We are all Protestants now….

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There are different models of how religion and society interact with each other. The American model is not universal, and Americans sometimes are confused about the relationship between religion and society in other cultures. Nevertheless, the American model is robust and seems to be capable of powerful assimilative feats.* In the early 19th century the Roman Catholic church was rapidly Americanizing in a manner we would recognize today, but the enormous influx of Irish and German Catholic immigrants at mid-century reversed this process. The Irish dominated hierarchy attempted to force the American political order to accept a form of official pillarization, but by and large this failed. Catholics did form a separate stream of civil society, but the persistence of a religious subculture seems to have been a function of the constant stream of new immigrants. Over a century later American Catholics, excepting a small “traditionalist” minority, have transformed themselves into another denomination.

A very similar process occurred with American Jews, though due to their small numbers they never faced-off against the Anglo-Protestant elite in the manner which the Catholics did. Orthodox Judaism, which most Jews around the world, secular or religious, would recognize as Judaism, is a minority faction in the United States. Rather, the more acculturated Reform and Conservative movements dominate. The Reform in particular has a long history of attempting rather consciously to transform itself into another Protestant denomination in form if not belief (though with the liberalization of mainline Protestantism there has been some convergence with Reform Jewish religious ideas).

The Japanese Americans who remain Buddhists (most of the community converted to Christian or are secular) adhere to the Buddhists Churches of America. And so on. Now the same with Hinduism, Old Faith Innovates in a New Land:

Ganesha is revered as the remover of obstacles, and his festival is considered an auspicious time to begin new endeavors, not least an experiment in adapting an old religion for a new land. And of the singers, most of whom grew up in India, none had ever heard of a Hindu choir before.

Choirs are virtually unheard of in temples in India because worshipers tend not to cohere into anything resembling an attentive congregation, said Vasudha Narayanan, a professor of religion and the director of the Center for the Study of Hindu Traditions at the University of Florida.

Some religious people get offended when I contend that it is the fate of all American religions to turn Protestant (non-Protestants that is). But unless you seal yourself off such as the Amish and Hasidic Jews have done to various extents, or replenish yourself with unassimilated immigrants, this is what simply happens. As someone not invested in any particular religious belief I generally think it best that the religions of the United States operate in a common cultural currency, the currency of confessional denominationalism. Even religions devoid of a creed such as Unitarian-Universalism wear their New England Congregationalist (ergo, Protestant Christian) origins on their sleeve.

Addendum: Though to be fair, even within the United States it seems that Greater New England and the South have developed in two very different trajectories when it comes to their interpretation of the appropriate exterior forms of Protestant worship and organization. It would be interesting to see if non-Protestants in these regions reflect these differences between Baptists and Congregationalists, for example.

* I would contend that the American model has been successfully planted in South Korea, much of Africa and parts of Latin America.




  1. The Americanizing Catholics in Minnesota around 1900 were led by Archbishop Ireland (guess his nationality) and was strongly resisted my the Germans, especially in Stearns county, a large, populous county which was 90% German.  
    A traditionalist newspaper still publishes in Minnesota, founded in 1867 and published in German until 1931: The Wanderer. It’s published by laymen (always members of the Matt family)and often is in conflict with the hierarchy, while still maintaining orthodoxy or hyper-orthodoxy on all issues. 
    A second, even more conservative newspaper, The Remnant, also run by a Matt, split off about 40 years ago.  
    There’s a still more conservative movement, located in Kansas I think, which has declared the present Pope to be an anti-Pope (non-Pope, heretic, usurper), but neither the Wanderer nor the Remnant goes that far. (The Kansas group, in effect, denies that the Pope is Catholic, thus changing the punchline of a bunch of jokes.) 
    Stearns County, Minnesota, is recognized in the literature as a rare case of German non-assimilation. It was a moonshining center during prohibition (prohibition was explicitly anti-Catholic and was recognized as such by the Church; some priests declared moonshining not to be a sin). Few German-Americans supported WWI, and some of them had a lot of trouble for that reason.  
    If you drive around this area you’ll still see lots of little shrines and creches on roadsides and in front yards, some professionally made and some homemade.

  2. Yang, Fenggang and Helen Rose Ebaugh. 2001. “Transformations in New Immigrant Religions and Their Global Implications.” American Sociological Review 66:269-288. 
    Immigrant religious communities in the United States are undergoing profound transformations. Three processes of change occurring in new immigrant religions are described and analyzed: (1) adopting the congregational form in organizational structure and ritual, (2) returning to theological foundations, and (3) reaching beyond traditional ethnic and religious boundaries to include other peoples. These changes support the “new paradigm” in the sociology of religion that refutes secularization theories: Internal and external religious pluralism, instead of leading to the decline of religion, encourages institutional and theological transformations that energize and revitalize religions. Moreover, these changes are not merely attributable to Americanization. Rather, these changes have transnational implications for global religious systems-implications that are facilitated by the material and organizational resources that new U.S. immigrants possess.

  3. What do you think is happening in China?

  4. Orthodox Christianity does not seem to have succumbed to your hypothesis, razib. 
    Admittedly, it is a minority religion. And a rather small one. But Protestantism, it’s not.

  5. Yup.  
    (For a good four-century history of American Protestantism, I highly recommend Gordon McKenna’s

  6. Orthodox Christianity does not seem to have succumbed to your hypothesis, razib. 
    i’d like to know more about the demographics of this religion. i do know that antiochene orthodoxy is getting lots of converts from protestantism. 
    What do you think is happening in China? 
    people don’t have a good quantitative and ethnological grasp of what’s happening. christians exaggerate the numbers, communists suppress information collection. in south korea buddhism has to a great extent recreated itself to organize in a more christian manner. when that interreligious competition happens, then the american model is operative. it is operative mildly in many places, but in taiwan christianity has not grown much numerically in a generation and the ‘default’ religious identity remains buddhism (which is actually gaining from ‘switchers’ from taoism and chinese folk religion). so that’s an alternative model to korea (japan is another model which has been even less organizationally effected by christianity).

  7. i’d like to know more about the demographics of this religion. Short version: brought over predominantly by immigrant groups from Eastern Europe, served as a social / community connector for them, generally maintained language and specific-culture practices of immigrants’ homelands instead of adopting more American-friendly language, etc. Thus generally known as [Ethinicity]-Orthodox Churches. 
    Given the large number of children who leave the faith, there has been an attempt to establish an American-Orthodox Church, but it’s been mostly unsuccessful. 
    On second thought, perhaps it’s better evidence for your hypothesis than I’d realized, as the church’s non-conversion to Protestantism-lite seems to be a primary factor in its slow withering.

  8. What is fascinating to me is that congregational singing is not in fact an innovation in Hinduism at all atleast since c. 12th century or so. Bhajans are simple, non-ideological, emotionally-oriented call and response type songs, for the most part not in Sanskrit, which are sung by public groups with less caste exclusivity than usually found in society. Often these groups meet in mandirs and the singing has become integrated into the ritual. For North Indians particularly women like the Mrs. Tandon who was interviewed, this is in fact the dominant mode of religious expression. Yet she references Pentacostals as a model instead of her own tradition. Is this only for the white reporters benefit? Is it because she perceives the bhajan tradition as being less prestigious and reinterpreting it in terms of the socially dominant paradigm will upgrade its status? 
    This article shows the assimilation that is going on is of North Indian forms into a traditionalist South Indian community. In South Indian mandirs, communal singing if it occurs at all is by a specialized caste of singers not the general public and is not really a focus of the worshippers temple experience. Even this article notes that the priests and some of the other worshippers were not paying much attention to the choir. That’s not very Protestant is it? 
    Also interesting is that this is happening in a mandir in Queens which is an area of first settlement. Wouldn’t one expect assimilation to be more likely to happen in the suburbs where the upwardly mobile and second-generation live? I have recently visited mandirs in Atlanta, suburban NJ, and Pittsburgh and none of them had choirs as far as I could tell.

  9. Haloscan apparently didn’t like my link for Puritan Origins of American Patriotism… or the rest of the comment. Ah, Haloscan.

  10. Conversion from Chinese folk religion / Taoism to Buddhism could be a kind of Protestantization, since Buddhism is more amenable to Protestant-like theology and practice.  
    In China (1983) one of my Chinese techer was a reforming Buddhist with philosophical interests who rejected the conventional, liturgical, rather superstitious Buddhism of most Chinese. He could have been a kind of Protestantizer, though I didn’t know him well enough to be at all sure.

  11. john, yes, i think that is right. buddhism today in much of asia has been strongly influenced by a christian model of organization. ex-christian british converts were important in catalyzing the therevada revival in sri lanka in the 19th century. in singapore buddhists have also borrowed a lot from protestant models of organization.

  12. How does Islam in america fit in with this pattern?

  13. Interestimgly, the catholics in India seems to be adopting the ‘Hindu’ ways, by having ‘Non western’ names, using Hindu spirutial ideas like the Ashrams, lighting lamps, etc.

  14. How does Islam in america fit in with this pattern? 
    the median religious beliefs of muslims in america are in the same of evangelical christians in their ‘conservatism.’ OTOH, years ago i started noticing some professional muslims (these were invariably not clerically trained) saying things sound rather protestant. e.g., about the primacy of free will, etc.

  15. You give a hat-tip to Sepia Mutiny, but don’t link directly to one of their posts. 
    I recall you having a post on how Buddhism (especially the “elite” forms) changed in response to Christianity, but then I believe it was Jesuits they were reacting to. 
    Regarding Islam and Hinduism in America, considering the selection effect on immigration (lots of professionals, for instance), is it possible that much of this Protestantization is occurring before they even get on the boat?

  16. I think there may be an “American Christianity” that all religions in the USA may gravitate towards, but I’m not sure it’s meaningful to call it “Protestant.” The term “Protestant” is basically used to refer to all Christian movements that aren’t Catholic (or Orthodox, for that matter), even if they have little to do with each other. Sometimes Catholics and mainline Protestants agree with each other against more “Evangelical” Christians/Protestants in the USA. Apocalypse-related beliefs, e.g. pre-millennialism, are very popular among American Christians, but don’t have much of a place in either the Catholic Church or mainline Protestant Churches. Martin Luther was skeptical that Revelation even belonged in the Bible, hardly something one would guess by examining American evangelicals today. Furthermore, predestination was a cornerstone of early Protestant movements but is hardly emphasized among American Christians today. In fact, it seems like predestination is more ridiculed than otherwise. There are other examples I could give, but my overall point is that saying “we’re all Protestants” is extremely misleading because it doesn’t do justice to the differences between American Christianity and original Protestantism.

  17. The Greek immigrants in the mid/late 20th Century tended to assimilate slower to American cultural norms. They arrived at a time where there was less pressure to give up their traditions. This may partly explain the lasting power of the Eastern Orthodox churches. 
    I agree with Muffy that the term “Protestant” had a very different meaning from how it is colloquially used today as in this post. A lot of churches have sprung up in America that fall under the Protestant umbrella but technically shouldn’t(Pentecostals, Mormons,Shakers.) But I think most people understand it in the way this author uses it.

  18. TGGP, 
    I think you are right in general about “much of this Protestantization is occurring before they even get on the boat” but not in this particular case. The mandir in Queens in the article is very orthodox in its ritual and attracts the most conservative strand of immigrants. The really assimilated types would probably want to attend say, the Ramakrishna Mission branch on the Upper East Side which — how’s this for protestantization! — not only has a choir but pews, an organ, and a sermon from a “minister” in its sunday morning “service.” Though to be fair, it was founded by American admirers of Vivekananda before the era of Indian mass immigration.

  19. Will Herberg wrote about the Protestantization of other religious traditions in America in his seminal Protestant-Catholic-Jew in the 1950s. 
    Apparently today one could call that Protestant-Catholic-Jew-Hindu-Buddhist. But crucial to the question of what the 21st century will ultimately look like is whether one can add “Muslim” to the end of that list, or if that is the one that proves unassimilable.

  20. I read a few years ago, don’t remember where, that Eastern Orthodox churches in America were getting some converts, or at least regular attendees, from outside the ethnic bases who were attracted by the services (which AIUI can be quite elaborate).

  21. Yes, Peter, but overall the Church can’t keep up with population growth. So any converts that they’re attracting can’t make up for their failure to keep children born into the faith attending.

  22. The transformation of American Catholicism in the first half of the nineteenth century created a form of devotion that bore little resemblance to traditional modes of worship in Ireland and Northern Europe. This “tridentine” Catholicism was consciously modeled on imperatives growing out of the sixteenth century Council of Trent and was promulgated by a cadre of missionaries trained in Rome specifically for the purpose of promoting anti-republican revivals. These reforms were systematically applied in American Catholicism from 1830 and by mid-century had effected a general transformation of Catholic devotion throughout the United States. So successful were these American reforms that they were applied in Ireland and Britain after 1850. The result was that by the late nineteenth century, as a result of their respective national “devotional revolutions” British, American and Irish Catholicism had converged around the tridentine reforms, but at mid-century American Catholicism, far from reflecting the folk or “gallican” traditions of Ireland and the German states or American republicanism, was actively hostile to both sets of traditions. Mid-century Catholic immigrants thus had to be assimilated not just to American culture, but to American Catholic culture, a process far more complicated than standard assimilation models would suggest. 
    I might refer you to the standard work on the subject, “Rome and the New Republic” published by University of Notre Dame Press in 1996.