The Vanishing American Protestant (or: There I Stood…)

Everybody suddenly seems to be worried, or at least startled, to discover that, if Obama gets his way, the Supreme Court will become utterly devoid of Protestants. Six Catholics, three Jews. One commenter has even, half-seriously, suggested that we should expand the size of the Court to accommodate more representatives of the religious diversity of America. (Nothing in the Constitution would prevent it. The Court hasn’t always been nine people. But I digress.)

A few years back, NORC claimed to have discovered that Protestantism was disappearing in the US. They based this concern on the fact that some rather large proportion of poll respondents, when asked for their religious affiliation, didn’t say “Protestant.” (Most of them called themselves “Christian.”) I could have scared them even worse by referring them to one of my students (a card-carrying Baptist, BTW) who once asked me “What’s a Protestant?” In short, the phenomenon that scared NORC wasn’t the disappearance of American Protestants, but a huge uptick in their ignorance of church history, including the whole idea of Protestantism itself. Which shouldn’t distress anybody all that much—it merely parallels the uptick in historical ignorance, and ignorance generally. Nobody worries about people like another of my students, an otherwise well-educated Caucasian woman who knew that the US had been involved in some kind of war in the 1940s, but didn’t know who was on the other side, or who won.

Diana Butler Bass ( laments the loss of “Protestant sensibilities.” She’s right, of course, but she’s also being insufficiently specific. The next “Protestant” on the court will probably be a member of A.M.E. Zion or some other African-American-connected church that doesn’t exactly echo the Protestant sensibilities Bass misses. What has really gone missing from much of our culture is the Reformation. Doctor King (speaking of African-American churches) started life as Michael. He didn’t really discover the Reformation until a family trip to Germany turned him on to Martin Luther and “Here I stand…” Obviously it made a major impression on him, but he may be the last of the great American Protestant thinkers. Most of the African-American churches draw on the tradition of the Exodus, not that of the Reformation. And most of the non-Black Protestant churches, if they think of themselves that way at all, define Protestant merely as “Christian but not Catholic or Orthodox”—what doctors call a diagnosis of exclusion. “We’re Protestant because we don’t venerate Mary and the saints and we don’t chant at our services…”

To the extent that “Protestantism” is disappearing from the US, it is doing so in a cultural rather than a demographic sense. And, yes, in an institution like the Supreme Court, that matters. But if it took us this long to notice, it will take us a lot longer to revive American understanding of our collective religious history, assuming we are really motivated to do it at all. Assuming, that is, that we can still conceive of Protestantism (and, for that matter, Judaism, Catholicism, and Islam) as a theological and cultural world-view, rather than merely a demographic and political marker.

Jane Grey

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