Do Protestants Belong?


Hillsdale, Mich. Ever since I have lived, moved, and had my being in conservative circles, I have encountered an unspoken ambivalence about Protestantism. (Truth in advertising: I am a Reformed Protestant, Calvinist for the church-history challenged; worse, I belong to the pint-sized Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Proceed with appropriate grains of salt.) At my first program with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, I met a female undergraduate from a conservative liberal arts college who told me she was Pentecostal but on her way to converting to Roman Catholicism. Why? “To be a consistent conservative is to be Catholic.” An initial lesson in the corridors of intellectual conservatism was that I, as a Protestant, was an inconsistent conservative.

If readers think I am playing the role of victim, please abandon the thought. I am a big boy and am used to all sorts of disappointments. My parents are dead. My communion is marginal. My books seldom ascend above 300,000 in Amazon rankings. And the teams for which I root (Philadelphia) are without form and void. Life is hard and then you die. Calvinists don’t want to be empowered and affirmed (unless they catch the pietist bug of earnestness).

Associating conservatism (intellectual and political) with Roman Catholicism is not merely the untested assumption of an intellectually ambitious coed. Pat Buchanan recently invoked the link between Rome, conservatism, and the West in a column for American Conservative, “The West Loses Faith.” Among his assertions were the following:

[Quoting Hilaire Belloc], The bad work begun at the Reformation is bearing its final fruit in the dissolution of our ancient doctrines – the very structure of society is dissolving.

To be Catholic is to be orthodox.

Why not follow our separated brethren of the Protestant faiths, and choose what doctrines we wish to believe and what commandments we wish to obey? And how have those churches fared that have accommodated themselves to the world?

To be sure, a regular bi-monthly column by Buchanan cannot flesh out the necessary connections between conservatism and Roman Catholicism to constitute a convincing argument. But Buchanan is not the only example. Brad Gregory’s book, The Unintended Reformation, along with Christian Smith’s petulant How To Go From Being a Good Evangelical to a Committed Catholic echo Buchanan’s point: Protestantism ruined the West by introducing notions like private opinions, state churches, unfettered markets, and culturally accommodated Christianity.

Given this emerging conservative consensus on Protestantism, it may be time (and where better to do it than on the Front Porch with Jason pouring Daiquiris?) to raise a few questions before the cement dries. Do traditional conservatives really want to make religious orthodoxy a test for membership? Do Christian conservatives really want to identify their faith with a particular geographical landmass (as if Jesus only died for the West, a thought that surely would have surprised the Jewish-Christian apostles)? Do intellectual conservatives really want the magisterium to decide who makes it into the conservative canon (as if folks like Roger Scruton, Michael Oakeshott, or Leon Kass need to be inspected by the local bishop before receiving two conservative thumbs up)?

One place to start the conversation is to consider the origins of Protestantism itself in a European setting that was hardly as unified as the romantic notions of Christendom allege (the English and French were not wild about papal supremacy, not to mention the nastiness that attended the Investiture Controversy). Someone could plausibly argue that Protestantism arose in response not simply to the brazen sinfulness of various Renaissance popes, but also as a correction to the Vatican’s grasp on political (as in temporal) power. Can someone say, conciliarism? Aside from the question of whether or not Christ had Unam Sanctam in view when he said his kingdom was not of this world, Francis Oakley’s current trilogy on medieval political theology shows that aspirations for papal supremacy (and infallibility) drew more upon ancient (and pagan) notions of sacral kingship than they did on Christian reflection:

. . . while the Gregorian reformers and their successors had certainly intended to deprive of any sacred aura the kingship of the German emperors, they were not themselves totally unresponsive to the allure of sacral kingship itself. That ancient complex of notions cast a very long shadow across their own ambitions for supremacy in Christian society. Had it not done so, it would be hard to explain how the popes of the High Middle Ages permitted themselves to emerge as full-fledged sacred monarchs in their own right . . . . [O]ver the course of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries the bishops of Rome moved authoritatively to the forefront as the true (or most convincing) successors to the erstwhile Roman emperors.

Then later:

Long, then, before James of Viterbo came to explore during the great standoff between Boniface VIII and Philip IV of France, the full ramifications of understanding the church or Christian commonwealth as a kingdom with the pope as its early king and in matter temporal no less than spiritual, the thirteenth-century popes had begun to close in on something approximating that mode of thinking. Despite the ideological ground yielded earlier on to the Gregorian onslaught, we have seen that a stubborn aura of sacrality continued in subsequent centuries to cling to the temporal monarchs of Europe. By the end of the thirteenth century, however, it had come to be dimmed by the astonishing degree to which the papacy itself, once the great enemy of sacral kingship, had come to conform itself to the lineaments of that archaic phenomenon and to appropriate it for itself so many of the appurtenances attaching to it. (Francis Oakley, The Mortgage of the Past, 171, 184)

Where the contested nature of monarchy (spiritual and temporal) becomes particularly dicey for American conservatives is that we are folks (I thought) who prize limited power and are suspicious of centralized and consolidated authority. Whether I need to be as provocative as to suggest that Protestantism was the outworking in the religious sphere of the doctrine of subsidiarity – that is, let local churches (at least outside Italy) oversee their own affairs rather than being regulated by a foreign pontiff – American conservatives (especially FroPos) do esteem localism, diversity, and freedom in ways that do not exactly accord with older papal claims about universality and singularity. In fact, the tension between the Vatican and the U.S. Roman Catholic church throughout the nineteenth-century that resulted in Americanism being condemned as a heresy by Leo XIII demonstrates that reconciling the politics of a federated republic and the Vatican’s form of government and oversight of Christendom was not so easily accomplished. To be sure, Roman Catholicism received a make-over at Vatican II thanks to the reflections of John Courtney Murray. But I hear that Murray’s reconciliation of the American founders and neo-Thomism is increasingly debatable in certain Roman Catholic sectors.

None of this is to suggest that Protestantism is the consistent outworking of conservatism, or that Protestants and Roman Catholics can’t live together under the intellectual conservative tent (or hang out at the Porch). It is, though, a caution about assumptions that conservatives increasingly make about the faith that binds them and the West together. Is it quite so faithful or so binding?

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