Why Protestants Convert, Pt. 4: The Sociology of Conversion
University of Notre Dame


Why do Protestants convert? The answer, as we’ve seen in our posts this fall, is complicated. It cannot be reduced to simple slogans or polemical talking points, and it calls for serious self-examination among Protestants as well as a confident restatement of basic Scripture truths and historical facts. The answer begins, of course, at the heart, with its deep-seated hunger for authority, for holiness, and for a sense of belonging to something grander and perhaps more sophisticated than evangelical Protestantism. The answer must also include a serious consideration of the theological issues that continue to divide Protestants and Catholics, and the easy polemical points that Roman Catholics can score with Protestants who do not understand the full depth of Reformational teaching on Scripture, tradition, and sacraments.

But we are also fundamentally social beings, and our decisions are shaped by our social context. We want to be part of communities marked by peace and integrity, communities that live out Christ’s prayer to the Father “that they may be one, as we are one.” We want the Church to be a real shaper of culture, rather than just a religious refuge from it. Finally, we want to be part of communities that have some recognition in the eyes of the world, making a positive difference or at least maintaining some shreds of respectability.  Even if Christ promised us persecution, we’d like to hang on to as much dignity as possible while being persecuted; it’s no fun to feel marginalized for our unsophisticated fundamentalism. Many of our best and brightest are accordingly drawn to expressions of Christianity that can more plausibly claim to offer unity in the midst of our divisions, cultural depth in the midst of our shallowness, and relevance in the midst of our marginalization. Let’s address each of these points in turn.

Tired of Division

The Catholic Society of St. John Paul is a community of Wheaton College in which students gather to affirm and enrich their Catholic faith. One such student, who had consumed his share of apologetic literature, asked me whether evangelical ecclesiology should be considered an oxymoron like “jumbo shrimp” or “airline food.” What he said next resembled the concern of Christian Smith: 

[I] wonder if the long section of “Churches” listed in the Yellow Pages is a real problem [and] if that somehow isn’t a terrible witness against unity in Christ. Why should anyone believe the gospel of justification, reconciliation, and peace if the people who already believe and profess it can’t get their act together enough to stop arguing and splitting off from each other? How could all of this division and disunity be honoring to God?[1]

After affirming the student’s proper zeal for church unity, zeal that is supported by a catena of biblical texts (Psalm 133; John 17:20-21; Rom. 15:5-6; 1 Cor 1:10-13; Eph 4:1-3), I sought to help him understand the Protestant perspective: Scripture calls Christians to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

The New Testament vision for Christian solidarity may be summarized with Paul’s words in Eph 1:10, the “plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in [Christ], things in heaven and things on earth.” Not only does this reconciliation join sinners to God, but it also unites us to one another as new humanity created to display the character of triune love (Eph 2:11-22). As this visible priesthood of believers, united in the Holy Spirit with Christ as our head, we are marked by the preaching of God’s Word, the administration of the sacraments.

This, I explained, is distinguished from the sacerdotal vision of ecclesial unity upheld by Rome in which priests serve as spiritual mediators and bishops represent the apostles. In this vision, ordained clergy don’t simply minister in the name of Christ; they operate in offices imbued by his sacred authority, a continuation of his incarnate presence. The infallibility of this church is thus upheld by Christ governing through Peter and the other apostles who are present in their successors, the Pope and the college of bishops. The boundaries of the church of Christ are therefore identified with those of by the Roman Catholic Church.

When Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century split from or were excommunicated by Rome, they rejected Roman ecclesiology. Over against Rome, Protestants emphasized the church’s identity and calling as a communion of saints, the congregation of the faithful who receive God’s redemptive word, variously administered and confessed in preaching, instruction, confession, sacrament, and life. Concerning the relationship of divine authority to this identity, Michael Horton helpfully reminds us, “The church is always on the receiving end in its relationship to Christ; it is never the redeemer, but always the redeemed; never the head, but always the body.”[2] The diverse structural contours of this body may appear deficient, or even contradictory, to those who view it according to the organs and oracles of Rome, but they are simply the outworking of an ecclesiology that defines catholicity by adherence to the kerygma, an adherence that is shared by Christian traditions from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

From the seventeenth century in particular, when the Peace of Westphalia (1648) ended the bloody Thirty Years’ War and the Act of Toleration (1689)  granted religious freedom to Nonconformists (i.e., Baptists and Congregationalists), the notion of Christendom—a unified people under one ruler observing the same liturgy—has been an ever-fading memory. Like a distant cloud the size of a man’s fist, what began as religious toleration among Catholics and Protestants has grown into the torrential downpour that is now contemporary western pluralism.

Like a distant cloud the size of a man’s fist, what began as religious toleration among Catholics and Protestants has grown into the torrential downpour that is now contemporary western pluralism.

For Protestants, this pluralism creates an environment where biblically rooted faith sometimes falls into the schism and fragmentation that Smith describes above, an acrimonious and bitter division that offends the Spirit of peace. But not always. It’s easy to focus on the diverse shape of Protestantism and miss the blessed intercommunion that exists between countless congregations, denominations, seminaries, church planting networks, crisis pregnancy centers, rescue missions, and evangelical coalitions. Such diversity tends to be more compelling than Rome’s policy nowadays of turning a blind eye to heretics or sectarians within her own ranks.

The Synod of Dordt, 1621

Nevertheless, division has been a grievous and embarrassing dimension of our Protestant heritage, a failure that we must recognize and own. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church also stands in the dock for having damaged the unity of the Spirit. Whether by dubia, filial corrections, or letters by upper-level prelates opposing the doctrinal “darkness” of Pope Francis, the division that follows from a sacerdotal narrowing and bureaucratizing of Christian faith has been on full display. And then there is the sola Roma position that excludes baptized Christian brothers and sisters from the communion table, an exclusivism that rends asunder Christ’s body before a watching world.

Finally, we return to the original question: is “evangelical ecclesiology” an oxymoron? The question is fair, but as I explained above, the answer is unequivocally “no.” And to continue being fair, we must likewise ask whether “Roman” and “catholic” also oppose one another—as Leonardo De Chirico recently put it: Roman particularity and catholic universality, Roman unity and catholic plurality, Roman distinctiveness and catholic comprehensiveness, the Roman locus (place) and the catholic totus (whole), Roman partiality and the catholic fullness, Roman narrowness and catholic breadth, Roman rigidity and catholic elasticity. In short, we must not allow the church to be reduced to a single bureaucratic structure, but instead uphold an ecclesiology that advances the whole gospel, for the whole church, unto the whole world.

Tired of Shallowness

A few years ago, the prominent Protestant theologian Peter J. Leithart penned a provocative essay called “Why Protestants Can’t Write.” It began with the line “Blame it on Marburg.” The 1529 Colloquy of Marburg, of course, was the point at which Zwingli and Luther failed to agree on the nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist (although its historical importance has been vastly exaggerated). Leithart conceded that obviously not all the Reformers were Zwinglians, but he thinks that the Zwinglian ethos has captured Protestantism, to the point Protestants have been by and large unable to produce good literature over the centuries. Good literature, after all, requires a symbolic realism, a union of sign and reality, which he thinks we see in the writings of the Catholic Flannery O’Connor. For her, “creation is always the medium by which God comes to us.”[3] But for most Protestants, “symbols [are] separated from reality and reduced to ‘mere signs’ [which] cannot do anything. They exist as sheer ornament; Protestant writers cannot do justice to this world or show that this world is the theater of God’s redeeming action.”[4]

By the 20th century, this self-perception on the part of most evangelical Protestants—of subjectivism, spiritualism, and anti-sacramentalism—was so entrenched that Catholic apologists and self-flagellating Protestant ecumenists could take the old Reformation-era polemics to another level. It was not merely, we began to hear, that large swaths of Protestantism rejected the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but that they rejected the whole “sacramental tapestry,” an understanding of the created world as a site of God’s presence.[1] Whereas medieval Catholicism saw the whole created order as a seamless tapestry in which the lowest was knit together with the highest, in which, in the inimitable words of Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,”[ Protestantism had, wittingly or unwittingly, “disenchanted” the world, leaving it, in the words of Hamlet, “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,” with only the inner recesses of our minds serving as a site of communion with God.[2]

Of course, critiques of the Reformed Eucharist as an “empty sign” are nothing new. From the beginning of the Reformation, Catholic polemicists talked about nothing so often as this, and before long, Lutherans too made this accusation against the Reformed. Whereas the early Reformed fiercely denied the charge, somewhere along the way, they started to believe it about themselves, and then to wear the charge of subjectivism as a badge of pride. Faith had retreated more and more into the subjective mental realm, and the emphasis on human initiative came to taint even most conservative branches of Protestantism, so it seemed only natural to see the sacraments as no more than occasions for human beings to muster up pious thoughts and sweet inward feelings of spiritual communion.

We have already touched on matters closely related to this charge in the previous two posts, noting the “holiness deficit disorder” that afflicts many Protestants today, and the quest for “tangible grace” and a robust sacramentology that Roman Catholicism seems far more able to offer than Protestantism. But Leithart takes this point in a slightly different direction, worrying that the Protestant divorce of secular and sacred, the Protestant disenchantment of the world, has left Protestants unable to make any meaningful contribution to the arts. Given that only a very small proportion of us are ever going to be theologians or historians or nerds in general, this is a serious concern indeed. We could defend the intellectual coherence and historical foundations of Protestantism all day long, and yet, if it offered few resources for the musicians, the writers, the filmmakers, and the artists amongst us–or indeed, for the millions of laity who casually imbibe Christian music and literature–then we could hardly wonder or complain at the steady exodus of aesthetically-inclined or culturally-sophisticated evangelicals from the Protestant ranks.

Of course, it is difficult to get a clear handle on the true scope of the problem, or indeed even whether there is a problem. To be sure, we might wince at the abysmal quality of much contemporary Christian music or inspirational Christian fiction, but you only have to shuffle over to the Catholic bookstore or turn the dial to Catholic radio to realize that evangelicals have no monopoly on corny or kitsch. As for great artists, they rarely wear their confessional commitments on their shirt-sleeve, and even when one can label a novelist or filmmaker “Calvinist” or “Catholic,” they are more likely than not to be lapsed or the purveyor of their own private creed, as indeed many great Christian artists  have been historically. Still, it seems undeniable that if we look at the twentieth century at least, it is far easier to rattle off the names of great Catholic novelists (Waugh, Greene, O’Connor, Tolkien) than Protestant ones. And given the paucity of serious evangelical reflection nowadays on the intersection of faith and imagination, symbol and reality, nature and grace, it is easy to conclude that this is the result of some built-in bug in the Protestant machine.

We might wince at the abysmal quality of much contemporary Christian music or inspirational Christian fiction, but you only have to shuffle over to the Catholic bookstore or turn the dial to Catholic radio to realize that evangelicals have no monopoly on corny or kitsch.

However, as soon as one widens the historical lens, any thesis of Protestant philistinism collapses. From Handel and Bach to Mendelssohn and Brahms, from Shakespeare and Spenser to Milton and Melville, from Donne and Herbert to Coleridge and Eliot, the artistic and cultural inheritance of the West has been immeasurably enriched by Protestants–some sustained by a devout personal faith, others rebelling in some measure against it, but all nourished by Protestant culture, ideas, and institutions. Indeed, even in the last century, one of the towering literary figures in the Anglophone world, C.S. Lewis, was a powerful spokesman for Protestant faith and the legacy of the magisterial Reformation. The fact that we lack such artistic and cultural giants today says something about the educational failures of late modern American Protestantism, to be sure, but not, I would suggest,  anything fundamental to Reformational faith.

Tired of Irrelevance

Although it might be news to paranoid progressives that evangelical Protestants are politically irrelevant, the truth is that the days of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority are long gone. And while we are now, in the era of Trump, treated to the spectacle of Jerry Falwell Jr. and the Amoral Majority, whatever relevance evangelicalism still has in the culture wars seems to be the wrong kind. Young evangelicals are painfully aware of being a cultural laughingstock for their pro-life protests and anti-gay-marriage wedding cake showdowns, for their apparently unshakeable allegiance to the hypocritical shenanigans of the Republican party and their prudishness in a culture of shamelessness.

A fair number of millenial Christians have responded to these pressures, and their hunger for respectability, by subtly edging or openly bolting from the ranks of traditional Christian moral orthodoxy and campaigning for progressive stances on issues of sex, gender, abortion, and many other fronts. Others, however, have genuinely desired to remain faithful to the teaching of Christ and the moral order of reality, but have been frustrated by the painful unsophistication of much of the current Protestant witness on these issues.

Indeed, there are probably a fair number of conversions that are motivated more by embarrassment more than anything else. We are embarrassed at our divisions, as just mentioned, we are embarrassed at the unintelligibility of our moral stances, our incoherent and inarticulate political posturing, and at the vapid spectacle of evangelical mega-church worship: the rock bands, smoke machines, and pop-psychology inspirational talks we call “sermons.” To reason from “my evangelical megachurch is a joke” to “Rome has the answers” might not be a compelling logical syllogism, but it is a compelling emotional one, and given the relative invisibility of authentic magisterial Protestant churches and institutions, we should not be surprised that so many fall prey to it.

To reason from “my evangelical megachurch is a joke” to “Rome has the answers” might not be a compelling logical syllogism, but it is a compelling emotional one.

But, to be fair, many converts are motivated by something more positive than mere embarrassment. They get that being faithful means being mocked and marginalized, and they recognize that in our current cultural context, they are called to a life of being Elijahs, faithfully witnessing the truth of God in the darkness of our political and academic institutions. But if they’re going to be condemned to a life of conflict and opposition, they’d like to at least be effective in it. And let’s face it: any honest evaluation of conservative political and intellectual activity over the last twenty-five years would compel us to admit that Roman Catholics have been far more effective than Protestants lately, both in offering a coherent intellectual case for historic Christian moral teaching and in building institutions and centers of influence to gain effective academic and political leverage for their ideas. The Papacy was blessed with two of the greatest theologians to sit in the seat of Peter: John Paul II and Benedict XVI. Meanwhile, here in America, the efforts of Robert George, Ryan Anderson, and the new natural lawyers, while ultimately little more than a rear-guard action against the tidal wave of anti-reason engulfing our public square, has towered above anything that Protestant ethicists have been able to produce.

Going back a bit further, was there any conservative Protestant moral theologian in the 1990s whose influence could rival that of John Finnis, or a conservative Protestant public intellectual to match Richard John Neuhaus? To be sure, in raw quality and intellectual seriousness, the robustly Protestant work of Anglican ethicist Oliver O’Donovan probably equals or surpasses any Catholic moral or political theologian of the past quarter-century, but his influence is more diffuse and hard to trace. Indeed, once one starts thinking of names, there have been many Protestant intellectual powerhouses offering us resources for a faithful conservative witness in the midst of our current confusions: intellectuals such as John Webster, Richard Muller, Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, Stephen Clark, Nicholas Wolterstorff, or indeed at a more popular level Tim Keller. But why do the Catholic intellectuals loom so much larger? Why does Catholic natural law have a visibility and impact that Protestant natural law–for all its rich historical pedigree–does not?

The answer, surely, lies in institutions. There is no faithful Protestant Notre Dame or CUA, no faithful Protestant John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, no faithful Protestant First Things. I don’t know how many Protestant journals and web journal editors have told me that they dream of “becoming the Protestant First Things,” but so far, none of them has come close. The sad fact is that Protestants in America desperately lack institutions of educational, cultural, and political impact.

The good news, however, is that this lack clearly has nothing to do with shortcomings inherent to Protestantism. In the Old World, Protestants established intellectual institutions that were the envy of the world; by the 1620s, it was said that “Clerus Anglicani stupor mundi est”– “the English clergy are the wonder of the world”–and aspiring scholars and pastors from all over Europe were sent to Oxford and Cambridge for their education. Even today, after the long slow desiccation of Protestant Christendom in Europe, much of the best theology, biblical studies, and historical scholarship still emanates from the Protestant universities of northern Europe, and Protestant scholars and churchmen there still play an important role in public debate and deliberation. In the United States, the same could have been said up through at least the 1920s. But with the gradual capture of established Protestant institutions by liberal theology, and the capture of conservative Protestantism by fundamentalist dispensational theology, Protestant orthodoxy resigned itself to a long exile on the margins, and for the most part invested very little in creating the kind of institutions that could foster a robust and relevant public witness. Meanwhile, Roman Catholicism in America, even while also losing many institutions to liberalism, was well accustomed to marginalization and had built up institutions well-positioned to survive and thrive in an oppositional culture. This, together with Catholicism’s sheer global scale, wealth, and organization, enabled Catholics to maintain and indeed expand a strong foothold at the center of our public life.

We have an enormous amount of rebuilding to do as Reformational Protestants if we are again to offer a clear, coherent, and visible voice to our society in its hour of need. But the good news is that we have great exemplars of institution-building to look to for inspiration: the Reformers themselves. The Reformation cultivated old and planted new educational institutions throughout Europe. Protestantism’s emphasis on the Scriptures, and especially on reading them in the original languages, necessitated the creation of schools capable of producing a literate laity and an educated pastorate. The Reformation was, after all, a product of the Renaissance. By and large, furthermore, the institutions founded by the Reformers and their successors still exist today.  

Old College, University of Edinburgh

If we are to build new and lasting institutions, cultivate talented intellectuals and artists, retrieve a potent and imaginatively compelling political theology, and recapture the breadth and depth of Protestantism’s vision of the Church and Christian life, we will have to learn from our Protestant fathers.  Our final post will attempt to sketch out a positive vision of such a ressourcement.


1 The term comes from Hans Boersma, Heavenly Participation: The Weaving of a Sacramental Tapestry (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011). See ch. 5 for his critique of the role of the Reformation in this.
2 Cf. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007), 79.


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