Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Protestantism And A Culture Of Life

Russell Arben Fox has a post up on the Terry Schiavo case, which in his typically thoughtful way discusses the content of a religiously-motivated culture of life. Lots of liberal bloggers have become rightly exercised about federal intervention in this case, which seems to have been adopted by the leader of the Republican majority in the House of Representatives to distract from an ongoing parliamentary ethics scandal, and is advocating a position apparently in contradiction with that of a law Dubya signed as governor of Texas (go to any liberal American blog, and there will be details). There are cheap political points to be scored here, undoubtedly, but Russell is much more interested in what the American reaction to the publicization and politicization of the case, and what it says about the religious right in the States, at a philosophical-sociological level.

What he has to say reminds me of the discussion I had with Pearsall about national identities, because the kind of highly individualistic (De Tocqueville might well say atomised), almost manichean, religious world-view that Russell describes - a culture of life which is concerned only about the rights of the unborn and the terminally ill, and not with poverty or misery amongst the rest of us - seems to have been a mostly American (sometimes Anglo-Saxon - Thatcher embodied a kind of it particularly well, I think) phenomenon, with its roots in millenarian, spiritually egalitarian, radical Protestantism. That kind of radical Protestantism, the punitive, socially conservative, Augustinian Protestantism of Luther and Calvin rather than the liberal, perhaps Thomist, Protestantism of Locke, for example, has played a particularly important role in shaping the way in which Americans think of themselves: the visions of the New Jerusalem, carved out, pure and industrious, from the wilderness in a land of opportunity, far from the inquity and corruption of the Old World.

Although Protestantism has shaped other national identities - undeniably the British, which has recurrent tropes, perhaps being seen again now in the opposition to the EU, about the links between Catholicism, Absolutism, and the Continent - I don't think it's quite the same version of Protestantism: we've had Christian Socialist Prime Ministers (Attlee cut his political teeth working in Church missions to the poor in the East End), and Labour was able to co-opt the image of a New Jerusalem to propagandize successfully for the welfare state, both unimaginable in the US, although undoubtedly not solely because of the form Evangelical Protestantism takes there. That is not to say, unfortunately, that Britain does not have tropes leaning towards the kind of manichean individualism so prominent in a lot of American political discourse: witness Thatcher's combination of anti-Establishment views, social conservativism and (heartless) hard-nosed individualism, and, more importantly, its success.

What may be troubling Russell is that he is trying to understand these kinds of views - insofar as they are religiously motivated, an outgrowth of radical Protestantism - through a Catholic framework. He approvingly quotes a long section of Pope John-Paul II's Ecclesia in America, which lays out what seems to me like a kind of One-Nation Tory agenda, socially conservative but economically progressive (that's a broad brush: the Pope is not Disraeli, but they bear certain rough family resemblances; in Freeden's metaphor, they arrange the furniture more or less the same way). Catholic political parties, at least in Western Europe, where they have been separated from feudal landowners, have tended to be like this, the Christian Democrats of Italy and Germany being a case in point (I know the German CD is not solely Catholic, but it is Catholic-influenced: the Bavarian Catholic party inevitably co-operates with it in government).

Protestants, particularly the radical Protestants - yes, the Church of England is Disraeli's Tory party at prayer - just don't think like this: because of the emphasis in such Protestantism on the individual's relationship with God, not needing the mediation of a Church and its traditions, the concern for society as a community, the whole greater than the sum of its parts, simply doesn't exist (this can be seen both in Locke and the strands of American political discourse Russell is discussing). So, in a sense, whilst I think Russell is right - a culture of life which doesn't care about the suffering of the poor and disadvantaged is no culture of life at all - I think he misses the point, because the kind of Protestantism which is motivating the religious right in the States simply doesn't think in those terms: because individuals have a direct relationship with God, they and they alone are responsible for their behaviour.

Update: Matt Yglesias has been posting on a number of thought experiments about personal identity, with reference to the Schiavo case, which are themselves quite interesting.

Further update: Body and Soul has a nice discussion of the cooperation of the Catholic Church in the States with evangelical Protestantism. I'm thinking, I should add, about writing a post on the legacy of explicitly Catholic political thought in Lockean liberalism, but that'll have to wait.


Andrew Bartlett said...

Something that summed up American Christianity and British Christianity was the contrasting calls to God made by two big lottery winners of the same week.

The British couple stressed how, given that God had seen to give them the money he obviously wanted them to do good with it.

The American couple said that God had wanted to make them rich and they were going to enjoy it.

I see the same when American sports stars talk of God - he is inytervening in their interests over those of other people. British sports stars who speak of God - and there aren't that many of them - always seem to stress their good fortune rather than their divine superiority.

Ms. Flaneur said...

Best analysis I've seen yet about this Schiavo debacle and its broader implications about our (America's) increasing tendency toward personal regulation based upon one particular group's (right-wing Protestants) views on cultural matters to the point of imperiousness.

Pearsall Helms said...

Rob, you'll enjoy this.