The Anti-Institution Institution

Michael Metzger

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.


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  1. It took me many years to accept the wisdom in a remark made by a friend to the effect that “institutions are demonic”. As a generalization I might have said corrupt, rather than demonic,but all institutions, like people, are corrupt and in need of repentance.

    The extent of “anti-instutionalism” as you describe it is probably not exaggerated, but it is understandable. We have put our faith
    in institutions–and primarily secular institutions–to define truth, morals and even the ultimate meaning of life.

    The solution to this is not to disengage from
    institutions, but no one should be surprised at the level of disappointment, and even anger, over the fruits of this mis-placed trust.

  2. I think the “Religion online” article you cited is a pretty accurate assessment of what is happening with 20 somethings:”If you meet some real, live Xers, you might find yourself wondering about that anti-institutional stuff.” Contrary to popular opinion, we are getting connected with local churches, reclaiming historical doctrines, and taking our faith seriously. There is certainly a glimmer of hope for the future.

    The question is, how do we avoid making the same institution-ignoring mistakes of previous generations?

  3. I wonder if one reason that our Jewish brothers and sisters have had such an influence in culture is because of their response to the persecution which had defined much of their history. I wonder, therfore, if the American church will not regain it’s culture shaping influence until it,also, endures persecution of like kind; not some vague “us versus those in the world” contrived sense of hardship but real, visceral attacks which result in true sacrifice. Are we not shaping culture because we have become too powerful, too mainstream instead of becoming “too weak”?

  4. As I read through this I could not help but continue to ask the question “How has the American disdain for institutions shaped the church, and our theological thinking, for better or worse over the last several decades?”

    Any thoughts?

  5. Set aside Weakland’s theological positions, he sees reality

    As for Matt’s question: I can’t think of how anti-institutionalism has been for the better. To be skeptical is one thing. That’s what prophets and satirists do. To be anti-anything is to be absolute, and that leaves us with only bottom up, individualistic, pietistic approaches to making a difference. These ways can and do make small differences here and there. If however the objective is to change the world, these strategies will not work.

  6. It seems that many of the parachurch organizations that flourished in the last century took, of necessity, an anti-institutional posture, even while attempting to positively effect the church. I wonder if our famous individualism, a component of anti-institutionalism, might, in part be a by-product? Have anti-institution/individualistic “consumer” attitudes been a key driver, moving churches to become attractional rather than missional?

  7. It might go back further than the last 100 years, Mark. In his new book “To Change the World,” James Hunter writes: “The history of the conservative faith traditions over the last 175 years has been one of declining influence, especially in the realm of ideas and imagination.” This takes us back to the Second Great Awakening and its unprecedented emphasis on decisional evangelism and individualism (asking individual to make a decision). Individualism was a new term coined by Tocqueville to describe Americans more than the new evangelicals. Riding the coattails of culture explains the numerical success of the parachurch, but that calls into question whether “flourishing” (your term) is appropriate here. It certainly accounts for our anti-institutionalism.

    And it accounts for current decline of the parachurch – perhaps not yet in terms of numbers, but certainly in terms of touching the lives of influentials. A few years ago, I was at the headquarters of a parachurch organization and remarked on a photo taken of one of their groups of students on a retreat in the 1950s. I counted several All-American athletes, a few future CEOs, and a future Congressman, and so on. At the same conference I heard story after story of how this ministry now largely draws the wounded, hurting kids – not the school’s leaders. Christ loves both dearly and equally, but our anti-institutionalism disregards the reality that the “influentials” only number 10 percent of a population according to numerous studies. Yet they shape the institutions that shape our lives – more than anti-institutional individuals care to admit.

  8. As I read through your last response, Mike, I could not help but wonder how much the “key kid” concept in many of our para-churches and youth ministries has led to this anti-institutionalism.

    On one hand, I fully understand the value of influencing influencers, but I think we have all seen way too many cases when this goes bad and the one doing the influencer starts to look like a “popular kid groupie” (for lack of a better descriptor).

  9. That last comment by Matt makes an interesting point, or at least made me think of my comments below.
    The leaders in that group in the ’50s , who were to be the influencers over the next 50 years, may have formed the current distrust. Who influences the church? Frankly, I think the people in the church form the attitudes coming down from those running the church—that is, the inststutions we call the church—be it protestant, catholic or whatever.

    The Methodist church I atteneded for 22 years became soft on homosexuality not because the church elders petitioned the bishops to tell the people to change their attitudes. It has softened because so many influencers in the church congregation demanded a change. So to keep the peace, the bishops allow all sorts of changes which I think have weakened the Gospel’s intent.

    If those all American athletes and future CEOs and Congressman(woman) had held firm on the principles put forth in the earliest church doctrines, we may not have seen the decline now experienced in all the wrongs you have cited, coming from the once highly trusted institutions.

  10. Mike, correct me if I’m wrong, but I think the attendance of said ministry would still include the leaders and the wounded, hurting kids if the message had remained true. If the message is only about personal redemption, and not overall shalom… why would the people who’ve got their personal lives together want to be there?

  11. Kyle, we’re talking percentages. Read Hunter’s “To Change the World,” or Stark’s “The Rise of Christianity,” or Brown’s “The Rise of Christendom,” of Meek’s “The Urban Christians.” All describe the Early Church as composed mostly of the urban elites who shaped center institutions while caring for the poor. It’s a both/and. The proportion of elites and the poor in the Early Church is significantly different from today’s church, as is the mission.

    In the Early Church, it was “make culture.” Today, it is “make disciples.” Back then, they believed you make disciples to the degree that you make culture. The message is about cultural redemption in order to achieve the personal redemption Jesus offered: abundant life. Life is not abundant when it’s compartmentalized in religious activities or reduced to a “personal relationship with Jesus.”

    By the way, my friend, no one has “got their personal lives together.” Just messin’ with ya. But I get your point.

  12. I guess that my anti-institutional bent is shaped by how many times I have seen our brothers and sisters corrupted by the very cultures and institutions that they are attempting to shape (a good example of this is the Bethel AME political machine). This leads me to believe that there has to be another way to go about creating a culture of shalom within our world. The conversation that I have had with many while I was planting a church in Baltimore, and now as I work with church planters and pastors is that if political and institutional solutions were going to fix any city in the world, Baltimore would be the city in which people came to learn how to do it. But I have come to the realization that the institutions of this city are broken, and that little change will come from working within them at this time.

    Do not hear me as saying change can not come… I fully believe that this city is at a point where the people are yearning for something different… yearning to experience the shalom that only our creator can provide. I just believe that this shalom will be coming from new wineskins.

  13. Matt: Let me ask you a question. When you observe that out-of-wedlock births in the US have ballooned to 40 percent in the US, do you assume that marriage’s connection to childrearing is invalid? My guess is that you think the two institutions are still linked, even though battered.

    There’s an old adage: bad example makes bad law. Trying to assess which institutions are good by citing bad examples is a bad idea. In “Creation Regained,” Al Wolters suggests starting instead with the inherent, original structures of creation. Marriage linked to childrearing is an inherently good instititution. “Direction,” as Wolters calls it, is how structures are “worked out” in today’s world- some good and some bad. When we flip the order of proper assessments, we can think the entire sport of baseball stinks – just because the Orioles stink.

  14. This whole line of thinking seems convoluted… it seems like you want to claim the examples that work for you and abandon the ones that dont… by your last comment then we would not be able to deduce that communism is unsuccessful because of the fruits that it produced?

    Of course our institutions are broken because they are made up of us, people who are extremely capable of letting each other down. Our belief that any given institution can become more healthy can not lead us to believe that our institutions themselves can be something we put our faith in.

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