Book Review: “Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World”

Harry Green on May 29, 2018

In keeping with popular terminology, Alec Ryrie, professor of Christian history at Durham University, describes Protestantism as a “love affair with God.” He describes Protestants as “lovers and fighters,” contributing to the tumultuous history of their movement. Protestants: The Faith that Made the Modern World is not a Bible primer. Although Ryrie is eminently qualified with a Ph.D. in theology from Oxford, he avoids jumping in to love and fight himself. That would have made the book longer, and probably less enjoyable. This is a history, which judges the actions of movements, more than judging their dogma.

There are three aspects of the modern world that Ryrie attributes to the Protestant Reformation and its subsequent evolution. First, Protestants inspired “free inquiry”—that is, free speech and religious freedom. Second, they have helped to reinforce governmental accountability. Finally, the Reformation helped inculcate the idea of apolitical religion. This notion encompasses the principle of separating church and state. The book is similarly tripartite, as it covers the rise, consolidation, and proliferation of Protestantism.

Ryrie treats the notion of biblical experience with an anthropologist’s charity, and he largely avoids blasting the credulous accounts of inspiration almost universally invoked by would-be cultists. It would be counter-productive, anyway. Ryrie argues that “human conscience” is the medium through which faith is communicated. Protestantism’s aim has been to remove barriers between man and God, so personal experience becomes central to spirituality and to Protestant history.

His work will alienate. Conservative fundamentalists will be irked by his criticism and his highly sympathetic portrayal of left-wing American Christianity. Left-wing believers will be bothered by his refusal to condemn fundamentalists in absolute terms and his dogged defense of scriptural truth as a criterion for religious accuracy. Some of his choices will annoy almost everyone. Pentecostals are given a chapter to themselves and a far more charitable reading here than many other writers would provide. Jehovah’s Witnesses are also given high regard, especially in resisting Nazism. Ryrie even views the anti-reproduction Shaker sect with respect. He does not describe Mormonism as Christian, and puts little stock in the “prosperity gospel” but refuses to condemn it outright.

He is not kind to his own tradition. Ryrie viciously castigates the Church of England as a servile, obsequious institution. For a good 400 years, the book points out, its bishops have barely if ever criticized the government. Indeed, they take pains to praise it and Britain’s anachronistic monarchy. (Ryrie does not mention the central role that Scottish bishops played in the creation of the American Episcopal Church.)

Ryrie does make one strange and notable intellectual misstep. While discussing the degree to which Protestants are a reliable voting base for the Republican Party, he suggests that this phenomenon is “a problem not for the political left, but for American Christianity.” This might be the most partisan statement in the book. Oddly, he does not account for the dynamics of the United States’ two-party system.

Throughout the book, Protestantism’s bipolar attitude toward unity is in full display. Like Taiwan and China, or North and South Korea, opposing factions profess a desire for unity. Inevitably, they fail because they demand it largely on their own terms. Abortion is the one issue where Ryrie sees a broad consensus, even though this viewpoint rarely affects the voting preferences of left-wing Christians.

In conjunction, the reader finds cases of the self-defeating viewpoint that persecution necessarily indicates righteousness. This is a common Protestant view in the book, arguably beginning with the Gnesio-Lutherans. This habit has affected Protestants on either extreme of the political spectrum. and might partially explain each side’s political choice. There’s a perception that the more we’re being persecuted for our political beliefs, the more those beliefs must be right. In a bipolar system, unity is almost forced. The desire to defeat the enemy rather than safeguard integrity is sensible. An alternative political party would only split the vote in the short term. This fear was in full display during the 2016 American presidential election. Bernie Sanders voters did not, for instance, flock to the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

Third parties commanded a pittance in the 2016 election—a cycle defined by cynicism and disillusionment. The degree to which the two-party system is internalized in the American conscience cannot be overstated. Conservatives do not always vote Republican because they love the party, but because they believe they have no other option. No matter the flaws of the Republican Party, there are no alternatives forthcoming. Some have theorized that Evangelical support for Trump derived from staunch opposition to abortion. Aiming for unity prevents voters from forming new political entities. The expectation of persecution enables them to shrug off criticism.

Fundamentalists have historically seen themselves as “responsible for America’s soul.” Ryrie argues this is a secondary priority. The first priority for any Protestant group is to be left alone. LGBT weddings are far less controversial than a legal requirement that churches officiate them, or for Christian bakers to decorate for them. Few modern Protestants advocate a state religion, but they will vigorously defend religiously-motivated homeschooling. Remaking America in God’s image is less urgent than ensuring that Christianity is not remade in man’s image. Protestants makes a somewhat bolder statement, predicting “few Protestants will have the stomach for forcing their own moral disciplines onto entire societies, often preferring to use those disciplines to differentiate themselves.”

This statement relies on a particular understanding of “their own moral disciplines.” The platform preamble of the Constitution Party in the United States is instructive. It professes a religious identity while very strenuously denying any intent at creating a theocracy. They argue that religious liberty is itself a Christian ideal. Ryrie himself depicts religious liberty as a Protestant legacy in the introduction. The Constitution Party’s statement in this regard seems more like intellectual honesty rather than “forcing” of any sort. Admitting Christian, and particularly Protestant, contributions to freedom of inquiry is perfectly historical.

In Ryrie’s description, these contributions make sense. Protestantism is dynamic, with a strong curiosity and self-doubt. The book copiously attests to the querulous nature of the “faith.” From its beginnings in Germany to its current incarnations worldwide, Protestantism has battled to reconcile authority and freedom. This is appropriate. It is, in a sense, the paradox of Christian existence.

Editor’s note: Today’s guest author is Harry Green, an intern at Providence: A Journal of Christianity and American Foreign Policy

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