Much has been said about the present position of American Protestantism. Widely-circulated magazines are now dealing with this subject. “Can Protestantism Hold Its Own in Modern America?” is the subject of an elaborate article by Russell Kirk in the February issue of Fortune. The March Look magazine carried an article by Ralph W. Sockman under the title “Can City Churches Survive?” The New York Times for April 16 carried a six-column study by John Wicklein concerning the lag in the procurement of clergy for the three major faiths in the United States. Last year Martin E. Marty in The New Shape of American Religion called our age “A Post-Protestant Era.”
The editor of the Jesuit weekly America, Father Thurston Davis, says that American Catholicism is not prepared to assume the duty of furnishing religious and moral guidance to the whole nation on short notice; and if the Protestant churches cease to influence the mass of Americans, the alternative may be a sub-paganism. “Today we certainly are not a Catholic country,” said Father Davis, “nor are we on the way to becoming one. But we have virtually ceased to be Protestant.” Church Management in its leading editorial for April, “Protestant Churches Must Face Facts,” declared that “Fact No. 1 is that this nation of ours will never again be known as a Protestant nation. The national election of last November decided that.”
SOME SIGNIFICANT CRITERIA
These articles appear at a time when Protestantism seems to be flourishing. The majority of Americans are Christians and among the Christians in America Protestants are the more numerous. Sixty-three million Americans belong to Protestant churches ranging in types all the way from the Society of Friends to high-church Episcopalians. That is, 35 per cent of all Americans belong to Protestant churches, and the membership of most Protestant churches includes only those persons who have been confirmed as members of the church or persons generally over 14 years of age. By contrast, at the beginning of our national history only five per cent of the people claimed membership in any church, although the Protestant way of life may have been more pervasive in the colonial society than it is today. A hundred years ago only 15 per cent of the total population belonged to any church. Thus judged by membership, Protestantism today appears strong.
Protestants still outnumber Roman Catholics. Catholics represent 23 per cent of the population or a total of 41 million, and Roman Catholics include in their membership all baptized persons of any age. Russell Kirk observes that “Catholics appear to have been gaining upon Protestants in church memberships, but there seems to be small probability that they will outnumber Protestants in the predictable future.” There is no question but that Protestantism as viewed by church membership and in relation to the percentage of total population remains the dominant religious group in American life.
More impressive, however, than church membership is the evident strength of the Protestant churches in other regards. The churches today have very wide popular appeal. Church attendance is higher in this country than in Protestant churches of other countries. The parishes seem to be better organized, and all across the country the churches are teeming with activity. At times, in contrast with churches in other countries, one thinks American churches are overly activistic while neglectful of the primary business of the church, which is the care of souls.
Protestantism in America has become “big business.” Gifts to churches in 1961 will exceed three billion dollars. It is noteworthy that the highest per capita giving is found in the small fundamentalist churches rather than in the principal churches of the Reformation heritage.
Religious education is making new strides. Protestants are engaged in a vast educational program operating more than 500 church-related colleges and universities. Some 340,000 students are enrolled in Protestant church-related elementary and secondary schools. Children go to Sunday school in greater numbers than ever before.
The renewal of interest in religion is indicated by the use of religious literature. The total circulation of Protestant church magazines is more than 15 million each month. Hundreds of books, which pay their way, are published by the various religious publishing houses and these books and magazines are read. Although earlier generations may have had a better knowledge of the catechism, Protestant theology, Protestant principles, and the content of the Bible, Protestants today are doubtless better informed about the church’s program, and its focus on world affairs.
These years have been boom years for Protestantism in America, and if the churches appear to be so triumphant, why then have we had the recent rash of articles questioning its reality? Will Herberg of Drew University notes that Protestantism does not deeply affect the lives of Americans. He asserts further that the same is true of Catholicism and Judaism. He laments that the United States has embraced a “religion-in-general” which is being “progressively evacuated of content.” Dr. Herberg is joined by others who assert that Christianity in America today amounts to little more than a vague spirit of friendliness, ambiguous in belief, and yet possessed of a willingness to attend and support churches, provided these churches demand no real sacrifices and preach no exacting doctrines. This spirit of sociability and togetherness hardly distinguishes it from the secular community, it is pointed out, and differs radically from the stern, intense, personal demands and the rugged disciplines of earlier Protestantism. Dr. Kirk asks, “Can the spirit and influence of Protestant Christianity prevail in a suburbanized, industrialized, standardized, centralized, immensely prosperous America?”
The conclusions arrived at concerning the state of Protestant Christianity in America are dependent to a very great extent upon the individual interpretation given to statistics, the experience and the attitude of the interpreter, and what he regards as the authentic measurements of religion. Most of the negative judgment seems to come less from the working pastor than from theological professors and church officials who are not regularly in touch with the lay mind of the church. Too often the methods of sociology are applied to evaluating religion. Sociology basically is humanistic, though it need not be. The methods of sociology are not necessarily valid in dealing with religious phenomena. Religion has its own criteria and methods. Religion is, first of all and essentially, a vertical God-man relationship—intimate, personal, and subjective, a reality not measurable by the methods of either the physical or the social sciences. In any case, history teaches that social modifications are reflected many years after a renewal of personal piety. What happens in the soul of a man, what happens in the souls of millions of people is not subject to easy evaluation. Different conclusions will be drawn by different people.
Let us admit that much of what these writers say is true. Undoubtedly many Americans are swept along in the current of prosperous, confident mass man. Perhaps the spirit of tolerance with minimal truth has so permeated American life as to have developed a “religion-in-general” which minimizes specific doctrinal confessions and particularities of faith. Secularism in modern America has touched the Protestant churches because its overlay has affected people and people are in the churches. It is a healthy sign that we are becoming aware of these things and are proceeding to correct them.
SOME HOPEFUL SIGNS
Nobody seems to be interpreting adequately what Protestant Christianity has succeeded in doing in American life—in the principles of individual dignity, in freedom to speak, write, worship, and direct one’s own political destiny, and in the general economic elevation of the average American which has resulted from Protestant principles which are now so taken for granted as to be overlooked. Protestantism has penetrated and guided emerging America. It was not a weak nor an anemic piety which brought all this about. If Catholicism and Judaism have gained by the permeation of these principles in American life, so much the better. But let us thank God that the principles which have nourished American life from the beginning have been mediated chiefly through the evangelical Christian churches.
There are hopeful signs all about us.
First of all, there is new dynamism among the laymen. This began spontaneously after World War II and has now developed into organized efforts within the major denominations. Everywhere laymen are on the march in everything from spiritual retreats and evangelistic campaigns to programs of intense theological study and social action. Their depth of dedication and spiritual earnestness is very real. Laymen are not expected to be professional theologians. They are expected to understand what they believe and why they believe it, but they need not be expert in theological niceties. Yet the layman today has been criticized by the theologian for his shallowness and superficiality. All the while the theologian, with his own patterns, symbols, and vocabulary rarely gets through to the layman. The layman who is expert in economics and business has been criticized by the theologian who is not usually expert in either. One of the most radical requirements for making the Protestant witness vital in our age is a rapproachment between clergy and laity. They must be drawn closer together in understanding and in friendship, and learn to communicate with each other.
Another hopeful aspect is the new intellectual vigor within the Church. This is an age of great theologians. There is a revival of Christian orthodoxy based upon sound scholarship. Theological disciplines and insights have been sharpened and are related to the physical and natural sciences as well as to modern psychology. Christianity is being recaptured as a system of thought.
There is hope in the quest for a new way to bring the impact of Protestant conviction upon the whole culture of our civilization. Vital religion should stand at the center of contemporary life to help shape economics, politics, literature, and art. Earlier in this century Protestant clergymen in great numbers thought it their chief duty to alter society by plans and programs of their own devising. Sentimental liberals without a profound sense of sin or a New Testament doctrine of salvation felt that the kingdom of God was to be realized here and now if we could only draw up the blueprint and work hard enough. They were almost exclusively occupied with what was called the “social gospel,” which as a coherent movement is now extinct, though some folk have not found it out. There are those in the Church who use the language of orthodoxy with the old thought patterns of the social gospel. This explains in part why statements by church groups are sometimes inadequately conceived, ineffectively articulated, and are devisive and unproductive in results. The reaction against the preoccupation with social panaceas and political pronouncements may be driving the Church to reconsider its primary business. If by giving monopolized public attention to economic, social, and political actions, the public image of organized Protestantism becomes that of a “social action club” or simply another pressure group and we become aware of this image and are driven to a rediscovery of the primary purpose of the Church, then there is new hope for American Protestantism.
THE EVANGELICAL IMPERATIVE
The truth is that we are once more discovering that the main function of the Church is to mediate the grace of God as revealed in Jesus Christ to souls created for God and his service. The most important task of the Church is the ordering of souls which, if successfully carried on, will produce the kind of men and women capable of making the decisions and taking the actions which will be reflected in an improved social order. This mediating of God’s grace and the nurture of human souls is to be done in the fellowship of those who believe in the redemptive work of Christ and are part of the community of the redeemed; a fellowship not of those who are already perfect but who have found a perfect Lord, not of those who are holy but of those who worship a holy God; a community of those in whose souls the kingdom of God has begun because the King has entered and who work toward that Kingdom on this earth which is always coming but has never fully arrived—a Kingdom that is both in time and beyond time.
The evangelical imperative must be kept foremost in the life of the Church. The winning of souls to Christ, their nurture and growth in Him is the great commission today as it was the great commission of our Lord when first he spoke it on the mountain. We must find ways to make the evangelical approach effective in the urban modes and habits of this age.
There must be a better comprehension of what it means to be a Protestant Christian. There must be more content to faith, a better understanding of the heritage of the Protestant Reformation. The chief doctrines need to be understood, the profound personal conviction of salvation, the personal experience of justification by faith, the priesthood of all believers, the authority of the Bible as the Word of God, the right and duty of private judgment, the renewal of the soul through self-examination, self-discipline, and self-dedication.
With this deeper conviction of Protestant faith there should follow a better expression of the Protestant way of life, emphasizing the elemental virtues—chastity, sobriety, and frugality, of hard work as a way of life, the exaltation of the mind, and the solidarity of the family at work and at worship. Spiritual disciplines, both as imposed by the Church and as self-imposed, ought to be more thorough. If recent years have been years of expansion and growth, the next years ought to be years of discipline and deepened devotion. It is better that we should become great and good and strong than that we should simply remain numerous and popular. “It would be better,” a recent study concludes, “for congregations to shrink by half, if by this attrition a really energizing faith would be generated among the remnant.”
Protestantism in America is neither dead nor dying. It has within it the power of self-criticism which can produce self-reformation. Chronic criticism and persistent negativism will not make us strong. Renewal and reformation include the renewal and reformation of all of us, both the criticized and the critic.
Jesus said to his disciples on a mountain side, “Ye are the salt of the earth.” That is what Protestants have been to America. They have given the taste, the tang, and the meaning to American life.
Samuel M. Shoemaker is the author of a number of popular books and the gifted Rector of Calvary Episcopal Church in Pittsburgh. He is known for his effective leadership of laymen and his deeply spiritual approach to all vital issues.
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