Does Evangelical Protestantism Have the Firepower To Face SSM in the USA?

My first response to this question is “maybe not.”

The USA was born with a Protestant soul. No need to spill ink to prove the reality that religion was the dominant instinct of early colonists. We can rehearse the treatment of the First Nations, the economic motive, the introduction of African slavery early in the American experience, etc. These topics have received huge (and increasing?) attention. But no one rightly interprets American history who chooses to leave out or diminish the Puritans, Separatist Pilgrims, and the Great Awakenings that in tidal ways engulfed both the Eastern seaboard and the frontier. The PBS series “God In America” elaborately develops the thesis that the American experience was at root a conversation with God and the belief that in America God had planted a chosen people. It was to religion that the American people returned to settle its internal disorder and to seek national renewal, reaching its most recent peak in the evangelistic crusades of Billy Graham in which America reached its highest church attendance ever, 47%. (This at the same time when Spain’s church attendance is less than 1%, France less than 2% and England less than 6%).

Even with this genetic code, no one is confused about the increasing secularism and the rise of the “Nones” as our largest religious category, those who choose “none of the above” when it comes to religious affiliation. The Mainline Protestant denominations are virtually Sideline Protestants. They have not merely declined. They have fallen off the cliff. Their accommodation to culture has made them virtually indistinguishable from secular movements. The Evangelicals (loosely defined) rule the roost when it comes to church growth and vitality, particularly in its Pentecostal/Charismatic  and nondenominational megachurches manifestations.

Roman Catholicism continues to receive little press in this Protestant nation. Our early settlers had not forgotten the role of the RCs in the religious wars of the European continent and in Britain. Fox’s “Book of Martyrs” kept alive the persecution of Protestants in the most stunning and horrible of detail. To this day in the South a good many homes will have a King James version of the Bible and Fox’s “Book of Martyrs” even if there are no other books in the house. Mine did. The birthing of the Bible in the vernacular of the people is an essential Protestant feature, as well as the education required to be able to read it. The suspicion cast upon the laity’s direct access to the Bible apart from the ministrations of the church by the RCs, not really addressed pointedly until Vatican II in the early 1960s, is a directly accessible thought in the frontal lobes of the Protestant mind. Even now RCs do not have pew Bibles, which abound in Protestant churches.

And yet… My suggestion is that what RCs bring to the table is the power of its culture, its envelopment in a worldwide movement, and its rich heritage in philosophical theology. While the numbers are not exact, there are over 70 million RCs in America, though less than 25% regularly attend Mass. This makes it the largest religious grouping in the US. The largest Protestant denomination is the Southern Baptists at 16 million, and there is much controversy about exactly what that number represents. The second largest denomination is the United Methodist at 12 million. From there the numbers drop off precipitously. Nondenominational churches are huge on the American landscape, as large as the United Methodists and perhaps even the Southern Baptists. Fifty-one percent of Americans identified as Protestant or other non-Catholic Christian in 2013.

Protestantism breaks up into such a variety of tribes with such porous boundaries that it is like trying to hold jello in your hand. It shakes, moves and easily slips away, taking the shape of wherever it might land at the time. This is its genius. This is its burden. It can change so quick and so often that it can suffer from inattention to systemic issues that underlie cultural development and itself become the culture. There have been many attempts to define it, most famously in David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. This is a study in and of itself. Perhaps the book Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism is sufficient to address the issues the movement faces in self-identifying.

But as it struggles with self-identification and boundary keeping its capacity to marshall resources for cultural transformation in light of mighty stream of secularization active in today’s culture is thin. It particularly lacks the intellectual clout to argue the great issues of today. It is not for no reason that today there is not one Protestant on the Supreme Court.

Into this chaos steps the Great Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, which surprisingly speaks for Protestantism on many of the moral issues the latter cares about –  abortion, euthanasia, marriage, etc. Protestants, even among the Evangelicals, range over such a wide expanse of views that they do not scour a deep intellectual channel, though they do bring vitality, energy, excitement and fireworks as Protestants can be depended upon to do.

Why do the RCs have the best chance for addressing our culture’s waywardness? Sheer size certainly gives it some sustainability. And the stability of its hierarchy and canon law can keep it from chasing rabbits and trends. But I think its great intellectual tradition rooted in Natural Law Theory provides it with the ideas and argumentation that meet the doubts and questions that a culture has and poses.

Natural Law Theory (NLT) arises most famously from the works of Aristotle and, for the RCs, repurposed in the thought of St. Thomas Aquinas. NLT is not essentially theistic, though its inclinations and trajectory lead most naturally there and many of its great proponents are theists. NLT posits that all knowledge begins with the data of human experience, what we in the Christian world would call General Revelation. It is human experience itself that reveals the Good, the True and the Beautiful when reflected upon by unaided human Reason. Much like the study of a biological specimen under the microscope and on the lab table will reveal its nature to the careful observer so that it can be categorized and known, so human experience shows what it means to be human and what causes human persons to flourish. All things that exist, exist for some end. Nothing just exists, a bare fact. Built into existences are purposes which demonstrate its nature, what it tends toward. And discrete observations of human beings will unwrap what it means to be human and what aids or contradicts its flourishing.

In other words, human beings have a determinate nature, like all other existences, but with the exception that they possess the faculty of reason through which they can not only understand their own nature but assert their will in shaping flourishing cultures for their own prosperity.

Special Revelation (the Bible) will reveal some of those things that Reason alone is not capable of knowing. But even here there is overlap. Some of those things taught in the Bible are available to Reason apart from the Bible, such as the Golden Rule and its specific applications in the second table of the Law in the Ten Commandments that have to do with the human person’s relationship to others, and to himself.

NLT has allowed the RCs to enter into argumentation, persuasively I believe, on moral issues without appeal to religious authority, allowing a common point of contact with others. While NLT does not compel one to do what Reason demonstrates to be True, Good and Beautiful, and while emotions and appetites can overwhelm Reason and muffle its discoveries, the fact remains that the image of God is sufficient in human persons to lead them to right discovery.

As you have already guessed, Protestants have historically been very suspicious of this project, for it seems right off the boat to contradict the teaching of the Book of Romans that people use their intellect to suppress the things of God and that in their own nature moral depravity is a black hole that allows no Light to escape. Protestants believe that the preaching of the Bible is alone able to release the captive from his chains and through Regeneration to possess a new nature which clings to the True, the Good and the Beautiful. Therefore, Protestants are very comfortable entering into moral dialogue with its host culture with the words, “the Bible says.” To those who respond that they do not believe the Bible, the Protestant merely says Repent, believing the Holy Spirit can and will awaken the unbeliever to new light.

As you might imagine, this does not work in the Supreme Court. Read the SSM case, both the majority and minority opinions, as well as the three other dissenting opinions. One simply cannot walk into a court and pound the Bible. Our social contract demands argumentation and Reason. While religious authority can be data for building a case, religious authority, as authority per se, cannot make the case. It must be made in a manner that is accessible to all members of the court and of the people.

I think it is just here that Protestants are blindsided, both by their culture as well as by their training. I am not aware of a Protestant seminary, though I might be wrong on this, that equips its clergy in NLT. This cannot be the main task, for sure, for it is preaching the Word of God that is central to conversion. Yet NLT enables the church to argue the great issues of the day with its host culture having a seat at the table, as a democracy would demand. And, we DO live in a democracy as citizens who have a social contract. We as citizens are not parasitic on the culture, deriving its benefits while at the same time accusing it of being wicked and refusing our participation on a level playing field. Our social contract requires a level playing field when it comes to legislation and political leadership. And I believe that NLT is one of the great treasures that unlock new possibilities to do just this.

Maybe it will be the RCs who point the way.

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