Save Religion, Save America

It must be incontrovertible that today's most serious political debate has to do with whether Protestantism is obsolete. Christian intellectuals are increasingly forced by events to accept this question into their minds and to return to it again and again in their struggles to understand what has happened in our era. If you doubt this, ask around. Some Christian intellectuals now even welcome this debate, which of course inevitably includes ex-Christian intellectuals; for people professionally engaged in the "political-theological problem," the potential permanent collapse of protestant Christianity opens tremendous space for big, world-historical ambitions. 

Before we get into how it could even be a topic of discussion that by far the largest denomination in the US should be doomed within our lifetime, we should agree that the prospect has an overwhelming political significance, one that would eclipse and subsume nearly any other political question. As is known, America was a Protestant realm from the beginning; the United States regime was founded by Protestants, at a time and in a place formed by the print medium that was so favorable to Protestant patterns of thinking and the communication of Protestant ideas. American political theory, including both its accommodation of diverse faiths and its steadfast refusal to establish a national religion, has been fundamentally Protestant from day one. The end of Protestantism as a functioning creed would, it appears, end America as we have always known it. 

And there is evidence all around us that exactly this is happening. With the exception of the Latter-Day Saints, all the growth and vitality in American Protestantism is among the least doctrinal and even the least theological sects: woo-woo evangelicalism, "charismatic" church, rainbow-flagged Christianity, and now woke Christianity are expanding, while traditional mainline Protestantism is shriveling down to nearly nothing, and even the vast evangelical movements of America's generations of televangelists are sputtering out. 

Yet while many ex-Protestant Christian intellectuals are almost racing to become Catholic or Orthodox, and a few are even leaving Christianity altogether for pagan apostasy, most ex-Protestants outside intellectualdom, woke or otherwise, are becoming some type of gnostic heretics. Gnostic heresy is all too familiar to students of the middle ages: Bogomils and Cathars swarmed Christendom for protracted periods, causing not just religious but political chaos; only the Albigensian Crusade, which distinguished itself even in its day for severity and brutality, managed to put down organized gnosticism as a rival to sacramental Christianity East and West. The reason for the turmoil was simple: gnosticism, in a nutshell, maintains that our given human form, incarnate and ensouled, is a curse of sorts, a prison forged by an evil god from which we all must be liberated in order for our spirit to become that which it truly is, divine. In addition to threatening the very core of sacramental Christianity at the doctrinal level, the gnostic creed promises unending political earthquakes and cataclysms until its purified, liberated vanguard successfully forces the perfect end of history into, and then over, historical time.

It is hard for ex-Protestant intellectual converts to Catholicism or Orthodoxy not to blame their old denomination for the rise of gnostic heresy, especially its woke sect, in America today. And sacramental Christian intellectuals born into their churches are often even more inclined to lay blame at the feet of American Protestantism as a kind of heresy factory or game of religious Russian roulette. Nevertheless, anyone concerned about the political implications of the collapse of Protestantism must remember that the Bogomils and Cathars emerged in the 10th century and trace their lineage back even further, long before the triumph of the print medium and the rise of the Reformation. Gnosticism is a decidedly medieval phenomenon. 

And so it is very important that, as evidence all around us shows, the triumph of the digital medium reshapes our inner and outer world in ways that clearly retrieve medieval patterns of thought and sensibility. The simplest way to sum up the evidence is looking at how our machines now possess and wield faculties of memory that far outstrip in power our human faculties of imagination. In the pre-digital era when the televisual medium dominated our inner and outer lives, there was no force more powerful than human fantasy. What happened on the screen, which was the contact point for the mass production and mass reception of fantasies, mattered more than what happened offscreen. Human imagination determined what happened and what didn't, who won and who lost, who amassed wealth or pleasure and who did not. Now those days are coming to an end, despite the apparent growth of fantasy-driven politics. Rather than a sign of increasing strength, this is a portent of sudden weakness: as normal or default dream complexes (captured in their theme song, John Lennon's "Imagine") fail under digital conditions, people are racing for shelter from disenchantment in more extreme fantasies they think might protect them. At the same time, in the fantasy industry, the collapse of the authority and charisma of the imagination has led to runaway consolidation and concentration: a dwindling handful of corporations desperately package ever more extreme fantasy content for audiences now actually demanding less creativity and more creedalism. 

What is happening is that modern answers to the ultimate questions—why bother? what is life? what will save us?—are failing people, and they are turning for guidance to answers from an earlier age, one that seems instinctively more congruent with the strange new world our master machines have thrust us into. But rather than the classical, oral age, the pressure applied by the digital medium pushes us into the mindset typical of the era when the scribal medium held sway. Today very few find answers to their ultimate questions in the worship of heroes or of nature. Very many seek to worship God or, more specifically, to enter into union or communion with the Divine, not through the human imagination but through memory—more and more through what the inhuman memory of machines makes possible. And the reality today is that no religion faces a very bright future if it is opposed by those machines. Any religion that will thrive in our digital age must triumph as much over our machines as over our souls. Increasingly, inexorably, those who fail to catechize the bots will fail to be fishers of men. So at the same time that it has become necessary to program our machines with our religion, our lives are being reshaped by those machines in ways that push us away from the modern Protestant Christianity that developed out of the milieu of the print environment. Its patterns no longer map onto the territory as once they did. 

All this accounts for the still rather shocking collapse in America of a sense of the sacred or inviolable around our founding documents and institutions, and the rise of unembarrassed support for unrepublican and even undemocratic systems of government. Post-Protestants who abandon Christianity grow increasingly pleased at the prospect of a completely new American regime; ex- or non-Protestant Christians look increasingly toward regime forms considerably older than that of the United States. 

Yet origins remain important, perhaps even decisive, in the course of a people, and despite myriad differences, Americans are still in this sense very much a people. Mass conversions to Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and/or Woke Gnosticism can't be ruled out, and may even be likely. But as the success of Mormonism hints, even more likely is a persistent religious Americanism that is never subsumed into and mastered by some previous Old World form. This suggests political conflict more severe than we might hope for but less severe than we might fear. The Western way of war is religious—a pattern continued regardless of the dominant medium, and reflected even in America's bloodiest war, the Civil War. But America's fortunes over the past four hundred years have outpaced those of the Old World at almost every turn. If anyone is capable of keeping it that way, it is the American people themselves. 

James Poulos (@jamespoulos) is Executive Editor of The American Mind. He is the author of The Art of Being Free (St. Martin's Press, 2017), contributing editor of American Affairs, and a fellow at the Center for the Study of Digital Life.