Monday, March 12, 2018

Evangelicals and Catholics

I touched down in 2009 and grabbed this. James made the point that reprising older posts is n ot strictly being conversational, and he is absolutely right. I'm doing it anyway. I will do it all week, because I will be watching the Iditarod mushers come in.

Evangelicals lack knowledge about the European churches which they spring from. Christian school history books will reference some high points of the Reformation, with particular emphasis on translating the Bible into the language of the people, but religious history for them very nearly ends at 100AD and picks up again at 1600AD in colonial America. This is changing, but remains largely true. Exceptions to this run along ethnic lines, as each group does tend to preserve something from its ancestral faith even into the New World.

This seems odd, but it is partially true of every religious group in America. Even Catholics, Jews, and the Orthodox, which have abundant histories in many times and places, tend to focus on the foreign context which immediately preceded their ancestors coming to America. The evangelicals are just more pronounced in this. The fundamentalists are more pronounced still - I will get to them later.

Will Herberg wrote Protestant, Catholic, Jew in the late 50's, about an era when nearly everyone in America identified with one of those categories - the era we grew up in. He made the observation that not only did most Protestant churches in America seem more like each other than they did like their European origins, but that even Catholics and Jews had a generic Americanism about them, in contrast to their churches across the water. These latter commonalities were not so pronounced, but still observable. Foreign visitors often remarked on it, seldom with approval, and American visitors to Europe were often struck by the difference between Mass in an Italian village or worship in a Lutheran edifice outside Munich and what they experienced at home. Language was certainly a large part of this, and the appearance of the people around them in the old place and the new, but a strain of Americanism seemed to infect all churches.

This is less true now, as the wealthy, dominant, well-attended American churches have influenced the European churches since then. There was an informality at Mass outside Dublin that was different from the world Tracy's great-grandparents left. It is as much a globalization as it is an Americanization of the world's cultures, but we get the credit and the blame as the most recognisable player. (On a side note, McDonald's is often a focus of anger of the world's nations at their disappearing culture. No one here asked for this, I have heard English friends complain. Well sure they did. There was an existing market for beef sandwiches cheap and fast in a consistent setting that included clean restrooms and preparation standards. The fat and calories seldom exceeded the local fare. People have flocked to such places as soon as they've opened - even in Paris and Vienna - because they met a need that already existed. No new values were imposed.)

Thus, Americans tend to highlight the history of the Christian church in America. Catholics, the Orthodox, and the Jews are likely to know something more of their faith's history, but not often a lot - and not always accurate. Evangelicals are an exaggeration of this trend, not an exception.

Modern evangelicals descend from two broad church groups: frontier fundamentalists and those from the mainstream denominations who have disliked the changes of the last decades. The former group was bitterly anti-Catholic (and often anti-Lutheran, Episcopal, and Orthodox as well, because they were too Catholic-seeming). The latter group, not so much. They tended to see Catholics as another mainstream denomination - a bit more separate and hierarchical, but not entirely different. The alliance between Catholics and evangelicals around the issue of abortion, and to a lesser extent around issues of sexual morality, has seriously undermined the anti-Catholic tendencies inherited from the fundies. One can still find it, but it's disappearing. Anti-catholic prejudice among evangelicals now comes more from the ex-Catholics.

Fundamentalism comes from an interesting coincidence of the printing press and frontier culture, including especially architecture and formal education. The Protestant idea of having worship in the language of the people may not have been an accidental coincidence with the invention of the printing press and the general spread of a moderate literacy in Europe. Protestantism has always been very Bible-centered in that way. But this written word emphasis was balanced by the houses of worship themselves in Europe. St. Dennis-by-the-Wey might switch from Catholic to C of E, but it was still dedicated to St. Dennis, still had the same windows and pews, and childhood memories. People might want to throw off Roman rule and structure, but there was never any thought of throwing the whole thing out.

On the American frontier, settled largely by a combination of Scots-Irish Presbyterians, Methodists, and Baptists, all with a history of independent religious meetings outside of the church building, plus a German/Moravian strain of Pietism that emphasised simplicity and personal devotion. These throve in a region where there were no church buildings, but had constant movement, little formal education but a respect for the written word, and a fierce independence. Me 'n my Bible is all I need. There's God right there, in the book. Portable. Individual. Little wonder that one-time salvationism, rather than community involvement, took off so well. The Scots-Irish moved out from Appalachia and settled southwest, which may be why the beating heart of fundamentalism has always been Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri, and west Tennessee. The frontier settlers in the northern half of the US, the Germans, Dutch, and Scandinavians, had similar attitudes, but a bit more connection to history, tradition, and decorative arts in the sanctuary.

The Scots-Irish in particular, because of their historical memory of the Siege of Derry and mutual suspicion of Catholics in Ireland (see Belfast, Glasgow, with equal murder rates to US cities) were anti-Catholic and carried that prejudice long after they had ceased to have much connection with actual Catholics. They were suspicious of Easterners, more suspicious of Europeans, and most suspicious of all of Catholics, which seemed to them the distillation of everything wrong with Europe. So they also disliked Episcopalians and Lutherans for not rejecting Catholicism forcefully enough. Preacher talks straight from the Wordogod. You can look it up yourself.

By about 1800 you see the emergence of fanatically anti-Catholic sects, such as the Seventh Day Adventists. The reputed antisemitism of these groups is more mixed. They were very ambivalent on this score, some even being philosemites. Their only history was Bible history, but they counted it as their own, and so...er, well, despite the natural animosity that all human groups seem to feel for one another, and despite all the inherited stories about Jews killing Jesus, these were people who took their Bible stories very seriously. They saw themselves in those stiff-necked Jews. If that tribe had rejected their own Jesus, well, brother, you 'n I might not have done any better. The lives and beliefs of their actual ancestors or institutional ancestors faded into the mist.

As the frontier was settled, buildings built, and people grew up in towns they stayed in, the usual irony occurred: they became deeply conservative about the times of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers. The historical impulse will not be denied, I think. The fundamentalists identified strongly with the lives of their immediate ancestors, even if they had forgotten most of what had been five to twenty generations before. The King James Bible itself became a part of the faith. (I don't know if you ever run across that, but there are still fundamentalists who believe the KJV, derived from the textus receptus, is the only reliable translation. A weird guy who developed an interest in my two Romanian sons tried to convince them of that - an amazing denseness when you think of it. The Bible that God uses - his return address stickers actually say that.)

Hey, I kinda like this essay. I think I'm going to post it.

So, completely lost in the whole understanding of Catholicism and its symbols and rituals is the idea those people couldn't read. They needed that. And the best of them devoted their lives to expressing the great truths of the faith artistically. What would you do? And as for keeping a great deal of Latin in the Mass, it was not only an expression of Vatican dominance and intentional mysteriousness. It also communicated the transnational, universal nature of the church against the tribal and nationalist urges of human beings in general.

In a related matter, this is why American evangelicals do not hesitate to evangelise Jews - which annoys the heck out of Jews who are aware of their history in Europe among the Christians. But to the evangelical, all that history seems to have nothing to do with them. They are related biologically only in the most distant way. They are related institutionally only indirectly. They repudiated the European churches two- three hundred years ago. There has been prejudice here, but no pogroms, no holocausts.

Until very recently, I sided with the Jews on that. I am a bit of a philosemite. But after getting into an online argument with a Jewish woman who regarded even modest modifications to the idea of Christian perfidy as mere evasions, I have looked at this differently. How many centuries is enough before the American experience of Jews outweighs what our seventh cousins did? As a medievalist, I felt quite connected and sorrowful about the Christian persecutions. But in the argument, I started to question my premises. My institutional and biological ancestors were Swedish Lutherans, Puritans from the south of England, Scots-Irish Presbyterians. For what reason should I feel an identification with any persecutors of Jews? If Christian doctrine leads so readily to antisemitism, why did it not infect my people as well?

In 500AD the Mediterranean had culture and civilization, China had culture and civilization, Persia and India had culture and civilization. Europe had violent, 99% illiterate, barbaric pagan torturers. Enter Christianity, very irregularly and incompletely, and the whole world slowly changes. It is fashionable to accuse Christianity, especially Catholicism, of all the ills of the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. What if the opposite is true? What if the crimes are mainly the crimes of all human tribes everywhere, killing outsiders and having no values above tribal loyalty? Except that monks kept good records, and the desire for virtue preceded virtue itself, so we have an ample catalogue of Christian sins.

The Puritans get the rap and reputation for witch-burning for a one-off incident in a notoriously unreligious seaport in Massachusetts. In Europe, the farther east you went, the more witches got burned, especially in the less religious areas.

But that's another story. I get irked about the misreporting of the Crusades and the Inquisition, too. People have a narrative that is congenial to their desires, and cherry pick the historical data to suit that.

6 comments:

james said...

Actually I meant the "Great Conversation" that the compilers of the Great Books series used as a metaphor for the millennia-long debates in Western Civ.

Faced with the greats one feels a need to write in a coordinated and systematic way, and scattered blog posts feel inadequate. At least mine do.

Your observations match mine about anti-Catholic attitudes among evangelicals--almost all are either ex-Catholics or very old. (Did you read Stark's Bearing False Witness?)

WRT ancestral wrongs, I tend to use a personal statute of limitations rule: If the offenders and offendees are dead and more than three generations back, I ignore the complaints. Complaints about US slavery fall into that category, and the Armenian genocide is almost there too.

Earl Wajenberg said...

"He made the observation that not only did most Protestant churches in America seem more like each other than they did like their European origins, but that even Catholics and Jews had a generic Americanism about them, in contrast to their churches across the water."

I was recently informed, by an Italian friend of a friend, that American Catholics hardly seemed Catholic to him at all. This was annoying, because it was in the context of me trying to write fiction with Catholic characters of an imaginary European nation, so that, being an American Protestant, I didn't have a lot of resources to turn to.

This probably relates to Chesterton's remark about America being a nation with the soul of a church.

Sam L. said...

KJV: I attend a Methodist church which uses some kind of new English version. It just sounds WRONG to me, having grown up with the KJV.

Grim said...

Me 'n my Bible is all I need. There's God right there, in the book.

There's something very important in that line. Maybe you don't even need the book: God made the world, after all, and thus you learn about the creator by learning about his work.

It's a very different approach, and one that stands as a serious challenge to Catholicism and similar approaches. I don't think the Church has adequately engaged it even yet.

Texan99 said...

The Episcopalians appeal to me in part because of their relatively firm grasp on the history of the church, not skipping over quite so thoroughly everything between 100 A.D. and 1600 A.D. We joke about its being Catholic-Lite or Catholicism-without-that-pesky-Pope, but it is apostolic. it's also quite anchored in the Biblical text. I'm often surprised by how little Biblical text is included in the average Baptist service. The Episcopal service includes a lot of the Bible even in the liturgy, before you get to the readings and Psalms. In my experience, the sermons also are anchored in the Bible, though that may be a perspective peculiar to the rather traditional Western U.S.

As for the persecution of the Jews, I look at that in the same way that I look at the Jews' persecution of Christ: that's old Adam, and it's in all of us. There is no group, no religion, no era free of the temptation to violent purging of outsiders and heretics. Anti-semitism crops up over and over everywhere, and where there are no Jews, it crops up against any insular and rather successful group with perceived ties to outsiders: Chinese merchants, Armenians, Indians in Africa, Koreans in L.A. It astonishes me how easily people can blame "the Jews" for killing Christ, as if any other society would have been less prone to that horrible error. That's not "them," that's "us."

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