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Religion Library: Protestantism

Vision for Society

Written by: Ted Vial

One writer on the possibilities for society from the Reformed tradition who remained perhaps closer to Calvin's thought was Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971), who grew up German Reformed. Niebuhr's view of society was informed by a Calvinistic view of human nature as sinful at its core, and thus the real possibilities of establishing a perfect human society were very limited. In his classic work Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) he argues that even when individuals act selflessly, their actions are almost always in the service of a group that is acting selfishly. This is true of nations, classes, and races. His blueprint for creating a "just enough" society (a truly just society was humanly impossible) through the practice of non-violent resistance was influential on the civil rights movement. His tone of cautious optimism (we can and should do better, but we will never do very well) recapitulates the tone of Calvin's efforts in Geneva.

For much of the 20th century, conservative Protestants were largely "pre-millennialists." Based on a different reading of the Book of Revelation, pre-millennialists believe that Christ's thousand-year reign on earth would come at the end of history, following a period when earth would be ruled by the Anti-Christ, a powerful opposition to the Church and the Gospels. This is a largely pessimistic view of human history that does not believe that the task of Christians is to make the world better in preparation for Jesus' return. Human history, according to this belief, is on a downward trajectory, and therefore the primary task is to save as many souls as possible so that when Christ returns those souls will be among those gathered to himself. Thus conservative Protestants developed a largely isolationist mentality, devoting their energies primarily to their own churches, communities, and families.

After World War II, however, conservative Protestants began to re-enter the public square in an effort to improve American society. The demise of Christian society under the Nazi regime had demonstrated what could happen when Christians forego involvement in political and cultural circles. The popularity of Billy Graham and the establishment of conservative Christian magazines, like Christianity Today, contributed to a lessening of conservative isolationism. By the last quarter of the 20th century, many new voices were calling for increasing public involvement. Led by Jerry Falwell (founder of the Moral Majority), James Dobson (founder of Focus on the Family), Pat Robertson (host of the 700 Club), and others, they found some success influencing public policy beginning in the presidency of Jimmy Carter, but more particularly in the presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Both liberal and conservative Protestants have developed a high public profile in the last three decades, working within the common premise that in some sense, the government should be facilitating the work of the gospel. Liberal Protestants, claiming faithfulness to gospel values, have directed their efforts primarily toward such issues as economic disparities, the federal budget, environmental crises, immigration reform, etc. Their vision for society includes a government that implements and achieves the Christian ethos. Conservatives have also become increasingly politically engaged, largely on the Republican side of the aisle; their vision, similar to Calvin's, is to develop a government that keeps depravity in check, does not obstruct the free exercise of the Church, and makes possible the implementation of Kingdom values by individual Christians. Their efforts to repeal the legalization of abortion, to resist the public acceptance of homosexuality, and to limit governmental powers have been some of the most contentious issues. While these issues remain important to the next generation of conservative leaders (Warren, Hybels, Franklin Graham, etc.), the current leadership is far more likely to make common cause with liberal Christians on other issues such as poverty, global warming, and the fight against AIDS.

 

 


Study Questions:
1.     What is post-millennialism and pre-millennialism, and how do these interpretations affect political postures among Protestant communities?
2.     Who was Niebuhr and what was his theory of society?
3.     How has Protestantism linked itself to contemporary politics, both on the liberal and conservative sides?

 

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