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Sunday, July 27, 2008

Re: “The Death of Protestant America” by Joseph Bottom FT (Aug/Sept 2008);“America as a Protestant Nation and the Root Causes of Mainline Disease”

Re: “The Death of Protestant America” by Joseph Bottom FT (Aug/Sept 2008)

Dear Sir:
Fascinating, informative and provocative articles by Joseph Bottom and by Mary Eberstadt. This is why I am a loyal subscriber to FIRST THINGS. I find book reviews and articles I would not find anywhere else. It is the only magazine I have that I keep. FIRST THING articles remain useful and readable. Even your poetry is as my Auld Pop would say :”Nae sae bad.; I enjoy some of your translations. Perhaps I will send you some translations of classical Spanish poetry or of Gaelic song.”
“America as a Protestant Nation and the Root Causes of Mainline Disease”
By Richard K. Munro 3300 words.
Joseph Bottom says “In truth, all the talk, from the eighteenth century on, of the United States as a religious nation was really just a make-nice way of saying it was a Christian nation—and even to call it a Christian nation was usually just a soft and ecumenical attempt to gloss over the obvious fact that the United States was, at its root, a Protestant nation. Catholics and Jews were tolerated, off and on…”
In my view we need to describe the USA as something different; Churchill called it the “Great Republic”; I do not recall he ever called America (or Britain for that matter) a “Protestant” nation. English-speaking, Yes. Democratic, yes. Enlightened (as opposed to benighted), yes. Connected to Christendom (The Reformation and Rome), Magna Carta and the mother country and its traditions (England or Britain), yes. There may have been anti-Catholic sentiment in the USA –just as there was anti-Semitism- but America was never a “Protestant nation” -in the sense England or Scotland was- with one single established church. In the British Isles, where Test Acts were strictly enforced, prior to Catholic and Jewish emancipation in the 19th century, non jurors, Jews and Roman Catholic, were routinely barred from public life, could not exercise the franchise –unless furtively risking perjury- ,were prohibited from attending or teaching in many schools, from holding rank in the military, or serving as judges. We can say that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland circa 1707-1830 WAS a “Protestant” nation where Jews and Catholics led a precarious existence politically and materially. In this sense the USA has never been a “Protestant” nation nor a “Catholic” nation and nor even a “Christian” nation and I say, thank God for it.
The USA was founded, of course, as a nation composed predominately of Protestant Christian sects but was never truly a “Protestant” nation or a possession merely of Protestant Americans, Alexis de Tocqueville notwithstanding. And as America expanded westward to the Spanish Southwest and became the haven to immigrants from the old world the percentage of Catholics (and Jews) increased.
Father John Carroll, the first Bishop of the Catholic Church in the USA, wrote:
Thanks to genuine spirit and Christianity, the United States have banished intolerance from their system of government, and many of them have done the justice to every denomination of Christians, which ought to be done to them in all, of placing them on the same footing of citizenship, and conferring an equal right of participation in national privileges. Freedom and independence, acquired by the united efforts, and cemented with the mingled blood of Protestant and Catholic fellow-citizens, should be equally enjoyed by all. . . .
Father Carroll was an ardent American patriot and devoted to the American principle of freedom of conscience (what he called “civil tolerance”). Nonetheless, Father McShane has written “That a late eighteenth-century Roman Catholic cleric would support religious liberty so warmly was surprising--even shocking.” But not to people who know the history of Catholicism in the British Isles, Canada and America. In Father Carroll’s sermon “An Address to the Roman Catholics of the United States of North America" (1790), he called for "General and equal toleration, by giving a free circulation to fair argument, is a most effectual method to bring all denominations of Christians to a unity of faith.” Nor did Carroll operate in isolation from other religious persuasions. “No minister of religion, moreover, contributed more to the ecumenical spirit that stamped the early national period than did Carroll. He developed close friendships with almost all the leaders of other denominations.”
Bottum says “even America’s much vaunted religious liberty was essentially a Protestant idea.” There is no question Protestant thinkers and leaders, such as Milton and Roger Williams in particular, contributed to the idea of tolerance and liberty of conscience (though as I recall from Edwin Gaustad even Roger Williams did not trust Catholics with the vote). I think instead the achievement of freedom of conscience was a joint effort of all the religious factions in America, including Catholics and Jews. One of the curious facts of America’s founding is that Catholic immigrants to American (British recusants and others) came to America, settling principally in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Maryland, for religious freedom just as any other Christian or religious sect.
The precarious status of Catholics in the British Isles was exemplified by the martyrs St. Thomas More, St. Edmund Campion and many others less known but with similarly tragic stories. By the 17th century and confirmed by the 18th century there was no chance whatsoever for a Catholic restoration. This led to a complete change of mentality among recusants one in which English-speaking Catholics tolerated mixed marriages and whose hope was not a return to supremacy but for peaceful coexistence and civil equality as a minority in a land dominated by Protestants. The first legislative act of religious tolerance was promulgated in 1649 in the colony of Maryland, a haven for English-speaking Catholics. There is no question that the royal charter of Rhode Island, received by Roger Williams in 1663, was the blueprint of religious freedom for other English colonies as well as being a foundation stone for the First Amendment. Maryland’s Act of Toleration, whatever its limitations- was also an important precursor to the First Amendment. When we add what happened in New York and Pennsylvania legally and pragmatically we have truly a religious freedom crafted by the American experiences of many varied religious sects, Protestant, Catholic and Jewish.
George Washington recognized both Catholic and Jewish individuals were instrumental in America gaining its independence as well as great Catholic nations such as France and Spain. Washington wrote of this in his letter of March 12, 1790” “I presume in your fellow-citizens will not forget the patriotic past, which you took in the accomplishment of their Revolution and establishment of their Government or the important assistance which they received from a Nation in which the Roman Catholic Faith is professed.” A goodly number of the “international heroes” who fought in Washington’s forces –Lafayette , Kosciusko, Jorge Ferragut (the father of Admiral David Farragut), Commodore Barry –the list is quite long- were Roman Catholic.

Haym Solomon the Jewish financier and interpreter bravely assisted the American cause as a spy at great personal risk. George Washington visited the Touro Synagogue in 1790; when he did so he may have been the first head of state to attend Jewish service since the destruction of the Temple at Jerusalem. Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation (August 18, 1790): “I shall always retain a grateful remembrance of the cordial welcome I experienced in my visit to Newport…the Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples or an enlarged and liberal policy; a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship….happily the Government of the United States, which gives bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance…May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants.”
Nothing like the Penal Laws ever existed in the United States; the constitution forbad religious tests from the very beginning. Before 1776, Catholics like Charles Carroll, signer of the Declaration, were essentially marginalized. American independence meant emancipation for both Catholic and Jews. After the Revolution two of Carroll’s coreligionists Daniel Carroll (of Maryland) and Thomas Fitzsimons (of Pennsylvania) signed the U.S. Constitution, representing 3.6% of the signers.
Many prominent Americans were Roman Catholics, intermarried with Roman Catholics, were close friends of or were related to Roman Catholics in the early national era. James Monroe and Patrick Henry befriended Father John Dubois, a nonjuring French émigré priest –later Bishop of New York- and a close associate of St. Elizabeth Seton. Catholic Mass was celebrated at the State House at Richmond when Monroe and Henry were governors (and probably in their homes as well when Dubois was a guest). Monroe’s daughter Eliza, who had attended Catholic schools in France, was a convert to Catholicism and was allowed to be a close friend and correspondent of Father Dubois. Likewise both of James Monroe’s nephews, Col Jimmy Monroe and Andrew Monroe became adult converts to Catholicism. The two Monroe boys must have attended Mass in the Monroe home with Father Dubois and their aunt as a boy, which says a lot about the tolerance of Mr and Mrs. Monroe (who were Episcopalians) and their acceptance of Catholics as Americans and Christian brethren. Col Jimmy Monroe, a graduate of West Point, was elected to the U.S. Congress. Earlier Col. Jimmy was an aide to General Winfield Scott and he often attended Mass with Gen. Scott’s wife and children who were Catholic . Andrew Monroe, a graduate of the US Naval Academy, became a convert in China. He later became a Jesuit priest and a faculty member at St. Francis Xavier’s College. Francis Scott Key was related by marriage to Roger Taney, the first Roman Catholic Supreme Court judge. Stephen Douglas, the famous Democratic rival to Lincoln, was married to the Adele Cutts, a Roman Catholic and the daughter of James Madison Cutts who was a great-niece of former U.S. First Lady Dolley Madison. Douglas’s son by his first marriage, Robert M. Douglas, raised as a Catholic, became a prominent Republican and was a member of the Supreme Court of North Carolina.
The list of prominent officers, judges and politicians of the United States who were Catholic has always been very representative of the percentage of Roman Catholics in the population. The same is true for Jews and other religious and ethnic minorities with the egregious exception until recent times, tragically, of African-Americans. So in that sense though there may have been anti-Catholic feeling among some Americans –just as there was anti-Jewish feeling- Catholics have always been able to operate as full citizens in the United States.
In any case, anti-Catholic feeling as Joseph Bottum has pointed out has diminished primarily due to the ecumenical influence of Vatican II, C.S. Lewis, John Paul II, Protestant ministers like Billy Graham and the Promise Keepers movement (which included Evangelicals and Catholics). Today intermarriage between the denominations is an everyday affair; about 10% of all former Protestants are former Catholics and about 8% of all Catholics are former Protestants. The most virulent anti-Catholic animus is almost unknown today among Evangelical Protestants most of whom consider Catholics to be Christian brethren. Ironically, anti-Catholic prejudice is to be found chiefly among the “tolerant” secular intellectual left, particularly pro-choice “Sangerite” feminists.
Therefore, I believe it correct to say the USA has never been a “Protestant” nation at any time, merely a nation without an established church and with almost complete freedom of religion. But I do understand what Bottum is thinking –in the 19th century and early 20th public life and public schools had a distinct “Protestant” quality or flavor in a way that is no longer the case due to the increased secularization of society. But speaking as a former Catholic educator even American Catholic schools today lack the distinct Catholic quality or flavor that they used to have when the student bodies and faculty were overwhelmingly Catholic.
Now we turn to the nature of “Mainline disease”. Bottum is right –I have known this for years- that old mainline Protestantism is moribund not only in America but in its European homeland. But Catholicism, too , is in trouble, particularly in its ancient European homeland but also elsewhere. Bottum is certainly right to be concerned that the rapid dechristianization of the Europe is contributing to an eroding of Christian roots. At one time countries with large Catholic populations –Ireland, Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Austria and Poland- reinforced and provided intellectual leadership and continuity for American Catholics. This support and encouragement, with the exception of Poland, has diminished in the past thirty years to next to zero. Most of our foreign pastors come from the Philippines, Africa or India. It has been many years since I have met a young Irish-born priest, for example. When I was a young man I found them all over America and the world.
On the other hand -and I thank God for it- evangelical Protestantism (“Bible Christianity”)- remains vital in many areas both in the United States and in third world countries particularly Africa, the Philippines and South America.
“Mainline disease” essentially boils down to a church that requires nothing from its parishioners gradually loses its appeal, its prestige and its raison d’être. Even the Bible doesn’t have intellectual prestige anymore. When was the last time in a TV interview for a general interest news program anyone made single a biblical allusion? Compare McCain’s or Obama’s speeches to the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Biblical illiteracy must be at historic highs. This is what my father called the “pale Anglican” syndrome; so pale that even marriage or baptism no longer takes place. To be such a Christian is to be a Christian in name only, by heritage only, a birth certificate Christian or a descendant of a Christian. At one time this seemed to be an Anglican condition but now the “mainline disease” has spread and continues to spread to countries like Spain and Italy and through every Christian denomination to some degree.
What is the primary cause for this “mainline disease” whose symptoms are as Kenneth Woodward has pointed out consist of “running out of money and members and meaning.”? As Joseph Bottum says part of the reason is the emergence of “mere religion”. In this new “tolerance” there is the danger of indifferentism. There is no question that I feel closer as a Christian in my attitudes towards marriage, abortion and family to Evangelical Protestants, Missouri Synod Lutherans, Mormons and Orthodox Jews than I do to ‘liberal’ (or nominal Catholics). I am aware of common ground on such issues -we all read the Bible and C.S. Lewis- but I am not unaware of our theological differences.
We have to go deeper to find the root cause of “mainline disease.” As a young man I met dozens of attractive, well-educated American women but there was, usually, a deep chasm that separated us despite the fact that we were Americans and usually shared the same public school education. It took some time and some pain to discover the reason why. Christianity –learned at home, in church in my private life- was very important to me and was an indispensable part of our heritage. I remember my father explaining the most Gaelic surnames of Ireland and Scotland were Christian surnames recalling the great age of the Irish and British missionaries. Archibald MacLeish or Anne Lorne Gillies were not just names; the both meant ‘devotee of Jesus’. MacTaggart meant “son of the priest”. MacCallum meant “devotee of St. Columba”. McBride meant “devotee of St. Bridget”. I knew who the founder of Glasgow was (St. Mungo) and his legends and my family helped raise money to build the St. Columba Cathedral in Oban (Scotland) where my father’s mother was born. I also knew my clan stood by Mary of Guise and Mary Queen of Scots. So Faith was the cornerstone of my individual and family life; it was not for many of the people I met in the big city. Theirs were primarily materialistic concerns. I remember hearing some acquaintances who were happily married but childless for more than fifteen years say that they never intended to have children and didn’t care one way or another if their line or family name carried on. I have to admit I was flabbergasted; they were postmodernists and they considered my views, “medieval”. Certainly never the twain shall meet. The American women I met, college educated women in New York area and East Coast, had different ideas, different values and even a different faith such as Feminism, environmentalism and other isms. Most were indifferent to religion and the ideal of raising a family. The less I say about modern feminism (Simon De Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinham) the better. Suffice it to say that I believe radical feminism is inimical to a happy and balanced life and I think to Christianity (or religion in general) itself.
Radical feminism involves a huge change in moral standards. In most churches –this was and is a great weakness of both Catholicism and mainline churches - wives, sisters and mothers were and are the backbone of the church. When young women ceased to be actively involved in church life, delaying marriage and child bearing, sometimes indefinitely, the social, religious and educational life of a parish or church community just withered away. This new attitude towards sex and marriage profoundly changes culture. At one time it was presumed that modesty was a good thing for a woman; indeed there is an old saying that says “modesty is the true beauty of woman.” Today many American women are sexual aggressors. When I was a young man it was considered bad manners to curse in front of children or ladies. Now many young “ladies” use language that would make a sailor blush and they seem proud of it. This is, in my view, a very unfortunate and unbecoming side effect of ‘liberation’.
Be that as it may, everyone will agree that the new moral standards of the 1960’s were at loggerheads with traditional values. This new morality emanated from the college faculties; mainline churches, Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian and so forth just followed along. The Pill, condoms and diaphragms are handed out like aspirin or M&Ms. What would have been statutory rape in 1959 –sex between a 20 year old co-ed and a professor-is just another hook up. It is not unusual for an attractive female co-ed to “date” (meaning having sex with) both classmates and professors. Perhaps this happened in 1959 too but young women did not boast about it. Today it is common for young women to publicly boast about their sex lives, what sexual experiences they have had, when they lost their virginity, even how many abortions they have had. This kind of talk used to be reserved for locker rooms or dark smoky bars. Not anymore. This is why the Monica Lewinksy affair meant nothing to millions of Americans. She was over 21 it was just some fun and some on the job consensual sex (or sexual contact).
For millions of American women birth control and the right to abortion have become absolute personal rights that are not negotiable. When this sort of Sangerite feminism takes hold of the women of a church community that community is doomed. Marriage rates and birth rates plummet. Family life as I knew it disappears. The deep love, friendship and close relationships I had with my mother and grandparents disappear. Gone with it is the home-schooling in literature, religion, culture, history and music, the home cooked meals, the family recipes, home-made costumes, family prayers, family outings, family sing-a-longs, and family celebrations. I don’t call this liberation. I call it sexual suicide.
This new way of sexual liberation –which clears women from the homes and postpones having children- whether people like to hear it or not, is an unsustainable way of life. The disintegration of the family is the root cause of the “Mainline disease.” As Mary Eberstadt has written, Humanae Vitae, was in fact Cassandra-like.
Richard ("Ricardo") MUNRO, MA (Spanish Literature)
Teacher of English, history and Spanish
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