Part II: American Protestantism and the Christian Faith, by Francis P. Miller

The Church Against the World
by H. Richard Niebuhr, Wilhelm Pauck and Francis P. Miller

Part II: American Protestantism and the Christian Faith, by Francis P. Miller



Very definite assumptions lie behind the argument of this chapter. These assumptions will be accepted by some and rejected by others. The examination of their validity is the responsibility of the theologian and the church historian, but their acceptance is in the last analysis a matter of faith. To men who live under the authority of the historic Christian tradition their validity is self-evident. My intention is not to attempt to prove that they are true, but to assert the consequences of their truth. Some of these assumptions are:

That the object of the Christian faith is a Reality which has an existence of its own and is not to be identified with your existence or my existence or with the world or universe in which you and I live and move and have our being.

2. That that Reality is the Creator of all things visible and invisible and that his relation to you and me and to the world in which you and I live and move and have our being is the relation of the "Maker" to the thing "being made." Man has not made God in his image, but God has made man in his image. Man is the creature; God is the Creator.

3. That man as creature has sufficient freedom to accept or reject the purposes of his Creator, but not sufficient freedom to escape from the consequences of acceptance or rejection.

4. That God the Creator is disclosed in the divine drama of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

5. That the community of men and women who share this faith and attempt to live this life Constitutes the unique medium in each age for the continued disclosure of God's creative and redemptive purposes.

6. That it is the business of this community of faith -- the Church Universal -- in our time and in every time to declare God's judgment and to witness to his love.

7. That the actualities of history -- the concrete events of the contemporary scene -- are a record of the life-giving power of the love of God and of the death-bringing consequences of man's denial of that love.

When the word "Christian" is used in the following pages it is used to define the religion characterized by the above assumptions. Granting that this is an accurate use of the word "Christian," one deduction may immediately be drawn, and that is that the Christian religion is in its essence a universal religion. It is a religion equally good and true for all men, everywhere and in all times. The Christian cross is not an American cross or a German cross or a British cross or an Italian cross. It is the possession of any man of any race who understands its message and lives by faith in its transforming power. The reality which that cross reveals is not the by-product of a particular national culture or of a particular racial experience. On the contrary, that reality is utterly independent of the evolution or destiny of particular nations or races. These human collectivities cannot by any virtue or wisdom of their own add one iota to the validity of its truth or subtract one iota from that validity. All a nation or a race can do is to live by that truth or reject it, and in either case the consequences of the choice must be borne.

This is not to say that the form through which the meaning of the Christian cross is interpreted or the form through which its truth is incarnated in the life of any age is not conditioned by the culture of that age. On the contrary, that form will be profoundly influenced by the character of the prevailing culture. It is the content of faith and not the form of its expression which is independent of the character of changing human society.

This distinction between content and form is extremely important, and failure to make such a distinction will lead to the very perversion of truth itself. The reality symbolized by the cross is obviously a part of the content of the Christian faith.

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son..."

"Except a grain of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth by itself alone but if it die it bringeth forth much fruit."

The fact of God's love is disclosed on the cross; the truth that life is only generated by the self-less laying down of life -- these are eternal and universal ingredients of the Christian faith. They are not logical deductions from special systems of thought. They are not the product of men's imagination. They are not individual attitudes or social values peculiar to this or that society or this or that culture. They are no more European than they are Asiatic -- no more American than they are African. On the contrary, they are a part of the grain of the universe as God has created it. They constitute elements of that ultimate structure of life -- the realm of God -- with which we have to do every moment of our lives.

The content of the Christian faith is not made by man. It is given to man. It is given by the reality of the realm of God. That realm exists in its own right. Man cannot call it into being or dissolve it at his pleasure. It is the one and only reality whose universal presence can be assumed in advance. There is no place in all the cosmos to which man can go where he will not find the realm of God waiting for him. It is there -- and to be alive means to be doing something about it. Man is either continually associating himself with its creative purposes or continually dissociating himself from them. And whether he is doing the one or the other is the decisive fact of his existence. For within the limits which the realm of God defines there is eternal life; beyond those limits there is death.

The content of the Christian faith is supplied by the character of God and the nature of his world. The Christian does not invent that content any more than the scientist invents the content of what he calls the laws of science. The scientist as scientist and the scientist as Christian is doing exactly the same thing -- describing a given structure of reality whose existence is in no sense dependent upon his imagination or his ideals. The methods used to verify belief in the structure of the realm of God and in the structure of the created world as defined by science are different, but neither of these structures can be discovered except by men who humbly stand in the presence of that which is. It is the responsibility of the man of faith to describe the structure of the realm of God, just as it is the responsibility of the scientist to describe the structure of the created world.

The description of the man of faith, however, will never be as satisfactory as the description of the man of science. This is due to the nature of man himself, as well as to the difference between the nature of the realm of God and the nature of the world science describes. Man's nature is such that he can never quite put his finger on the realm of God -- the best of men grope toward it without ever really grasping it, while the same good men as scientists can more or less take the world of science within their grasp. The most accurate statement the man of faith can make will still be incomplete and imperfect because his statement is a reflection of his own imperfection -- a relative being who even in his most exalted moments is tainted with sin and whose comprehension is constantly being warped by his slight intelligence and small faith. Imperfect as the statement of the man of faith may be, the reality about which his statement is made remains entirely independent of that imperfection.

The content of faith is independent, but the form through which faith is expressed is not independent. The word "form " is used to describe the medium through which the content of truth is communicated. It includes language, ritual, and activity of all kinds which are intended to symbolize or implement truth. The form is of course in part determined by the character of the eternal reality which it symbolizes and to which it witnesses. But it is also in part determined by the concrete time-space situation in which the witness is given. The adequacy of the form will depend upon the degree of its success in articulating eternal truth in terms comprehensible to any given generation or society. Hence appropriate forms will always be dynamic and changing. A static form is sure to be a false symbol. On the other hand, the limits of change are narrow. They are definitely fixed by the nature of the reality which is being symbolized. It is the business of men of faith to see to it that they employ the forms which, in a particular cultural environment, will give the clearest and most exact description of the content of their faith to the people who live in that environment. Consequently the choice of form is important, and rightly deserves continual attention.

But the moment form takes precedence over content religious faith begins to expire. And if preoccupation with form becomes so complete that it results in form being mistaken for content, then faith is already dead. This happened on a wide scale in Europe during the latter part of the fifteenth century, and produced the Protestant Reformation. It is happening on a wide scale now. There is a striking contrast, however, between the circumstances which gave rise to this phenomenon in the fifteenth century, and the circumstances which have given rise to it at the present time. The most ironical feature of the present situation is that Protestants now find themselves in exactly the same position as the Catholics were four hundred years ago. The society of the protesters has in the fulness of time succumbed to the same historic fate as that which formerly overtook those against whom they protested. In the early fifteenth century the Catholics mistook static ecclesiastic forms for the content of their faith. In the early twentieth century Protestants are mistaking dynamic cultural forms for the content of their faith. And the triumph of cultural forms over religious content is even more deadly than the triumph of ecclesiastic forms. For even when the use of ecclesiastic forms is perfectly meaningless and hypocritical these forms still refer back to a religious truth once understood and appropriated. And the day comes when men begin to wonder again what it was that the forms were originally intended to symbolize. As they allow their curiosity to explore this and that hypothesis they rediscover the long-forgotten truth, and in that rediscovery faith is born again.

Cultural forms, on the other hand, can never be relied upon to refer back to a tradition of religious truth. Culture as a social phenomenon is far more extensive and inclusive than the Christian faith. Wherever a living faith exists culture will be profoundly modified by that faith, but culture from its very nature will always include some elements which are hostile to faith. There are strands of culture which will lead toward the church and there are others which will lead away from the church. Cultural forms are signposts pointing back to stages in the total social evolution of a particular people or nation. Consequently when in the life of the church cultural forms triumph over religious content and faith disappears, and when in the course of time men begin to wonder what content these forms were originally intended to symbolize, the historic explanations which they will advance will be given in terms of national or racial destiny rather than in terms of a rediscovered religious truth. The cultural signposts will point backward, but not to the cross. The German swastika has been planted in many a church of the German Christians, but for the historians of this period it will serve as a reference point to Adolf Hitler and not to Jesus Christ.





Having won their liberty from enslavement to the Roman hierarchy, Protestants are now in process of being enslaved by their respective national cultures and it remains to be seen whether their last estate may not be worse than their first. All over the Protestant world it is obvious that preoccupation with the cultural form in which their faith is expressed is a more decisive factor in determining the future of the Protestant churches than preoccupation with the content of their faith. If this trend continues the issue before the Protestant churches is clear: Are the different Protestant communities to become the spiritual or ethical facets of their respective national cultures, thereby ceasing to be Christian, or will they survive as reliable witnesses to the Christian faith? If they are to survive as reliable witnesses, what conditions of survival have to be fulfilled?

The question is not, of course, being raised as to the survival of Protestant institutions in one form or another. Even if the Protestant denominations lost all semblance of their Christian origins they would continue to exist for generations and possibly for centuries as societies concerned with the ethical life or as societies responsible for maintaining national morale. The organization of the Protestant community will certainly survive, but the question is, "Survive for what?" Can the Protestant churches survive as reliable witnesses of the Christian faith?

If the assumptions which lie behind this chapter are sound, a reliable witness would mean a witness to truths which are recognized by men of faith in all lands and in all ages and under all circumstances as being equally valid for them and for their fellows. In other words, the frame of reference to which the witness would refer would be a universally acknowledged one. Men would speak as Americans or Germans or Chinese but their frame of reference would not be the culture of their respective nations. In so far as they spoke as Christians their frame of reference would be that of Christendom. What is Christendom? It is the earthly counterpart of that reality which St. Augustine called the City of God. The City of God is both in the world and beyond the world. It extends from eternity into time. It is there, but it is also here. And we call that portion of the City which confronts us in the here and now, Christendom. Hope in Christendom is the hope of the world. Without that hope there is no hope. Apart from Christendom the world is the madhouse described so accurately each morning in the daily press.

How far is Christendom the frame of reference for Protestants? To put such a question is to answer it. But it would be an injustice to the Protestant tradition to leave the answer without an explanation.

For in the great days of the Protestant movement the Protestant churches lived within the framework of Christendom. That was a gift which they had received from Rome. The sense of Christendom had been so indelibly traced on men's minds that they were quite unconscious of the extent to which they owed it to their social heritage. It seemed to them to be a part of the order of things like the starry vault of heaven above. Protestant leaders of the sixteenth century were unaware of the fact that primitive European man not only did not naturally possess the sense of Christendom but that Christendom was the complete antithesis of life as the primitive European knew it -- the complete antithesis of his devotion to tribalism and his passion for piracy. During many generations under the tutelage of the Catholic church his piratical nature was slowly transformed and his tribalism was gradually sublimated. In other words, the consciousness of Christendom, in so far as that existed, was an acquired consciousness. It had been acquired through the teaching and example of the medieval church. Since it had been acquired it could also be lost. It would be lost as soon as the framework of thought and life disappeared upon which it had grown through the centuries. Christians could destroy this framework either by ignoring its essential features or by ceasing to use it as a frame of reference. This is what actually happened.

Though the Catholic church itself eventually failed to realize the truth of its own teaching it had done its job so well that for three centuries after the Reformation Catholic, Protestant and freethinker alike continued to live under the spell of Christendom. During the Enlightenment the concept of Christendom degenerated into the concept of a cosmopolitan European culture, but even this bastard offspring was powerful enough to restrain the violence of perverted nationalism. It was only a century ago, and in Germany, that one of the greatest minds of the age could hospitably entertain his nation's conqueror and do so with evident satisfaction. The suggestion that he might betray Germany by cultivating the friendship of Napoleon would have seemed to Goethe the sheerest stupidity, and he would have been dumbfounded by the prospect that the stupidity of his own age would be the wisdom of the next.

During the three centuries when European Protestants continued to live more or less within the framework of Christendom the Protestant communities continued to be characterized by a certain measure of universality in their life and thought. This relative universality was derived from two sources:

1. It was derived from the common value attached to the Bible by nearly all of the Protestant churches.

2. And it was further derived from the fact that all of the Protestant churches were rooted in the soil of a common culture -- the culture of Western Europe.1

If the Bible and Western European culture were the most important sources of such universality as Protestantism possessed, it is obvious that the time has long since passed when either of these sources could be relied upon to continue to supply Protestants with a universal frame of reference. This fact constitutes the supreme crisis upon which the Protestant movement is now entering. The Protestant churches no longer have a common ground of unity. Since they no longer have a common ground of unity they do not teach truths which are equally valid for all men everywhere, and as long as they do not teach such truths they cannot be regarded as reliable witnesses to the Christian faith.

Some Protestant leaders apparently hope that the Bible may once more prove to be an adequate rallying point. Great as the value of the Bible is, it is inconceivable that it can ever again provide Protestantism with the universal frame of reference which the reliable witness needs.

Other Protestant leaders put their trust in culture rather than in the Bible. They look forward to a new world culture 2 which is to supply the required universal frame of reference.

The proponents of this position would be the first to point out that the culture of Western Europe is no longer capable of Serving as the ground of universality. The Protestant churches have moved out into areas of culture which have little or nothing in common with the culture of Western Europe. This has happened through the migrations of peoples from Europe as well as through the work of missionaries. The emerging culture of North America is as different from the culture of Europe as both of these are different in turn from the cultures of the Far East. And this fact alone has enormously increased the difficulty of communication between different branches of the Protestant world.

Those, however, who hope for unity through culture regard this diversity between cultures as a transitional phase preceding the development of a world culture which will result from cross-fertilization between national or racial cultures. The question whether or not in the remote future a common world culture will emerge is one which may interest the schools of the prophets but is perfectly irrelevant otherwise. For as far as this century is concerned and the centuries which immediately follow, the answer to that question is perfectly plain. No world culture is emerging or will emerge. The theorists who have constructed this beautiful dream are the contemporary equivalents of those who preached progress before 1914. No more fantastic peg on which to hang the future of Christianity was ever invented by the human imagination. It would not deserve serious consideration if it were not associated with the names of eminent Protestant leaders.

The plain fact is that not only is no world culture emerging but that the trend of events is in exactly the opposite direction. The passions and ambitions of mutually hostile collectivities and not the common interests of a developing world culture are the forces which dominate the age in which we live. All over the world it is the destiny of the nation which is setting the pace for the human caravan. The self-centered nation-state living in fear and jealousy of its neighbors is the force which is conditioning contemporary history. In the presence of this force, belief in an emerging world culture seems like an idle dream spun by men whose monastic seclusion has hidden from them the stark realities of the outer world. Not only is present-day culture not serving as a binding force between nations, but it is being used to accentuate their mutual dissimilarities and animosities. So violent and determined are the different nations that they have captured culture and are busily engaged in prostituting it for their own divisive purposes. This exploitation of culture by the nation-state is the decisive fact of the world in which we live. To belittle that fact is to distort actuality. To ignore it is to become a blind guide for the blind.

It is of course true that there is a world-wide trend toward the employment of an identical industrial technique. No doubt those who think they see an emerging world culture have been impressed by the spread of a common system of industrial production. As a result they have mistaken the generalization of production techniques for a generalization of culture. Their defense would be that the means of production are in the last analysis the decisive factor in determining men's habits and customs. This is the faith of our age. It is a faith common to both capitalists and communists and to the prolific breed of ideologists begotten by our machine civilization. It is a false faith. The mind and spirit of man and not the technique of production he employs eventually determine the form of his society and of his culture.

How is one to account otherwise for the type of social evolution which has taken place during the past century in nations like Germany, France, Great Britain, Russia, Japan and the United States? For several generations the nations of Western Europe have employed what can only be called, in spite of minor variations, a common industrial technique. Have men been bound together by the common use of identical methods of production? On the contrary, during this very same period the peoples have drifted steadily apart, because they wanted different things. It is man who is the source of desire, and not the machine. The same machines are used everywhere but men use the machines for mutually irreconcilable purposes. It is the Nazi movement and not industrial technique which is molding the future of Germany. And the Nazi movement represents a cultural development which utterly contradicts the cultural traditions of Great Britain and France.

Japan and Russia have, during the past twenty years, moved with breath-taking speed toward the employment of a common industrial technique. But they have not been bound together. The decisive thing about Russia and Japan is that the future of each country is being determined by a totally different set of forces. It is General Araki's cult of Kodo that is molding the future of Japan, and that cultural development is a complete contradiction of recent cultural developments in Russia. It is even more alien to the cultural tradition of the United States.

The march of events is, at least in this field, perfectly plain. The inescapable conclusion to which one is driven by observing it is that the national ethos is far more powerful in determining the shape of things to come than any possible combination of social forces resulting from the appearance of a common world technical civilization. And culture has become the willing slave of the national ethos.

This is the kind of world in which the Protestant church finds itself. To say that its position in that world is precarious is to put the matter mildly. For the Protestant community is without a universal frame of reference. Within the Protestant fold there are of course many individual claims to the possession of a universal frame of reference. But when examined these claims have no justification in the corporate life of the community. That community no longer finds the unity of its message in the common value which it attaches to the Bible. It can no longer rely upon the fact that it originally grew out of the soil of a common Western European culture to ensure comprehension between its different parts. For the culture of Europe has not only not become a world culture, but even in Europe it has been irrevocably broken into bits by the impact of national cultures. Confidence in the emergence of a new world culture to perform the function of supplying Protestants with the same kind of unity which they once derived from Western European culture is a vain and illusory hope.

Without a universal frame of reference of its own and without the hope that world civilization will supply it with such a frame of reference, Protestantism stands exposed and defenseless before the onslaughts of national cultures. If it remains in this position the result is a foregone conclusion. The result will be that the Protestant faith will be destroyed in detail by these different cultures. This destruction is not a matter of prophecy. We are already witnesses of the first stages of the process of destruction. As the process continues Protestantism will tend more and more to lose its sense of universal mission as well as its sense of responsibility for witnessing to the universal truths of the Christian faith. Instead of expiring in courageous resistance, it will save itself by domesticating itself within the different national cultures, and as it does this it will degenerate into a spiritual or ethical manifestation of particular cultures and cease to be a reliable witness to the revelation of God in Christ.

There is no doubt in my own mind that the process of the domestication of Protestantism within national cultures is steadily taking place. This is illustrated by the increasing difficulty which Protestants from different continents, or even from different countries on the same continent, experience in communicating with each other. Ability to speak three or four of the most prevalent languages is not much help, for the barrier to understanding is far more serious than the barrier of language. The barrier consists in the fact that each person tends to articulate his religious experience in terms of his own cultural background. Each continues, of course, to console himself with the delusion that his special system of theology or his particular interpretation of the meaning of the Word of God constitutes a universal frame of reference within which the other person is or ought to be included and that consequently communication between them ought to be possible. But in so far as the actual frames of reference for both are their respective national cultures, the possibility of comprehending each other is not only greatly reduced but may even be rendered nil.

Over a period of more than twenty years I have observed this trend in the life of the Protestant student movements affiliated with the World's Student Christian Federation. The student mind is a very interesting mirror of dynamic social currents. It cannot always be relied upon for accurate interpretation of the present, but as a hint to the future it deserves serious attention. And in the Protestant student world we have more than a hint of what the future holds in store for the churches.

The fact is that some of the barriers which national cultures have imposed upon religious comprehension have already grown so high that very little if any understanding exists across them. To cite the barrier which exists between German Protestant students and American Protestant students may not seem convincing to those who have accustomed themselves to take that barrier for granted. On the other hand, to take it for granted is to admit that a situation exists in which two of the most important branches of the Protestant church no longer possess a common frame of reference. There are of course a few individual exceptions of men and women who by faith have transcended the limitations of their respective German and American churches and have entered as persons into the fellowship of the universal community of faith. These persons are evidence of the power of the love of God which can operate even when denied a corporate home. But such individual exceptions only emphasize more vividly the plight of the church as a whole, as it continues to domesticate itself within the national cultures.

An even more striking evidence of the prevalence of this trend is the increasing lack of comprehension between British and American Protestant students. Here are students who speak the same language and who in many instances share the same political and social traditions. Yet there is almost no communication between them in the realm of faith. There is a good bit of going to and fro across the Atlantic in the interest of sport, and in the interest of education, but there is practically none in the interest of the Christian religion. The one notable exception is the Buchman movement, but its exaggerated pietistic character deprives it of any particular significance as far as the total life of the Protestant churches is concerned. The cessation of significant Christian intercourse between the American and British universities has not been accepted with resignation by those who observed its coming. On the contrary, during the decade after the World War heroic efforts were made to maintain intercourse by organizational devices of one kind and another. These proved entirely ineffective to arrest the trend.

It gives one pause to contrast the present incapacity of British and American Protestant students to communicate with each other with the kind of relationship which prevailed between them fifty years ago. At that time the interflow of life was fairly continuous and had profound consequences for the church on both sides of the Atlantic. The Moody missions to Cambridge and Oxford, and the visits to the United States of the Cambridge Seven or of Henry Drummond were

religious event of first-rate importance. In other words, people not only understood each other across the Atlantic, but they were able to help each other. Now we no longer seem to understand, and consequently we cannot help.

This disappearance of creative communication between British and American students is merely an extreme instance of a world-wide trend. As Protestant thought domesticates itself within the national cultures, individual Protestants find that their religious language is increasingly incapable of transmitting the meaning of their faith to men of other countries. There is no universal frame of reference which provides a common pattern of thought to the whole Protestant community. Consequently the degradation of Protestantism proceeds apace. This degradation has occurred in the United States as much as in any Protestant land.


It has been customary in the past for American Protestants to assume the reliability and integrity of their own witness to the Christian faith. There are, of course, bitter family quarrels within the community, but when American Protestantism itself is called in question both fundamentalists and modernists instantly forget their differences and rally to its defense. The liberals may be dismissed with contempt by the realists, the agrarian fundamentalists may be ignored by their up-to-the-minute cosmopolitan brethren, but all alike assume the stability of the foundations of Protestantism. Where doubt is cast upon these foundations it is never directed toward the American section, but is almost invariably directed toward the European section.

The plight of the Protestant churches in Germany is certainly desperate enough to justify all the concern that can be expressed, though one would hope that admiration for the courage of the opposition clergy would exceed consternation at the policy adopted by the "German Christians." But the preoccupation of the leaders of the American churches with the crumbling foundations of European churches seems somewhat gratuitous when the foundations of their own churches are crumbling under their very feet for exactly the same reasons. It would be a salutary act of self-denial on the part of some of our intellectuals if they would resolve for a time to forget the predicament of Protestants overseas and concentrate upon the perilous condition of Protestants in the United States.

The plain fact is that the domestication of the Protestant community in the United States within the framework of the national culture has progressed as far as in any western land. The degradation of the American Protestant church is as complete as the degradation of any other national Protestant church. The process of degradation has been more subtle and inconspicuous, but equally devastating in its consequences for faith.

This is due in part to the fact that the character of our national culture and the traditions of American Protestantism have made them both peculiarly susceptible to fusion. A process which began with a culture molded by religious faith has ended with a religious faith molded by a national culture. Our national culture is the sum total not only of the hopes and desires which our fathers brought with them from Europe but also of their experiences and the experiences of their descendants in conquering and consolidating a continent. And the traditions born out of the experience of creating a new world have in the end proved far stronger than the traditions which were brought from the old world.

American national culture is still in process of formation. It is immature but very dynamic. The environment which it has created is favorable to the development of a technological civilization, but rather unfavorable to the maintenance of the Christian faith. It is therefore natural that religious minds immersed exclusively in that culture should occupy themselves with the construction of a religion better suited than the historic Christian faith to the conservation and promotion of the values of that culture. Sometimes this effort is made from within the church under the name of Christianity. Sometimes it is made from without the church by men consciously emancipated from the Christian tradition. In either case the effect is the same -- to lay the foundations of a religion or of a religious attitude which is American rather than Christian, national rather than universal.

This natural national religion which is emerging out of American culture expresses the most characteristic ethical and spiritual aspects of that culture. It is empirical in its approach to religious truth. It sets great store upon human ideals and human values. It is profoundly concerned with the realization of these ideals and values in social relations. It is essentially humanitarian in its outlook on life. It is the champion of personality. And it has a vivid sense of world mission.

In other words the American religion which is developing before our eyes is an expression of many of the qualities of which we are most proud in our national heritage. Its distant roots are of course in the Christian ethic. That is what gives it its plausible façade. That is also what lends such subtlety to its propaganda. If it were an avowedly national cult like General Araki's Kodo in Japan or General Ludendorff's new paganism in Germany, the issue between it and Christianity would be perfectly clear. But since our particular variety of national religion usually employs terms identical with those of the Christian ethic and even with the faith itself, the issue is extremely confused. The test by which the American Protestant church must be finally judged is whether its frame of reference is our national culture or the reality of Christendom. Does the faith to which this church is committed deal with a reality that is universal, true and good for all men everywhere and in all time, or is its faith rather the expression of the highest spiritual insights of our particular American culture? Let there be no mistake about it, these two alternatives are not just different ways of saying the same thing. They are not two facets of the same truth. On the contrary they are diametrically opposite positions. To maintain one means to abandon the other.

It is manifestly unfair to speak of Protestant Christianity in America as if it represented a uniform type of religious faith. And yet when the infinite variety of American Protestantism has been fully recognized -- its variety in historic backgrounds, in class affiliations, in creeds and in institutions -- the fact remains that what it has in common is perhaps even more impressive than its variety. Viewed from any other part of the world the differentiations between denominations which seem sharp enough in North America tend to fade away or, rather, are overshadowed by the family resemblances which bind the bulk of American Protestants together into a well-defined type as contrasted with Christian communities on other continents.

Within this well-defined American Protestant community there are, as might be expected, various dynamic trends -- intellectual and social trends, ethical trends and theological. These give to the Protestant community as a whole its most distinctive characteristics. They reveal the sources of its spiritual vitality, they indicate the decisive interests which motivate it and they provide clues to its future development.

There are, of course, sections of the Protestant church in the United States which are relatively immune to the influences of our evolving national religion. On the other hand, some of the dynamic trends which exert the widest influence over the thought and life of many of the churches have been profoundly influenced by that religion. It is this situation which constitutes a danger for the church as a whole.

The high priest of the movement which is preparing the way in the United States for a national religion as opposed to the Christian religion is Professor John Dewey. As our greatest educator and one of our greatest philosophers he has had an enormous influence on contemporary thought. Professor Dewey himself would be horrified at the suggestion that he is playing into the hands of nationalist forces. He is the outstanding liberal of his generation, a man wholly devoted to the application of ideals to life, and continuously preoccupied with serving the commonweal. Yet both his philosophy and his religion have laid substantial foundations for the American equivalent of the Nazi religion in Germany. The liberals in Germany unwittingly performed this function there. They are performing the same function here. Why? Because their ultimate frame of reference is not a universal faith but national culture.

This is made perfectly plain in Professor Dewey's recent book, A Common Faith. In it he discusses the religious attitude toward life which he has adopted for himself. He describes this faith in part "as the unification of the self through allegiance to inclusive ideal ends which imagination presents to us." The crucial question is, what is the imagination? For Professor Dewey the imagination is obviously the organ of faith. It serves the same function for him that "conscience" does for the Puritan, or the Pope does for the Catholic. It is a humanist's equivalent for the authority which the theist finds in God. On the basis of the enlightened and informed imagination, Professor Dewey hopes to build his universal community of those who have a common religious attitude toward life.

One is tempted to comment in the words of Shakespeare --

But as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet's pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

This would seem to be a very adequate description of Professor Dewey's idea of the incarnation. It remains to be seen, however, whether the thought of "airy nothing" becoming flesh and dwelling among us really marks an improvement upon the concept of the Logos.

It does not require profound knowledge of human psychology or vast experience of life to understand why the imagination can never provide a basis for a common faith. It might provide the basis for a common national faith or a common class faith but never for a universal faith. It cannot do this simply because it is man's imagination, and the social environment conditions man's imagination more than any other single factor. The human imagination, unconditioned by the Christian faith, invariably reflects the dominant social forces in which the individual is interested. If the dominant forces in any day are national forces the imagination will above all reflect the national ethos.

It will be the national ethos that will inform the imagination and enflame it. The normal thing to expect of a child brought up in present day Germany is that its imagination will be fed by the Nazi faith. By the grace of God through Christ that child as he grows to manhood may be able to rise above the social forces that surround him and at the risk of his life assert his citizenship in Christendom. But that assertion would be a flat denial of the adequacy of Professor Dewey's definition. For it would mean that the religious attitude of this particular individual had impelled him to repudiate the ideal ends which his natural German imagination had presented to him, and to act in the interest of other ends incapable of being reconciled with the ends presented by that imagination.

Professor Dewey has accepted without any qualification Rousseau's doctrine of man. He feels thoroughly satisfied with a religious attitude derived from the human imagination because he believes that all men everywhere are naturally good. Consequently, he trusts man's good imagination to present him with inclusive ideal ends. Even 1914 has not shattered Professor Dewey's sublimely naïve faith in man. His mind has been hypnotized by Rousseau's entrancing vision "that man is naturally good and that our social institutions alone have rendered him evil." This constitutes the tragedy of Professor Dewey's ventures into philosophy and religion.

Rousseau's doctrine of man is the curse of the age in which we live. It has become a curse because it has been accepted as true, whereas it is palpably untrue. The application of the scientific method to the facts of contemporary life or even the impartial eye of a realistic observer will furnish ample evidence that men are not naturally good. Yet we are witnesses to the amazing spectacle of the uncritical acceptance of this unscientific and romantic assumption by men who, in every other sphere of life, pride themselves upon their devotion to evidence presented by "the hard stuff of the world of physical and social experience."

The lesson of the hard stuff of social experience is perfectly plain. It is this: that the greatest evils which harass the modern world and which threaten it with destruction are the lineal descendants of the doctrine that man is naturally good. It is that false doctrine which has made man himself the end-all and be-all of existence, and which has filled the world with the cults of blood and race and nation. And in so far as that doctrine continues to dominate Western thought we may expect the recurring horrors of war and revolution, because it is a doctrine whose logic deprives mankind of a common frame of reference and in the end sets every man against every other man.

Professor Dewey supposes that by appealing to the imagination as the source of ideal ends he has suggested a religious attitude capable of supplying mankind with a common faith. His suggestion will have exactly the opposite effect. It will have this effect because an appeal to the imagination of the natural man in the actual world of 1935 means an appeal to national culture as the ultimate frame of reference. To suppose otherwise is the purest romanticism. And to appeal to national culture as the ultimate frame of reference is to lay the foundations not of a common faith but of a national faith. The imagination which was supposed to possess universal qualities capable of inspiring flesh and blood men of all lands and races to enter into a common faith turns out to be a specific American imagination. This is the very stuff out of which religions like the Nazi religion are eventually compounded. And that is the reason why the movement of thought which is associated with Professor Dewey's name is preparing the way for an American religion which will parallel the national religions of other countries.

Since Professor Dewey is not a Christian himself it may seem strange to devote so much space to his religious attitude in a discussion of trends in American Protestantism. The reasons for doing so are of course obvious. In a certain sense Professor Dewey sums up in his own philosophy the present stage of development of American culture. The system of thought which he represents has enormous influence throughout the country, even among people who have never heard the name of Dewey.

The extent of his influence within the Protestant church is perhaps as great as it is without the church. One only needs to remember the zeal with which Professor Wieman, in recent issues of The Christian Century, claimed Professor Dewey as a co-religionist. It is greatly to Professor Dewey's credit that he rejected Professor Wieman's overtures. He is not a theist, and the integrity of his mind forbade him to accept that designation.

An equally striking illustration of the influence within the Protestant churches of the movement of thought of which Professor Dewey is the foremost exponent is the book by Professor Baker, Christian Missions and the New World Culture, to which reference has already been made. This book has been hailed by the editor of The Christian Century as "the most important interpretation of Christian missions that has appeared since the modern missionary enterprise was launched, a little more than a hundred years ago." I am inclined to agree with Dr. Morrison's estimate, but for quite different reasons. Professor Baker accepts the findings of the theoretical sciences which indicate that "religion is a phase of cultural development, and missions one aspect of a more general process of culture interpenetration." If that means anything at all it means that culture, rather than the object of his worship, is the force which conditions the religious man. Form is made more significant than the content of faith. In other words, the missionary movement which Paul inaugurated was one aspect of a more general process of interpenetration between Jewish, Greek and Roman cultures. That this movement was in part a process of cultural interpenetration no one will deny. But to maintain that it was chiefly such a process is to distort the whole picture. In that event the Judaizing Christians, champions of Jewish culture, would have made much better missionaries than Saul of Tarsus who, in becoming Paul, ceased to be identified primarily with the Jewish tradition. The missionary Paul did not go about organizing koinonia for the purpose of facilitating the cross-fertilization of cultures, desirable as that would have been in itself. On the contrary, the cross-fertilization of cultures which resulted from his work was the by-product of something else -- of his announcement of the establishment through Christ of a new world order in which there was neither Jew nor Greek, barbarian, Scythian, bond or free, but all were one in Christ. St. Paul looked to Christ and his church as the ground of unity. Professor Baker looks to culture. That is the difference between historic Christianity and our evolving American religion.

Having adopted culture as his frame of reference, Professor Baker heroically attempts to escape from the limitations of national culture by positing the emergence of a new world culture. This has been shown to be an unjustifiable assumption. "The hard stuff of social experience" indicates that, regardless of what may happen in future centuries, culture in our time is a national phenomenon. Consequently the practical effect of Professor Baker's argument is to accelerate the domestication of American Protestantism within the framework of American culture. What began as an attempt to universalize the message of the Protestant churches ends with the degradation of that message to the level of cross-fertilization between national cultures. Cross-fertilization between cultures is in itself a highly desirable process, but it has nothing to do with the central task of the Christian church. To confuse the process of cross-fertilization between national cultures with the mission of the Christian church is in effect to betray the faith of that church.

The names of Professor Dewey, Professor Wieman and Professor Baker are merely illustrative of what is perhaps the most significant trend in the contemporary thought of the American Protestant community. That trend is symptomatic of the world-wide disintegration of Protestantism. It means that the culture of this and other nations rather than the reality of Christendom is becoming the conditioning frame of reference for the Protestant church. In so far as this has occurred the Protestant churches of different nations have ceased to be reliable witnesses to the truth of the Christian religion.

In writing this I am not at all unmindful of the heroic efforts that different groups within the American Protestant church have been making over a period of years to maintain their unity with their brethren in other parts of the world. Lausanne, Stockholm and Jerusalem and the movements associated with these names are monuments to the faith and courage of such Protestant leaders. My only comment would be that each of these movements is doomed to eventual failure in so far as the Protestant churches in different lands become subservient to the ends of their respective national cultures rather than to the ends of Christendom. In the face of diverging national cultures co-operation cannot continue if its only basis is a common program of activities. A common frame of reference for religious faith is the necessary condition of enduring co-operation.

If the American Protestant churches are not to betray their trust, if they are to continue to serve as reliable witnesses to the Christian faith, they must distinguish more clearly between their primary tasks and their secondary ones. We have too often mistaken secondary interests for primary obligations. Among secondary interests should be included all those interests related to the realization of the special ends of our American national culture. Under this category would come the promotion of particular programs, of particular reforms, and of particular moralities, the advocacy of this or that social formula or this or that political solution as ends in themselves.

The realization of particular purposes in our national life is the concern of Americans as citizens. Indeed, it should constitute the citizen's first concern. Moreover, if the citizen happens to be a Christian his faith will directly condition his choice of national purposes and the manner in which he relates himself to their realization. But for the Christian as Christian the realization of the ends of national culture is not his first concern. It is not his first concern because it belongs to the realm of the relative and temporal. It is an ingredient in a particular national situation. And the first task of the Christian church is not to juggle with the ingredients of that situation as if the problem of national life could be solved as one solves a jigsaw puzzle. The first task of the church is not to move these ingredients about in search of a solution, but to bring them into the presence of a new order of reality -- the order of Christendom -- where alone a solution in the Christian sense is possible. It is the business of the Church to remind its members that for them the ultimate frame of reference is not the aspirations of national culture but the obligations of Christendom.

The primary task of the American Protestant church is to recreate among its members belief in the reality of Christendom. That means preoccupation with those elements in the Christian faith that have an absolute and eternal value. It means the construction of a frame of reference which is at one and the same time universal in its outreach and immediately personal in its application.

This frame of reference includes -- A Christian teaching, embracing such doctrines as

The doctrine of God.

The doctrine of man.

The divine drama of salvation.

A Christian society:

The life of the Christian church as a catholic community of faith.

The nature and function of this community.

A Christian ethic:

The implications of Christian teaching and of the existence of a catholic community of faith for personal and social life within the nation.

The implications of Christendom for the international order.


The choice before the American Protestant churches is plain. They must choose between the above frame of reference and the frame of reference supplied by American culture. If they choose the latter they will forfeit their right to speak in the name of the Christian faith. In so far as they continue to use that name they will be false witnesses who have betrayed their trust and are misleading the people. The Protestant churches will continue to merit confidence and support only if they choose the frame of reference supplied by the reality of Christendom. And paradoxical though it may seem, it will be only as they are faithful to that frame of reference that any culture worthy of the name will survive in America




  1. This latter fact is seldom considered by the apologists of Protestantism. Yet its consequences for the Protestant movement have been profound. So long as Protestantism was a European phenomenon it wore a mask of apparent universality derived from its cultural background. A Dutch Protestant and a Swiss Protestant and a Scotch Protestant could all understand one another tolerably well because they were all inheritors of the same cultural traditions. The perpetuation of this happy situation, however, depended upon the survival of a common culture throughout Western Europe and the permanent confinement of Protestantism within the orbit of that culture. Neither of these conditions was fulfilled.
  2. See Christian Missions and a New World Culture, by Archibald G. Baker, Willett, Clark & Company, Chicago; and Rethinking Missions -- a Laymen's Inquiry, Harper & Brothers, New York.