The “Vaporisation of Protestantism”

The “Vaporisation of Protestantism” January 19, 2024

A French thinker is blaming the decline of the West on the “vaporisation” of Protestantism.

So reports Rob Lownie in his article for Unherd entitled Emmanuel Todd:  The Death of Protestantism Explains Western Decline.

Todd is a French historian and “public intellectual” (which they still have in France), known for predicting the collapse of the Soviet Union fifteen years before it happened.  More recently, he has said that World War III has already begun.  In telling about his new book La Défaite de l’Occident (The Defeat of the West), he told an interviewer, “the vaporisation of Protestantism in the United States, in England and throughout the Protestant world has caused the disappearance of what constituted the strength and specificity of the West.”

Specifically, he cited the “values of work and social discipline” as a legacy of Protestantism that has been fading in the West.  Protestantism, he said, has gone through three phases. The “active stage” when Protestantism was widely believed in England, America, and other Protestant countries, and was a powerful cultural force.  Then the “zombie stage,” when Protestantism was mostly dead as a religion but continued its cultural influence.

Within this theory, the “zombie stage” incorporates much of the US rise to prominence during the first half of the 20th century — what Todd calls “Great America, from [Theodore] Roosevelt to Eisenhower”. This was “an America that retained all the positive values ​​of Protestantism, its educational effectiveness, its relationship to work, its capacity for integrating the individual into the community”.
Now we are at “stage zero.”  This is the point at which, in Lownie’s words, “religious belief loses all influence within the Western world.”  Todd “cited the passage of laws relating to same-sex marriage as the ‘ultimate indicator’ of the transition from the ‘zombie’ to ‘zero’ stage.”
Now, he said, America “is falling into nihilism and the deification of nothing”.  This means “the desire for destruction, but also of the negation of reality. There are no longer any traces of religion, but the human being is still there.”
Emmanuel Todd has some good insights, but I don’t think he’s completely right.  He looks at America from a great distance.  Thus, he misses the religion that still thrives here.  And he misinterprets some of what he sees.  For example, he says that the sign of Protestantism’s demise in America was the election of Joe Biden, a Catholic!  Biden’s religion brings up the fact  that there has been a “vaporisation” of Catholicism too.
He is right, though, about the “negation of reality,” which sums up well the whole postmodernist mindset with its relativism and its notion that truth is a “construction,” whether of oppressive groups or of the human mind.  And I appreciate his metaphor of “vaporisation.”  That is a good description of liberal theology, which has turned the realities proclaimed by the Bible into mere symbols, reflections of experiences, vague abstractions. . .and vapor.
That vaporous theology has indeed nullified the state Protestant churches in Europe, which Todd seems to be thinking about, as well as the mainline liberal Protestantism of the United States.  When church teachings become as insubstantial as vapor, the church will of course lose its influence.  That has happened in mainstream academia–which Todd is also thinking of–and it helps account for the secularism that dominates our mainstream culture now.  This is, indeed, the “decline of the West.”
But “traces of religion” remain.  Perhaps Protestantism will go through a stage of condensation, in which the vapor turns back into life-giving water.
Photo:  Emmanuel Todd by Oestani, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
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