Two events this past week, each sickening in its own way, point in the same direction: White Protestantism, the default religion of the United States since forever, is shot to hell: both morally vacuous and contaminated as a brand for generations to come.
The declension isn’t news, of course. This publication has been among many pointing out that white evangelical support for Donald Trump dipped only very slightly in the midterm voting and remains very strong at over 70% in most polls.
I’m thinking about a much broader collapse, however. I’m thinking about the substratum of white Protestantism that supported our common culture for so long and in so many ways: the Protestant-inspired civil religion assayed by scholars like Robert Bellah and David Hollinger. And I’m talking about an inheritance that reinforces what we might call ordinary virtues: restraint, honesty, respect for the rule of law, and respect for the rule of reason. There’s surely a degree of bitter irony coursing through the spectacle of powerful white Protestants now actively undermining these ordinary virtues.
It’s actually quite useful to look at the United Methodist vote as a blow against the rule of reason. All of the mainline denominations (the so-called “seven sisters”), including the United Methodists, claim to be guided by reason and human experience along with the authority of the Bible and church tradition. They all say that Jesus stands for inclusive love: no one is to be regarded as “less than.” The United Methodist Church even bakes the concept of inclusive love into its slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.”
Each of these bodies has now gone through decades of intensive internal conversations regarding sexuality and ethics in light of a changing culture that is vastly more accepting of sexual difference than the culture of, say, 1960. For example, it’s been 45 years since my own denomination, the United Church of Christ, ordained its first openly gay minister, and there’s no doubt that respect for reason played a major role in its conversion to a gay-positive position.
Rejecting reason and common sense, only the American Baptists* and the United Methodists still take the view that committed gay relationships are unacceptable. It is surely no coincidence that both of these bodies have a straight white man problem: too much power in the hands of straight men who aren’t especially interested in the rule of reason and whose reading of Scripture is cramped, at best.
Seen in this context, it’s a cheap dodge for liberals within the UMC to blame churches and delegates from the Global South for the vote to retain (and even heighten) the denomination’s ban on all things queer. Yes, the UMC does have a much heavier Global South representation in its governance than any of the other “sisters”; fully 41% of the delegates in St. Louis represented churches outside of the United States. But recall that the votes against the One Church Plan and for the Traditional position came in at 56% and 53% respectively.
White liberals can and and do blame the Global South churches for this outcome, although progressives of color correctly point to the legacy of colonialism at work in the resistance of Global South Christians to LGBTQ+ acceptance. But all of the progressives ought to be able to see where the critical swing votes came from. There’s a hardcore Good Ol’ Boy cohort within the American church: powerful congregations, pastors, and bishops centered primarily in the Southeast and in Texas.
Shifting now to the infinitely revealing day of Michael Cohen’s House testimony, it’s no stretch to say that the diehard cohort within the United Methodist Church is mirrored in the cohort of white men in politics (which is to say, the Republican Party) who are more than willing to go down in flames with Donald J. Trump. These good Christians (culturally Christian, confessionally Christian, or both) continue to regard Individual 1 as an “imperfect man,” ignoring the fact that Trump never made even the slightest effort to become a decent human being (at least not after the tender age when he realized that his family was rich because crime pays).
Here we see the white Protestant abandonment of the rule of law and the rule of reason in full hideous display. Which of course is different from saying that all white Protestants are a lost cause. But by now it is painfully clear that far too many are willing to throw both law and reason overboard for the sake of preserving (say it with me now) straight white male supremacy.
White supremacy is the canker that’s been eating away at the integrity of the white Protestant project for centuries now, to the point where almost all that’s left is canker. Some might wish to keen and mourn about this, but there’s a phrase that comes to mind: “By their fruits you shall know them…and every tree that does not bring forth good fruit shall be cut down and cast into the flames.”
CORRECTION: This article has been updated to reflect the fact that it’s the American Baptists, not the Southern Baptists who are included among the seven sisters.