Friday, March 4, 2011

Protestant Nation

Riffing off of something Withywindle wrote:
This whole 1950s idealization relates to marriage, and I recollect that Puritan New England had one of the highest rates of marriage recorded for any society, anywhere--a figure somewhere above 95% comes to mind, possibly close to 99%. It's possible that the idealization of marriage in America is, among other things, an inheritance from the Puritan past.

Despite saying he'd blog about new things, FLG has decided to take this opportunity to repeat his assertion that the United States is not a Christian nation, but specifically a Protestant nation. By which he means that the assumptions of Protestant Christianity run deep in our culture, society, and laws.

FLG repeats himself, but Luther needed to find a new structure around which he could organize his new church. He was suspicious of the central authority of the Roman hierarchy, and instead choose to decentralize and base the church on the smallest unit of organization -- the family. This idea, the idea that we should base our policies around families, as opposed to something like the Estates-General, is deeply rooted in many of the Anglo-Saxon nations, but especially in the United States, where our particular history, particularly the self-selection of people who would cross an ocean and risk it all, including and especially the Puritans, further emphasized the idea that a well-ordered society is based upon the family.


Hilarius Bookbinder said...

Maybe? It's certainly true that Luther (and the Reformers in general) did most of the work in the early modern period to raise the value of marriage by making it public and a legal, not just spiritual, act.

I'm not sure what organizing policy around families as opposed to Estates-General is supposed to mean: the Netherlands ran its policy through an Estates-General in the 17th century, and English and Dutch Reformed Christians had a lot of contact in that period. Luther, however much he cared about family, spent a good deal of his time attempting to win over German princes, and wisely so. Calvin's Geneva attempted to run things through the Consistory, and explicitly not the family, at least at first.

Withywindle said...

I would rephrase FLG's point this way: the Protestant Reformers built upon pre-existing ideas and institutions of patriarchal/familial authority, especially late-medieval-Catholic, and magnified their import by successively stripping alternate ideas and institutions of authority. Luther, Calvin, et al get rid of the universal church, the Pope, the priesthood, and replace it with a state/city church and ministerial corps, where patriarchal authority plays a greater role both in governing the famil itself and in governing the church and state. Of the variants developed from this, English Congregationalism, and its New England offspring, most radically emphasize the importance of the patriarch/family, because they strip almost all remaining power from the central state and the collective ministerial bodies--to the extent that the members of an individual church have the right (not always exercised, and usually with deferential consultation with political and religious authorities) to choose and fire their own minister. In this tradition, the family (and ultimately the individual) cease to be the state or church writ small; rather, the state and church become the family write large; and the family becomes the central organizing metaphor of culture, and even to a remarkable extent in the reality of politics and society. This draws generally from a Protestant tradition, more specifically from a Reformed (Calvinist) tradition, but in full flower is Congregational. America isn't precisely Congregationalism writ large, but Congregational assumptions certainly loom larger in America than in any other country, and were loosely hegemonic in America at least for a generation or two after the Civil War (when the Southern models were in sharp eclipse.) (Although this is also after the point that Congregational familialism had taken a radical individualist and democratic turn.) So FLG should say: "By religion I mean Christianity, by Christianity I mean Protestantism, by Protestantism I mean the Congregational Church of America as established by custom."

Hilarius Bookbinder said...

In fairness, I should admit that my detailed knowledge of the state of European religiosity peters about around 1648--it runs a little later for the Dutch and the English, but by 1700 I have only general background knowledge.

So if the claim is that the development of the patriarchal model reaches its zenith in American Congregational churches, I wouldn't really know enough to dispute that. (Though I would perhaps offer some resistance to saying it is derived from Reformed thought in any but an accidental historical way: consistorial church government is not congregationalism; if you've been in a church run by elders in dialogue with a synod or classis and one run by the congregation--they're different beasts)

In the context of the 1950s debate, American congregationalism, as you describe it, appears to be a far outlier, even within Reformed Protestant tradition. It may be the case that congregationalism provides a better and more useful baseline for present-day American attitudes on marriage, but it does appear to be historically unique in that sense.

Robbo said...

There's an article over at First Things today related somewhat to this which may interest you:

Withywindle said...

Robbo: Thank you for the link!

Hilarius: "I would perhaps offer some resistance to saying it is derived from Reformed thought in any but an accidental historical way" -- I might accept contingent historical, but accidental seems a bit strong. I was just glancing a few months ago at Thomas Hooker's immense tomes, produced in the 1640s, as part of the immense debate between the Presbyterians and the Congregationalists as to which was the better exponent of Reformed theology. I don't think the Congregationalists would have gotten much real-world traction, absent the English Civil War and the peculiar circumstances of New England settlement; but they had a large intellectual cadre making plausible arguments that they were proper Reformed Christians. And I would add that while Congregational and Presbyterian ecclesiastical structure look very different from one another from the inside, a Lutheran or a Catholic (or a Greek Orthodox or a Copt or a Muslim) might be more struck by their similarities than by their differences.

For the concentric circles of influence: I gather that American Presbyterians ca. 1750-1850 were in closer dialogue with Congregationalists than with any other denomination--since they were so close to one another. It would be interesting to see what the Presbyterians were saying about family structure and authority in that century, and whether it was being radicalized/Americanized in a way they perceived of as Congregationalized.

I do think Congregationalism, and its cultural after-effects, is unique in important ways--but I don't think it could have had such effect on America writ large if it weren't fairly close to all those Presbyterians, Anglicans/Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, Quakers, etc., who were Congregationalized.

Hilarius Bookbinder said...

In case I was unclear, I'm not trying to argue that American Congregationalism isn't a proper part of Reformed Christianity. I do think it (and perhaps also English Congregationalism) does depart in significant ways from earlier forms of Reformed thought. New England isn't functioning on the model of Zurich, or Geneva, or most of the Netherlands (it might wrt Scotland, but I'm not sure this expands the historical or physical footprint of this model all that much).

In a lot of ways, you're probably right that this makes no real difference to how one should regard questions of intellectual kinship. But in a number of areas, the change is really striking: the motive theory of sovereignty is more Knox's than Calvin's, and the average congregationalist holds views on resistance that are almost the complete opposite of Calvin.

I also wonder whether the really motive force here isn't anabaptism.

Withywindle said...

From what I know of Congregationalists in the 1640s and 1650s, they would have had a fit if you called them "anabaptists." And then written several weighty tomes disproving the accusation. Think carefully, friend, before thou enterest this road; and fear that thou shalt be pressed to death by replies in three volumes.

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