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How America's Endless Civil War Between Protestant Sects Is at the Heart of American Identity

An excerpt from Hazel Rose Markus Alana Conner's "Clash!: 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are"

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/VladisChern

The following is an excerpt from Hazel Rose Markus and Alana Conner's new book, "Clash!: 8 Cultural Conflicts That Make Us Who We Are" (Hudson Street Press, 2013). 

The conservative Protestants vying for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination left many mainline Protestants wondering what had happened to their religion, not to mention their country. For most of the United States’ history, science had been the helpmate of Protestants, who viewed it as a gift from God to help them learn about their world and make more pious choices. Those years of persecution back in Europe had also impressed upon them the benefits of building a high wall between religion and government. 

Yet here was Ron Paul, a Southern Baptist, rejecting evolution as just “a theory.” Rick Perry, who attends a Southern Baptist church, similarly told a schoolboy that evolution is “a theory that is out there— and it’s got some gaps.”3 Michele Bachmann, an evangelical Lutheran, dismissed not only evolution, but also climate change, calling it “voodoo, nonsense, hokum, a hoax.”4 Rick Santorum, a conservative Catholic with a stalwart conservative Protestant following, also called climate change “a hoax.” Mitt Romney, a Mormon, acknowledged that the weather is getting weird, but wondered whether humans were causing the change. And though he sometimes seems to believe in both climate change and evolution, Newt Gingrich, an evangelical Lutheran turned Southern Baptist now Catholic, nevertheless betrayed the scientific community by implying that researchers kill children for stem cell research.

Meanwhile, conservative Protestants were wondering what had happened to their religion and their country. Unlike their mainline brethren, conservative Protestants consider the Bible the inerrant word of God, seek “born again” experiences that bring them closer to that God, aim to convert other people, and think that religious teachings should guide daily life, including education and politics. 8 Understanding the United States to be “one nation, under God,” these Americans want their laws to reflect Christian values and beliefs, rather than scientific findings and theories. Yet here was their president saying that two men should be able to legally wed, even though the Bible often does not smile upon such configurations. Here was a Supreme Court upholding abortion, even though the Bible says, “Thou shalt not kill.” And here were legions of lawmakers enforcing the separation of religion and government, following in the footsteps of America’s only Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, who said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.” Santorum reported that when he first read these words, he “almost threw up.”

How is it that the two sides of the Protestant coin are now diametrically opposed? At the heart of their acrimony, we see yet another clash between in dependence and interdependence. Although both groups sail under the Protestant flag, their culture cycles make and mirror decidedly different selves. On the one hand, the group that came to be known as mainline Protestants were the original independent selves in the United States. Firing up the Protestant Reformation in sixteenth- century Germany, their ancestors ditched the popes and priests of the Catholic Church in favor of direct relationships with a personal god. (See chapter 2 for more about the Protestant Reformation.) The Puritans brought their zest for independence with them when they settled the United States, where they formed the first of the mainline Protestant branches, which now include the Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian, Baptist, and Anglican/ Episcopal churches. For some four centuries, mainline Protestant groups were the most popular religions in the country, and now claim some 18.1 percent of the population.

On the other hand, the sects that came to make up conservative Protestantism took a turn for interdependence. In the conservative Protestant tent you’ll find evangelical and fundamentalist groups such as the Southern Baptist, Assembly of God, Church of God in Christ, and Pentecostal churches. Compared with their mainline counterparts, these interdependent selves have a greater yen for warm family relations, tight community bonds, clear social hierarchies,  and traditional moral codes.  Conservative Protestants also want more God in their lives, more of the time, than do mainline Protestants. Their God is the kind of deity you want to have around. As anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann relates in her book When God Talks Back, He is “a deeply human, even vulnerable God who loves us unconditionally and wants nothing more than to be our friend, our best friend, as loving and personal and responsive as a best friend in America should be.” The conservative Protestant relationship with this God is not like the distant, abstract ties that many mainline Protestants maintain with their God. Instead, it is “the free and easy companionship of two boys swinging their feet on a bridge over a stream.” But just as conservative fathers both hug and spank their children more than mainline fathers,17 the conservative God is at once warmer and more wrathful than the mainline God. In their book America’s Four Gods, sociologists Paul Froese and Christopher Bader recount that many conservative Protestants think of their God as angrier and more punishing, while many mainline Protestants conceive of their deity as more benevolent and forgiving. The conservative God uses his stormy side for interdependent ends, keeping His flock from wandering too far from traditional roles and rules.

Numbers testify to the appeal of this more intimate, personal, and present divine: conservative Protestants have supplanted their mainline counterparts as the leading denomination in America, claiming some 26.3 percent of the population.  That number jumps to 34. 9 percent when scholars include both Mormon and historically Black churches, which share some of the same practices and beliefs as conservative Protestants.  As conservative Protestants continue to challenge the mainline’s four hundred-year- old foothold on the souls of Americans, we predict many more clashes of the Protestants. The tighter binding of religion and politics has not helped matters. Over the past three decades, many conservative Protestants and their interdependent allies (e. g., conservative Catholics such as Rick Santorum) have aligned with Republicans, while many mainline Protestants and their independent fellow travelers (e. g., the nonreligious, who make up a full 16. 1 percent of the country, and secular Catholics and Jews) have sided with Democrats. Consequently, politics is no longer about how to steer the nation forward; it’s about who has the better soul. Because discussions about the relative goodness of souls rarely end well, the two sides of this cultural divide are now shouting past each other, rather than working together to lead the country.

This arti­cle has been adapted by arrange­ment with Hud­son Street Press, a mem­ber of Pen­guin Group (USA) Inc., from CLASH! By Hazel Rose Markus, Ph.D., and Alana Conner, Ph.D. Copyright 2013 By Hazel Rose Markus, Ph.D., and Alana Conner, Ph.D