In the introduction to his very comprehensive but unoriginal study of the intellectual history surrounding the Protestant Reformation,”Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind”, Michael Massing, the author, wants to show that the debate between these two towering figures is still relevant. He does so by saying that American Evangelicalism, what with its insistence on piety and the examination of the personal consciousness and its reliance on group sentiments, is a descendant of Luther rather than Calvin. While this may be no more than a rediscovery of what Troeltsch said some hundred years ago when he distinguished sects, in which all people were equal in their faith and distrustful of outsiders, from churches, which create big tents so that people of very disparate levels of faith can claim to be believers, it also points out a valid observation of American religion, which is that conformity to a creed which will not brook objection is the basis of a community rather than what follows from community, and that community sets itself up against the enclosing and hostile world so as to fight for its distinctiveness, whatever that might be and whatever that might come to encompass, such as deviant political views or racial prejudice. I want to go a bit more deeply into the way Lutheranism is a key to American religion by pointing to two strands of it that emerge from considering a basic paradox in Luther’s theology.
Luther uses the very peculiar phrase “justification by faith” to point to his differences with Catholicism. The phrase is peculiar because we do not ordinarily think of the word “justification”, which means making legitimate, as what is created by faith. Rather, we think that faith confers insights about the nature of reality, or else is an emotional state of being, or else is salvation itself. What Luther means, instead, is that people become justified in that they become worthy of recognition, fully established as human, when they engage in their faith, which is not an action of faith but is rather a consciousness transformed. They are then free to engage in either one of two paths. The first is to feel liberated from their sins, to no longer feel overwhelmed by their sinfulness, as that might hamper their living in this world, and that is certainly a meaning that was most relevant to Luther’s own biography, plagued as he was by self doubt and even self-loathing. The consequence of being relieved of a sense of one’s own sinfulness is that an individual is free to pursue meaningful and productive activities, confident that doing so is now part of God’s plan. That can lead to the entrepreneurship that is part of the spirit of capitalism that Max Weber thought was encouraged by the Protestant Ethic, even if Weber relied on Calvinists and even on that notable secularist, Benjamin Franklin, as the sources of his quotes about the doctrine.
But there is another side to justification by faith. It can also lead to a quietism, an appreciation of the stillness that resides inside the hearts of anyone who has been saved, secure in their knowledge that they are among the saved, and so going about their lives with a kind of serenity, oblivious to whether or not they are successful in their lives. That is the quietism that Americans associate with the Amish, who are hard working and moral folk, but not much concerned with making much of a mark on this world, in that they are just passing through. People who are transformed or born into this view of life will be more concerned about keeping themselves from the temptations of the secular world that surrounds them than in changing or rising up in that secular world. They are always on the defensive. In fact, it can lead to a religion inspired passivity which obligates a person to accept their destitute position in this life as simply what they have been ordained to suffer rather than something to protest and much of the experience of the Black Church in the South was directed at a heavenly reward rather than earthly reformation. Martin Luther King, Jr. was remarkable in his ability to mobilize black churches into militant organizations rather than the passive organizations that they had been for so many generations before, the Black churches trying to placate the white power structure rather than challenge it..
It should be added that a passive Protestantism can also inhibit the economic entrepreneurialism that Max Weber identified as having been spurred on by Protestantism. People who spend their time receiving solace from their miseries in churches which foster acceptance of their lot in exchange for calm and peace in their souls are not likely to have the drive that will lead them to vanquish the odds that keep them from material prosperity. So passive Protestantism provides the functional equivalent to the Catholic fatalism that leads Hispanics to think that good luck and providence leads miners to find rich lodes of silver ore, while San Francisco merchants knew that wealth came from selling eggs at a dollar an egg to miners returning from the gold fields. Entrepreneurship beats out luck most of the time.
Which brings us to the present political situation. Commentators have tried to explain the surprising Trump victory in 2016 as a result of the declining economic fortunes of those who supported him when, in fact, the economy was improving for everyone and those who supported him in the South were often people whose parents and then themselves had risen one or more rungs on the social ladder. Lately, the explanation for Trump’s victory is attributed to the latent racist feelings among Southerners but that does not explain the two time Obama voters who switched to Trump. You need something more inclusive to explain all the varieties of Trump supporters. The idea of a passive and fatalistic Protestantism goes a long way to doing so.
Evangelicals are a closed community dedicated to the idea that the individual serenity of each of their members is due to an acceptance of Jesus as their Savior, and this is usually accompanied by a literalistic interpretation of the Bible and a preference for the social values with regard to marriage and race that prevailed before the Civil Rights Movement. They see those values attacked by the East and West Coast elites who regard them with contempt for being tied to their old allegiances, and they are probably right about that. In order to safeguard their way of life, which, as I said, is not so much an economic or racial matter as it is a social and cultural one, they have to traffic with the Devil, which means those forces which will work with them whether or not those forces share their values. So they hold their noses about Donald Trump’s personal life and the fact that he was a lifelong New York real estate developer, so long as he gives them what they want in terms of Supreme Court appointments and support for them on social issues such as immigration, which is what people from states with few immigrants care about. As Sarah Huckabee Sanders said, herself the daughter of a religious-political figure, Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, who shares her Evangelical views, you have to engage with the profane world so as to protect yourself from it and so look aside from the ways it is not to be spiritually trusted. And so she became the press secretary for Donald Trump. And she was right in that the next few years will see serious setbacks for abortion rights and for gay rights in that personal religious objections will be a sufficient basis for denying to gay applicants commercial services offered to the general public.
A pessimistic interpretation of what is going on in America’s social structure is supplied by Paul Krugman who uses the decision of Amazon to build its new office complexes in New York City and on the outskirts of washington, D. C. as evidence that good jobs will grow in the parts of the country that already are rich in an educated labor force and other amenities while the areas of the country remote from those will continue to deteriorate economically. What that means is that an Evangelical nation will form in the interior of the nation that has nothing to do with and is hostile to the more progressive and more wealthy regions of the nation. The United States will become more and more like Britain: London and its now extended suburbs that are an hour or more away from London, which are internationalist and prosperous and opposed Brexit and, on the other hand, the England that is farther afield and which supported Brexit. Is the United States also to become two nations, one land bounded, the other coastal?
A more optimistic interpretation is that we are in the midst of what is just a transitional moment, just as all other moments are also transitional. Within a generation, Evangelicals will get more middle class jobs. The children of coal miners in West Virginia will become health providers of one sort or another because Federally funded health care is one of the fastest growing sectors of the West Virginia economy. Middle class jobs lead to the adoption of middle class ways, which means more exposure to mainstream news and education and a more respectable form of life that does not need religion as a way to justify itself. The South and the Midwest will become more like the coasts rather than less like them. The Democratic surge in the recent elections is not just the result of minority voters but because people respond to their economic interests, this time as members of the middle class rather than, as was the case in the Thirties, as members of the working class.
There is an even more optimistic interpretation that is cultural rather than structural or economic for why the Evangelicals will come to their senses and so desert Trumpism in the long run whatever happens to Trump himself in the next few years. That is the legacy of both Erasmus and Luther, both of whom were pioneers in establishing the traditions of individualism that still prevail in the modern world, that, indeed, give the entire modern world its character, and which are not likely to disappear anytime soon, a cultural movement of such import not easily displaced, as was also true when Christianity took central stage during the first few centuries of the current calendar. Erasmus and Luther did not simply say that the fight for the soul of every separate person was the battleground on which Christianity made its mark. That doctrine had been established in the early days of the Church and it led to a preeminence for every person and a sense of the equality of personhood that is the lasting contribution of Christianity, to which Hegel, among others, called attention. Rather, what Erasmus and Luther emphasized was how each individual person found their own particular way to God and that there was no getting around that through Church rituals. For Erasmus, everyone became a fool for God in his own particular way, whether by being devout or learned or moral or in some other way finding a way to get around the problem of how to relate to what was invisible but ever present. For Luther, it was every person struggling with their own sins and limitations so as to learn how to be free in their own way within Christ. Church is not merely a burden for both thinkers; it is also irrelevant, in that the personhood has its own reasons, its own highways out of doubt and into clarity. That understanding has not been lost, is stable, and the Evangelicals will be absorbed into it rather than survive too long outside of it.