Protestant Christendom


Joseph Bottum’s article, “ The Death of Protestant America: A Political Theory of the Protestant Mainline ” (August/September 2008) is, as usual, a tour de force. He rightly notes that the Mainline Protestant establishment churches, and the cultural consensus they embodied, are in terminal decline in America. He mourns this turn of events, which has “weakened both Christianity and public life” and removed “social unity and cultural definition.”

It is tempting to discern, underlying this complaint, a feature of the author’s Catholicism: a deep affection for the alliance between Church and culture called Christendom. Mid-century Mainline Protestantism was not a Catholic Christendom, to be sure, but it was a form of Christendom in this country, and with its departure all the goods of Christendom departed, too.

A contrasting view, however, is held by many evangelicals, especially younger ones, along with members of Anabaptist and other traditions. They, too, discern the alliance between Church and culture that Mainline Protestantism represented”and they rejoice at its unraveling. For them, all forms of Christendom represent some degree of compromise and sell out. The death of Protestant America, as Bottum puts it, is for them freedom from cultural captivity and the end of trying to serve two masters. Down in the evangelical mind lies not the experience of medieval Christendom but the experience of fundamentalism in the early twentieth century: alienation from the centers of power, cultural ridicule, abuse from elites. Prophetic opposition to a hostile broader culture is where they feel most comfortable.

Opportunities and dangers are presented whether Christianity has a dominant or a minority voice in a society. Still, the anti-Christendom perspective has an important insight:

The Church has been in this situation before. During the first three centuries of the Roman Empire, the message of the gospel was opposed by a hostile, pluralistic, morally relativist culture”not to mention one riven by extremes of wealth and poverty, idolatry of Caesar, human degradation, family dysfunction, adventurous and fitfully controlled military power, and dissolving civic ties. And somehow the gospel broke through.

Those first three centuries were a Christian experience that ought to resonate for all Christians. The death of Protestant America has its mournful side, but it is also an opportunity to remember and imitate the witness and example of the early Church.

Heath White
University of North Carolina
Wilmington, North Carolina

Joseph Bottum presents a compelling account of the collapse of Mainline Protestantism, and his analysis is far more sophisticated than that offered by those who simply point to the so-called secularization theory and suggest that this decline was inevitable.

Bottum refers to the decline of the Mainline as “the central historical fact of our time.” That assessment represents a lament for the loss of the cultural and political stability that the dominance of the Mainline once ensured. The loss of the binding authority of Protestant theology and churches leaves us with a democratic polity and a capitalist economy unsupported by a common moral vocabulary or a unifying vision.

Bottum is well advised to be worried, and he is probably right in arguing that neither Catholicism nor evangelicalism is poised to replace the fragmenting Mainline. His concern for the nation’s social cohesion is admirable, and he is clearly on the right track with his “political theory of the Protestant Mainline.”

Nevertheless, understanding a “theological theory” of liberal Protestantism’s collapse is an even greater concern. The collapse of these churches and denominations was not inevitable”at least, not until they began to dismantle their own reasons for existence, and the health of the Church is a far greater concern than the health of the nation. The primary injury caused by Mainline Protestant decline is not social but spiritual. These denominations once fueled the great missionary movement that carried the gospel to the ends of the earth. Now, liberal Protestantism sees conversionist missions as an embarrassment. Committed to a radical doctrinal relativism, these denominations have served as poster children for nearly every theological fad and liberal proposal imaginable. Now, many of these denominations are involved in court fights to keep churches from leaving. The stream has indeed run dry.

As for the evangelicals, the big question is whether evangelicalism retains any coherent core. Some who style themselves evangelicals would have the movement follow the same path that drove the Mainline nearly to extinction. Perhaps at this point it is best to be reminded that the Church is not ours but Christ’s. It is in him that we place our trust”and not in us poor sinners.

R. Albert Mohler Jr.
Southern Baptist Theological Seminary
Louisville, Kentucky

Joseph Bottum’s “The Death of Protestant America” was a superbly written and insightful article. The explanation of the decline of Mainline Protestantism was compelling in its logic and complete with historical references. I found myself chilled at times during the reading, realizing how much those of us in the more conservative traditions are repeating some of the same mistakes today.

My only criticism of the article is that it leaves the reader hanging at the end (which I suspect was intended). Yes, we agree about the demise of the vibrant religious belief system that informs our moral structures. But what do we do? In this era there are a few foundational beliefs on which we can base a conversation about how we live together. I was eager for Bottum to tell us where to turn. But I suppose that he wanted to provoke a discussion and is waiting for responses like mine and others.

Still, Bottum passed over lightly what I think is the single biggest hope for the future for a religious consensus that will undergird American life. In 1992, Richard John Neuhaus and I began an informal dialogue called Evangelicals and Catholics Together. We were seeking to find common theological ground that would enable us to make a strong stand defending the historic orthodox confessing Christian faith, and to strengthen the Christian witness in culture.

We have made considerable progress. Though many differences remain, we have discovered much more common ground than we expected to when we first began”enough to make it possible to imagine that orthodox believing Christians of different confessions and traditions may come together and affirm the faith entrusted to the saints once for all.

I find it interesting that Evangelicals and Catholics Together is enthusiastically supported by both many conservative evangelical and many Catholic leaders. There is a hunger for Christians to come together around the historic creeds and confessions”to become orthodox together. If, after all, we can read from the same Bible, understand it the same way, if we can confess the same creeds, can we not call ourselves believing Christians or perhaps just orthodox believers? There are millions of Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox who could come together in this way.

It is that vision that has driven me these many years. We can, if we are of good will, reach back across the centuries to the apostolic teaching. This is what the Reformers did, and if there is to be reform in the Church, potentially in an alignment of orthodox believers, it will require us to do exactly the same thing”reach back to the Church Fathers when there was such unanimity, when the apostles’ teaching was so fresh in mind. Luther did it five centuries ago, and we can do it today, seeking the common ground for a shared religious belief that would inform America’s moral understandings.

Liberalism brought the death of the mainstream Protestant movement. A return to orthodox faith can restore public religious presence.

Charles Colson
Prison Fellowship
Lansdowne, Virginia

Joseph Bottum does an admirable job sketching the decline of the Mainline Protestant churches, but he gives them too much credit in accepting their own membership numbers of twenty-one million. As the onetime pastor of a Mainline church, I was required”by the bishop and conference”to report that my church had more than six hundred members, since that was the number they were reporting when I got there. In fact we had about two hundred and fifty, and only about half of those ever showed up for worship or gave anything.

This was acknowledged by all the Mainline clergy I knew as common practice in their churches and denominations as well. Thus the actual membership of the Mainline churches is probably a third to a half of what is reported, and those who actually participate, even at a minimal level, is probably half of that. This would put the membership of the Mainline churches”generously”at ten million and participation at five million.

Marc Rogers
Fort Worth, Texas

Joseph Bottum’s requiem for the Protestant Mainline may be right, but his final comment that the “undivided current” may have “run dry” seems a bit far-fetched. While the Protestant Mainline may have shrunk somewhat, a new Mainline has been forming, composed of the reduced Mainline plus a widening spectrum of moderate to progressive Catholics, Jews, Unitarians, unaffiliateds, and even many evangelicals who share a body of values derived from the Enlightenment that created our form of government.

Bottum may also be a bit out of focus regarding the way the American Founders promoted religious liberty through church-state separation and a secular constitution. Garry Wills reminds us that the principal Founders were all Enlightenment Deists, and that “whatever their faults, the Deists delivered us from the horrors of pre-Enlightenment religion, title enough to honor. They also founded this country.”

Edd Doerr
Americans for Religious Liberty
Silver Spring, Maryland

Joseph Bottum sees a future in which there is no Mainline among the churches in America, but what I see is a realignment. An editorial in the February 2008 issue of Christianity Today mentioned that “a number” of the magazine’s editors “have been doing the ancient/future thing for many years, at Episcopal and/or Anglican parishes.” Going all the way to Rome is still considered leaving evangelicalism, but how long will that last? After all, what is an evangelical? Someone who believes in the inspiration, infallibility, and authority of the Bible, and that we are saved by grace? See sections 107, 132, 162, and 169 of The Catechism of the Catholic Church . Someone who believes in the divinity of Christ, and that he was born of a virgin, died for our sins, rose again, and will come again? See sections 454, 496, 615, 619, 638, and 681.

For my part, I could see a future in which the Protestant-Catholic divide won’t be as apparent as the evangelical-liberal divide, and the Catholic Church will be considered the Mainline church of the evangelical majority. Maybe.

Don Schenk
Allentown, Pennsylvania

Joseph Bottum’s “The Death of Protestant America” is wonderful. The shadow of sadness hangs over the text; and, yet, one can hardly repress a smile at the absurdity he reports. How strange to see the ecumenical ship, symbolized in the logo of the World Council of Churches, so quickly transformed into a ship of fools.

The article evoked memories of my own decade-long (1968-1978) journey aboard the National Council of Churches (NCC) and World Council of Churches (WCC). As Bottum points out, it was during those years that “the mainstream of Protestantism ran dry” and these ecumenical institutions joined the walking dead, even though the leadership didn’t realize it.

I recall that, when I was a young teenager in Holland, Willem Visser ‘t Hooft visited our home. He was highly respected as a theologian, but in a sort of quixotic way”as the man in pursuit of the impossible ecumenical dream. In 1948, I moved to the United States, the year the WCC was born and Visser ‘t Hooft became its first general secretary.

Two decades later, the visionaries were replaced by functionaries; the movement became an establishment, while budgets and bureaucracy rather than the Bible took center stage. As Bottum points out, “a new version of the social-gospel movement became the default theology of church bureaucracies in the Mainline.” Ideology increasingly trumped theology as the gospel became politicized.

In 1968, I was invited to join the Reformed Church bureaucracy at 475 Riverside Drive”the year that the WCC met in Uppsala, Sweden. One day, during a flight to an NCC meeting, I sat next to George Vecsey, the sports-columnist-turned-religion-editor for the New York Times . “You know,” he said to me, “I could just as well have written my report while staying home; there will be no surprises.” It was the Vietnam War era, and “prophetic pronouncements,” composed by committees and usually cast in United Nations English, had become that predictable.

Sad things happen in the land of ecclesia when a social gospel is based on the cheapest of graces, allowing “prophetic critique” without feel-ing the slightest need for self-confrontation.

Isaac C. Rottenberg
Denver, Colorado

Joseph Bottum’s piece on the demise of Protestantism is a puzzlement. For one thing, why did he bother to write it? The tale of Mainline Protestantism’s morbidity has been told often enough; the first of my own graveside orations was published in 1967. Bottum is normally a perceptive cultural critic and skilled writer, and so there are nuggets of insight here too, but most of this inordinately long article is old news.

But it is another matter that moves me to correspondence: Why did Bottum gratuitously demean my friend Carl Braaten? You would never guess it from Braaten’s appearance in the article, but he is a distinguished figure in the recent history of the American church. As a seminary professor, he trained pastors and teachers in an ecumenically open Lutheranism. Then he left teaching to create, without institutional support, new venues for the practice of theology. He is cofounder and was for years lead editor of Pro Ecclesia , a determinedly ecumenical journal that is, so far as I recall, the only theological journal to be repeatedly praised in First Things .

He was cofounder and long-time director of the Center for Catholic and Evangelical Theology, responsible for, among many other good works, the nurture of a group of now prominent theologians spread across the ecumene. He is the author of a dozen or so substantive books, and as an editor, contributor, and idea man has been a one-man publishing industry. Whatever one may think of the three-year-old letter Bottum has chanced upon, calling Braaten “flailing,” “bewildered,” and irrelevant is itself flailing, bewildered, and irrelevant.

Indeed, Bottum had to flail about pretty widely to drag Braaten and his letter into the article at all. Braaten and he are concerned about different matters altogether. Braaten’s lament is not for the dying of the “undivided current” but for previously distinct Lutheranism’s absorption into its remaining trickle. Lutheranism’s history in this country is much more like that of Catholicism than like that of Methodism or Presbyterianism or other branches of the American religious current that is the article’s topic: The Lutherans came late, and as an already international church; they were not easily assimilated; they built their own institutions, separately for their various ethnicities; and now that they are finally American they have adopted American Protestant ways just in time for those ways to lose their point.

Lastly, there is that introduction: Braaten appears as “an elderly Lutheran theologian,” without further identification. One would have thought that a self-proclaimed conservative would regard elder status as a commendation, but here the pejorative use is unmistakable. Anyway, someone who actually knew Carl Braaten or anything at all about him might more likely have introduced him as, in the present tense, “a fiercely competitive tennis champion.”

Robert W. Jenson
Princeton, New Jersey

The politically correct unity of today’s Mainline Protestants can dangerously mask the deep spiritual passions always stirring in the human psyche. We should remember that American religious diversity had its official beginnings not from the relative equanimity of well-meaning Protestant colonies but in the inability of the strictly authoritarian English Puritans”theocrats like John Cotton and John Winthrop”to contain separatist ideologies. In his speech on the anniversary of the Plymouth colony, Daniel Webster stated that the inevitable replacement of theocratic with democratic power in America resulted not from competing sects but from the “great subdivision of the soil, and a great equality of condition; the true basis, most certainly, of a popular government.” Independent farmers in the New World were thus the key to overcoming the religious oligarchs transplanted from the Old World.

As long as Daniel Webster’s observation holds true and individuals can obtain their daily bread without submission to a coercive magisterial rule, America can expect to experience every type of religious observance (and nonobservance). The fact that many current Protestant denominations seem dazed and confused about their traditional doctrines, however, should not let us forget their capacity for explosive reaction when roused. The Civil War, whatever its initial causes, exposed at its end an overpowering moral outrage with strong religious roots. No one had foreseen fanatics like abolitionist John Brown; no one had predicted the popular apocalyptic lyrics of the Battle Hymn of the Republic ; no one had envisioned a half-million dead.

Unfortunately, reason, however informed, cannot definitively predict or control this moral outrage. John Locke, a mentor of the American Founders, admitted “it is too hard a task for unassisted reason to establish morality in all its parts.” Thus the search for moral truth, however dim it may appear, is only productive when strongly opposing views have been aired and critically evaluated. It is surely self-delusion for Mainline Protestants to assert that their reasonable, modern ecumenism has finally overpowered deep-rooted religious passions and mellowed them into trendy political beliefs. It may, however, be a more hazardous error to claim that this superficially unified ecumenism is representative of the demise of those passions.

Daniel J. Biezad
San Luis Obispo, California

Joseph Bottum writes an interesting and perceptive piece about the Mainline’s demise. I think he is too pessimistic, however, about the future of faith in America. His statement that evangelicals are not organized enough to replace the Mainline (as well as his denigration by omission of their intellectual contributions) is belied by his own facts. Is the Southern Baptist denomination less organized than the many small northern Baptist or Congregational denominations? Do the rapidly growing Presbyterian Church in America and Evangelical Presbyterian denominations have less organization than the rapidly shrinking PC (USA)?

With respect to personalities and ideas, I would argue that Billy Graham and Rick Warren have every bit as much impact on the general culture as Mainline eminences had in the 1920s or 1930s. As a member of a large urban Presbyterian congregation that defected from the Mainline to Evangelical Presbyterianism, I perceive that the same people are going to church in the same numbers they always have, just under different brands. What has changed is that the very wealthy and intellectual who once saw their duty as upholding the moral order through religion, whether they believed or not, now have liberated themselves to their desires and justify their selfish choices through the rejection of faith and truth and the embrace of political fads. But the last laugh is always with the faithful. The seculars have only one child per woman. We average three.

Bill Reeves
St. Louis, Missouri

In response to the very important article by Joseph Bottum, I would like to suggest that, in fact, Catholicism could fill America’s current “hole in public life.” Bottum cites Alexis de Tocqueville, yet in his seminal work, Democracy in America , Tocqueville also strongly implied that Catholicism could provide that current: “These Catholics show great fidelity in the practices of their worship and are full of ardor and zeal for their beliefs; nevertheless they form the most republican and democratic class there is in the United States . . . . In the matter of dogmas, Catholicism places the same standard on all intellects; it forces the details of the same beliefs on the learned as well as the ignorant, the man of genius as well as the vulgar; it imposes the same practices on the rich as on the poor, inflicts the same austerities on the powerful as the weak; it compromises with no mortal, and applying the same measure to each human, it likes to intermingle all classes of society at the foot of the same altar, as they are intermingled in the eyes of God.”

In a nation struggling for unity then as well as now, Tocqueville went on to say: “Men of our day are naturally little disposed to believe; but when they have a religion they immediately encounter a hidden instinct in themselves that pushes them, without their knowing it, toward Catholicism. Several of the doctrines and usages of the Roman Church astonish them; but they feel a secret admiration for its government, and its great unity attracts them.”

This sounds terribly like the original motto of the United States, E pluribus unum (Out of many, one), which itself sounds as Catholic as it does American. Benedict XVI, in his recent visit to the United States, proclaimed and exemplified a religion ever ancient and ever new, a social teaching both pro-life and pro-poor, a Church, as Mystical Body, that embraces, in the words of Paulist founder and servant of God Fr. Isaac Hecker, “all classes” of persons. Catholicism could therefore offer America a deeply unifying, integrating, and reconciling spirituality to build bridges among the diverse groups that make up our people, respecting that diversity yet pulling it all together. And we Catholics could play a vital role in helping, in the words of Abraham Lincoln, “to bind up the nation’s wounds.”

Rev. D. Bruce Nieli, C.S.P.
Memphis, Tennessee

It’s a loss that Joseph Bottum has little faith in the power of evangelicalism and Catholicism to jointly provide for a new “undivided current” to serve for a widely accepted moral rhetoric. Perhaps his hesitancy depends on a too thorough commitment to the model of the old Protestant Mainline, when in fact the accidents of history need not determine the character of the ideal American stream in the future; or, to use Washington’s phrase, “to provide for the needed national morality.”

It is ironic that the Mainline, whose demise Bottum begins by necropsying in a belittling way, ends up almost a subject of profound mourning. Although the reader may learn from the sad experience of these churches that began on the rudest frontier and advanced to establishment fortresses, we might still find them, at the very least, a minor moral player in national consciousness. Their story from adolescence to maturity to age is an instructive, if not always happy, one. One may find in their errors warnings for all Christian bodies to take.

God’s providence, however, has brought to these shores both the power of a Catholic presence and, from the firestorms beginning with the revolts of late-nineteenth-century Protestantism, a new evangelicalism, whose future we may but still barely perceive. Bottum is far too pessimistic in hearing in a supposedly obscure Catholic rhetoric and seeing in evangelical disorganization a complete negation of a possible new Mainline. The new may perhaps bear little resemblance to the old, but it may yet use something surviving from the old (should it shed its pride) to help create a new American religious and values consensus.

Let us believe in the power of God to script what his Church may yet become and that a new marriage may still be made, a marriage not to give the nation a moral currency (as necessary as that may be) but to bring to the center of the Christian message in America what the old Mainline was too swift to forget: not a prestigious social uniformity but the unhesitating message of Jesus Christ Crucified and Risen.

Philip Niblack
Manchester, Missouri

I fully agree with almost everything Joseph Bottum writes in “The Death of Protestant America.” A former Episcopalian, I left that church sometime during the Bishop Pike era.

I do, however, want to register one small objection: Bottum leaves the impression that the Catholic Church in America (with its “sixty-five million” communicants) has somehow escaped the liberalizing influences on Christian doctrinal fundamentals that have weakened the Mainline Protestant churches. Nearly every Catholic I’ve met has either expressed ignorance of (or, more often, has expressed resolute disagreement with) the official Catholic position on such matters as abortion, contraception, homosexuality, marriage, and celibacy and gender in the priesthood, scientific and medical manipulation of genetic material in humans. I have often felt that, were the Catholic Church to enforce discipline of belief in its American communicants in these matters, it would suffer as great, if not greater, losses in membership as its Protestant brethren. It seems to me that the Catholic hierarchy is well aware of this possibility and is therefore willing to wink at the general opposition to its position on these subjects among the laity.

Perhaps the only real distinction that the Catholic Church enjoys is that the majority of its priests are still willing to adhere to the official doctrine in these matters and to voice their adherence from the pulpit, even if the laity has wandered away.

Barton L. Ingraham
Santa Fe, New Mexico


Joseph Bottum replies:


My essay on the role of Mainline Protestantism in American political theory seems to have caused a stir, and I’m grateful for the many letters we received, a representative sample of which are published here.

The bulk of the letters fall into one of two camps: those asserting that the Mainline consensus is dead but is being replaced by a new consensus, and those asserting that the consensus is dead but good riddance to all such things. Interestingly, not a single writer disputes the loss of Mainline relevance. An amazing collapse: In less than fifty years, some of the central institutions of American public life have decayed into the statue of Ozymandias, a colossal wreck around which the lone and level sands stretch far away.

In the new-consensus camp, Bill Reeves thinks that evangelicalism, all by itself, will assume the old Mainline place, while D. Bruce Nieli thinks (as did, he notes, Alexis de Tocqueville) that Catholicism may rise to do the job. Charles Colson, Don Schenk, and Philip Niblack think, for differing reasons, that it will take instead some combination of evangelicals and Catholics. Edd Doerr applauds what he sees as a new, semi-religious Mainline emerging on the left in American politics, and Daniel Biezad notes the perduring American hunger that will not let religion die in this country.

In the good-riddance camp, Heath White points to the Christians who feel set free by the collapse of the Mainline churches. Albert Mohler insists that we need not just my “political theory” of damaged America but a “theological theory” of damaged Protestantism. Barton Ingraham worries that the Catholic Church is in no better shape than the Mainline Protestant churches. Marc Rogers adds an observation that the Protestant numbers are actually worse than reported, and Isaac Rottenberg has sent along some sad stories of his service with the Mainline institutions of the NCC and WCC.

Let’s begin with the possibility of a new consensus. I know those passages in Democracy in America that Fr. Nieli quotes, but I think Tocqueville meant them in the sense of some far horizon. The America that might eventually embrace the authority of Catholicism is not the America about which he reported in the 1830s”nor is it the America of today. To use my three-legged-stool metaphor, the Catholic plank is just too long and alien to slot in easily as a replacement for the Mainline Protestant leg that once helped balance the American republic. For that matter, evangelicals are also outsiders to the American mainstream, and I cannot share Bill Reeves’ optimism for a purely evangelical leg to the stool.

Several writers, however, asked why a combination of evangelicals and Catholics can’t achieve real results. An easy answer is that I was writing an essay essentially about the history of American political theory, and no amount of decreased religious tension or even discovery of shared religious faith addresses the essay’s central concern.

That easy answer won’t suffice, however, when Chuck Colson points to his work on the Evangelicals and Catholics Together project.

This is a serious question of enormous importance, and I hope that Colson is right. But there remains a large gap in his analysis. He argues that efforts such as Evangelicals and Catholics Together have made it “possible to imagine that orthodox believing Christians of different confessions and traditions may come together and affirm the faith entrusted to the saints once for all,” whereupon we will find “the common ground for a shared religious belief that would inform America’s moral understandings,” since “a return to the orthodox faith can restore that public religious presence.”

The gap here is between a shared recognition of faith and the reforging of the national moral self-understanding, for we have no obvious mechanism by which one translates into the other. Colson’s understanding still operates in a world of unconscious Christendom; it imagines that there is an inarticulate moral unity in America in need only of the kind of articulation that Evangelicals and Catholics Together could give it.

I’m less sure. Evangelicals and Catholics Together is not an attempt to revive the old Mainline institutions. It is, rather, a movement that aims to reach out directly to the millions of believers in America”and movements do not substitute easily for institutions.

Regardless, there are two hurdles that would have to be cleared along the way. The first is that there remain in place all the devices and social trends by which the Mainline was destroyed, and they are now arrayed against the emergence of any Christian successor. The second is that both evangelicals and Catholics stand apart from the American mainstream. Evangelicals and Catholics Together is a theological demonstration that both are Christian. But, to fit them in my Tocquevillean account of political theory, we would also need a cultural demonstration that both are American. Preservation of faith in Jesus Christ does not depend on this, but preservation of American exceptionalism does.

My friend Chuck Colson knows that I share his desire for that demonstration to emerge. Indeed, the philosophy professor Heath White, in his own letter, may have seen deeper into my motives than I had, when he remarks that the essay betrays “a deep affection for the alliance between Church and culture called Christendom.” As he notes, “Mainline Protestantism was not a Catholic Christendom, to be sure,” but it was all the Christendom we had, “and with its departure all the goods of Christendom departed, too.”

White goes on to report that young evangelicals greet the end of such Christendom with joy as “freedom from cultural captivity and the end of trying to serve two masters,” for “prophetic opposition to a hostile broader culture is where they feel most comfortable.” Albert Mohler puts the matter even more starkly: “The health of the Church is a far greater concern than the health of the nation.”

Again, an easy answer is that my essay was an account of the history of the political theory that undergirds American exceptionalism; the health of Christian faith in this country was not my topic. But then, again, that easy answer will not suffice when Mohler writes, “Some who style themselves evangelicals would have the movement follow the same path that drove the Mainline nearly to extinction.” Nor will it suffice when Barton Ingraham describes the Catholic Church as mindlessly walking that same suicidal Mainline path.

Though I list several partial explanations for the decline of the Mainline, the essay does not answer Mohler’s call for a “theological theory” of what wrecked Mainline Protestantism, beyond my “political theory” of what damaged America. I see these questions as more interrelated, I think, than many of the letter writers do, but a fuller account of the history of Protestantism remains to be done.

Finally, there is the note from Robert Jenson, a longtime friend of this magazine, who seems to have read my essay with less than his usual charity of interpretation. That’s easily forgivable, since his letter’s motive is defense of his friend Carl Braaten, whose 2005 open letter to Mark Hanson, the presiding bishop of the Mainline branch of Lutheranism, was quoted in my essay. In case there’s any doubt, let me affirm, once and for all, that Braaten is a senior theologian of high reputation, distinguished service, and great gifts. He’s a serious man of serious purpose, and I’m proud that he has also been a contributor to First Things ’ pages.

I cannot let stand, however, the claim that I have somehow traduced him. Jenson seems to have been wrong-footed by my introduction of Braaten as “elderly.” He says “the pejorative use is unmistakable,” but it’s not. The Library of Congress’ catalogue lists Braaten as born in 1929. Can’t men in their late seventies be described as elderly without insult? The oldest hath borne most: We that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long .

Was Shakespeare Catholic?

I shall ignore the shrill personal attacks upon me in Robert Miola’s spleen-venting review of my book, The Quest for Shakespeare , in your August/September issue. I would, however, like to respond to the factual errors and seriously misleading rhetoric with which his review is peppered.

In seeking to undermine the scholarly authority of my study on the basis of my dependence on secondary sources, he fails to acknowledge that the vast majority of studies of Shakespeare, many of which he is happy to cite positively, are similarly dependent on such sources. The primary sources surrounding Shakespeare’s life have been so thoroughly trawled and authenticated by generations of scholars that their authenticity is not in question. As such, a condemnation of my book on the basis of its use of secondary sources is a de facto condemnation of almost all books on Shakespeare. Such an attack also fails to mention my own acknowledgment, at the very outset, of my dependence on such secondary sources. I quote from my own book:

“It would be somewhat remiss of me to fail to acknowledge the scholarly pioneers who have laid the path along which the present study has trod. As such, I doff my cap in the direction of my illustrious forebears . . . . Suffice it to say that a perusal of the bibliography at the end of this volume will identify those scholars upon whose shoulders I have stood in order to gain the perspective contained herein.”

Miola’s critique of my discussion of John Shakespeare’s “spiritual testament” is awash with rhetorical sophistry designed to undermine its objective importance. Reading between the lines illustrates, however, that Miola is unable to refute the solid evidence or its wide-ranging ramifications. He offers what he terms Robert Bearman’s “devastating critique” of the evidence in 2003 without mentioning Robert Bridgman’s even more devastating critique of Bearman’s arguments. Here, as elsewhere, Miola’s review is decidedly selective in its choice of “evidence.”

His discussion of John Shakespeare’s recusancy is distorted and misleading in its one-sidedness. He offers the old red herring of the “fear of process of debt” without mentioning the wealth of scholarship surrounding John Shakespeare’s finances or the reasons why “debt” might have been cited in the official records.

Miola’s use of rhetoric in the pursuit of sophistry is impressive. Having employed the red herring, Miola stoops to erect straw men to defame my scholarship. He raises the specter of Edmund Campion to illustrate the insufficient evidence to link the Jesuit with Shakespeare without mentioning that my whole chapter on the so-called Shakeshafte theory indicates that I share his own skepticism on the subject. To be accused of credulity is one thing, but to be accused of credulity in an area in which one has declared oneself a skeptic is beyond the bounds of belief.

One might think that Miola could not stoop lower, but he offers a litany of other “errors” in my book without offering any evidence beyond his own supercilious self-righteousness. To take but one of many examples, his assertion that other portraits of Shakespeare have more claim to authenticity than does the Chandos portrait flies in the face of the view of many of the world’s experts.

The next abuse arises in Miola’s use of the non sequitur. He dismisses my discussion of King Lear for not addressing the textual issues surrounding the quarto and folio texts without admitting that my critique of the play and its meaning is not dependent on such a discussion.

And Miola’s final faux pas is his descent to the woeful depths of the argument ad hominem. He ends by accusing me of painting Shakespeare in my own image and, in so doing, of being a hypocrite for attacking others for doing the same thing. In fact, it is my whole argument, expressed at considerable length in my book, that we must all be servants of objectivity. A Christian does not have the liberty of lying. He must be honest. I have sought to be honest. I don’t believe that Shakespeare is a Catholic because I am a Catholic. Such a belief would be gutter relativism. I believe that Shakespeare was a Catholic because the evidence, both historically and textually, shows him to be a Catholic. I will remain convinced that the evidence is overwhelming until someone shows me otherwise. Miola has certainly failed to do so.

As for his own prejudiced agenda, it is summed up with the banal “cautionary aphorism” with which he concludes his review: “Dante was a Catholic; Milton was a Protestant; Shakespeare was a dramatist.” Unfortunately nobody is simply a dramatist, or a poet, or a carpenter, or a taxi driver. Whatever else Shakespeare was, he was not simply a dramatist. The (post)modern academy doesn’t want to face the unwelcome truth that Shakespeare’s beliefs informed his works because it fears that his beliefs might not be acceptable to the academy. In this, as in so little else, the academy is right.

Joseph Pearce
Ave Maria University
Naples, Florida

Robert Miola replies:


Joseph Pearce’s reply is as overheated and inaccurate as his book. I shall gladly leave it to other readers to determine whether there is anything of a “shrill personal attack” or ad hominem argument in my review, or whether those appellations better describe Pearce, who preens himself on his “Bellocian bellicosity” and repeatedly mocks those who have different viewpoints as gutter-oriented scholars, silly asses of academe, and the like. In his short reply he accuses me of spleen-venting, factual errors, misleading rhetoric, sophistry, abuse, faux pas, red herrings, straw men, supercilious self-righteousness, non sequitur, and a prejudiced agenda, among other things”that’s quite an achievement for both of us. Anyway, to his response:

1) We don’t need to look at primary sources any more because their “authenticity” is not in question? (Quick, close the grad schools, the academic presses, and scholarly journals!) That is simply an indefensible and ludicrous proposition. The authenticity of many documents, including the will, is precisely at issue, and, besides, it is the interpretation of the documents that requires first-hand examination by anyone who presumes to discuss them. Yes, all scholarly books rely on secondary sources, but none worth reading do so to the exclusion of primary sources. No scholars, graduate students, or undergraduates can reliably discuss the period without looking at the evidence. All reputable Shakespeare biographies (contra Pearce) do so. That evidence primarily consists of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century imprints, English and Latin (and modern editions), and manuscripts (for which one needs paleography skills) as well as the vast traditions of commentary. Or should we just skip all that with Pearce and just say what someone else said while ridiculing those who disagree?

2) Reading between the lines illustrates that I am unable to refute Pearce’s analysis of the will? I do not wish to refute the analysis (which actually belongs to DeGroot), however, as I am not arguing for or against it but reviewing Pearce’s inadequate account. This account, as I demonstrated, misleads the reader by misrepresenting Malone’s role, by neglecting all contrary evidence, and by ignoring all pertinent discussion after DeGroot (1946)”Bearman, Bridgman, and everyone else. (It is not a good idea to try to read between the lines until one understands the lines themselves.) Ironically, had Pearce bothered to do his homework here, he might have made a stronger argument regarding the will, as Dennis Taylor has just done in a recent issue of The Shakespeare Newsletter .

3) Regarding John Shakespeare’s notice of recusancy, the original document in Elizabethan hand distinguishes among absentees for different reasons”debt, death, present conformity, age, and infirmity, as I note in the review. Pearce cannot even begin to discuss this document because, by his own admission, he has not read it, resting confident it has been ­sufficiently “authenticated,” whatever that means. But these careful distinctions warrant serious investigation and discussion. I submit that it is his responsibility to do this investigation and to take into account alternative possibilities before leaping to sensational conclusions in defiance of what the documents say. Of course, there is a lot of scholarship on John Shakespeare’s finances, and I could easily provide a long list to supply the deficiencies in his slight bibliography, beginning with the books by Park Honan and Katherine Duncan-Jones, which I mention in the review. But I think he should have read and considered all that in the first place.

4) Yes, Pearce does show some skepticism about the Shakeshafte theory but closes his discussion by saying: “It doesn’t really matter. In the quest for William Shakespeare we know that he was raised in a mili­tantly Catholic home, whether or not he ever stayed in that other militantly Catholic home in Lancashire” (p. 78). Some skepticism. We know nothing about the religious practices of Shakespeare’s home. In any event Pearce’s memory fails him on the Campion connection, on which he actually said, “This seems the most likely means by which John Shakespeare received the copy that he used as the template for his ‘spiritual will’” (p. 36). Hardly likely at all, in the opinion of those many Pearce deigns neither to read nor to discuss, including the recent article by Davidson and McCoog, as I point out in the review.

5) The errors I list in the review are so elementary as hardly to need demonstration, and, in any event, providing documentation for Pearce’s mistakes would have swollen the review to many times its allotted length. I am happy here to provide some explanation and some preliminary references for the five “howlers” I noted:

a) On the W.S. dedication to the 1616 edition, please see, for starters, the discussion of this point in the standard edition of Southwell’s works by James H. McDonald and Nancy Pollard Brown (Oxford, 1967, p. lxix).

b) On Rowe’s dubious account of Shakespeare and Jonson’s EMI (which Pearce accepts uncritically), please see any modern edition of Jonson’s play (e.g., Oxford, vol. 9, 1950, p. 168; Yale, 1969, p. 218; Revels, 2000, p. 41).

c) On the Shakespeare likenesses, consider that both the Droeshout engraving and Trinity bust, unlike the Chandos portrait, are likely to have been commissioned or at least ap­proved by friends and family: the one by fellow actors, the other by surviving relatives in Stratford. See S. Schoen­baum’s judicious discussion in a book that Pearce lists in his bibliography, William Shakespeare: A Documentary Life (Oxford, 1975, pp. 254-55, 258-59).

d) The identification of the Annesley analogue for Lear (which Pearce misattributes to a modern scholar) appeared before that in articles by G. M. Young (1947) and C. Sisson (1951) and is treated in the standard compilation of Shakespeare’s Narrative and Dramatic Sources by Geoffrey Bullough (vol. 8, 1973).

e) On Sonnet 23, see an introductory handbook or essay on Elizabethan bibliography and printing (McKerrow, Gaskell, Blayney, etc.); any one will quickly disabuse Pearce of the idea that capitalization in early modern texts is authorial rather than compositorial (that is, done by the workmen setting type by hand). As for the detection of an allusion to the Mass, in Sonnet 23, as “the perfect ceremony of love’s right,” just look at the preceding line, “So I for fear of trust forget to say,” and ask how it is that any nonclerical speaker could claim to “say Mass,” an impossibility for Elizabethan (and later) Catholics; look also at modern commentaries on this sonnet by Stephen Booth, Helen Vendler, Colin Burrow, and so on.

6) Regarding King Lear , Pearce claims that his failure to distinguish between quarto and folio texts is irrelevant to his interpretation. But how can this be true when there are huge and significant differences between the two texts, each containing different speeches and actions? To take just one example, Pearce makes much of Edgar as Catholic and climactically quotes his last speech, “The weight of this sad time [etc.],” hearing in it a lament for contemporary England and perhaps for Shakespeare’s own father (p. 198). But Edgar’s role is significantly different in the two texts, and in the quarto it is Albany, not Edgar, who says those (and other) lines. Pearce’s complete ignorance of the textual, critical, and theatrical history of the play (he does not even identify the edition he uses) disqualifies his discussion for serious consideration.

7) Pearce may be honest and may be a Christian, as he feels it necessary to declare, but such assertions will not justify the hypocrisy of recreating Shakespeare in his own image while excoriating others for doing exactly the same thing. And after all, how does Pearce know that the scholars he ridicules are not Christians or honest men also? And what difference can such extratextual claims make to readers anyway? Pearce may well continue to believe that Shakespeare was a Catholic (or a Jew, or a Buddhist, for that matter), and I have little interest in trying to persuade him otherwise. But he is seriously mistaken if he thinks he has made any kind of a credible case for his views.

8) Yes, Shakespeare may well have been other things than a dramatist, but we cannot know what these were without evidence and serious investigation”both of which Pearce fails to provide. There is not a single new idea in his book, and there are many errors of fact and omission. I do not know what he means by the “(post)modern academy” or how his closing remarks against it are relevant to my review. As the byline indicates, I teach at Loyola College, a Jesuit institution, where we take seriously Catholicism, belief, and scholarship, ad maiorem Dei gloriam.

Forgotten History


In Robert Louis Wilken’s book review, “ Jews as the Romans Saw Them ” (May 2008), these final lines are offered: “Christians have shown that they have not only the spiritual and intellectual resources to understand Judaism sympathetically but also a wellspring of affection to respect and even love the Jews. As we look to the future, it may be that Christians are the only reliable friends the Jews have in the world.”

This is a recent and often repeated sentiment. If it proves to be true”well and good. But we Jews, in fact, have factored history into recurrent theological themes, from time immemorial, as stated in the review itself. That theological recurrence calls into question the author’s final statement, since we cannot know of the constancy or persistence of Christian views”one way or the other”in the future. One could even go further and claim that Jewish eschatology posits a souring of Christian views on Jews, Judaism, and Israel before any final reconciliation between the children of Esau and the children of Israel. Not to put too fine a point on this, but the Torah itself says that Israel is a nation that is “not reckoned among the nations” and “dwells alone” in its own relationship with G-d, alongside the rest of humanity. Jews are thus cautioned, by both history and theological tradition, about this as yet steadfast support. Tradition holds that we rely on G-d alone as well as “to not put trust in princes.” Words to live by”which, in fact, we have.

Alan Hoffman
East Windsor, New Jersey

Robert Louis Wilken replies:


I agree that Christians will be judged by their deeds, not their words. But in light of the long history of the relation of Christians to Jews, the words spoken in the twentieth century are new, and that makes a difference. A few years ago my wife, a professional tour guide, was leading a group of eighth graders from a small-town elementary school in the deep South on a tour of the monuments and memorials of Washington, D.C. In the midst of the tour, the children asked whether they could visit a synagogue. It seemed that their curiosity about Judaism was prompted by what they had been taught in a Catholic elementary school. I do not know whether what they learned will enter deeply into their thoughts and feelings, but something has happened in our time and not only among bishops and theologians. There has been a profound transformation in Christianity’s relation to Judaism, and the change has been enshrined in conciliar documents and in official statements of Christian churches”so much so that the bishops at the ­Second Vatican Council could say, quoting St. Paul, that the “church is nourished from the root of the good olive tree,” Israel. For Christians, Israel does not “dwell alone”; the Church cannot exist without the nourishment of Israel.

Articles by Various

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