Protestantism After Christendom

In the introduction to their best-selling book, Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon identified the end of Christendom in America. It happened on a Sunday evening in the summer of 1963 when a movie theater in Greenville, South Carolina opened its doors for business, liberating consumers from the tyranny of Bible-belt blue laws. Ever since that day, American Christians have had to adjust to the challenge of living in a time and place where Christianity was no longer the culturally-dominant religious influence.

Of course the authors were being characteristically provocative, and many other observers believe that Christendom in America is not dead yet. World magazine still claims to find a pulse. In a recent issue, editor Marvin Olasky suggests that, despite the anti-Christian bias of the secular media, claims about the decline of Christian influence in America are overstated. He finds counterevidence in polling data that reveal evangelical Christianity is still a robust and popular worldview and perhaps even on the dawn of a new awakening. This evidence, however, conflates the genuine growth and maturity of the church with indicators that conservative Christian values still predominate in American public life, and it views the role of the church as largely pragmatic: the church is an instrument for the transformation of culture.

What should not be missed in either laments about the decline of Christian America or diagnosticians who still detect its vigorous pulse is that hopes for a Christian America are directly related to Protestant perceptions of Roman Catholicism. Prior to the 1960s, Protestant efforts to Christianize America were explicitly anti-Roman Catholic. For those older Protestants, Roman Catholicism stood for a backward form of Christianity that was impossible to harmonize with the political and economic freedoms embodied in the United States. Since the 1960s, evangelical Protestants have reversed course on Roman Catholicism and now regard communicants of Rome as generally reliable allies in the effort to preserve a Christian America. Ironically then, both the older anti-Catholicism and current friendliness with Roman Catholicism are products of a common impulse: the desire to preserve Christendom.



The notion of “Christian America” is of longstanding tenure. When George Washington left office in 1796, he warned the young nation that it could not sustain national morality “in exclusion of religious principle.” Similarly, Dwight D. Eisenhower, a half century ago, declared that American government “makes no sense unless it is founded on a deeply felt religious principle–and I don’t care what it is.” We have come to expect such pronouncements from our commanders-in-chief, even if they come from two such sources of dubious orthodoxy.

For nearly two centuries in America, “Protestantism” was short for the “Protestant Establishment.” The American way of life was religious, and its faith was Protestant. It may have been generic, but it was still specifically not Roman Catholic and therefore positively Protestant. If this language has yielded to a broader notion of “Judeo-Christian values,” it is still characterized by a concern to preserve a form of Christian America. Christianity supplied the building blocks for the west. It must continue to sustain that function. If morally conservative Roman Catholics want to join us, then let us lay aside the animosities of the past and collaborate. Both sides now fight secularism with “faith-based” politics.

To many conservative Protestants the thought of abandoning hopes for a Christian transformation of culture is at best to lower the aim of one’s faith; at worst it is a gnostic abandonment of the created order. So important is the preservation of a Christian civilization in America (however vaguely defined) that theological differences are now relegated to what the late Robert Webber described as “second-order matters” that were far from the heart of Christian spirituality. Peter Kreeft unwittingly takes this argument to its logical conclusion in his book, Ecumenical Jihad. There he imagines not only Evangelicals and Catholics together, but a coalition of religionists that include Eastern Orthodox and even Muslims.

But if we look more carefully at the Reformation and the historic teaching of Protestantism, we actually see that the opposite is the case: to abandon hopes for a Christian America is to stop confounding America (or any one nation) with the kingdom of God. The Reformers recognized that Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. If that is the case, the real lowering of the church’s aim may come not from those who abandon but from those who hold on to and pine for the ideal of Christendom. “Family values” and “faith-based politics” hardly pass for historic Christian orthodoxy. To be sure, Roman Catholics have much to teach Protestants and non-Christians about a wide variety of ethical and social questions. But those are the same Roman Catholics who continue to insist that Protestants have nothing to teach Rome about justification, the imputed righteousness of Christ, the proper observance of the Lord’s Supper, or the biblical pattern of church government. Christianizing America is one thing; cursing false teaching is another.

The Death of the Protestant Mainline

Of course, the ecclesiastical landscape has altered radically in the past half century with the staggering decline of mainline Protestantism and evangelicalism as its replacement. Healthy and self-conscious denominations in America—Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Baptist, or Methodist—seem like ancient memories. In 1958, President Eisenhower laid the cornerstone in the “God-box”—the National Council of Church’s new headquarters on Riverside Drive in Manhattan; that building is now a ghost town, with denominations fleeing New York for smaller and cheaper real estate. Mainline Presbyterians left for Louisville; Congregationalists left for Cleveland.

Compared to constituting relatively half the American population a half-century ago, today mainline Protestants comprise about eight percent, according to some estimates. Even worse is the graying of that remnant—the average age of a mainline Protestant is over fifty years old. The practices of Protestant piety are disappearing even from these numbers: less than half of them pray and read the Bible daily. A Roman Catholic observer once remarked that he expects his grandchildren to ask him, “What’s a Methodist?,” as if that term were a curiosity from the American past, like the John Birch Society, the Free Masons, or the Grand Army of the Republic.

However, the death of the mainline is not the death of Protestantism. In Christianity and Liberalism J. Gresham Machen distinguished historic Protestantism from neo-Protestantism (read: liberalism). Protestant modernism was not the inevitable result of Protestant faith and practice; rather it represented the accommodation of faith to the demands of the age. It was, in fact, an effort to adapt Christianity to the American way of life and so preserve the church’s authority and moral influence. Often forgotten was liberal Protestantism’s laudable effort to defend Christianity and make it relevant to life in the modern world. It was not a rejection of orthodoxy for rebellion’s sake. Liberals sincerely believed that they were being true to the core of Christian truth and that conservatives were needlessly holding on to extraneous doctrines and practices.

The irony is that much of the faith and practice that goes today by the name evangelical is following the trail blazed by Protestant modernists. Growing admiration for Roman Catholicism is arguably the most glaring sign of this trend. Of course, the doctrines of the Trinity and the deity of Christ are closer to Christian orthodoxy than the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. But the doctrine of salvation, faithful worship, and a rightly ordered church are not exactly insignificant to Christian witness. Consequently, by neglecting those parts of the Reformation that would prevent Protestants from wondering if the Reformation is over, evangelicals dangerously approach ground already trod by liberal Protestants. From this perspective, “Evangelicals and Catholics Together” looks less like an ecumenical breakthrough than a desperate effort to preserve Christendom.

In contrast to either a “search for Christian America” or the rebirth of Christendom was an understanding of the true nature of the kingdom of God and its advance toward the new heavens and new earth. Machen articulated well the contrast between efforts to locate the realities of the gospel in this world and the hope for a world to come through the ministry of word and sacrament. He also recognized how liberating the Christian ministry was from this otherworldly perspective. As he said to the 1931 graduates of Westminster Seminary:

Remember, this at least—the things in which the world is now interested are the things that are seen; but the things that are seen are temporal and the things that are not seen are eternal. You, as ministers of Christ, are called to deal with the unseen things. You are stewards of the mysteries of God. You alone can lead men, by the proclamation of God’s Word, out of the crash and jazz and noise and rattle and smoke of this weary age into the green pastures and beside the still waters; you alone, as ministers of reconciliation, can give what the world with all its boasting and pride can never give—the infinite sweetness of the communion of the redeemed soul with the living God.

Protestants, Roman Catholics and Liberty

As much as the older American Protestant opposition to Rome was defective, it was nevertheless correct in identifying the chief issue with Roman Catholic teaching as liberty. The problem was (and still is) that American Protestants took their conception of liberty from the United States’ political theory rather than the Reformation and the Bible. From the angle of American government, the pope and the Vatican did appear to signify something foreign to the United States’ founding principles. Rome seemed to stand for authoritarianism, dogmatism, and superstition compared to American ideals of individual liberty, freedom of thought, and pragmatism. But now that Roman Catholics in America are as much a part of efforts to defend national ideals and political institutions as evangelicals are, Rome presents a different riddle from the one that mainline Protestants tried to solve just after World War II. Then the dilemma was what to do with a church that was out of synch with American rhythms. Now it is what to do with a seemingly different church that agrees so much with Protestants morality and a healthy society.

Missing from this assessment of changing Protestant and Roman Catholic relations is the bigger riddle of Christian, as opposed to political, liberty. What is the nature of liberty according to Reformed teaching? According to the Westminster Confession, one of the rare Reformed creeds to devote an entire chapter to the subject:

The liberty which Christ hath purchased for believers under the gospel consists in their freedom from the guilt of sin, the condemning wrath of God, the curse of the moral law; and, in their being delivered from this present evil world, bondage to Satan, and dominion of sin; from the evil of afflictions, the sting of death, the victory of the grave, and everlasting damnation; as also, in their free access to God, and their yielding obedience unto him, not out of slavish fear, but a childlike love and willing mind. (WCF 20.1)

This kind of Christian liberty has nothing to do with civil rights, federalism, republicanism, or democracy. It is a thoroughly spiritual conception based on the idea being liberated from the estate of sin and misery and being delivered into an estate of salvation, where fellowship with God through Christ is the ultimate source of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In that case, opposition to Roman Catholicism still makes sense because Rome is still, as it was at the time of the Reformation, an obstacle to Christian liberty. By equivocating on the sufficiency of Christ to set us from the tyranny of the devil, by subjecting church members to unbiblical forms of worship and church government, Roman Catholicism usurps the lordship of Christ and establishes a rival authority that leads to bondage and fear. As such, Rome is still hostile to freedom, the Christian as opposed to the American kind. The question is not whether Roman Catholic teachings and practices somehow reinforce American conceptions of liberty and equality. Instead, the issue is whether Rome’s ministry is consistent with the freedom available through the gospel of Christ.

Before Protestants began to conflate political and spiritual ideals of liberty, they used to recognize Rome as a form of spiritual tyranny, a heavier burden than Christ’s light yoke. The only way that Protestants will continue to protest against Rome—and the only legitimate form of protest against Roman Catholicism—is if they maintain and defend the spiritual liberty purchased by Christ in his death and resurrection. Without this proper understanding of Christian liberty, anti-Catholicism will look like just one more form of unwholesome bigotry. But with it, the Reformation will look like a cause worth defending. And Protestantism will appear a necessary response to any effort, by Rome or any other Christian ministry, to usurp the mediatorial rule of Christ as the only redeemer of God’s elect.

Dr. D.G. Hart and Mr. John R. Muether are coauthors of several books, most recently Seeking a Better Country: 300 Years of American Protestantism (P&R 2007). Both are ruling elders in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church.