American Protestantism’s Sad Birthday Party

What has gone wrong with American Protestantism and why? Or perhaps we should more correctly ask, what has gone wrong with American Protestants? While this question is ultimately most important as a spiritual one, it is also an urgent political and social question. Protestantism was the major spiritual force in setting up the America we’ve inherited, and sadly it now seems to be in danger of becoming a significant reason why America is in decline. The world recently noted the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, but it hasn’t been much of a happy birthday party for American Protestants. “Sad” might be a better word to describe this important historic milestone because Protestantism — or more correctly, the heirs of American Protestantism — seem to be letting America down.

It’s time for some serious soul-searching. The past year has been downright embarrassing for us American Protestants — I count myself among that community of faith — as we have witnessed the profoundly tragic spectacle of Donald Trump’s rise to power. While there are of course various Protestant political views, it has become clear that conservative American Protestants — among whom I emphatically do not count myself — are his key source of support for his catastrophic reign.

What has gone wrong? We might ask of today’s American Protestants what St. Paul asked the ancient Galatians, “Who has bewitched you?” I think the crisis in Protestantism today is both theological and spiritual: it is a problem both of our heads and of our hearts. Many of us have stopped thinking and — even more importantly — many of us have stopped caring.

The major event in Protestantism in the past half century has been a theological move to the right with the decline of mainline Protestantism and the rise of conservative and fundamentalist Protestantism. Nobody likes criticism, but sometimes constructive criticism is good and necessary. American Protestantism took a wrong turn a generation or two ago when we chose to ignore the criticism of prophetic voices from our tradition raising questions about American policies — voices addressing us at that time such as William Sloan Coffin calling us to repent from our militarism in Vietnam, Martin Luther King, Jr. calling us to repent from our racism, and Reinhold Niebuhr calling us to repent from our exalted sense of American self-righteousness in the world.

Many Protestants got tired of listening to criticism of their beloved country and instead turned to conservative Protestant leaders who taught an inward-looking piety, largely disconnected from the troubling social and political problems around them. These reassuring conservative voices also offered an unquestioning acquiescence to the military-industrial complex that is so powerful in America today. But moderate and liberal children of the Protestant tradition are also part of the problem. Many of them simply “dropped out” and drifted away from the church pews altogether. Today, several decades later, the ultimate result of that process has been the rise to power of the disastrous policies of the Trump administration.

The growing power of conservative Protestantism and its support for the fake theology of “Christian Zionism” in the past half century has also played a key part of what has gone disastrously wrong with our U.S. Middle East policy. This has most recently been seen in Trump’s profoundly wrong-headed decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move clearly meant to honor a campaign promise to his conservative Evangelical Protestant supporters. This decision has profoundly hurt the United States as well as the Palestinians and global Christian-Muslim relations more than our mainstream news media is telling us.

President Trump and his conservative Protestant supporters just don’t get it. The point of the Bible in the Christian faith is not to justify the re-living of the ethnic cleansing of Palestine as recorded in the Book of Joshua some 3,200 years ago in the Bronze Age. Rather the point of the Bible is to hear along with the prophet Isaiah a new Word from God for today — a new spirit of inclusiveness and respect and love for all of God’s children, including Muslims and Palestinians.

We should mark the 500th anniversary of Protestantism by starting vigorously to protest again: in this case against the betrayal of our Christian heritage by our conservative Christian sisters and brothers with the unthinking and uncaring and ultimately destructive policies they support in the Middle East. Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Mel Lehman
Common Humanity
New York City
(c) Dec. 9, 2017

Photo: Stained glass window of Martin Luther at Union Theological Seminary (New York) via Union Network magazine.

Mel Lehman

Mel Lehman is the director of of Common Humanity. He has worked in international humanitarian issues for several decades, inducing two decades at the National Council of Churches. He has traveled extensively in the Middle East and has published a number of articles about his experience.