Protestantism And Social Engagement

Recent studies have noted that most of the intellectual and spiritual leaders of medieval Christianity were monastic, isolated from many of the harsher realities of everyday life by the walls of their monasteries and convents. Protestantism chose to inhabit the more dangerous world of the city and marketplace, exposing its thinkers to pressures and problems that their Catholic forebears had not been required to consider. It is of the utmost importance to appreciate that the intellectual lights of the first phase of Protestantism—Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, and John Calvin—lived, thought, and wrote in the midst of urban society, producing theology that possesses a refreshingly earthly quality.

Yet the transition from the monastery to the marketplace was dangerous. Protestantism was exposed to precisely the dangers, threats, and problems that had led to the emergence of the monastic movement in the first place. How could Christianity maintain its integrity when it was now immersed in, and confronted with, the challenges of the world? As Roland Bainton, one of the most distinguished analysts of the early sixteenth century, remarked, when Christianity takes itself seriously, it must either renounce or master the world.13 Given the political realities of the age, Protestantism could only aspire to mastery; unlike Islam, it never achieved religious mastery of the secular but was obliged to work with more or less sympathetic secular rulers.

At first sight, this last statement may seem puzzling to those familiar with some popular accounts of Calvin's Geneva. Surely this was a theocracy in which Calvin ruled the city with a rod of iron? This outdated stereotype is in need of radical revision. Those who speak loosely about Calvin's "theocracy" in Geneva need to be reminded that all secular power, and not a little religious power, remained firmly in the hands of the city council throughout his lifetime. Calvin's successes and failures at Geneva can be accounted for largely through his shifting relationships with the real source of authority within the city. Calvin's idea of "theocracy" was intellectual, not practical or institutional; it related to the idea that all power and authority are derived from God. But God, as Calvin knew perfectly well from his New Testament, was prepared to work through secular rulers, then as now.

The real problem for Protestantism can be explored using a biblical analogy that featured prominently in the movement's reflections on the issues. Jesus of Nazareth declared that his followers were the "salt of the earth." But what, he asked, if that salt were to lose its saltiness (Matthew 5:13)? It was no longer of any use. Perhaps Jesus was referring to rock salt, whose saltiness can be leeched out by dampness. But whatever the real-life model for the image, its power is undeniable. What if a movement whose identity depends upon its distinctiveness loses precisely that distinguishing mark of identification? What if engagement with the world led Protestantism to become indistinguishable from the world, with only traces of its saline origins remaining? How could Protestantism remain in the world without becoming of the world— adopting the world's standards, norms, language, and values and losing its own, whether accidentally or deliberately?

Two Protestant strategies for coping with the problematic of the ordinary emerged in its first formative period and have remained characteristic of the movement ever since. Each has its strengths and weaknesses. In what follows, we consider each of these strategies before going on to consider some illuminating case studies of Protestant engagement with society and the issues that these raised.

The first strategy, initially associated primarily with the Anabaptists, can be seen as a continuation of the monastic model, though with subtle modifications. As Anabaptism became the object of increasing suspicion on the part of monarchs, city councils, and mainline Protestant leaders in the late 1520s, its instinct was to form a counterculture. Anabaptists rejected the coercive structures of contemporary society, refusing to swear oaths, hold any magisterial office, serve in any military capacity, or bear arms.

Such a radically apolitical and world-renouncing attitude inevitably entailed separation from the world. Perhaps using as a model the pre-Constantinian church—which existed within, but not as part of, the Roman Empire—the radicals often conceived of their communities as an "alternative godly society" within, but not part of, the greater society surrounding them. Like Israel before them, they insisted on separating from the nations, for fear of becoming like them.14 Purity and integrity were best—indeed only—maintained by withdrawal from a fallen world, which would otherwise absorb them utterly, leeching out their saltiness.

Similar approaches can be found in certain—but certainly not all— forms of Pietism. It must be stressed that many Pietists were social activists, as the history of early Methodism makes abundantly clear.15 Yet one of the traits that came to be associated with many Pietists was what might be termed the "privatization of religion"—that is, the restriction of religious involvement to matters of spirituality. This approach holds that involvement in social or political issues is "worldly" or "corrupting." Discipleship entails disengagement from the world. The approach is particularly associated with Protestant fundamentalism in the early twentieth century, which emphasized the need for a dividing wall between church and society in the face of the increased secularization of the United States.

The strengths of this approach must be acknowledged immediately. It unquestionably serves to maintain Christian distinctiveness and integrity by relieving Christian communities of any sense of obligation to mimic the language, values, or customs of the world. As the recent works of Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder have demonstrated, such approaches have enormous potential for the life and thought of the church.16 One particular strength of this approach lies in the possibilities it offers for exploring nonviolent approaches to social existence—or, indeed, aspects of Christian theology that have often rested on an analysis of violence, such as theories of the atonement.17

Yet there are weaknesses and risks to this approach. These are best illustrated by the concerns that led to the emergence of "neo-evangelicalism" in the United States during the late 1940s, in response to the perceived failures of fundamentalism. As we shall see later, fundamentalism arose in reaction to secularism within American culture in the 1920s and led many conservative Protestants to withdraw from any form of social or cultural engagement. In his Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism (1947), Carl F. H. Henry argues that fundamentalism was too otherworldly and anti-intellectual to gain a hearing among the educated public and that it was also unwilling to concern itself with exploring how Christianity related to culture and social life.18

The latter failing had simply led to the exclusion of any Christian presence in culture and society. This essay in fundamentalist self-criticism saw Henry—writing as a fundamentalist—expressing considerable misgivings about the directions the movement had taken and about its obvious failure to achieve its goals. As Millard J. Erickson points out, it had become increasingly clear that fundamentalism totally failed to turn back the rising tide of modernism, that it had not achieved any significant impact upon the thought-world of its day, and that it had spurned the social problems of its time.19 The watchword of the "new evangelicalism" would be engagement—cultural, social, and intellectual.

With the benefit of hindsight, this can be seen as having done much to shape the contemporary political landscape of the United States. The emergence of the "Religious Right" is one of many important results of this new attitude, which led politically conservative Protestants of the 1980s to emulate the political engagement of left-leaning activists of the 1960s.20 The election of George W. Bush as the forty-third president of the United States was widely interpreted by political commentators as the outcome of a new commitment to political activism on the part of Protestants who had hitherto regarded it as pointless or a distraction from the real business of life.

The program advocated by the new evangelicalism in 1947 was, in many ways, a return to the approach advocated by the mainline Protestant constituency throughout the 1540s and 1550s. Here we find an emphasis on engagement subtly balanced by an insistence on maintenance of identity. Protestants can be active in the world, while being safeguarded in their identity and calling through the preaching and support of the church. If the world is a wasteland, the church is the oasis. If the world is desalinated and desalinating, the church is the saltcellar.

The theological foundations of this delicate balancing act were developed by Calvin, who constructed a sophisticated dialectic between faith and the world that allowed scope for positive action in the world while identifying and averting the risks such action entailed.21 In Calvin's thought, Christians should be encouraged to invest in and commit themselves to the world. There was no place in his thinking for the medieval monastic attitude toward society, which led to individuals renouncing the world while the institutions they served affirmed it. Yet Christians, he warned, while immersing themselves in the affairs and anxieties of the world, must learn to keep it at a critical distance. Outward investment in and commitment to the world must be accompanied by inward detachment and the fostering of a critical attitude toward the secular. Believers must immerse themselves in the secular sphere, but not allow themselves to be submerged by it. "We are to learn to pass through this world as though it were a foreign country, treating lightly all earthly things and declining to set our hearts upon them."22

Yet the weakness of this strategy is clear and cannot be evaded. Those who seem to master the world are often those who have actually been mastered by it. Those who are counted successes by the world are often those who have capitulated to its norms. Latent within Calvinism is a purely profane approach to life, in that the failure to maintain a proper dialectic between God and the world leads to the collapse of the divine into the secular. Calvinist moral, economic, social, and political structures and values, although firmly grounded in theology, could all too easily become detached and independent from those theological foundations. The emancipation of such structures and values from faith itself through cultural erosion is one of the most significant aspects of the Western reception and assimilation of Calvinism, especially in North America. We shall have occasion to return to this point when considering a possible link between Protestantism and secularization.

We have considered the two families of attitudes that emerged within Protestantism as it sought to maintain its identity and fulfill its calling in the modern world, and the analysis thus far calls out for some examples to illustrate the points being made. In what follows, we offer a brief consideration of some illuminating episodes from Protestant history. We begin by considering Protestant attitudes to slavery.

The issue of slavery was at the heart of one the most important and difficult debates within American Protestantism in the nineteenth century. It proved immensely divisive, causing political tensions and bringing some denominations to the point of near-schism. At the heart of the debate lay a fundamental issue of biblical interpretation. Did the Bible legitimize slavery? Most Protestants in antebellum America assumed it did. Did not Noah's curse on Ham (Genesis 9:25) justify the practice?23 The Bible did not condemn slavery; it merely regulated it. Little wonder that Jefferson Davis (1808-89), president of the Confederate States of

America, could declare that slavery was "sanctioned in the Bible, in both Testaments, from Genesis to Revelation."

Abolitionism had gained ground in England in the late eighteenth century, aided to no small extent by growing Protestant opposition to the practice. William Wilberforce was a particularly significant and influential voice in the debate.24 Were not all peoples created in the image of God? The idea of a person being treated as "chattel" seemed increasingly unacceptable in the opening decades of the nineteenth century.

In the United States, a significant polarization emerged. The northern states moved to abolish slavery in the years following the American Revolution as increasing numbers of former slave owners, such as Benjamin Franklin, changed their views on the matter. The Second Great Awakening, which rekindled religious fervor in much of the nation, saw new religious pressure for abolition. Oberlin College in Ohio was founded as an abolitionist institution. In the South, abolitionists broke away from mainline Methodism to form the Free Methodist Church. African American Christians were a particularly significant voice urging the churches to read the Old Testament in the light of the New and abolish slavery.

Yet the dominant position in the South was strongly pro-slavery, and the Bible was used to defend this entrenched position. Theologically, the arguments used by the pro-slavery lobby represent a fascinating illustration and condemnation of how the Bible may be used to support a notion by reading the text within a rigid interpretative framework that forces predetermined conclusions on the text.25

The defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War inevitably led to the final abolition of slavery throughout the Union. Yet a lingering question remains, which hangs awkwardly over Protestantism. Many respected Protestant intellectuals and statesmen of the nineteenth century—including Princeton's venerable theologian Charles B. Hodge—supported slavery on biblical grounds, often dismissing abolitionists as liberal progressives who did not take the Bible seriously. Might not the same mistakes be made all over again, this time over other issues?26

A second example illuminates the tensions resulting from tendencies within Protestantism that pull in opposite directions. As we shall see presently, the emergence of a strong "work ethic" during the formative phase of Protestantism led to an emphasis on moral activism that approved the generation of wealth but not its expenditure. One outcome was the rise of a "spirit of capitalism"; another, although in this case less direct, was the notion of a "gospel of wealth." This latter belief held that prosperity was a sign of divine favor. Although this often represented little more than a loose assumption on the part of some Protestants, it was actively developed by some into what is widely known as the "health and wealth" movement.27 The Bible is interpreted to mean that financial success and personal well-being are the direct results of God's approval of an individual.

So what of the poor? Is their plight the result of God's disfavor? What about the many biblical texts that emphasize God's special care and love for the widowed, orphaned, impoverished, and dispossessed? Is the alleviation of poverty tantamount to the subversion of God's will? For some (wealthy and healthy) Protestants in the 1890s and beyond, this was indeed the case. Leave things alone, they argued.

Others disagreed, seeing themselves as driven and compelled by the biblical testimony to work for the relief of the poor. The origins of the Salvation Army lie in such concerns for the poor, whose situation its founders believed could be alleviated by combining evangelism and social action. William Booth's remarkable book In Darkest England drew attention to the social deprivation experienced by millions in England in the 1890s.28 After the movement became established in the United States in 1880, it pursued its twin tacks of revivalist evangelism and social action. Salvation Army bands marched through the main thoroughfares of Chicago and New York, its preachers proclaimed the good news of redemption, and its social workers cared for unwed mothers and women who had been deserted by their husbands.29

The "Social Gospel" movement in the United States also attempted to address these issues.30 Many Protestant clergy were concerned at their churches' failure to care for the urban poor. Washington Gladden (18361918) and Walter Rauschenbusch (1861-1918) both took the view that unrestricted capitalism was the cause of urban poverty, which in turn caused other social problems. Rauschenbusch published what is now widely seen as the manifesto of this movement—The Social Gospel (1908).31 Although political socialism never gained a significant follow ing in the United States, the attitudes of the Social Gospel movement paralleled those of the movements generally known as "Christian socialism" elsewhere.

Social concern within Protestantism has been forged and developed in other contexts as well. The most important of these in recent years has been the emergence of Pentecostalism, which is often characterized by a strong sense of social concern for the marginalized and the poor.32 Although this is especially evident in Pentecostal ministries in the developing world, it has also become characteristic of such ministries in urban America. The 23,000-member West Angeles Church of God in Christ is heavily involved in social outreach programs focusing on low-income housing, the care of seniors, and recovery ministry. Such social engagement is not seen as peripheral or supplementary to gospel concerns, but as integral to the Christian vision of healing and renewal—a characteristic emphasis of Pentecostal spirituality.

These examples illustrate both the possibilities and the tensions that accompany Protestant attempts to engage society—above all, the difficulties that arise from interpreting and applying the biblical material to social issues. The nature of Protestantism is such that these difficulties can be expected to continue, precisely because of the lack of any widespread agreement over the principles that should govern its engagement with society. Similar problems also arise in relation to an issue of ongoing significance for Protestantism, to which we now turn—the question of the relationship of church and state.

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