This past week I wrote a post latching on to the upcoming 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, with the focus on the increasingly amicable relations between Catholics and Protestants. I had intended to conclude with a brief discussion of the arguably continuing consequences of the process that Martin Luther (inadvertently) started in 1517 by announcing a seminar on the bulletin board of the University of Wittenberg. That would have made for an overly long post. So I decided to return to the topic this week. Just to stave off a reader’s incipient yawns about all this Protestant stuff, I will sharpen the question: Is the world becoming Protestant?
The question is not crazy. To understand why it is not (though admittedly it is a bit exaggerated) one can usefully look back to what has happened in the world since 1910. In that year the World Missionary Conference met in Edinburgh, bringing together a large number of missionary organizations, mostly from the Protestant regions of Europe and North America. The meeting was in part a celebration of the growth of Protestant missions that had been going on throughout the 19th century. But in a triumphant mood the conference also looked to the future. There were two stated goals: To bring the Gospel to every non-Christian country in the world. And to promote greater unity of all Christians “so that the world may believe” (as, according to John 17:21, Jesus supposedly commanded his disciples). The Edinburgh conference was indeed one of the early manifestations of the burgeoning ecumenical movement, an important factor in the Protestant-Catholic rapprochement. But today world Christianity continues to be splintered into an increasing number of churches, some of them claiming to be the only true Church of Jesus Christ. So this goal can hardly be called a great success. The first goal, spreading the Gospel (as, mind you, understood by Protestants) to every country in the world, has been a success beyond the wildest dreams of Edinburgh.
For many reasons, religious statistics are to be looked at skeptically. I trust one source, because I know the authors and know how carefully (and indeed skeptically) they assess all available data: Todd Johnson and Brian Grim, The World’s Religions in Figures (Wiley, 2013). According to this source: Christians are indubitably the most numerous religionists in the world. Between 1910 and 2010 the global number of Christians has grown from 611,810,000 (34.8 percent of the world’s population) to 2,260,440,000 (32.8 percent). Muslims are far behind in second place, from 221,749,000 (12.6 percent) to 1,553,773,000 (22.55 percent). The good news for Muslims is the higher growth rate. The not so good news is that the growth has been mainly due to higher fertility (polygamy is a factor) of women in Muslim-majority populations; by contrast much of the Christian growth has occurred in countries where Christian have been a small minority or basically absent, and their number has grown as a result of conversions. What is more, the difference in fertility may not last; the most impressive growth of Christianity has happened in Africa, where people (irrespective of religion) have many children.
If one looks at the Christian side of the ledger, Protestants stick out. By and large, Catholics, like mainline Protestants, have been less aggressive in efforts to convert people; Evangelicals have been the most aggressive, most spectacularly the Pentecostals among them, who have probably experienced the most explosive growth of any religion in human history. (Most Pentecostals can be described as Evangelicals with two important additions—speaking in tongues and miraculous healing). Modern Pentecostalism is usually dated from the so-called Azusa Street Revival in 1906, when an African-American preacher named William Seymour started to preach in an abandoned stable in Los Angeles, gathered around him a wildly enthusiastic (and incidentally inter-racial) congregation, who exhibited all the Pentecostal addenda and sent out missionaries throughout the United States and then abroad. In 2016 the prestigious Pew Research Center estimated the worldwide number of Pentecostals as 600 million people. For a number of reasons, I think that this is probably an underestimate. Still, a rather impressive trajectory from Azusa Street! (Seymour must have been a remarkable man.)
Mind you: We are not talking about Protestants in general, but about Evangelicals (probably the majority of Protestants in Africa, Latin America, and Asia), and prominent among them Pentecostals. Can one explain this? Yes, I think that one can in empirical rather than theological terms (you can add theological angles if you will.)
My hypothesis: From its beginnings, long ago in Wittenberg, Protestantism has had an affinity with the spirit of modernity. The term “affinity” is used here in the sense given to it by Max Weber (1864-1920), arguably the father of the sociology of religion. It doesn’t mean that Protestantism caused modernity (any more than it caused capitalism). Rather, it means that religion is one causal factor among many—such as economics, politics, or intellectual movements. Religion always interacts with other forces that affect social change. (In this case, the desire of German princes to appropriate the vast monastic real- estate holdings.)
I think that the effects of the Protestant Reformation continue to reverberate as far as our own time. This is a list of the effects that I see:
1) Luther re-assigned the concept of “vocation” (or “calling”) from an exclusively religious meaning (an individual is “called” to the priesthood or the monastic life) to the responsible exercise of “any lawful occupation.” This has greatly enhanced the ethical status of economic activity. Weber first noted this in his classic The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). His view of this is still being debated today. Also, Lutheranism sharply differentiated Law and Gospel (doctrine of the Two Realms), thus allowing for a vast secular space in society—with enormous implications for the state, the economy, and cultural life. Furthermore, the Lutheran emphasis on individual conscience (“here I stand”) legitimated other modern forces of individuation.
2) Calvinism further accentuated the aforementioned effects of the Lutheran Reformation (so to speak its first chapter). Weber thought that this was due to Calvin’s doctrine of predestination. Be this as it may, Christians (the “elect”) were required to observe a very strict moral code (“Puritanism”) regulating every area of social life. Weber called this “rationalization” (a.k.a. “the disenchantment of the world”), especially affecting the market economy and the bureaucratic state.
3) The immediate political effect of the Reformation was that Protestantism became the state religion in many parts of modern Europe—Lutheranism in Germany and Scandinavia, parts of Switzerland, England, and Scotland. The full impact of Protestantism only made itself felt in churches that were not established by the state—so-called “free churches” (such as Methodists and Baptists), some of them Evangelical or Pietist conventicles within state churches (such as the “low church” in England or the “wee kirk” in Scotland). Weber saw the importance of these groups (he misleadingly called them “sects”). It was in this environment that emerged the powerful combination of two phenomena—religious pluralism and religious freedom, particularly in the Netherlands, in Britain (the “Nonformists”), and most explosively in the United States. The American church historian Richard Niebuhr proposed that this development produced a new social form of religion—the “denomination,” a church that is in free competition with other churches (The Social Sources of Denominationalism [H. Holt, 1929]). Most recently the Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory (The Unintended Reformation [Harvard University Press, 2012]) provided a detailed description of this transforming dynamic.
4) As far as I know, the term “Protestantization” was invented by conservative Catholics to describe changes in their church they deplored—such as the growing power of the uppity laity, the influence of liberal theologians, a variety of liturgical changes (most visible—and audible!—in the near-abolition of the Latin Mass). It would be a mistake to ascribe these changes to deliberate Protestant propaganda. Rather, it is the result of the aforementioned combination of pluralism and freedom (Gregory calls this “hyperpluralism”). It is as if the Protestant DNA of denominationalism had become universal. The basic behavioral pattern is this: If we don’t like what is going on in our church, my friends and I will check out and start another church down the road. Amazingly, even Judaism, for most of its history the faith of a people, has split into at least five denominations in the United States. Telling joke: An American Jew is stranded alone on a remote island. He quickly builds two synagogues—one in which he prays, the other in which he wouldn’t want to be found dead.
5) The enormous growth of Evangelical Protestantism, especially in its Pentecostal version, has cast new light on its affinity with modernity—because most of it has occurred in less developed countries, where modernization has only recently been arriving. Compare the American South where conservative religion and modernity have for a long time been co-existing, producing the fascinating geographical overlap of the Bible Belt with the Sunbelt (say, high-tech petroleum engineers who believe in the power of prayer to deflect a hurricane). Religion and modernity are still widely understood as being in an either/or relationship. What is happening today, from booming Houston to booming Hong Kong, shows that in much of the world the relationship is one of both/and. David Martin, a British sociologist, has pioneered in the study of global Pentecostalism (in a list of publications beginning with Tongues of Fire [Wiley, 1993]). He has shown not only that modernity can co-exist with robustly supernatural beliefs, but that this kind of religion is in fact a modernizing force. There are several reasons for this. But a crucial reason is that Evangelical Protestantism is the only major religion in which an act of individual decision (“deciding to accept Jesus as lord and savior”) is at its very center. What could be more modern than that? While it has a strong affinity with modern individuation, this religion also provides a strong community for people torn away from traditional social supports, such as from kinship or tribe. Pentecostalism has all these features plus the additions of “baptism by the spirit,” with its miracles of healing, as well as a lifestyle of “betterment”—not only spiritual, but economic (Weber’s “Protestant ethic”), and even physical. A powerful package indeed!
Whatever one may say about Evangelical Protestantism, empirically it is a massive fact on the global religious landscape, likely to remain so, with significant consequences in every area of social life. How one relates to this fact will obviously depend on one’s religious and political positions. [For the sake of relevant disclosure, I can describe myself religiously as skeptically Lutheran [evangelisch but not Evangelical], politically as moderately conservative.) Staying within an empirical perspective (that is, without invoking divine providence), Evangelical Protestantism is one of the two biggest religious explosions in the contemporary world, along with resurgent Islam. It is useful to compare the two. While it continues to be important to distinguish the faith of the great majority of Muslims from the murderous jihadists, it is relevant to point out that there are no Protestant suicide bombers and that Protestantism empowers women, which can hardly be said of most of Islam. In domestic U.S. politics, the Republican split over Donald Trump may have helped undermine the alliance between conservative Catholics and Evangelicals, which has been focused mainly on opposition to abortion and homosexuality. There are other politically relevant issues (really!). Which is more repulsive to these two constituencies, the culture of radical feminists or that of macho locker-rooms? I, for one, tend toward moral equivalence. Evangelicals are popular among American Jews because of their genuine (if sometimes uncritical) empathy with Israel, definitely not because of the commitment to convert Jews to Christianity. (An American rabbi once told me that, for him, watching Evangelicals is like watching your mother-in-law drive over the cliff in your new Cadillac.) Yes, there are some Evangelical fundamentalists who, for example, promoted draconian laws (up to the death penalty) in Uganda. But most Evangelicals are not fundamentalists.
Is the world becoming Protestant? No. But compared to where it was during the Edinburgh conference in 1910, it has traveled some distance in that direction.