In August 2008 Rick Santorum gave a speech to students at Ave Maria University, a Catholic institution, in Florida. More than anything, Santorum reminded the students that they were fortunate to be living at a time when God's army was needed to rebuff satanic attacks against the institutions that form the framework of society.
"This is not a political war at all. This is not a cultural war at all. This is a spiritual war. And the Father of Lies has his sights on what you would think the Father of Lies, Satan, would have his sights on: a good, decent, powerful, influential country, the United States of America," said Santorum.
Santorum, himself a Catholic, then described the fall of the academic world. The next target was the church. "Now you'd say, 'Well, wait, the Catholic Church?' No. We all know that this country was founded on a Judeo-Christian Ethic. . . . But this was a Protestant country and the Protestant ethic. Mainstream, mainline Protestantism. And of course we look at the shape of mainline Protestantism in this country, and it is in a shambles. It is gone from the world of Christianity as I see it. . . . And what better way to go after smart people who also believe they're pious—to use both vanity and pride to go after the church."
As a Protestant, I was initially offended by this statement when the media spread the word that Santorum believed that Protestantism was gone from the world of Christianity. I wanted to jump up and shout, "I'm still here!" And I'm not alone. In fact, the National Council of Churches claims that nearly 45 million Americans, or 16 percent of the electorate, are members of mainstream, mainline Protestant churches. This doesn't include the millions of other evangelicals who fall within the wide range of Protestantism that is broadly defined as Christians not belonging to the Roman Catholic or Eastern churches.
It may seem incredible that a candidate for the highest office in the land could express himself using such cutting terms, but what did he actually mean? Certainly Santorum wasn't so much attacking Protestantism as much as he was lamenting a condition that he believed had led to the decline of Judeo-Christian values in America. As Santorum saw it, the devil had used "those great vices of pride, vanity, and sensuality as the root to attack all of the strong plants that have so deeply rooted in the American tradition."
While beliefs may vary between members of a diverse range of faith groups, Protestants generally share several beliefs. Protestants are Christians who deny the divine authority of the pope and believe in the Reformation principles justification by faith alone rather than by works, the priesthood of believers, and the primacy of the Bible as the source of revealed truth.1
In 1517, German-Catholic monk Martin Luther unwittingly split the Catholic Church in Europe when he nailed his ninety-five theses regarding the power and efficacy of indulgences to the door of the chapel at Wittenberg.2 At the time, the Vatican was commercially selling "indulgences" that would allow believers the opportunity to shorten the "temporal punishment" that members of the communion of the saints faced to purify themselves on the way to eternal life in heaven. Catholics believed that the church contained the one body of Christ, and the holiness of some could work to the benefit of others, living or dead.
In Catholic thought, there was God, then the saints, then the church hierarchy that handled the spiritual welfare, then the government that served the civil functions, and then finally the individual. Martin Luther argued, in contrast, that the individual believer stood before God. He believed in the "priesthood of all believers."3 From Luther's perspective, no church authority or government could stand in the role of mediator between the believer and God.
The implications of this view, which took on the term Protestant after a group of German princes "protested" the inevitable Papal injunction against Luther, shook the very structure of Europe. No longer could kings claim to rule generation after generation by divine right; a pope could no longer claim that he held the keys to salvation or ask others to jump through extra hoops in order to gain salvation. In Protestant thought, salvation was attained through faith in Jesus Christ, and the common person could have a personal relationship directly with Christ who stood in the role of priest and advocate before God the Father.
Protestantism also encouraged Bible study and individual prayers. Before the Protestant Reformation, it was largely illegal for common people to have access to the Bible. In 1229 the Council of Toulouse formed an ecclesiastical tribunal to seek out heretics, later known as the Inquisition. Canon 14 of the Council stated: "We prohibit also that the laity should be permitted to have the books of the Old or New Testament; unless anyone from motive of devotion should wish to have the Psalter or the Breviary for divine offices or the hours of the blessed Virgin; but we most strictly forbid their having any translation of these books."4
In the centuries that followed, the idea that believers were equals in the eyes of God was fundamental to the formation of the American form of democracy in which any citizen could become active in government. People could freely choose to group together to form churches, or not. The government would not establish churches or limit the free exercise rights of the citizens. The rights of believers and nonbelievers alike were jealously protected.
Americans could benefit from the unprecedented individual civil and religious freedom that resulted from keeping the sphere of the church distinct from the sphere of the state. What an individual believed about God, or how he or she exercised these beliefs, was no concern of the state. The state did not get involved in what the church taught, and churches could not set the agenda for the state.
This individualist Protestant ethic and republic form of government were the two factors that made America a free country and set the standard for true freedom of religion. The American legal system was rooted in the rule of law, specifically the United States Constitution and its Bill of Rights, not in the individual whims of government officials or religious leaders. The resulting environment gave religion, spirituality, property rights, and entrepreneurship the room to thrive throughout American history. The primary times when these principles were challenged occurred in situations when people attempted to use the force of politics or religion, or a combination of both, to rob others of their God-given freedoms and inherent human worth.
While there were certainly practical reasons for the proposition of religious freedom, evident in the establishment and free exercise clauses of the First Amendment, the Founders went beyond a simple expression of tolerance to appreciation of the freedom itself.
In contrast to European countries that support their "national churches" with tax money, and where birthright plays a large role in determining the likelihood of individual success, the American form of government has proved its benefits to Americans, whether they are children of generations of Americans or recent immigrants. This freedom of self-determination forms the cradle of the American dream.
Even as Santorum recognizes the contribution of mainline Protestantism to the foundation of the United States, he argues that Protestantism is in a mode of self-destruction. Indeed, mainstream Protestantism has fallen on hard times. Many American churchgoers have grown tired of theological and moral standards that change with the times as much of the Protestant world tracks a popular culture that caters to the lowest common denominator. Yet, can one fault churches when it is no advertising secret that magazines featuring cover stories of the latest Kardashian mishap sell far more copies to an American public that does not want to spend its leisure time contemplating the greater, more complex issues of life? Santorum decries the vanity and sensuality that has pervaded Protestantism, as things that once seemed unthinkable in Christianity have become accepted norms.
Historically, the collapse of moderate religious groups is often replaced with either secularism, such as that following the French Revolution, or fundamentalism, such as that experienced in post-Mubarak Egypt. There are certainly forces at work in America pushing along both of these lines of thought. Secularists are uncomfortable when churches espouse politically incorrect beliefs, and fundamentalists seek to restore their concept of Judeo-Christian values through a variety of means, including the use of legislation that they hope will somehow limit the availability of sin.
In contrast to the tepidity of mainline Protestantism, Roman Catholicism has avoided much of this turmoil. Catholicism has long addressed moral issues by stating moral standards that it remains firm on regardless of whether or not adherents agree with them or live by them. Although not perfect in this application, rightly or wrongly, there is no question as to what the Catholic Church believes. This strength of conviction, based as much on religious hierarchy as ideological belief, places Catholic and fundamentalist evangelical ideas at a powerful political advantage over Protestant churches that approach issues from an individual perspective that might ultimately carry the day.
For the wrong type of religious fundamentalism to take root in America, the principles of Protestantism and democracy need only to begin to fail. Protestant America is in danger of following these trends when it stops believing in the power of God and begins to believe in the value of beliefs. When belief becomes primary, there is pressure to use the power of the church to first influence politicians with compatible views and to extend the power of the church to the government and into the local communities.
Just because Christians believe something does not mean that the government needs to make a law to enforce that belief. To put it bluntly, in America it is legal to believe things that could compromise your own eternal salvation. The state will not stand in the way of incorrect theology. And it would be wrong for the state to assume such power, because, in Protestant thought, spiritual actions and even knowledge without an internal change of heart are worthless.
Conservatives who often express great concern about an emerging "nanny state" ought to take specific note of religious rules coming from the right as well as the left. If Protestantism is, as Santorum suggests, on life support, then it is in desperate need of revival as a belief system that recognizes that the grace of God can fall unfiltered on individuals. Protestantism, indeed Christianity and other religious beliefs, are here to tell the world that there is something more than what we see around us and to point to transcendental beliefs.
If American Protestantism wants to reach its potential, it needs to work to elevate humanity, not by conforming itself to secular society or forcing secular society to conform to its religion, but by pointing the world to a better alternative. If the Protestant faith community can truly embrace this calling—and it is a calling, not a prodding—it will achieve the transformation that it seeks to achieve in the hearts of Americans and people around the world.
1 "Protestant," Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Available online at www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/protestant.
2 A full copy of the ninety-five theses is available at www.icinet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/ninetyfive.html.
3 See 1 Peter 2:9.
4 S. R. Maitland, Facts and Documents ( London: Rivington, 1832), pp.192-194, in Heresy and Authority in Medieval Europe, edited with an introduction by Edward Peters (London, Scolar Press, 1980), pp. 194, 195.
Author: Michael D. Peabody
Michael D. Peabody is an attorney in Los Angeles, California. He has practiced in the fields of workers compensation and employment law, including workplace discrimination and wrongful termination. He is a frequent contributor to Liberty magazine and editsReligiousLiberty.TV, an independent website dedicated to celebrating liberty of conscience. Mr. Peabody is a favorite guest on Liberty’s weekly radio show, “Lifequest Liberty.”