Paul Gottfried and America's Decaying Protestants: II…
Print Friendly and PDF

See also: Paul Gottfried on America's National Question Problem: Decaying Protestantism

Allow me to address the key points raised by those who commented on my remarks concerning the relation between liberal Protestantism and the politics of guilt.

My critics observed that I had not stressed sufficiently the differences between Evangelicals and mainline Protestants. While liberal mainline denominations, we know, are declining in membership and resources, conservative Protestant congregations are growing by leaps and bounds. This trend reflects the growing dissatisfaction among Protestant Americans with the PC substance of the Protestant mainline. It is not by accident, I was told, that on average Evangelicals vote more conservatively than members of liberal Protestant denominations.

My friend Clyde Wilson of the University of South Carolina attributed the ideological distinctions among Protestants to a regional-cultural variable as well. Southerners, he contends, are less subject to the expansive humanitarianism and passion for social control that has characterized Yankee religion since the early nineteenth century. Mainliners are descended from the Protestant do-gooders who created or joined the abolitionist, temperance, and suffragist movements. Unlike Southern Baptists and Southern Presbyterians, Wilson contends, Northern Protestants are the recent products of a secularized form of Puritanism that stretches back generations.

While conceding that these criticisms have the merit of forcing me to reconsider broad generalizations, I should call attention to certain relevant facts. The political and social distance between Evangelicals and other Protestants is narrowing, as Alan Wolfe joyously shows in the October 2000 Atlantic Monthly. It is no longer the case that Evangelicals stand for traditional rural values interwoven with Old Testament moral prescriptions. They may vote Republican more often than Democratic, but are mellowing on all kinds of social issues, including feminism and the need to atone for the American Christian racist past.

One should not confuse the slightly right-of-center voting practices of Evangelicals with hard-core rightwing anything. The Evangelicals I encounter at my own denominational college are certainly not outspoken conservatives. Moreover, while the men vote Republican, often like their non-Evangelical parents and siblings, their wives, like other suburban Protestant women, support more often than not liberal Democrats. A huge scholarly literature is available that explains why this is so.

Note I never deny that there are theological differences between Evangelicals and mainliners, though sometimes these appear less salient than they really are because of the uninformed but orthodox-sounding responses that most Protestants give to survey questions dealing with faith. What I stress is that despite differing degrees of theological fervor, Evangelicals and mainliners are both afflicted by the politics of guilt.

As for the insistence on Southern exceptionalism, I suspect by now it is less important than it once was. Mark Shibley, Wade C. Ruf, and James D. Hunter see the major sociological divide among Evangelicals as the split between urban-suburban and relatively rural congregations. This divide may be politically and culturally at least as critical as the one separating mainliners and Evangelicals. It splits Southerners as well as Northerners into ideologically identifiable groups. 

Going back further in time, I am less impressed than Professor Wilson by the dissimilarities between Southern and New England religions. Much of the antebellum Southern gentry were Presbyterian, and even the Southern Baptists were influenced by the theological and ethical peculiarities of eighteenth-century Calvinism. As Eugene Genovese shows in A Consuming Fire: The Fall of the Confederacy in the Mind of the White Christian South, the Protestant clergy throughout the South repeatedly called upon their congregations to do penance after the Civil War. Many attributed the suffering and humiliation of their region to the failure to practice slavery in a humane, Christian fashion.

Though it may be a stretch from such calls to atone to the present PC, it is equally one from the sermons of Jonathan Edwards to contemporary liberalism. All that is being suggested is that there may be lines of continuity in both cases. And those lines must be taken into account to understand the reaching out to minorities and endorsement of Third World immigration by predominantly Protestant Republican leaders. The mere effort by Republicans to pick up votes from anywhere explains neither very well.

Finally let me emphasize for those who might think otherwise: I am not at all hostile to the Protestant Reformation; or to Calvinist societies in general. Both represent a distinctly Western achievement, fundamental to what was once the moral soul of  America.

My criticism concerns the egregious deterioration of Protestant societies, and what in the Protestant past might have led to this process.    

Paul Gottfried  is Professor of Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA.  He is the author of After Liberalism and Carl Schmitt: Politics and Theory.

March 16, 2001

Print Friendly and PDF