Law, Literature, and the Fading of American Protestantism

Paul Harvey

American Protestantism remains deeply influential, if not always consciously then in terms of modes of thought and styles of literary and political discourse. Yet are we seeing the end of America's de facto Protestant establishment culture? Maybe not the end, but perhaps a significant diminution. Consider these examples from literary scholarship, and from the makeup of the Supreme Court.

First, and most obviously since it's in the news, supposing that Elena Kagan is confirmed, the Supreme Court will have no Protestants on it for the first time in American history. This may or may not be important in terms of jurisprudence -- there doesn't seem to be a Protestant jurisprudence in the same way one can find a Catholic natural law jurisprudence in Alito and others -- but it's an interesting piece of religious demography anyway. The impact of the pick in terms of the religious demography of American institutions is considered here, and Diana Butler Bass offers a lament for the passing of American Protestantism. John Fea adds the following:

Dan Gilgoff has written an interesting news piece on this development. Gilgoff quotes Boston University religion scholar Steven Prothero, who calls this "an amazing irony, given how central Protestantism has been to American culture." Most religion scholars, Gilgoff notes, believe that the lack of Protestant candidates is directly related to the "absence of a strong tradition of lawyering among evangelical Protestants." He continues: "For much of the last 150 years, evangelical Christianity has stressed an emotional theology of heart over head--not a recipe for producing legal scholars with eyes fixed on the Supreme Court." Yet another consequence of Mark Noll's Scandal of the Evangelical Mind.

This possible decline of the American Protestant center ultimately may influence our cultural language, literature, symbols, and metaphors more than any particular political or legal institutions. Adam Kirsch, "
Heirs to the Throne," reviews Jonathan Alter's Pen of Iron: American Prose and The King James Bible. “It was in America that the potential of the 1611 translation to determine the foundational language and symbolic imagery of a whole culture was most fully realized.," Alter writes, and the book considers that argument most deeply in looking at three works of American literature:

At the core of Pen of Iron—the title, of course, is itself a Biblical allusion (“the sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron, and with the point of a diamond” Jeremiah 17:1)—is Alter’s analysis of the Bible’s influence on three great American novels: Moby-Dick, Absalom, Absalom, and Seize the Day. In discussing these books, Alter shows that that influence cannot be measured strictly in allusions or verbal echoes. Melville, Faulkner, and Bellow do not simply use Biblical language, they think in Biblical categories—especially, Alter argues, when they are challenging the faith and morality that the Bible teaches.

Reviewer Adam Kirsch then concludes by wondering about the decline of that influence:

It would be interesting to try to read more recent American fiction through Alter’s lens: can you hear the Bible in David Foster Wallace’s prose, or Lydia Davis’s? “The essential point for the history of our literature.” Alter writes at the end of Pen of Iron, “is that the resonant language and the arresting vision of the canonical text, however oldentime they may be, continue to ring in cultural memory.” I wonder how faint the ring can grow before we stop hearing it completely.

I wish someone would write a book like Alter's focusing on American music. Don't look at me, I'm busy.


Rex said…
I am wondering if one might not be able to make a more convincing case that what has faded (as measured by the religious affiliations of SCOTUS) is the old fear of Roman Catholic authoritarianism.

That does not mean that I am happy with SCOTUS. As my political sense was nurtured under the Warren court, and I declared to a friend it was the only progressive branch of our government as we came out of the McCarthy period, the likes of Scalia, Thomas, Alioto, and Roberts distresses me.

Yet they also make clear that ultimately it is the people who judge. And we best get about our business of the struggle for freedom. Our leadership grows rigid rather than creative and brings pain all around.
Anonymous said…
Not only does evangelical Protestantism lack a history of lawyering, but Catholicism and Judaism are far more legalistic religious traditions. Certainly in the case of Judaism, even as religious observance may have faded, a religio-cultural interest in the law, legal codes, and legal interpretation has endured.