Did Protestantism make America a global juggernaut?

Did Protestantism make America a global juggernaut? April 30, 2020

America isn’t what it used to be, and the reason may involve the decaying of Protestantism’s roots in the West, a very interesting post in the blog Science on Religion speculates.

protestantism decline christianity puritanism america politics soviet union
A colonial-era drawing caricaturing the stereotype of American Puritans as dour and cheerless. (CircaSassy, Flikr, Public Domain)

After wading through some ancient historical background starting on the eve of Rome’s final climactic defeat of arch-rival Carthage in 146 BCE, the post (by Connor Wood) — “Liberal Democracy, Science, and the End of the End of History” — arrives at its primary subject: Sometimes in history magnificent victories have marked the beginning of the end for powerful civilizations.

Connor speculates that the abrupt disintegration of the Communist Soviet Union in 1991 may prove to be such a pyrrhic victory for democratic, republican America, with potentially devastating ultimate cultural, economic and technological costs.

To explain his hypothesis, Wood notes that before Rome’s destruction of Carthage a prescient Roman leader, Nasica Corculum, warned his compatriots in vain that “the loss of a common enemy would lead the Roman people to lose their virtue and discipline, sink into decadence, and even turn against each other in vice, greed, and competitiveness.”

Which is pretty much what happened.

“And indeed, not long after the total Roman victory over Carthage … a series of civil conflicts and uprisings erupted, lasting until Julius Caesar replaced the Republic with an empire for good,” Wood writes.

So, that is the supposed fear, that the United States, as a result of being the sole surviving superpower standing after decades of dangerous U.S.-Soviet enmity, might lose its “virtue and discipline” and “sink into decadence.”

Connor dovetails this with Protestantism because he believes the “liberal democracy” at the heart of America’s long conflict with the Soviet Union is “in many ways, an outgrowth of the Reformation.” And the medieval Reformation, led by German Catholic priest Martin Luther, was the intra-church protest — thus, “Protestants” — against the authoritarianism, excess and doctrinal intransigence of the church hierarchy in Rome led by the pope.

The United States’ liberal democratic tradition, Wood proposes, stems largely “from the Protestant (and Enlightenment) ideals that have historically infused American society,” including an “emphasis on individual liberties and rights” (as original Protestants demanded the right to worship God as they pleased, uncoerced), “skepticism of traditional or inherited authority” (they rebelled against Catholic authority), and “an abiding belief in technological and economic progress” (the invention of the printing press, for one, turbo-charged the ability of new Protestants to spread their message throughout the known world).

Wood views growing America dominance in the world after World War II as the result of U.S. culture and ideas successfully perpetuating meme-like over the global landscape.

“The hegemonic dominance of America across multiple domains has allowed the U.S. to spread its ideological vision – a culturally Protestant-ish, capitalist, and liberal-democratic one – across the Earth, even shaping how the world saw the future,” Woods writes. “I mean, ever watch Star Trek? Here’s a vision of the future that nearly precisely matched the universalistic conceits of American democracy: a cosmic federation, based on the ideals of freedom, science, truth, and equality, that overcomes the irrational biases of the past and achieves technological mastery of the physical world.”

So, Connor sees American imperialism in the world as Protestant-flavored imperialism.

But he says American dominion is cynically undercut by the nation’s “darker side,” including its deeply embedded history of racism and slavery, conquest at home and abroad, “broken treaties” with Native American tribes, and intractable, systemic economic inequality.

Seen through this darkened lens,” he writes. “America’s leading role in the spread of liberal democracy is simply a brute power grab, an attempt to dominate and oppress the rest of the world.”

It’s the U.S. Christian concept of “Manifest Destiny” writ large, as it were.

The handwriting on the wall of potential American slippage in the world, he suggests, may be the fact that Christian Protestantism has for decades been quickly fading in numbers of faithful and cultural influence in America and Europe, but especially the latter (Pew Research Center issued an eye-opening 2019 report on U.S. Christianity’s sharp decline.).

“If it’s the case that modern democracy is, in many ways, an historical outgrowth of Protestantism,” Connor asks, “does the rapid decline of Protestantism in its former geographic heartland – Europe and North America – have implications for the future of democracy itself?”

Perhaps. Perhaps not.

As always, what’s in store for us in the future is rarely clear. Does the emergence of authoritarian Communist-but-capitalist China indicate that liberal democracy may not prove to be history’s final, most natural type of government possible, as proponents have long opined? Will democracy eventually win the day?

Who knows? History is fickle and fey and unpredictable, and always inscrutable.

But what’s interesting to me is Connor’s direct linkage of American faith with its global power. He suggests that if American Christianity fades to black, the ideologies and values that make it a great nation may also collapse.

Yet, if you’re an atheist, you probably tend to see a far stronger democracy possible without faith than with. So, no worries in that regard if religion just naturally fades away.

We just might then enjoy a stronger republic. For a while, until history intercedes.

(Resourced in this post is an article by Connor Wood, a research associate at the Center for Mind and Culture, in Boston, Massachusetts, and a visiting scholar at the Boston University School of Theology.)

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