We (highly-educated Protestants) who continue to emphasize and elevate the values that have brought us to this situation are the cause.
The values I am thinking of are:
- Glorification of individual achievement – as opposed to working in community
- Equating material well-being with diving blessing – as opposed to valuing spiritual gifts
- Controlling our environment through technology as an attempt to deny immortality – as opposed to accepting the reality of the God given natural process of life and death.
- Finding continuity identity in Nationalism – as opposed to finding continuity in the tradition of a religious community.
I attend a UCC church in Boston which can trace its heritage to the New England Puritans and godly movement of Europe at the time of Calvin. I am aware that today’s attitudes and values in my church, and the other protestant churches I know, vary greatly from the original views of Calvin. So my analysis is of our current situation, not how we arrived at this situation – although from what I know it was a very gradual process that is worthy of study.
1) Glorification of individual achievement
The Catholic Church, in its theology, understands humans as existing in society (community). The society which existed in Aquinas’s time and which was assumed as given, was the hierarchical model of the feudal system. The Protestant Reformation, in doing away with the hierarchy of the church, did away with the theological basis of community. In contemporary protestant circles, the theological belief that every human being has a direct relationship with God has become transformed into the glorification of individual achievement. Parents feel the moral obligation to give their children every opportunity to realize their fullest potential regardless of how it may affect the community they live in, or even how it may affect the cohesiveness of the family.
2) Our culture in general, and in our church, equates material well being with God’s favor. Our church governance structure often mirrors that of society. Wealthier members (usually men) are given prominent roles in the governance of the church. Member with experience in the “real world” are recruited to the financial and personnel committees. I was on the church council when an interim minister was hired. The previous minister had negotiated a much higher salary than the church had traditionally paid. We were told by the denominational representative that we should pay the interim the same salary as the previous minister so that the congregation would grant the same respect. Everyone nodded to this wisdom. It was very uncomfortable for me to raise the question; theologically – where in our religion do we say we value people according to how much money they make? And what does this say about how I am valued in this church?
The notion that divine providence is manifest in our material well being is indelibly intertwined and imbedded in our thinking.
3) Building onto our glorification of individual achievement, and the notion of material well being as proof of our favorable relationship with the divine, is the idea of material “progress.” The image is that through science and technology we can conquer the limits of our physical limitations – and come closer and closer to immortality. My previous essay on the fallacy of solving problems with technology is relevant here.
4) Religion has always provided human beings with a sense of belonging – not just within the present social order, but within a past and a future. The Catholic Church did a good job of filling this need. Without trying to attribute causal relationship, I think it is fair to say that parallel to the rise of Protestantism in Europe was the rise in the concept of Nation States. National identity provided people with the same sense of belonging to something that had a history and future. Under Catholicism in Europe, emperors and kings claimed “divine rights” for their territorial rule. This concept of “sovereignty” was transferred to the governments of the territories which had previous been ruled by “sovereign” kings or emperors. Today, the world is divided into “sovereign” Nation States with the rights which previously were claimed as coming from God – the right to wage war, to execute criminals, to exclude “aliens.” The basic injustice in our immigration policy comes from our acceptance of this “sovereign” right to guard our borders, something I believe has no moral and certainly no religious validity.
Nationalism, especially in the U.S. Protestant churches, has replaced the church as the identity which gives meaning to the continuity of life. People go “church shopping” but would never go “nation shopping” to find a comfortable fit.
Finally, the Protestant reformation gradually, but definitively, switched the order of Sloth and Avarice in the 7 deadly sins so that Sloth, which had been not so bad, became really bad, and Avarice, which had been really bad, became not so bad. In so doing, Capitalism became morally and religiously acceptable as the dominant system of ordering all human activity. If Capitalism is the unredeemable system controlling the major part of human activity and driving us into disaster as suggested above, then we Protestants should repent of this our complicity and guilt in bringing about this great evil. Further, by defining religion as primarily an act of an individual in relationship to God, we have protected ourselves from collective responsibility and stripped ourselves of the ability to envision a collective solution to our problems.