A highlight of the summer is picking out tomatoes at the farmers’ market down the road, particularly those labeled “Amish.” Something about that word Amish stirs reassurance. The Amish are a small, sturdy group descended from sectarian Protestant history and associated with sobriety, thrift, health, self-restraint under God.
For a long time, those values leavened the broader culture too, when Protestantism dominated America. No longer – history rampages on, and the future blows down the doors. No time for nostalgia.
Protestantism always stood for several things – freedom of individual conscience, the freedom to worship or read scripture in one’s own language, freedom to access God without institutional filters. Those convictions enlivened the birth of the US.
Now church influence is failing. Secularism claims more ground. Society is unavoidably more pluralistic. History’s unintended consequences abound: Oddly enough, Protestantism contributed to post-Protestantism.
How did it happen? A certain logic unfolded. The freedom to read the Bible expanded to mean freedom to read anything religious, or anything anti-religious, or anything at all, or nothing at all. The freedom to reject established religious institutions became a temptation to reject all institutions. The word “religious” itself started losing luster. Other impulses swept in – new spiritual quests and truth claims, visions of unfettered consumerism and casino behavior, as well as nihilistic eruptions punctuating the dark, freed from moral restraint or shame.
Does Protestantism have a future in such a world? I don’t mean Vacation Bible School, 35-minute sermons, the prosperity gospel, the hymns of Wesley, or the Book of Common Prayer. Those arose out of specific times and will continue where there’s a need.
The Protestant future will depend not on Lake Wobegon memories but something else, the Protestant Principle. Theologian Paul Tillich has described this principle as a spirit of transformation in religion and society both. It draws on the creative disruptions of God, including the Hebrew prophets and the teachings of Jesus, that subvert hopelessness and convert the heart. It is a force that any faith might call on to reform itself and the bigger world.
“Justice will take us millions of intricate moves,” writes the late poet William Stafford, himself a courteous, fierce voice of solidarity (he was a Kansas native associated with Church of the Brethren, a Protestant peace church). A humane future of reform, whether it’s still called Protestant or not, will depend on self-discipline, patience and expectation, the sort of things necessary also for writing poems or growing tomatoes.