The Heresy of (Protestant) Americanism

In 1899 Pope Leo XIII wrote to James Cardinal Gibbon, the Archbishop of Baltimore. The letter—now widely known as Testem benevolentiae nostrae—addressed what the Pope identified as the heresy of Americanism. Leo worried that democracy, liberalism, and pluralism might harm the faith and practice of the Roman Catholic Church in the American republic. Testem has been widely derided by liberals and celebrated by traditionalists. The document itself is actually fairly innocuous; its most famous provision—a perceived condemnation of an absolutely free press—would not seem particularly out of place in the mouths of rabid left wing or right wing partisans in modern telemedia. Does anyone want an ABSOLUTELY free press? I might, because I still shade libertarian particularly in regard to print media, but I assume I’m in a minority on that question.

            Protestants can learn quite a bit from Leo’s letter.  There were, and are, American cultural, political, and social commitments that might actually hurt the faith and practice of the Catholic church. Similarly, there are American cultural, political, and social commitments both historic and present that did and do hurt Protestant faith and practice! The United States did not inaugurate Protestant faith and doctrine. Protestant churches—Anglican, Lutheran, and Reformed—preexisted the American republic. Yet Americanist presumptions have been taken as holy writ by Protestants throughout the history of the United States, with interesting and sometimes horrifying consequences.

            My colleague Eric Hutchinson asked me to deliver a talk to our honors students—we call them Collegiate Scholars—at their annual retreat. This year’s theme was revolution. I read historic sermons on that theme and what struck me is how completely different American Protestants sounded from their European counterparts. There was something innately—even frighteningly—Whiggish about much of Protestantism in the United States; Whig theory, Enlightenment republicanism, and Protestantism in North America were nearly inseparable. North American Protestantism was and is triumphalist and revolutionary in a way unrecognizable among European Calvinists and Lutherans, to say nothing of how it departs from Anglicanism’s historic conservatism.

In the United States Presbyterians allied with Baptists and Methodists overthrew not only the Anglican and Congregationalist established churches but also, they believed, began to remake the world by removing all authority perceived to be tyrannical or oppressive. In 1793 a Presbyterian minister in Philadelphia told his congregation there was no reason not “to indulge the pleasing thought, that the time is not far distant, when tyranny everywhere shall be destroyed; when mankind shall be the slaves of monsters and idiots no more, but recover the true dignity of their nature!” This particular Presbyterian declared that “the advocates of despotic rule must fail.”

Who, we might ask, was he thinking about when he mentioned advocates of despotism? This particular American Evangelical was talking about that OBVIOUS advocate of despotism, Edmund Burke.  The pastor told his flock that although Burke may sublimely rave, “he raves in vain. No force of genius, no brilliancy of fancy, and no ornament of language can support his wretched cause.” Burke and “his abettors” only hastened the downfall of that wicked paragon of tyranny, Great Britain. This Presbyterian minister still believed as late as 1793—the beginning of what became the Terror—that “the revolution in France is great; is astonishing; is glorious.” The United States, he hoped, would “blow and increase it, as France will in other nations; until blaze joining blaze, shall illumine the darkest and remotest corners of the earth!”

Intellectuals, even conservative ones, find something to admire in this blazing confluence of Anglophone Protestantism, Whiggish political theory, and Enlightenment values. The late Sir Roger Scruton called the American revolution “the moment when Western civilization became identical with the modern world—for that was the moment when the Enlightenment took power.” Unlike Nineteenth Century popes, I’m not convinced the legacy of the Enlightenment should be eradicated wholesale. And I’m a WASPy enough person by nature to also find much that was admirable in liberal American Protestantism. Our particular American weakness, however, is to assume that that which is American is by nature compatible with Protestantism, and until recently, no one seems to have told us differently.


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