We continue with Part VI of our serialization of Brownson's essay.
Three Stages of Protestantism
[In yesterday's installment Brownson contended that Protestantism cannot serve as a bulwark against the passions and worldly avarice of men, because it places itself wholly within their care, and therefore cannot serve as the solidifying and restraining force required to protect democratic liberty. In this segment, Brownson examines what he calls the three "stages" of Protestantism, each of which illustrates his contention.]The first stage of Protestantism was to place religion under the charge of the civil government. The church was condemned, among other reasons, for the control it exercised over princes and nobles, that is, over the temporal power: and the first effect of Protestantism was to emancipate the government from this control, or, in other words, to free the government from the restraints of religion, and to bring religion in subjection to the temporal authority. The prince, by rejecting the authority of the church, won for himself the power to determine the faith of his subjects, to appoint its teachers, and to remove them whenever they should teach what he disapproved, or whenever they should cross his ambition, defeat his oppressive policy, or interfere with his pleasures. Thus was it and still is it with the Protestant princes in Germany, with the temporal authority in Denmark, Sweden, England, Russia, -- in this respect also Protestant, -- and originally was it the same in this country. The supreme civil magistrate makes himself sovereign pontiff, and religion and the church, if disobedient to his will, are to be turned out of house and home, or dragooned into submission. Now, if we adopt this view, and subject religion to the civil government, it will not answer our purpose. We want religion, as we have seen, to control the people, and through its spiritual governance to cause them to give the temporal government always a wise and just direction. But, if the government control the religion, it can exercise no control over the sovereign people, for they control the government. Through the government the people take care of religion, but who or what takes care of the people? This would leave the people ultimate, and we have no security unless we have something more ultimate than they, something which they cannot control, but which they must obey.
The second stage in Protestantism is to reject, in matters of religion, the authority of the temporal government, and to subject religion to the control of the faithful. This is the full recognition in matters of religion of the democratic principle. The people determine their faith and worship, select, sustain, or dismiss their own religious teachers. They who are to be taught judge him who is to teach, and say whether he teaches them truth or falsehood, wholesome doctrine or unwholesome. The patient directs the physician what to prescribe. This is the theory adopted by Protestants generally in this country. The congregation select their own teacher, unless it be among the Methodists, and to them the pastor is responsible. If he teaches to suit them, well and good; if he crosses none of their wishes, enlarges their numbers, and thus lightens their taxes and gratifies their pride of sect, also well and good; if not, he must seek a flock to feed somewhere else. . . . But this view will no more answer our purpose than the former; for it places religion under the control of the people, and therefore in the same category with the government itself. The people take care of religion, but who takes care of the people?
The third and last stage of Protestantism is individualism. This leaves religion entirely to the control of the individual, who selects his own creed, or makes a creed to suit himself, devises his own worship and discipline, and submits to no restraints but such as are self-imposed. This makes a man's religion the effect of his virtue and intelligence, and denies it all power to augment or to direct them. So this will not answer. The individual takes care of his religion, but who or what takes care of the individual? The state? But who takes care of the state? The people? But who takes care of the people? Our old difficulty again.
It is evident, from these considerations, that Protestantism is not and cannot be the religion to sustain democracy; because, take it in which stage you will, it, like democracy itself, is subject to the control of the people, and must command and teach what they say, and of course must follow, instead of controlling, their passions, interests, and caprices.
Nor do we obtain this conclusion merely by reasoning. It is sustained by facts. The Protestant religion is everywhere either an expression of the government or of the people, and must obey either the government or public opinion. The grand reform, if reform it was, effected by the Protestant chiefs, consisted in bringing religious questions before the public, and subjecting faith and worship to the decision of public opinion, -- public on a larger or smaller scale, that is, of the nation, the province, or the sect. Protestant faith and worship tremble as readily before the slightest breath of public sentiment, as the aspen leaf before the gentle zephyr. The faith and discipline of a sect take any and every direction the public opinion of that sect demands. All is loose, floating, -- is here to-day, is there to-morrow, and, next day, may be nowhere. The holding of slaves is compatible with Christian character south of a geographical line, and incompatible north; and Christian morals change according to the prejudices, interests, or habits of the people, -- as evinced by the recent divisions in our own country among the Baptists and the Methodists. The Unitarians of Savannah refuse to hear a preacher accredited by the Unitarians of Boston.
Tomorrow, Part VII: Why Protestantism Is Uniquely Dominated by Secular Influences