually more balanced between the social/personal axis.

    You say that Catholics experience God privately in church…True in the ideal case. But what I fear is that many (certainly not all) end up not experiencing Him at all–either privately or corporately. So much of the ritual allows them to be a passive spectator (I say this as a person who adores and attends liturgical services…). Everything is a performance. The homily is short and uncritical. Nothing is required of them. More problematic is the awesome biblical illiteracy of Catholics. The Old Testament in particular is utterly alien to them!

    I think Protestants have, in some respects stronger churches because of their community. (Though, regrettably, they are also more given to entropic splintering and division…). Whereas in times past, the Catholic church could get by leaning on the fact that the ambient culture was supportive and pervasively even comprehensively Catholic, nowadays they find themselves beset by adverse social pressures that run contrary to their message and teaching. Something’s gotta give.

    Luther (I believe Jean Calvin, too) certainly believed in the rights of conscience and “the priesthood of all believers.” But this shouldn’t be confused with absolute license or the absence of proper authority–in the church or the secular state. Southern Christianity is by no means about some absolute right of conscience or freedom. That’s some idiosyncratic, Johnny-rebel balderdash. Within the fold, Southern Christianity is by far more conservative and more limiting than northern Whig Christianity, as you term it. And I don’t have the slightest problem with that! Calling yourself a Christian circumscribes the statements you can legitimately make, the beliefs you can hold, if you want to properly be called a Christian.

    The mechanism of social enforcement–the shaming, the shunning– are certainly to be found in Christianity but aren’t peculiar to it, whether in its Southern, Northern Whig, or Coptic instantiations. Rather this phenomenon is to be found in all human social groups and has nothing to do with Calvin or Luther per se. These are human universals. (To my mind, Matthew 18 is a clear example of condoned Christian ostracizing. It’s a perfectly legitimate means of preserving church integrity.) I have much less a problem with the mechanisms of political correctness’ enforcement, than I have with the fallacious and destructive ends that it serves today. To my mind, the mechanisms of enforcement are inevitable, ineliminable, and inherent in any human community.

  3. Willard Breadman says:

    As a Catholic, the above essays make me smile and chuckle at such “uprighteous” writing — certainly misguided as to what the Catholic faith is. then I realize, my God, these people are serious! Whoa! Have your little potlucks and socials if you want. If you want to get into some earnest praying for EVERYONE (where did you come up with this one-person forgiveness idea????) — visit a Catholic church service. It is TOTALLY group oriented! Duh!

  4. Olin Trowers says:

    Avez vous essayer est une bonne solution,

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