Bog-Standard Protestantism: A Primer

Conservative Roman Catholic intellectuals are never more likely to make a misstep than when they comment on Protestants or Protestantism. Such comments frequently mar otherwise worthwhile works, like the birth-mark in Hawthorne’s story.

Examples abound, to such an extent that pointing them out has become something of a running parlor game among my friends and acquaintances. Some are so egregious that one suspects the author has never bothered to take the time to familiarize himself with the beliefs of those on whom he has trained his intrepid and confident critical eye.

Others occur in a strain much more well-meaning, and, far from being born of malice, represent a simple, if regrettable, misunderstanding. Such is the illustration I have selected for this post.

(I should hasten to add, too, that the kind of distortion of historical Protestantism I am going to point out in just a moment happens almost as frequently among Protestant writers as it does among Roman Catholics.)

So, by way of a conclusion to these introductory remarks: Enough of all that. Let’s get on with it, shall we?

In the second chapter of The Conservative Mind, “Burke and the Politics of Prescription,” Russell Kirk says this:

To inculcate this veneration among men, to consecrate public office, Burke believed that the church must be interwoven with the fabric of the nation. His Church is an idealized Anglican establishment, but more than Anglican. There is something classical in it; something Catholic, too, so that bigots (including the old duke of Newcastle) whispered that Burke must have been educated in the Papist seminary at St. Omer. “Religion is so far, in my opinion, from being out of the province of a Christian magistrate,” Burke wrote, “that it is, and it ought to be, not only his care, but the principal thing in his care; and its object is the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself.” But it was not wholly the medieval church-idea. As Alfred Cobban justly remarks of Burke, “His ideal is neither Protestant Erastianism nor Catholic Theocracy; it is much more like the kingdom of God on earth.”

Now, each of the words or phrases in bold has one or another kind of false ring to it. First, there was nothing “idealized” about Burke’s view of establishment. If you read, say, Burke’s Reflections, what he loved just was the Anglican establishment, and it is the same sort of thing that was replicated in numerous other Protestant territories in various ways. For that reason, “[Burke’s] Church” was not “more than Anglican,” unless “more than” means “not exclusively” (because similar phenomena could be found in other Protestant countries)–which it does not. Getting the magisterial Reformation right allows us to account for the next set of phrases about “[Burke’s] Church”: yes, there was “something classical” in it, as well as “something Catholic”; but only because the Anglican establishment was a historical inheritance of a much older Christendom. In other words, Burke’s picture is something native to magisterial Protestantism rather than a foreign accretion–which, again, is not what, I think, Kirk means.

Thus we come to the next phrase. Kirk is correct that what Burke adhered to “was not wholly the medieval church-idea.” But this is not because Burke claimed some tertium quid, neither Protestant nor Roman Catholic, but precisely because he claimed Protestantism: in particular, he claimed the Protestantism of the Church of England, which, while it retained many elements of the medieval church, at the same time represented a recovery of certain emphases of the ancient church, such as its Constantinianism and the idea of a societas Christiana, that did not involve the subjection of the state to the clergy.

For these reasons, the quotation from Alfred Cobban’s Edmund Burke and the Revolt against the Eighteenth Century presents a false choice. The quotation speaks of Burke’s “ideal.” But Burke was no idealist, and he loved the church he was given rather than what he imagined about her. Kirk knew this, and the double use of forms of “ideal” or “idealized” in this paragraph (one Kirk’s, one Cobban’s) is therefore a tell that something is not right, that something has been misunderstood. Burke fully accepted the “Protestant Erastianism” of the English church, which was also (of course!) a type of “theocracy,” though it was not the Roman Catholic version of theocracy. And this theocratic Protestant Erastianism also was–not “[was] much more like”–“the kingdom of God on earth.”

This is so not in an eschatologically realized way, but rather in the way in which God governs the world in the “Last Days” before the eschaton. Right now, that is, God governs through a twofold kingdom. On the one hand, there is the spiritual kingdom of God attained to by faith. On the other, there is the reign of God manifested temporally in the societas Christiana, whose members are at once citizens and members of the church. This Burke believed; and this is the root of Burke’s view, for Burke was a Protestant.

There is, then, nothing idiosyncratic about Burke’s position at all. It is simply the political theory of the Reformation. The primary sources that delineate it are almost inexhaustible.

Take the bit of Burke quoted above: “Religion is so far, in my opinion, from being out of the province of a Christian magistrate, that it is, and it ought to be, not only his care, but the principal thing in his care; and its object is the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself.” Remember, The Conservative Mind presents this as something “more than Anglican,” “something classical,” “something Catholic,” as something “neither Protestant…nor Catholic.” But Burke is referring to the magistrate’s duty of cura religionis, “care for religion.” And what he says is the absolutely bog-standard Protestant position.

Antecedents for this view could be multiplied until next Thanksgiving, so I will give just one, from Philip Melanchthon’s Summary of Moral Philosophy:

The proper and chief end  of human society is for God to be made known. The magistrate is the guardian of human society. He therefore ought much more to be the guardian of that chief end, because in every action the proper end is principally to be sought after and protected, as a doctor must chiefly seek after and protect health in his practice of medicine. Therefore, in the government of society, too, the one who governs must principally seek after the proper end of society. Magistrates err, therefore, who tear government apart from its end, and judge themselves only to be the guardians of peace and the stomach. They have another, greater, duty, namely, the defense of the law in its entirety, the first and second tables, as far as external discipline is concerned. It is by reason of this heavenly duty that God imparts to them an association with his name, saying, “I have said, ‘You are gods,’” that is, “You have been chosen by God to preserve true religion and to prohibit and abolish idolatry, and for the preservation of justice, marriage, and peace and the prohibition of what is shameful.”   

In Deuteronomy 17, God makes the king the guardian of the law and of religious doctrine. And in the book called Wisdom, the following command is handed on at the beginning: “Love justice, you who judge the earth. Seek God,” etc. I cited very many similar statements above that remind princes about their highest duty. However, after the sacrificianados began to pass laws for the rest of the congregation according to their own will, and no one was permitted to disagree with the statements and judgments of the pontiffs, there crept into the minds of very many that princes had nothing to do with the care of churches and that to them had been entrusted only the defense of bodies and fortunes–that is, that they were guardians of the stomach alone. But if the stomach alone is to be cared for, how do princes differ from herdsmen? For one should think far differently, namely, that God, with wondrous wisdom and goodness, established polities not only for seeking and enjoying the goods of the stomach, but much more so that God might be made known in society and so that eternal goods might be sought.

I’ll let Burke have the last word. It is instructive to look at the larger context from which the Burke quotation above comes. If one reads it in conjunction with Melanchthon and other magisterial Protestant writers, it will confirm my argument. The quotation comes from Burke’s “Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians.” Here is what he says:

An alliance between Church and State in a Christian commonwealth is, in my opinion, an idle and a fanciful speculation. An alliance is between two things that are in their nature distinct and independent, such as between two sovereign states. But in a Christian commonwealth the Church and the State are one and the same thing, being different integral parts of the same whole. For the Church has been always divided into two parts, the clergy and the laity,—of which the laity is as much an essential integral part, and has as much its duties and privileges, as the clerical member, and in the rule, order, and government of the Church has its share. Religion is so far, in my opinion, from being out of the province or the duty of a Christian magistrate, that it is, and it ought to be, not only his care, but the principal thing in his care; because it is one of the great bonds of human society, and its object the supreme good, the ultimate end and object of man himself. The magistrate, who is a man, and charged with the concerns of men, and to whom very specially nothing human is remote and indifferent, has a right and a duty to watch over it with an unceasing vigilance, to protect, to promote, to forward it by every rational, just, and prudent means. It is principally his duty to prevent the abuses which grow out of every strong and efficient principle that actuates the human mind. As religion is one of the bonds of society, he ought not to suffer it to be made the pretext of destroying its peace, order, liberty, and its security. Above all, he ought strictly to look to it, when men begin to form new combinations, to be distinguished by new names, and especially when they mingle a political system with their religious opinions, true or false, plausible or implausible.

I said I would give Burke the last word. But that wasn’t quite true. I am afraid I have reserved it for myself after all. The reason is that word that Burke uses twice: “integral.”

This locution only merits comment because of the recent faddishness of Roman Catholic “integralism,” a heritage, in its ideological form, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, though with a pedigree in Roman Catholic theological politics that extends back for many centuries. It is therefore important to note that Burke’s use of “integral” does not make him a follower of Pope Pius X avant la lettre.

“Integral” is an adjective, not an –ism, and Burke’s meaning is clear enough: if one posits a “Christian commonwealth,” the citizens of the state and the members of the church are the same people viewed from different angles. So much is, again, bog-standard Protestant thought. (I realize that I myself have regrettably used “Protestantism” some five times in this essay, but only because I can’t find a shorter way of saying “things that people who were not Roman Catholics or Anabaptists believed in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.” Mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.) Church and state make one whole in society, just as clergy and laity make one whole in the church. Such a banal observation is a far cry from “integralism,” unless “integralism” means “the constitutional ordering of Christian citizens in a Christian commonwealth with national sovereignty in which the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction and the temporal power is not subordinated to the spiritual power.” But, and this is perhaps just as important, we all know it doesn’t mean that.

I fear, however, that we are getting somewhat adrift of our original purpose. That purpose was, as you might recall, the demystification of basic features of Protestant political theory for the edification of our Roman Catholic interlocutors. When Kirk wrote The Conservative Mind, there was little foregrounding of those features even by Protestants themselves, so that some mistakes can be condoned. And Kirk was such a lion that sympathetic readers such as I are willing to forgive much. Even Homer nods. But those old excuses are gone, and should anyone try to avail himself of them now, we shall have to paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen: “Senator, you’re no Russell Kirk.”

In sum, don’t be Biff Tannen. Do your homework.


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