The Impact of Protestantism Today

Statistics showing the growth of Protestant Church membership are impressive. But has there been a corresponding increase in the influence of Protestantism on the life of the nation? Or has the Church succumbed to the secularism which is the great enemy of religion today? For the answer to these imperative questions we turn to REINHOLD NIEBUHR,who was ordained to the ministry in 1915, served as a pastor in Detroit, and was then called to Union Theological Seminary, where he has been a Professor of Applied Christianity since 1930.



A PURELY statistical study of the life and growth of Protestantism in the United States during the last hundred years does not support a very widely held conviction that Protestantism is losing its influence in the nation or that it is being worsted in the competitive struggle with Catholicism. A merely quantitative survey may be, of course, very misleading. No statistical table can measure the degree of devotion or the moral vitality of those who are counted as members of a church. Nor can it give any indication of the relation of the organized religious community to the vitalities of the total community, or measure the relevance of Christian ideas to the cultural interests of an age. It is nevertheless important to record that since the middle of the last century, Protestant Church membership in America has increased from 3½ million to 42 million. In the same period Catholicism has advanced from 1½ million members to approximately 24 million.

Naturally this marked advance is primarily due to the tremendous increase in the population of the country, the great waves of immigration at the end of the last century and in the first part of this century being responsible for the growth of our population from 23 million to about 140 million. What is surprising, however, is that several times in the past hundred years church membership increased much more rapidly than the population of the country, despite the fact that religion seems to have had a less creative and potent role in American life in this period than in the epoch which ended with the Civil War.

This pronounced growth is true particularly of two periods. Between 1850 and 1870, Protestant Church membership increased 91 per cent and Catholic Church membership increased 300 per cent, while the total population was increasing 65 per cent. The second period of marked increase was between 1890 and 1906: while the population of the nation increased 21 per cent, Protestant Church membership increased 75 per cent and Catholic Church membership increased 93 per cent.

It is difficult to account for the special rate of increase for all types of church membership in these periods. There is nothing in our political or religious history which would suggest an obvious spiritual reason for this upsurge. One might well therefore hazard the guess that it is related to the history of immigration. These were the periods when a great number of immigrants were coming to our shores. These immigrants tended to be more loyal to the church than were the older Americans. This was true not only because the ties to the church in the country of origin were in some cases closer than they are here (in others they were not): the primary reason for the close relation of the immigrant to the church was that the church became the nexus between the Old World and the New.

The immigrant brought his own type of church along with him. It was a community in which he could speak and hear his native tongue and preserve some of the characteristic customs and folklore of his motherland. The processes of assimilation in America have been rapid enough to obviate criticism of the church for performing such a function. It has probably been wholesome that this bridge between the Old and the New World could be maintained. But if this was the cause of the marked strength of the church during these periods, the non-religious nature of the motives of allegiance might well refute the complacency with which the church has usually regarded the increases in membership.

Furthermore this special relation between the church and immigrant groups aggravated the most serious problem of American Protestantism: the multiplicity of its denominations and the confusion arising from this pluralism. It is a paradox of the religious life that although ideally the Christian faith transcends national and ethnic loyalties, in actual practice it. frequently becomes a special vehicle for such loyalties. If one cause of the dividedness of American Protestantism is to be found in the ethnic and cultural distinctions brought here from various European nations, the other cause is the fact that the sects of Europe, which originally expressed a radical religious protest against the conventional and established church, tend to grow in America into separate and powerful churches. American church life is, in fact, dominated by the sect type of church, which emphasizes religious spontaneity, exclusive rather than inclusive church membership, non-liturgical worship, and non-theological religious faith.

Since the immigrants to America came from predominantly Catholic countries in the period between the Civil War and the First World War, while they came from Britain or at least northern Europe in an earlier period, there is nothing phenomenal in the growth of Catholic Church membership. There is no statistical evidence that Catholicism is achieving large gains through conversion. The rate of increase in recent decades is practically identical for both Protestantism and Catholicism. Furthermore, neither communion reveals a heavier increase in membership since 1930 than the general rate of increase in population.

This equality in the rate of increase, which one authority places at about 23 per cent for both communions in the decade 1930-1940, is the more surprising since it is generally believed that the Catholic prohibition of birth control makes for a larger rate of increase through births. We have no statistics in this country to throw light upon this question. It is significant that in Holland the twothirds Protestant majority of the nation feels itself challenged because the Catholic third of the nation is giving birth to 52 per cent of all the children being born in Holland. A similar situation prevails in Canada.

There is no evidence that it prevails in this country, probably because the Catholic population is largely urban while Protestantism is still strongest in the countryside. This sociological fact outweighs dogmatic influences. No religious dogma is powerful enough to counteract the fact that children are financial liabilities in the city and financial assets on the farm.

A merely quantitative analysis of the religious life of this country in the past nine or ten decades can, in short, give us no significant light on the relation of Christianity to the culture of our nation in this period. It can only clear up misconceptions. The numerical growth of Protestantism refutes the apprehensions of those who think that Protestantism has suffered a catastrophic decline, either in relation to Catholicism or in relation to the nation as a whole. The special reasons for this growth, on the other hand, refute the complacency of Christian leaders who imagine that Christianity in general, and Protestant Christianity in particular, has been winning phenomenal triumphs in the past century.


THE greatest religious vitality in America developed in the first half of the nineteenth century and began to wane after 1850. During the past hundred years the relation between the church and the people has remained fairly broad but it has also become thin. It is broad enough, compared with European countries, to prompt so acute an observer as the Swedish social scientist, Gunnar Myrdal, to conclude that the church is more influential in America than in any European nation. It is thin because the church has frequently become merely a traditional and conventional loyalty, in which even devout members do not pretend to find a unique source of strength or a distinctive approach to the vicissitudes of our age.

The breadth of its influence may well be due to the fact that the sects of Europe have become the dominant churches of America. The sectarian church emphasizes exclusive membership based on conversion. Its resources are provided by voluntary gifts. The separation of church and state in this country (and the consequent absence of tax support for religious institutions) has given even the more traditional or established churches of Europe — Episcopal, Lutheran, and Presbyterian — a sectarian ethos in this country. Lay activity is encouraged to a much larger degree than in Europe, and the local congregation is much more of a fellowship and community than in Europe. The fact that the state is not, as in most nations of Europe, responsible for religious education in the schools has also strengthened the self-reliance of the local congregation and enlarged its weekday program, as compared with the exclusive Sunday program of most European churches.

But the total impact of Protestant Christianity upon the life of the nation is not so great as the breadth of its contacts with the people might lead the casual observer to suppose. The thinness of this influence is due to many causes, which may be roughly divided into those which American Protestantism shares with Protestantism in general and those which are characteristically American. The two causes of loss of influence which American Protestantism shares with Protestantism in general are, first, the general growth of secularism in our age, and secondly, the increasing tendency of Protestantism to become middle-class and to lose contact with the industrial workers.

The secular movement in Western culture began in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and flowered in the nineteenth. It did not, however, seriously affect American life until the middle of the nineteenth century. The Evangelical revival, which expressed itself organizationally in the rise of Methodism but which influenced other denominations as well, was the antidote to secularism, in the final decades of the eighteenth century and in the first half of the nineteenth.

It was a particularly potent antidote in America because the advancing frontier and the pioneer conditions under which the people of the frontier lived were particularly propitious for the development of the Evangelical movement. Its emphasis upon religious spontaneity, upon the personal experience of religion as against, concern for theology, liturgy, and tradition, was especially suited to the people of the frontier. Furthermore, its explicit or implicit equalitarianism and libertarianism seemed to support, and in turn to be supported by, the new democracy of the frontier, in which the necessity of self-reliance bred individualism, and the wealth of opportunity for all destroyed class consciousness.

While the social histories of America frequently emphasize the anti-Jeffersonian and the anti-Jacksonian conservatism of the more traditional churches, they usually fail to do justice to the intimate and even organic relation between the Jacksonian political radicalism of the frontier and the spirit of Evangelical Christianity, particularly as expressed in the Methodist and Baptist churches, which moved with, and religiously conquered, the frontier. It was the affinity between Evangelical Christianity and frontier democracy which made churches of sectarian origin, notably the Methodist and the Baptist, the most powerful churches of our nation. In all European nations sectarian churches represent a minor movement of protest against traditional and established churches.

But the Evangelical antidote against secularism was not to prove permanently effective. The turn of the tide came in the middle of the last century. The nine or ten decades since 1850 have been characterized by the gradual recession of the influence of Evangelical Christianity before the advance of the secular spirit. Evangelical Christianity reached its height just before the Civil War, or about 1840. Some of its influence was lost for reasons which are not related to the rise of secularism. The question of slavery presented Evangelical Christianity in the South with a moral issue which it could not master in terms of its rather too sentimental equalitarianism. Evangelicalism in the North contributed potently to the antislavery impulse. The best symbol of this relationship is the contribution made by the revival movement under the famed evangelist Finney, and centering in Oberlin, Ohio, to the antislavery sentiment. But Evangelicalism in the South could not rise to the point of challenging the “peculiar” institution of slavery, even as it has had subsequent difficulty with the task of challenging race prejudice by the authority of a faith which declares that “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” and that therefore all race distinctions are transcended. Unable to deal with these issues creatively, Evangelicalism in the South sought to do justice to the impulse toward moral perfection by a scrupulous legalism, expressed in extravagant rules of Sabbath observance and a prurient attitude toward sex problems. A loveless legalism is always the mark of a dying Evangelicalism.

But Evangelicalism in the North had only a slightly longer lease on creative life. As the frontier grew in stability and prosperity and as frontiersmen became the solid middle class of the American commonwealth, the “first fine careless rapture” of Evangelical Christianity was lost. The impulse of the movement to bring the whole of life under the spirit of Christ degenerated into that mixture of religious sentiment and the worship of prosperity, success, and comfort which inevitably produces a sentimentality that obscures, rather than clarifies, the real issues of life.


MEANWHILE the whole of Christian life and thought was challenged in both Europe and America by the power of secular idealism. In America secularism was usually not so explicitly antiChristian as in Europe. It nevertheless seemed to make the Christian faith irrelevant. The Christian message of repentance seemed to have no place in a culture which thought it could cure every form of evil by the achievement of “scientific objectivity.” The Christian idea of the rebirth of life through the death of an old sinful self and the growth of a new and more charitable self seemed to have no place in a culture which believed that all good things in life were subject to indeterminate growth. The religious symbols in which the Christian faith was embodied seemed, moreover, thoroughly discredited by the power and prestige of the more exact scientific symbols.

Catholicism has had no great difficulty in maintaining itself in a secular age. Its religious authoritarianism became a haven for all who feared the confusion of ideals in a secular age, or perhaps sought to evade the responsibilities of freedom which a possibly too consistent individualism forced upon men. Its highly integrated ecclesiastical institution, transcending nations and classes, claiming an unqualified divine sanctity, and rooted deeply in history, became a kind of spiritual fortress where all could seek refuge who found the spiritual climate of modernity either too challenging or too confusing.

Catholicism no longer dominates Western culture, as it did before the Renaissance and Reformation, but it has been remarkably successful in marshaling its adherents into a highly cohesive and self-assured religious community. Protestantism, on the other hand, has steadily lost influence in the past hundred years. In Europe the conflict between a secular and a Christian culture has been, on the whole, more explicit than in America. On the Continent at least, the old churches of the Reformation have something of the same self-assurance as Roman Catholicism; but they have lost a greater number of their adherents.

Even in those nations in which the state and the culture are officially Protestant, as in Holland and in the Scandinavian countries, it is doubtful whether more than 20 per cent of the population is active in the church. Everyone is baptized and confirmed; but in many of these officially Christian, but unofficially secular, national cultures the rite of confirmation, by a curious inversion of its original intent, frequently marks the end of a child’s relation to the church. He celebrates his adolescence in a puberty rite which seems to entitle him henceforth to be independent of all religious influence.

The reaction of Protestantism in America to a secular age has been different from the reaction of Protestantism in Europe, but the total consequences cannot be said to be more fortunate. The Protestant reaction to secularism in this country took two primary forms. One section of the church, usually identified as “fundamentalist,” has sought to preserve the Christian heritage by denying the validity of every achievement of science which modern culture boasts, and by wrapping the essential truths of the Christian faith in obscurantism. The excessive Biblicism of orthodox Protestantism is — contrary to popular impression — considerably more obscurantist, culturally, than Catholicism. For Catholicism incorporates the best in the humanistic tradition of Western culture, while Protestant obscurantism turns its back on every insight not directly derived from Scripture. In this strategy it manages to give many a scriptural truth an invalid, literalistic meaning.

The other section of the church, usually defined as “liberal” or as “modernist,” has been pathetically eager to relate itself creatively to the achievements of a secular age — so eager, in fact, that it has made the opposite mistake and has been inclined to sacrifice every characteristic Christian insight if only it could thereby prove itself intellectually respectable.

The usual charge of European Christians against American Christianity is that it has secularized the church. The charge is justified in so far as liberal Christianity has yielded to the false conclusions of modern culture as well as to its indubitably true ones. Modern secularism believes, for instance, that it is easy to apply the methods of science, particularly the attitude of objectivity, first acquired in the study of nature, to the complex affairs of human nature. Actually the analogy has only limited validity. Man is a unity of reason and passion. All his social and moral viewpoints represent a combination of interest and disinterestedness. The elimination of the taint of interest and egotism from the attitude of the self in competition with foe or neighbor is a moral and spiritual, rather than an intellectual, achievement. It requires that the self should, as a personality and not primarily as mind, bring excessive self-interest under control. On this point liberal Christianity has unwisely yielded to an extreme rationalism in modern culture.

The other cherished article in the creed of a secular culture is its belief in moral progress as an inevitable concomitant of the development of human freedom and power. This article of faith is, in fact, the primary religious conviction of modern man. It endows his life with meaning and enables him to meet every present catastrophe by the hope that history is in the process of eliminating the cause of such catastrophes, being a movement toward wider and more inclusive community, toward greater human intelligence and sympathy, and toward more and more scientific solutions of human problems.

Actually the increase in human power, which is an indisputable fact of historical development, does not seem to solve any basic human problems. It merely presents them in a larger and larger frame. History is creative but not redemptive. Modern Christianity was pathetically eager to disavow the most characteristic and distinctive insights of Biblical faith for the sake of sharing the faith of secular culture in the idea of progress. The Biblical faith must be distinguished from mystic otherworldliness which can find no meaning in historical existence. But it must also be distinguished from any secular faith which finds history too simply meaningful and always ends with utopian hopes for the achievement of some perfect good in history.

Modern man’s faith in progress is at such complete variance with a history which presents him with ever more perplexing issues of human togetherness that the faith is becoming discredited, and disillusion and despair follow in its wake. Liberal Christianity is involved in this disillusionment. Having sought to make a success story of the Biblical history of a Crucified Saviour, who is for Biblical faith the principle of meaning at the edge of life’s seeming meaninglessness, it finds itself unable to cope with the tragic experiences of our day. The disrespect in which liberal Christianity is widely held is sometimes expressed by the very secularists who share its illusions but who see no reason why their faith should be expressed in historic religious symbols. Perhaps they have a shrewd suspicion that Christianity ought to present a more genuine alternative to the sentimentalities of our age.


THE second general tendency which American Protestantism shares with that of Europe and which places it at a disadvantage in comparison with Catholicism is its inability to preserve the allegiance of the industrial workers of modern civilization. In Europe the industrial workers, prompted by a Marxist creed, have usually explicitly disavowed their inherited Christian faith.

In America no powerful Marxist movement has ever challenged the historic culture; but this has aggravated rather than mitigated the tendency of Protestantism to give an uncritical religious sanction to the rather excessive individualism of middleclass life. The pietistic forms of Protestantism actually express a type of spirituality which seems totally irrelevant to the problems of modern man’s aggregate existence, and which becomes doubly irrelevant as modern man faces the problems of economic and political justice under the new conditions created by a technical society. Protestantism was the religion of the common man in the days of the American frontier. But as frontiersmen graduated into the middle class, the Protestant Church tended to move up one rung in the social ladder and to step down one rung from prophetic vitality to the complacency of the established order.

Catholicism, on the other hand, has never lost sight of the social character of man’s existence. In America its more intimate relation with the working classes is partly an accident of our history. The earlier migrations to this country were primarily North European and Protestant. The later migrations came from predominantly Catholic nations. This distinctive American history increased the comparative numerical strength of Catholicism in the past century. But it also tended to identify Protestantism with the earlier and economically more established ethnic groups and to make Catholicism and the Jewish faith the religions of the industrial workers, in so far as they hold to a religious creed. The Catholic and the Jewish faith are to this day more widely represented in the trade-union movement than is Protestantism.

This special bit of social history, rather than a basic fault of Protestantism, accounts partly for the intimate and exclusive relation of Protestantism with middle-class life. The fact that innumerable Protestant clergymen do not wholeheartedly embrace the purely laissez-faire political creed of their laymen proves that the clerical leadership of the church has not capitulated uncritically to the prejudices of middle-class life.

On the other hand, it must be recorded that in Europe, where these special conditions do not apply, the Protestant churches have also lost the workingman to a larger degree than has the Catholic Church. We must therefore consider the probability of a general incompatibility between a religiously sanctified middle-class individualism and the political and moral necessities of an industrial age. European Catholicism has preserved the allegiance of the workers partly by organizing them in its own tradeunions and in Catholic political parties — a strategy which we should not find acceptable here, and which is beginning to break down in Europe, at least as far as trade-unions are concerned.

But even beyond these special political strategies Catholicism, which at its worst expresses political convictions having their origin in a feudal-agrarian order and subject to fascist distortions under modern industrial conditions, is able at its best to establish the spiritual meaning of man’s collective life more successfully than Protestantism. It is the industrial worker who has a special sense for this problem. If the Catholicism of Spain and Latin America is typical of the reactionary tendencies in Catholic politics, the Catholic movements of the German Rhineland and, more recently, of France prove a creative relation between the church and the problems of an industrial society, which Protestantism has not yet achieved. American Catholicism is neither as conservative nor as creative as European Catholicism. In any event, it is a religion for the common people to a larger degree than Protestantism in this country.


BOTH sectarian and Evangelical Christianity are usually indifferent toward theology, regarding it as an unnecessary rationalization of religious faith or even as inimical to such a faith. This indifference has a short-run efficacy. But ultimately it leads to a religious obscurantism which refuses to deal seriously with the problems of the relation of religious faith to the general truths of a culture. Or it leads to a simple capitulation to the prevailing temper of an age. Many an Evangelical church of yesterday, where a Gospel of repentance and faith was preached with power, has become today a kind of community center where a simple moralism is preached, not much higher than the prudential virtues which constitute the creed of a Rotary club.

If the effort is made to pitch the content of the moral teachings at a higher level the church is frequently embarrassed because the facts of life do not conform to its simple faith in the immediate success of Christlike love. Thus a devitalized Evangelical church preached pacifism in an age in which men faced the peril of terrible tyrannies, and our liberties were defended only because the common sense of ordinary and uninspired men saved us from the sentimental illusions of religious and intellectual leaders. The true Christ of historic Christianity is both the example and the despair of all historic goodness. If the goodness of Christ is regarded as a simple possibility, religion degenerates into sentimentality. The truths of the Christian faith must be explicated theologically and related effectively to the problems of each age. Theology is one of the conduits of faith without which the water which rises in the springs of Evangelicalism runs into the sand.

Another such conduit is an adequate liturgy. The spontaneous prayers of the church of the frontier have long since degenerated into the “opening exercises ” of Protestantism, usually devoid of any beauty and even more devoid of the forms of devotion in which the traditions of the ages supplement the religious insights and the power of expression of a single individual. Without such supports the spontaneous prayer of yesterday degenerates into a chatty conversation with God, bordering either on the vulgar or on the sentimental.

We have reached the point where the more traditional and historic churches, with their theological and liturgical disciplines, are more successful in evoking a genuinely Christian and religious atmosphere and in preserving the true meaning of the Christian faith than the churches which have dispensed with these disciplines. American Protestantism cannot regain its spiritual vitality without seeking for a better synthesis between religious spontaneity and religious tradition and discipline.

Perhaps the most serious weakness of the Protestant Church of America is the anarchy of denominational rivalries. The growing movement toward a united Protestantism in the world unfortunately touches the churches only on the world level. It is, as a Christian layman recently observed, the organization of united general headquarters staff, which does not greatly affect the separate and competing armies in the field. When that field is an American village, the multiplicity of overlapping churches robs the church of its dignity, of its unifying force in the community, and of its effectiveness. Some heroic efforts to federate churches in smaller communities are being made. But only the fringes of the problem have been touched. How small and ineffective Protestant parishes are, and how wasteful in the resources of religious leadership, may be gathered from the fact that the average Catholic parish numbers nearly 1000 souls while the average Methodist or Baptist congregation numbers 150 and the general average in Protestantism apparently does not exceed 200.

One of the many evils of a divided Protestantism is the multiplication of small and ineffective churches in the villages and the countryside, usually served only by part-time ministers. The extent of this weakness is proved by the fact that in 1940 there were 140,000 Protestant ministers in the nation and they served 244,000 churches. This means that over 100,000 churches were served by parttime men. If we assume that a church ought to serve about a thousand souls (which is the rough average of the Catholic parish) then Protestantism has an excess of 115,000 churches, a figure which is comparable with the excess of congregations over the number of ministers.

Of the two basic causes of excessive denominationalism in America one — the relation of denominations to unassimilated immigrant groups — will probably yield slowly to the processes of assimilation. At the present moment, for instance, every national variety of Lutheran church is still separately organized. The other main cause of the multiplicity of denominations lies in the old conflict between the traditional church and the churches which had their origin in European sectarian protests against the church. This protest belongs inside the church. If it is made the basis of separate church organizations, the traditional churches lose the periodic revitalization of Evangelical passion; and the sectarian churches atrophy when the period of spontaneity is past.

If church union on a wider scale than the mere reunion of similar bodies is to succeed, this problem must be dealt with much more fundamentally. It represents the tension between classicism and romanticism in a religious form. The tension between form and vitality exists in the whole of life. It is a necessary tension periodically preventing forms from becoming lifeless, and vitality from becoming formless. Complementary forces should not be institutionalized in religion any more than they are, for instance, in literature. When institutionalized the tension degenerates into competition and ceases to be creative interpenetration.

Perhaps this problem has not been taken seriously by American Protestantism because the portion of the church most alive intellectually was so apologetic and defensive in presenting the treasures of its faith, and so rationalistic in its approach, that it had no interest in the task of finding the proper earthen vessels in which the treasures of faith must be borne. Religious symbolism, liturgical forms, theological formulations, and ecclesiastical polity are all such earthen vessels which are required for the preservation of the treasures of faith but which may also become the substitutes for faith.

If the Protestant Church of America rewins confidence in the truth and relevance of its Gospel, it may also find the resource for a creative unity of the now fragmented portions of its total truth. The impetus to solve the many particular problems of the forms of its faith and of its relation to the particular issues of our age must come from a new confidence in the validity of the truth of the Gospel for the condition of man in any age.

Mankind is always progressing, but the essential needs of man remain the same. Life continues to be fragmentary and to be challenged by death no matter how powerful men become. The fear of death prompts men to complete life falsely and to express their frustration in lust for power, envy of one another, and a sense of false security in material comfort and power. These corruptions are rooted in the very center of personality and can therefore be uprooted only by a radical change at the heart of personality. The renewal of life through repentance is therefore a message of hope and judgment for every age. It will yet prove its relevance and power to an age which imagined that intellectual progress would obviate the necessity of religious renewal.