The Future of Protestantism

Today I saw Tom Erich’s article, 8 Things the Church Needs to Say. I wanted to make an observation as a sympathetic outsider, who used to be an insider a long time ago.

The Protestant churches, particularly in the US, seem to have a very deep problem: on the one hand, they have the barbarian fringe of fundamentalism, and on the other they have a kind of ineffectual hand-wringing over the “graying of the churches” as old people cling to the pews and young people run out the door as fast as they can.

I’d like to suggest that the root problem is simple, though difficult to face:

The Protestant Church has already accomplished everything it set out to do.

As a result, it doesn’t have anything worthwhile left to say or to do. It’s dying out because it succeeded.

Let me explore this in a little more depth.

Protestantism was officially born with Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenburg in 1517, and multiple, major Protestant movements sprang up during the next two centuries all over Europe and Great Britain. Despite their differences, all these movements had one thing in common: the Medieval Church they were protesting.

In the Medieval world, there was a Divine Order, eternal and unchanging, and Earth was part of that order, as was the social arrangement of people living on the earth. Kings ruled by Divine Right, and the hierarchies of class in society mirrored the hierarchy of angels in the Heavens above (and the ranks of the fallen angels in Hell below). “The way things have always been done” had a metaphysical weight to it.

Today, we are inundated with information about different cultures, different historical periods, different ways of thinking. We have no trouble believing in Amazons, or male homosexuality among the Spartans, or cannibal tribes in Papua New Guinea. But Google and National Geographic and public libraries, to say nothing of that kind of cultural heterogeneity, did not exist in the 1300’s in Europe; few people traveled more than a few miles from their homes in the course of a lifetime, and if they did, they found conditions throughout the vast ruin of the former Roman Empire pretty much the same everywhere. The strange people in far-away places like the Levant or China were legend, rumor, fantasy.

In particular, the theology of the Medieval Church took the idea that “the poor you shall have with you always” quite literally. The Church could offer some succor to the poor and the ill, but it simply wasn’t part of the general world view for anyone to try to do anything about suffering. Suffering was simply part of life, part of the Divine Order, past, present, and future, World Without End, Amen. You might as well try to make rain less wet. Know your place in the world, and be content with it. Be grateful for your daily bread, and die with a prayer on your lips, thankful that it is finally over and Heaven awaits.

By 1517, the Church was widely seen as obscenely wealthy, venal, and utterly corrupt. Priests were considered good for nothing but wearing fancy clothing and seducing other men’s wives. Pope Alexander VI (Rodrigo Borgia) had drunken garden parties featuring prostitutes and public ejaculation contests. The wealthy lived lives of indolence, debauchery, and intrigue, or else gloried in battle and bloodshed, or both, and the poor suffered tremendously and died easily. Within the Medieval mindset, this was all normal and inescapable, a consequence of our Earth being a cooled crust congealed over the surface of Hell where Satan reigned, far, far from the vault of Heaven where God and his angels resided. It was all part of the Divine Order, and not to be seriously questioned. As Pope Leo X (Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici) put it, “Since God given us the Papacy, let us enjoy it.” A serf might equally well say, “Since God has given us poverty, let us endure it.”

Protestantism was born in the Medieval world, not the modern world, and from the start it was a fierce reform movement. It certainly sought to reform the corrupt Church. But it went further than that: it also wanted to reform the world. Though it might be impossible in the end to heal the sick or feed the poor, it was a moral imperative to at least make the attempt.

You see the reformer’s agenda throughout all the traditional Protestant denominations, and as Protestantism spread, its reformer’s zeal started to leach into civic morality, and eventually into governmental policy. Protestant moral extremism became normative. Soup kitchens and bread lines. Public hospitals. Public education. Mutual aid societies. Retirement pensions. Social security. Abolition of slavery. Pacifism.

Not that there haven’t been plenty of raucous blue notes blown as well, like witch trials and the Irish potato famine and Prohibition, to say nothing of our modern US American sex-hostile prurience.

But the point I’m making is that Protestantism was, from the start, about making the world a better place, regardless of how screwed up the definition of “better” might be, and of changing the Divine Order on earth: an idea utterly foreign to the Medieval way of seeing things.

Starting in the early 1500’s, Protestantism set about making the world over in a vision of a material and social Utopia. The modern US and Europe we see today is, more or less, the Utopia envisioned by the early Protestants. It’s done. Finished. Here’s your T-shirt.

I’m not going to argue that there are no injustices left in the world. I’m just going to point back to 1500 and say, “Before we talk about modern injustice, let’s start here….” In the comparison, the injustices of today are really small potatoes. In the sixteenth century, there was no word for “genocide,” and wife-beating was called “good husbandry.” Modern injustices aren’t really horrific enough to put a reformer’s fire into people’s bellies — which can be decried as a sad statement about complacency and indifference, but that makes it no less true. And so, modern injustices aren’t really enough to hold Protestantism together in the modern world.

In its reaction to running out of things to do, it seems Protestantism has broken into two major flavors, or strains. There is the so-called “liberal church,” whose members want to keep the Church together, but don’t really have much going on beyond bake sales and Sunday morning coffee and post-Utopian envisioning. And then, there are the barbarians, who have invented shibboleths and insularities and irrational conspiracies masterminded by Satan himself in a grand Manichean battle for the soul of the nation and the world. Both are trying to preserve Protestantism, but by very different means. Both are struggling with the question of relevance.

There’s another hidden aspect to Protestantism that people never think about, and that is that the Protestant Reformation took place at the same time as the economic exploitation of the Americas, first with slaves, then with the steam engine, and most recently with the internal combustion engine. Yes, the Protestant reformers had fire in their bellies. But they also had something to eat, without which true social reform remains a fantasy. The Protestants were as successful as they were because inconceivable, almost incalculable wealth was pouring into the European/American coffers from 1500 to 2000, along with new crops, new land, and guano, the first large-scale artificial fertilizer used in Europe. They could succeed at promoting social justice because we could all afford social justice without working very hard at it. Indeed, the main force acting against social justice for five centuries, other than purely obstinate people, has not been that we can’t afford it, but that we won’t get rich fast enough if  we slow down for justice.

But we are now entering a new period of history, as oil peaks. It isn’t just energy: it’s energy, fresh water, trees, fish, air, and arable land. It’s crop pests and human pestilence. It’s climate change forcing massive migrations of plant and animal life. It’s a fading memory of the cost of global war, and the growing thirst to acquire and defend power and wealth with violence.

I’ve written before about three potential futures, which I classify according to the energy budget of each future, or its EROEI (Energy Returned On Energy Invested). In Future 1, we have a much lower EROEI than at present. In Future 2, we have more or less the same EROEI, retained on a sustainable basis. In Future 3, we have a much higher EROEI than at present.

Future 3 is the future of flying cars and Mars colonies. Or whatever else we decide to do with all that cheap energy. I don’t see the liberal strain of Protestantism surviving in that future, simply because that future is an extension of what’s been happening for the last five centuries, and Protestantism has already become irrelevant by way of its own success. The Fundamentalist strain will rise and fall in response to fear, propaganda, and ignorance in the general population, but in Future 3 — where the economy continues to surge as EROEI climbs — fundamentalism will eventually become a despised fringe religion, or it will tear down the society. This is, of course, assuming Future 3 lasts long enough on its own. A sustainable Future 3 isn’t technologically impossible, but like our own present, it has no built in reason to worry about the day after tomorrow, so people won’t — and they will inevitably hit their own peak down the line, only much harder.

Future 2 poses a particular problem for liberal Protestantism, and that is the constraint of sustainability. This future presumes we don’t have breakthroughs in fusion, or solar energy, or faery magic, and as oil peaks and drops out from under us, we’re going to be faced with a reality the US has never faced, and Europe hasn’t seen in five centuries: actual limits to growth. Protestantism has a deeply-held belief in human dominion over nature, and whether cast as lordship or stewardship or some other euphemism, dominion is not compatible with sustainability. Nor do concepts of “growth” and “progress” and “reform” fly far. This will be very difficult for the liberal strain, and for US Americans in general. By contrast, the fundamentalist strain, which is essentially tribal in nature, could do quite well — assuming that it embraces its tribal nature, draws inward, and loses its imperial ambitions. It will, of course, engage in tribal warfare with other fundamentalists in the next valley, but the tribes of Papua New Guinea had a sustainable and densely-populated tribal island culture, complete with fierce warfare, that lasted for three thousand years before it encountered our culture.

Future 1 poses opportunities and problems for religions of all kinds, but Protestantism will face some unique hardships. The liberal strain will find plenty of injustice to protest — but since EROEI is dropping, it’s going to be a losing rearguard protest. It will win one battle and lose two. Then win one and lose three. This could go on for centuries. It will be extremely disheartening, and will require not so much fire in the belly, as ice in the veins and stoic resolve. The fundamentalist strain, by contrast, will likely be a zoo of doomsday cults and Elmer Gantries fleecing the flocks. If fundamentalism doesn’t discredit itself to the point of having its churches burned by mobs, it will probably be swept away by some other religion.

Indeed, in Future 1, there will be a lot of hardship, and when their gods fail them, people tend to abandon their gods. The replacement might be something like Islam. Or it might just as easily be some tiny cult that hasn’t even been formed, yet.

So here is my thought regarding the two strains of Protestantism, if either wants to remain relevant in any future.

The liberal strain is going to have to wrestle with and redefine its relationship to Nature, and this will be no easy thing. Protestantism has a five-century history of exploiting nature to fund its program of social progress, and that can be tolerated only in a future (3) where liberal Protestantism has effectively won the game and is already irrelevant. Exploitation cannot be tolerated in Future 2, and is not possible in Future 1. I can’t begin to suggest how this redefinition might be accomplished, but if it isn’t, the social reform at the heart of liberal Protestantism will be pitted against reality in ways that Protestantism has never faced — and reality will always win that battle.

The fundamentalist strain would be well-advised to stop playing at national politics and take its tribal nature seriously, and constructively. As near as I can tell, it’s currently merely being played by sharp political operators, anyway, who care nothing for “Christian principles,” but will say anything — anything at all — to solicit votes. But fundamentalists are like Swedes (as told to me by a Swedish friend): you can always tell a Swede, but you can’t tell him much. One of the advantages of their extreme insularity is that they shrug off criticism as easily as they shrug off good advice or common sense. That they would still be around preaching the evils of Socialism and Evolution in a world reduced to herding goats seems somehow ironically appropriate.

Again, this is offered as an observation by a sympathetic outsider. Take whatever wisdom may be found in it.

This entry was posted in General.

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