The Opening of the Protestant Mind

From The Wall Street Journal:

‘Evangelicals,” or born-again Protestants—Christians who believe in converting non-Christians to their faith—haven’t had a lot of great press of late. The mainstream media all but blamed them for the 2016 election of Donald Trump. Going further back are evangelical ties to the Moral Majority and the religious right. Evangelicals in both politics and religion have a reputation for intolerance. They may have earned it: In 2017, the Pew Research Center found that evangelicals, more than any other Christian group, viewed Hindus, Buddhists, Mormons, atheists and Muslims unfavorably.

Mark Valeri’s “The Opening of the Protestant Mind” isn’t about 21st-century America, but his exploration of born-again Protestantism’s historical roots upends assumptions about religious conversion. Instead of making Christians intolerant, coming to faith by conversion historically went hand in hand with reasonableness, civility and religious toleration. Most readers would likely assume the opposite: If you believe other people need to convert to your faith from theirs, chances are you won’t give them much of a hearing. In Mr. Valeri’s interpretation, though, a figure like Jonathan Edwards, famous for preaching “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” may have been among the most liberal and progressive thinkers in the Anglophone world.

Mr. Valeri’s narrative of Anglo-American Protestantism between 1650 and 1750 is not as oxymoronic as it initially sounds. The Protestant outlook that prevailed in English society at the time of Charles I’s execution in 1649 assumed that the “health of the state depended on a . . . religious confession” to supply social coherence. For the rest of the 17th century, when English writers (including American colonists) encountered non-Christians, they saw “illegitimate, dangerous, and demonic” religions.

But after the Glorious Revolution in 1688, in which the threat of a Catholic monarch was decisively ended, English Protestants began to distinguish “loyalty to the kingdom” from “conformity to any one creed.” English writers—some zealous Protestants, others philosophically inclined—“minimized theological orthodoxy” as a requirement for social standing. Not only did these authors discover “republican ideas of toleration and moral virtue” in other religions; they also revised Christianity. Conversion became the path to faith not by submission to dogma but by persuasion. This shift aided the ascendant Whigs in governing a diverse religious constituency. It also prompted Protestants to regard conversion (and awakenings) as the mark of true faith.

Mr. Valeri, a professor of religion and politics at Washington University in St. Louis, refers to a variety of authors well known and obscure. In the case of John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration” (1689), the key to civil liberty was separating the purpose of the state from that of the church. If religious controversy threatened public order, the state should intervene. Otherwise government should leave religious groups to themselves. Locke’s outlook extended to Native Americans: “If they believe that they please God and are saved by the rites of their forefathers, they should be left to themselves.” Jonathan Edwards, who for a time served as a missionary to Native Americans, echoed Locke. Although an advocate for the First Great Awakening, Edwards regarded the Mohawks and English people as spiritual equals because they shared the same sinful human nature. For that reason, Edwards thought acculturating Native Americans to Anglo-American conventions as unimportant compared with converting them through persuasive preaching.

The 1733 English publication of “The Ceremonies and Religious Customs of the Various Nations of the Known World” is Mr. Valeri’s best example. Compiled by two French Protestants, Bernard Picart and Jean Frédéric Bernard, this popular book reinforced the ideal of conversion. Especially appealing to Anglo-American Protestants was the French catalogers’ contention that ceremonial religion represented an illegitimate “alliance between priests and secular rulers who persecuted religious dissenters.” Ritualized Christianity went hand-in-hand with imperial ambition and produced “uncivil, unreasonable, and coercive” religion.

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

PG notes that there were periods in history (including the times that the book described in the OP discusses) when religion had the power to impel men and women to many different actions.

The Crusades were a series of religious wars between Christians and Muslims that started primarily to secure control of holy sites considered sacred by both groups. In all, eight major Crusade expeditions—varying in size, strength and degree of success—occurred between 1096 and 1291.

The Muslim conquests were a military expansion on an unprecedented scale, beginning in the lifetime of Muhammad and spanning the centuries down to the Ottoman wars in Europe.

PG compares the general power of religion to cause humans to exert substantial amounts of money and blood in ancient times with the far more subtle influences of religion in the 21st Century. PG is certainly pleased that there have been no major religious wars lately, but he also wonders if religion, taken as a whole, occupies a smaller place in the minds of humanity, speaking generally, in today’s world.

PG asks that comments to this post not insult any particular religion or its adherents.

21 thoughts on “The Opening of the Protestant Mind”

  1. Speaking as a religious outsider (atheist, raised Catholic, Jewish ancestry), it seems to me, especially in those parts of America which are not gigantic urban failures, that the old formal religious tolerance has been so acculturated as to no longer be a significant issue (except privately). What has evolved as its public successor has been a general willingness for religious organizations of all stripes to find ways to serve their communities, regardless of religious participation. They might not work together literally, but they work to similar purposes.

    I’m frequently struck by the depth of community service that comes from what I think of as a feature of small towns/cities and prior generations, a degree of tolerance and the acceptance of responsibility to practice some of the more charitable teachings. [The fact that this is sometimes accompanied by aggrandizement and “Causes!” is an unfortunate defect (perhaps ineradicably inherent to all who preach) not a feature.]

    Coming as I do from elite mid-West suburbs where religion is only noticed as a class issue, it is noteworthy how many people I encounter socially in more conventional locations who share an assumption of responsibility to look out for their fellow men, one way or another, through various service and volunteer organizations. The military, as a whole, seems to be viewed from that perspective, too (service, not a career). There is a sincerity to it that would completely puzzle my religiously-diluted associates from my old neighborhood.

    I lived for 20 years in a Connecticut town (at the extreme range of a NYC commute) which had an annual Main Street local parade. I’ve come to think that we as a nation are socially divided between people who admire parades as spectacles, and people who see parades as a way to show their pride in their community accomplishments. That’s a deep difference, and I believe it illustrates the continuing thread of religion, however personal, in those communities, even if they exercise it strain by strain, tolerating each other (in the American tradition of a melting pot), instead of universally, as a state religion.

    • I’ve come to think that we as a nation are socially divided between people who admire parades as spectacles, and people who see parades as a way to show their pride in their community accomplishments.

      Yes. A not-unrelated division (which originated as a meme in the primordial soup of the Chans, then clambered ashore to Twitter) is the one between those who return shopping carts and those who leave them in the parking lot.

      • Aldi’s charges twenty-five cents for a cart. Return it to the corral, and you get your quarter back. There is never a stray cart in the lot.

        • A clever hack for a formerly high-trust society on its way to becoming just another low-trust society. But like the electrical tape and baling wire that holds a jalopy together, clever hacks only take you so far. A society that operates on the principle “I’ve got mine, Jack” survives as long as there are enough bright, shiny quarters to go around, and not one moment longer.

          • The genius of capitalism is that it can be driven by greed, but far greater benefits accrue to the rest of society. I might start a company to make a fortune for myself, but I also provide jobs to thousands, and goods to millions.

          • When were those thrilling days of yesteryear when the high-trust society marched the carts back to their home. Where?

            • The distinction between high-trust and low-trust societies is hardly a novel one, and certainly is not a concept original to me. But what is fairly new is the transformation of America from the former to the latter, a process that seems to have begun (as best I can tell) sometime after 1945. It has proceeded more rapidly in some parts of the country than others, of course.

              For instance, I am reliably informed that within living memory, people used to hitchhike fairly often, sometimes even from coast to coast. When I was a child, older family members would speak of how they routinely used to pick up hitchhikers. Perhaps you grew up hearing similar stories. And Kerouac, as you might recall, wrote a fair amount about the practice. But motorists are mostly too wary to pick up hitchhikers any more. Contemporary novels or movies about it invariably fall within the horror category.

              Similarly, every now and then some young Scandinavian mother (even today, places like Japan and the Scandinavian countries are famously high-trust) visiting, say, Manhattan, will find herself in the headlines because she left her baby unattended in a stroller outside a restaurant while she enjoyed a meal. It is the sort of thing Scandinavians do all the time in their own lands, partly so the baby will get sunshine and fresh air, partly as a courtesy to other patrons. If you try that in America, however, then you got some ‘splainin’ to do to Child Protective Services.

              Indeed, it is not unheard of these days for worried neighbors to call 911 because they see children playing unattended in a yard or at a park. That would have been unthinkable even a generation ago.

  2. PG is certainly pleased that there have been no major religious wars lately

    Then perhaps that means one is overdue. Despite the claim of an economist friend of mine that all wars are about money, I grow increasingly convinced that the escalating conflict between Russia and the Collective West is at bottom a religious one.

  3. I am afraid that PG’s definition of “major religious war” differs from mine… and that the “of late” matters as much as does the “major.” To name a few, each of which involved/involves as many people/combatants as any of the Crusades:

    • Nigeria (if Boko Ha’ram isn’t making this into a “religious war” there’s another definition that matters)
    • the entire Levant
    • the religious civil war involving the Uighurs
    • Sudan/South Sudan

    Given my first profession (and in particular its concentration), I have a rather more expansive concept of “war” than most; in my experience, the operative part of “cold war” is not the first word. That it hasn’t been unlimited “major religious war” is of small comfort to the casualties… but then, the concept of “unlimited war” only began to be considered with de Groot’s (latinized as Grotius) works shortly before a three-decade period in which it was really, really hard to tell the difference among “religious”, “dynastic”, and “merely sociopathic” characters of warfare. And it didn’t get serious attention until less than 150 years ago — we we’re still learning (or, more often, not learning).

    • The Uighur war is a pretty one sided, no?

      Just out of curiosity what would you set as the lower boundary for “war”? Politicians are a bit liberal on its use for the low end of the conflict scale.

      At what point does riot or occupation move out of police work and into insurrection and military concerns? France and its no-go banlieus comes to mind…

      • The “lower boundary for war” is — complicated and fuzzy. The best I could do is give you a reading list, and then we could argue about it for a couple of decades while never reaching a conclusion. As a very simple example, did the June 1967 Arab-Israeli count as a “war”? How about the 1970 confrontations between Egypt and Israel? (Hint: One of them had more casualties; one of them seized more territory.) Keep in mind that politically and under international law, Egypt and Israel were “at war” from 1947 to 1978.

        And we won’t say the “V” word in polite company. Wait a minute, this is an authors’ forum, no worries about the company being polite…

        • Well, I figure “tanks blowing up” = war. Tanks rolling over unarmed citizens, not.
          State vs state = war.
          State vs its people? Maybe. (Ottomans vs Armenians)
          Citizens vs citizens? Dunno. (Mexico narcos.)

          Humans have an infinity of excuses and ways to kill humans in job lots. Makes it hard to distinguish Napoleonic War from “they’re shooting at us, they’re killing us”.

          And now, tech has added extra dimensions with indirect ways to kill and destroy, such as cyberwarfare, currency manipulation, gain of function viruses (that one certainly boomeranged), and russia’s destruction of ukrainian agricultural infrastructure trying for Holodomor 2.0 but more likely to disrupt the arabs space with another “spring”. If russia creates a famine in africa that kills millions, is that war?

          And then there is France with its fraying social contract. The national front is rising. Will it go the way of Spain in 1492? Germany’s economy is broken, will it do the same? Even Sweden is unhappy with the unassimikating aliens they invited. None of it is ” diplomacy by other means” but it’ll be nasty.

          Fuzzy indeed.

  4. Oh, I missed this post.

    I see most religions as a record of an alien being showing up, dazzling the natives, then either dying or returning to outer space.


    – Outer space = the heavens

    The role of religion in humanity has not really reduced, it has merely appeared to go away because the mainstream media no longer discusses it in public the way they did when I was a kid.

    Though, the mainstream media is pushing the latest religion that they are forcing on people, under all the variations that describe the religion of Marxism that is tearing the world apart. i.e., Woke, Trans, SJW, DEI, etc…

    BTW, I collect heresies, and assemble them like tinkertoys to form new variations. When I search, I find that what I have assembled is an actual denomination that has been around a thousand years.

    This is great for Story. I can see a whole series based on the belief that Nietzsche mentioned. That god is dead.

    “Nietzsche saw the death of God as a liberation of the human spirit, which he believed would lead to the rise of nihilism.”

    He misinterpreted the earlier denomination that he based his idea on, but he wasn’t wrong in his conclusion. Nihilism indeed.

    Plus, Protestants and Catholics are so fun when you look at what is happening.

    There are 33,000 different groups that call themselves Christian. Each little group has their One True Way, their One True Path, their One True Jesus, their One True God, and each little group thinks that the other 33,000 are Heretical. They are of course right.

    “Heresy” is the greek word for “choice”, so each little group chooses what to believe.

    You can’t find any two groups that agree with each other. There are so many different flavors of each, it will make your head spin.

    But I digress.

    • Personally, I think UFOs are human artifacts from future anthropologists or cross-dimensional explorers. No way are insterstellar aliens so sloppy as to crash every other week. That smacks of human low cost bidders.

      • I thought I posted this.

        Michael Armstrong: UFO ≈ Plasma Phenomena | Thunderbolts

        The majority of UFO sightings are about “Dirty Plasma”. The “Tic Tacs” are at what is called the “Z-Pinch” in a Plasma column.

        A bolt of lightning occurs in a flash. That same energy spins up a Plasma column. They saw the sea “boiling” where the Plasma column grounds itself on the surface.

        The “Tic Tacs” move up and down the column, and move side to side as the Plasma column twists.

        – The Plasma “Tic Tacs” look like “metal” on radar.

        In other cases, the Plasma column would form a full water spout or tornado. Once we understand the mechanism, we can stop Plasma columns from forming, the same way we protect houses from lightning. They have been working on this for decades, but funding is hard when consensus rejects the concept.

        NASA briefly looked at “Dust Devils” here on Earth, and saw the electrical field around them, after “Dust Devils” were clearly observed on Mars by one of the landers. I can’t remember which little rover had its solar panels cleaned of dust many times by the electrical charge of a passing Martian “Dust Devil”.

        This is similar to when pilots saw Sprites, Elves, and Blue jets. They were ridiculed for decades. Now we see them from the space station on a regular basis.

        The small number of UFOs that appear to be actual craft with occupants, are paranormal events using the Plasma columns to essentially pull a prank as a Trickster aspect.

        This is great for Story at all levels.

          • That was a fun series. I have it on DVD, in a box somewhere. Just looked and it is available for streaming on Prime with ads on Freevee. I need to watch it again.


            – I remember that the aliens used liquid breathing to withstand the High-G maneuvers.

            Fun stuff.

            “Yeah, but did you really have to bring in rationality? Tsk.”

            The key point to remember is:

            – Billionaire Robert Bigelow is the force behind the latest UFO/UAP disclosure. He’s also pushing the concept of “surviving death”. I haven’t watch the series on Netflix yet.

            In Bigelow’s case, he is a believer, and the government is happy to use his money and belief to push this latest Psyop. This is another example of “Evil Geniuses” using their billions for their personal beliefs, controlling Foundations, NGOs, and politicians like Senator Reid.

            This is an episode of New Thinking Allowed that features Bigelow:

            The Making of a Paranormal Investigator with Robert Bigelow

        • My own suspicion is that all the strange quasi-official talk of late that UFOs really are of extraterrestrial origin (something that seems quite unlikely to me) means that the Pentagon is trying to gin up up an excuse to militarize Earth orbit in a big, big way. Psyops like lurid tales of Kuwaiti incubator babies and false flags like claims of Syrian chemical attacks just don’t seem to move the needle of public opinion the way they used to. Time to step things up. And besides, everybody loves a good sci-fi movie.

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