A Word Redefined? – Protestant

As I read the news today, there is an article stating that “Protestants” now make up a minority of Americans. It is still the religious plurality in the United States, but it is no longer a majority.

There are two reasons for this change.

First, nearly twenty percent describe themselves as having no religious affiliation. This is not because they moved or are searching for a new church, it is that they do not care for any affiliation. This includes atheists and agnostics, but according to the Pew poll also includes people who call themselves “spiritual” but have no cause to identify with a specific religious group.

Second, the growth of nondenominational churches in the United States has rendered many churches with no particular affiliation. In most cases such churches would call themselves “Christian,” and perhaps might classify themselves as Pentecostal, charismatic, or fundamentalist, but they do not belong to a larger church group. In many cases they form informal groups with likeminded churches, but they have no specific organization structure outside of their local church body.

Now, most Roman Catholics would insist that such churches were indeed Protestant because they are Christian (i.e., believe in the deity and physical resurrection of Jesus Christ) and neither Catholic nor Eastern Orthodox. However, since such churches do not have any denominational affiliation our polltakers have decided to call them merely Christian. Frankly that is what most of them would prefer to be called anyhow.

This is an interesting indication of how things have changed in the United States in about a generation. In 1955 Will Herberg published a distinguished and magisterial sociological study of religious belief in America entitled Protestant, Catholic, Jew. The title summed up the affiliation of nearly every American back then. When I was a kid in the fifties and sixties, I do not believe I knew anyone who was not one of those three, at least, if you count Unitarians as Protestants, which Pew still does. (They are not Christians because they do not believe in the deity of Jesus, but they originated in the Congregational tradition and meet in churches).

Still, Pew probably is more accurate in calling the nondenominational churches neither Protestant nor Catholic. When I was a kid, I recall one time my best friend asking me if I were Protestant. I was about eight, and that was not a word I was familiar with. My friend was Catholic, so he had been taught that anyone who was not a Catholic was a Protestant. I told him that I was not a Protestant, that I was a Lutheran. We actually got into a little argument because he kept on calling me a Protestant when I knew full well that my family attended a Lutheran church. My mother settled the argument by telling me that Lutherans and other churches that were not Catholic were often called Protestant.

Now as an adult I have been attending for many years a nondenominational church. (For what it is worth, it had a denominational affiliation at one time, but it ended up going in a different direction). In a way it much less complicated for people at my church. We just call ourselves Christian. But to illustrate the impact this has I must tell a little story.

For many years an Irish family attended our church. They have since moved to another state, but they do come back to visit the church when they are in town. Since they are from the Irish Republic, they were brought up in Irish history. Catholics were good and Protestants were evil. Cromwell and the British overlords were Protestant. Irish identity and nobility of character largely comes from its resistance to Protestantism. One of the family members once said, “Oh, I would never join a Protestant church. I couldn’t. But this church is not Protestant, it is just Christian.”

A generation ago such unaffiliated churches would have been classified as Protestant. But now there are so many of them, and they have had an impact on many lives in America, like this Irish “just Christian,” so that the term Protestant still has a meaning, but it is not a significant or as inclusive as it once was.

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