Sunday, December 04, 2005

The “Protestant Deformation” Undermines Families

Swarthmore political scientist James Kurth has a powerful article in the current American Interest, “The Protestant Deformation.” In it he argues that the foreign policy of the Bush Administration imposes on the world an extremely secularized version of Protestantism. Kurth’s article is an update of a 1998 article of the same name, in which he argued that the Clinton administration was then doing the same thing. The Protestant Deformation is deep in American culture, especially our political cultural. Kurth charts the gradual decline of the core values espoused by our political leaders through seven stages, from a full-throated Reformation Protestantism down to today’s individualism. Of the last, he writes

Individualism – with its contempt for all hierarchies, communities, traditions, and customs – represents the logical conclusion and the ultimate extreme of the secularization of the Protestant religion. The Holy Trinity of original Protestantism, the Supreme Being of unitarianism, even the American nation of the American Creed have all been dethroned and replaced by the imperial self.

In foreign policy the imperial self leads to our promoting the idea of universal human rights, which developed organically out of Protestantism, as if that idea fit as neatly into all cultures and civilizations.

In domestic policy, the imperial self leads of our promoting the idea of individual choice and individual fulfillment. This idea also grew organically out of Protestantism. However, Protestantism supports marriage. The biblical standard is that in marriage two become one flesh. Husband and wife are no longer individuals in the same way they were. Protestantism supports families as an organic social whole. Whatever one thinks of biblical ideas of male headship (about which I have written before), the Bible clearly understands that parents are responsible for children, and children are to honor their parents, in a relation unlike that of any mere individuals.

Kurth thinks the final, individualist, stage in the Protestant Deformation was not reached until the 1970s. In foreign policy, this led to universal human rights. This idea has something to recommend it, but it also contributes to the breakup of traditional cultures around the world, which has led to much resentment of U.S. cultural imperialism. In domestic policy, individualism led to no-fault divorce and on-demand abortion. These ideas have a little something to recommend them, but they have also contributed to a marked breakup of traditional families, which has led to a culture war in politics.

The Protestant Deformation takes the Protestant Reformation to its logical extreme. But along the way it lost much of the spiritual substance that restrained unbridled individualism and the imperial self, the faith that kept individualism from going too far.


SPorcupine said...

Kurth's article is generally wonderful, but I think he overstates the Protestant rejection of community. His presentation is partly true for Calvinists, and not quite right even there. It's clearly less true for Quaker and Anabaptist traditions that put specific value on the worshipping community, and it's also less true for the self-understandings of Lutherans and Episcopalians.

Kurth might well say he was describing an ideal type and its long-term cultural implications.

With respect and affection, I'd disagree and doubly disagree on family. In the healthy Protestant understanding, families have substantive value. Any tradition built on the full Biblical tradition would have to value families deeply, even while seeing a tension between family and the most sacrificial forms of discipleship. The same goes for the community known as "church."

Kurth might respond in turn that the Protestant view is incoherent, because its deepest ideas are so individualistic: the family part cannot be made part of a fully coherent philosophy.

Perhaps. One might have to choose between following a Biblical pattern one can't fully articulate and articulating a philosophical construct one can't fully reconcile with Scripture. But if that's the choice, the vibrant original Protestant tradition was the one that held family dearer than intellect. Luther and Calvin and Wesley and Menno and Fox and the whole gang.

The tradition was right. It built the world we know. And when its great grandchildren twisted it into radical individualism, they took a major wrong turn.

Gruntled said...

I agree that depicting Protestantism as anti-community is a bit strong. Moreover, as Tocqueville noted, even in the secularizing forms of 19th century America, our individualism resulted in a rich flowering of voluntary associations. This creates the seeming paradox of community generated out of individualism. Whether Tocquevillian community-friendly individualism is still the norm is what is at issue in the debate over Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone.

As to the family-friendliness of full-blown Protestantism, I say amen.

Anonymous said...

The professor draws too wide a net, trying to fit in the trends he mentions under the rubric of the Reformation. Much of what he mentions can be traced to socialism, and from there to the ideas making up the French Revolution, and from there to the Enlightenment, and so on, and so on. In some ways they all have some sort of link with the Reformation, but the net is cast so widely, you can "link" a lot of other things. Using the same catch-all method, rather than the Reformation, one could say some elements derived from an extension of ancient Greek thought and practice, or the Pax Romana,or Catholicism. The key question becomes, where do you draw the line of contributing causes? Kurtz's borders at the Reformation and foreign policy are not wholly convincing.

Fingering a supposed "Protestant Deformation" sounds vaguely like the old spectre of a "theocracy" being inagurated by the "evil" Bush, something sure to warm liberal hearts, but attributing all the elements Kurtz mentions to the Reformation as an explanation of foreign policy is too broad-brush a treatment. An alternative case can be made for a Pax Romana style treatment of US foreign policy for example, using the same overly broad methods.

Gruntled said...

Kurth actually begins with the theocracy issue that you mention, but rejects it. His complaint is not the the Bush administration is too Christian, but that it is not Christian enough. Indeed, that was why he made the same critique of the Clinton administration.

As to his casting a wide net, yes, one could also look to Catholic Rome, or Pagan Rome, or blame Plato. I am inclined to consider the Enlightenment the great break with Christian civilization. Still, Kurth makes a good case that a great change in Western social thought began with the Reformation. He roots this change in a theological objection to hierarchy, tradition, custom, and (somewhat less convincingly, I think) community that Protestantism wrought. These elements break with Roman thought of both kinds, and does lead to Enlightenment and actually secular thought.

Anonymous said...

The situation appears to me to be a great deal more complicated than a simple declension from a pure Protestant beginning, although Kurth's argument does seem to be a Protestant-style argument (e.g. there was an original pure primitive protestantism like there was an original pure primitive church which decayed over the years as irrelevant, harmful and heretical ideas irrevocably tainted that primitive purity.) For example, the differences between Lutheran, Anglican, and Calvinist/Reformed theology and the political conclusions that various thinkers have drawn from those differences undermine the generalizations about a univocal protestant position on hierarchy, tradition, the individual and the community.

After all, the Anglican Church has no real beef with hierarchy or tradition, and yet the English are one of the primary sources of American individualism and capitalism.

I would agree with Kurth that the American universalism which he derides is a kind of ersatz secular form of Christianity. I heard that some students of Eric Voegelin once had t-shirts made with 'Thou shalt not immanentize the eschaton' written on them.

At the same time, however, Michael Oakeshott once wrote that 'there is scarcely anything in the mythology and the anthropology of Marxism which does not have its counterpart in the writings of the seventeenth-century puritan sectaries.' Insofar as this is an adequate statement of the secularization of some forms of protestantism, it suggests that some early (pure?) forms of protestant political ideology, notably Calvin's little experiment in Geneva, cannot be said to lead logically to individualism and a universalist conception of rights, but instead to collectivism of a rather extreme sort.

Gruntled said...

I have always thought it difficult to know what sort of state theory to draw from Calvin's Geneva. Everyone was obliged to accept the covenant, or leave town. The city-sect could, therefore, have an integrated, though separate, church and state governance in a form impossible in any of the larger Calvinist experiments. So was Geneva individualist or collective? I think it began as the latter, though not exactly because that was Calvinism's theological requirement, but cooled into the former.

Anonymous said...

The government in Geneva was certainly more complex than I suggested in my brief post. I was merely pointing out that protestantism does not necessarily lead to liberal democracy.

I was also struck by an ambiguity in the original article (I don't have access to the new one). I am unsure if Kurth is claiming that protestantism leads logically to this deracinated universalism that he derides or if this is a perversion of the original protestant faith. Alisdair MacIntyre, among others, has made a similar argument and has had a profound influence on a group of theologians (both Anglo-Catholic and Roman Catholic) who claim that liberalism and Christianity are inherently incompatible.

However well MacIntyre et al.'s argument works at the theoretical level, it is clear that, in the US at least, the 'low' protestant denominations in the Southern states have been much more successful at retaining both a commitment to orthodox protestantism and to a traditional vision of family and community life. See historians like Grady McWhiney and sociologists like our old friend John Reed for support of this claim.

Gruntled said...

I don't think Kurth is arguing that declension is ever necessary. He is saying, though, that the form of the declension that American culture takes falls within the structure set by its original Protestantism. Even if other societies developed a form of secularity, it would not be the same as our "Protestant secularity." He is countering the belief that our secular, universal human rights creed is culturally neutral, or is any less culturally imperialist than it would be for us to impose straight-up Calvinism on the rest of the world.