Protes­tant foun­da­tion de­serves cel­e­bra­tion

The Standard Journal - - COMMENTARY - By Ge­orgie Anne Geyer NEA Con­trib­u­tor

WASH­ING­TON — We are over­whelmed every day by sto­ries about re­li­gions on the mar­gins of the Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence.

But there is one re­li­gion we al­most never see in the news th­ese days. And this is not only strange but also de­mands some thought­ful ap­praisal. That re­li­gion is Protes­tantism.

It was un­ques­tion­ably Protes­tants who founded the United States. It was Protes­tant virtues that laid the ba­sis for democ­racy, for cap­i­tal­ism and for mod­ern science.

In­deed, the Protes­tant idea has so in­flu­enced the mod­ern world that some of the great­est world lead­ers — think Nel­son Man­dela, a Methodist, and An­gela Merkel, a Lutheran — are and have been pro­foundly Protes­tant. Or, lit­tle known, that the great Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., orig­i­nally known as “Lit­tle Mike,” was re­named in 1934 af­ter his Bap­tist pas­tor fa­ther trav­eled to Ger­many and was in­spired by the Re­for­ma­tion and the works of Martin Luther.

But the deaf­en­ing si­lence in Amer­ica about Protes­tantism’s found­ing prin­ci­ples be­comes even more para­dox­i­cal when we re­al­ize that this month marks the 500th an­niver­sary of the Re­for­ma­tion, when the Ger­man Au­gus­tinian monk Martin Luther tacked his 95 Th­e­ses to the church door in Wit­ten­berg. It was on Oct. 31, 1517, that Luther chal­lenged a cor­rupt and un­feel­ing pa­pacy, open­ing that door and in­fi­nite oth­ers to the light and the com­plex­i­ties of the mod­ern age.

Yet I have seen ex­actly two print ar­ti­cles about the an­niver­sary and no cov­er­age on tele­vi­sion. The only ex­hibits I have heard about are in Min­nesota — noth­ing here in Wash­ing­ton where, as we know, noth­ing is ig­nored ac­ci­den­tally.

So how can it be that the ac­tions of the Ger­man monk, who in­tended only to start a dis­pu­ta­tion about the Vat­i­can’s ex­cesses, the most tire­somely cited one be­ing the sell­ing of “in­dul­gences” to oil your way through Pur­ga­tory, are be­ing so ig­nored? And why?

True, the main­line Protes­tant churches are los­ing mem­bers, but why should that stop gen­uine ob­ser­va­tions of his­tory by those who re­main? At the same time, evan­gel­i­cals, Mor­mons and Pen­te­costals (who now can boast one-tenth of hu­man­ity and one-quar­ter of all Chris­tians) are in­creas­ing world­wide.

One prob­lem is there is no over­all in­sti­tu­tional voice for Protes­tants and no dom­i­nant Protes­tant thinker, such as the great Rein­hold Niehbuhr. But the prob­lem is more com­plex than mere in­sti­tu­tions.

To my mind, main­line Protes­tants, per­haps si­lenced by the po­lit­i­cal cor­rect­ness that dis­dains any praise of the Amer­i­can past, seem to be em­bar­rassed, even ashamed, of their suc­cess. In con­trast to the old mis­sion­ar­ies who wanted to bring val­ues to a be­nighted world, to­day’s Protes­tants are guiltily over­whelmed with mem­o­ries of a slav­ery long gone in Amer­ica, while evan­gel­i­cal Protes­tants have been ob­sessed with sin­gle is­sues such as abor­tion and gay rights.

Around the world it is the orig­i­nal prin­ci­ples that Protes­tants are adopt­ing. In still “com­mu­nist” China, Protes­tants now num­ber be­tween 50 and 100 mil­lion and are re­spected for their moral up­right­ness. South Korean Protes­tants con­sti­tute al­most a na­tional church. In Africa, Protes­tantism is boom­ing, and in ex­pert dis­cus­sions one in­creas­ingly hears that Mus­lim coun­tries are do­ing poorly be­cause Is­lam “needs a Re­for­ma­tion.”

What did Martin Luther — a bril­liant man, stub­born in his prin- ciples, a man who most en­joyed good dis­cus­sion and a pint of beer — re­ally teach? At a time when the Latin Bi­ble was per­mit­ted to be read only by Catholic priests, Luther trans­lated it into Ger­man, which ev­ery­body could read, to bring or­di­nary peo­ple “closer to God.” The Scrip­tures bound him, he said, be­cause “my con­science is cap­tive to the Word of God.”

Des­tiny stepped in at the same time with Guten­berg’s in­ven­tion of the print­ing press, and by 1524, there were 990 dif­fer­ent books in print in Ger­many, 90 per­cent of them by Luther and his fol­low­ers. More than 100,000 copies of his Ger­man trans­la­tion of the Bi­ble were in cir­cu­la­tion by the time of his death.

One thing is cer­tain: From Luther’s time on, hu­man be­ings from all ends of the Earth were freer, more dar­ing, more in­no­va­tive, more bold and more joy­ful in their faith. The great Ger­man so­ci­ol­o­gist Max We­ber, at the turn of the 20th cen­tury, wrote fa­mously and per­sua­sively of a “Protes­tant ethic” whose work ethic, ef­fi­ciency and readi­ness to risk for a bet­ter fu­ture un­der­lay free en­ter­prise, rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment and the pur­suit of science.

In a re­mark­able book pub­lished for the 500th an­niver­sary of Luther’s Th­e­ses in Wit­ten­berg, “Protes­tants: The Faith That Made the Mod­ern World,” his­to­rian and pas­tor Alec Ryrie wrote of this faith: “It is that old love af­fair: a di­rect en­counter with God’s power, whether as a lived ex­pe­ri­ence, a mem­ory or a hope. ... It is through that promise to change lives that Protes­tantism has changed the world.”

So why the si­lence in Amer­ica? One need not de­mean other faiths to pro­claim your own. In­deed, why — when a weary world full of the poor and suf­fer­ing is wait­ing with ever greater im­pa­tience for ex­actly the virtues and val­ues of th­ese peo­ple and their “love af­fair” with God?

Ge­orgie Anne Geyer

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