With Justice John Paul Stevens’ retirement, the last Protestant leaves the Supreme Court. Where have all the Protestants gone, especially in our country’s leading institutions? The answer is that modern Protestantism is the anti-institution institution.
The United States Supreme Court was once entirely Protestant. It now has six Catholics and two Jews. Obviously a return to a Court that is entirely Protestant is not the point, nor is Justice Stevens’ legacy as it relates to his faith. The larger issue is that the modern church—Protestant more than Catholic—distrusts institutions. It’s a distrust that’s expanded throughout the U.S. population and been exacerbated over the last 50 years.
Many institutions have failed us over the last five decades. From the launch of Sputnik; through the riots and assassinations of the 60s; the first oil shocks and gas-station lines in peacetime history; Watergate; soaring deficits; unfunded government liabilities, polarizing politics; corporate scandals; environmental degradation; vulgarized culture; the breakdown of the America family; the “potholing” of our infrastructure—all these and more have created a disenchantment with civic institutions.
“These days everyone is disenchanted with civic institutions and government. They hate the press, they loathe Congress, and so on,” writes Michael Kinsley.1 As a result, recent generations of Americans have become deeply suspicious of institutions. The problem is that American skepticism toward institutions has infected the modern American church, especially Protestantism. This wasn’t always the case.
Traditional Judaism and Christianity up to the colonial Puritans “conceived of their relationship with God on the model of ancient Israel’s covenant,” which meant a belief that the world would become progressively better if shalom was enacted.2 Early American Christians and Jews invested in shalom through investing in institutions. According to historian James Moorhead, the colonial church “planted one foot firmly in the world of the steam engines and telegraph” while keeping the other in the scripture.3 Traditional Judaism and Christianity have always been pro-institution.
This investment in institutions explains much of the experience of the Jewish community in America. Except for a brief period in the middle of the 20th century, Jews have never comprised more than three percent of the American population. “Yet the contribution of the Jewish community to literature, art, music, letters, film, and architecture is both brilliant and unrivalled—and this in a context often defined by vicious and relentless anti-Semitism. In short, their influence in the shaping of culture has been quite disproportionate to their size. The debt America owes to this small community is immeasurable,” notes James Davison Hunter.
On the other hand, the history of the conservative Christian faith traditions over the last 175 years has been one of declining influence in center institutions. The modern American church has moved from the center of cultural influence to its margins. In some arenas of American life, it is not even in the game and exerts no influence at all.
To be fair, anti-institutionalism is in modern Protestant and American Catholic faith traditions. For example, American Catholics routinely rebel against traditional Catholic teachings on abortion and birth control. “The whole American society is anti-institutional and they bring that attitude to the church,” Archbishop Rembert Weakland of Milwaukee notes. Protestant faith communities however are more proud and public about being anti-institutional. Laura Winner says of Gen Xers: “We’re seekers. We meditate. We go to Sufi dancing on Tuesday nights. We read books like Finding Your Religion: When the Faith You Grew Up with Has Lost Its Meaning. But we’re famously hostile to institutions.”4 She cites Tom Beaudoin’s book, Virtual Faith, in which he says Xers are “uncomfortable” with tradition, obsessed with personal experience to the point of being solipsistic, and suspicious of institutions.
This is not a vision of shalom. Churches of “faithful presence” seek to influence center institutions, not just religious ones. In Jeremiah 29, shalom is seeking the flourishing of Babylonian institutions by having them take seriously our definition of reality and act on it.
Protestant anti-institutionalism is both ironic and astonishing. The irony is because most American churchgoers affirm marriage as an institution established by God. They recognize that overlapping networks of media, music, universities and schools, sex-ed curriculums form the visible and invisible matrix that largely shapes what people assume to be true of marriage. They acknowledge that these overlapping networks are centered in places such as Hollywood, elite universities, Nashville, and New York where items are created that influence our appetites. Nonetheless, in spite of knowing all this, most modern faith communities remain doggedly committed to strategies that address individuals rather than institutions.
Even if another Protestant replaces Justice Stevens, the odds are high that he or she won’t be facile with the ancient Judeo-Christian faith and how it once defined reality in institutions. Thus, they’ll be the exception that proves the rule: modern American Protestantism is the anti-institution institution.
1 Michael Kinsley, “My Inflation Nightmare,” The Atlantic, April 2010, p. 35.
2 Daniel Walker Howe, What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848 (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2007), p. 286.
3 James Moorhead, World Without End: Mainstream American Protestant Visions of the Last Things (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1999), pp. 2.