The Protestant Ethos

The 20th anniversary edition of First Things has many interesting little snapshots of past articles. One in particular caught my attention: Charlotte Allen’s review of Harvard historian Steven Ozment’s book Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution in her article The Protestant Ethos begins with:

I am a Catholic, but I married Protestant. My husband has steeped me in Protestant lore: Protestants get results. Protestants think ahead. Protestants save (Catholics spend). My Protestant in-laws had to endure our Catholic wedding, their faces rigid with polite distress as they took in the crucifix over the altar with its bleeding Christ and the candles flickering in front of the portrait of the dusky, brilliantly garbed Virgin of Guadalupe. In turn, I politely endure my mother-in-law’s Protestant cooking: no garlic, no onions, no spices, no wine at the table. Catholics invented Côtes du Rhone and cannelloni; Protestants invented the airplane and the thirteen-week T-bill.

In this militantly secularized age, in which all faiths have been dampered down into vague “traditions,” Catholics and Protestants who actually believe in their respective religions have more in common, certainly on moral issues and probably on doctrinal ones as well, than either group has with the creed of the feel-good humanism that has invaded and displaced much of American Christianity. Nonetheless, even the most irenic of Catholics and Protestants continue to differ as sharply on the issue of what Christ meant when He talked of His church as they did in 1517, when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg. Because religion is the basso continuo of culture, this difference still cuts as sharply as it did five hundred years ago, even here in Protestant America, where embarrassed, over-assimilated Catholics have lately lost much of their old immigrants’ pride of religious distinctiveness. It cuts a divide even in my own marriage, as my husband good-humoredly nails his own theses onto the door of the Catholic home I keep.

That is why Steven Ozment’s book, Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution, is not just a superb piece of Reformation history but a shrewd examination of how the theory of Protestantism translates into the pragmatic, respectability-driven Protestant culture that prevails to this day on the prosperous Protestant lands of northern Europe and North America. Ozment is a professor of history at Harvard who claims a Catholic mother and a Protestant father—hence his evenhandedness in approaching his subject. He sees his task as analyzing the Reformation not as a theological but as a cultural phenomenon: how the coming of Protestantism affected family life, how ordinary Protestants were different from their Catholic neighbors. Ozment also writes clear, cant-free prose, a remarkable feat these days when to read most products of academia is to slash one’s way with a machete through a canefield of deconstructionist jargon. Not surprisingly, several of Ozment’s previous books. When Fathers Ruled and Three Behaim Boys among them, got much play in the popular press and are still in print, even though Ozment’s specialization, sixteenth-century Germany, is not exactly a field with mass appeal. Protestants looks at the Central Europeans who took so readily to the reformers’ doctrine and tries to explain “what it meant then to be Protestant.”

and ends with:

The book is also instructive for Catholics in another sense, for Ozment’s picture of the Protestantized German towns during the early Reformation resembles nothing so much as post-Vatican II American Catholicism, both as it is now and as church liberals would like to see it in the future. We Catholics too have empty cloisters now, and churches whose statues have become firewood. We have our own agitators for a married clergy and a dissolution of hierarchy. “The fear of God will vanish forever/Together with the whole of Scripture,” warned an anti-Lutheran pamphlet of the sixteenth century. One of the lessons of Protestants is that all reformers bear swords and that swords can cut unexpectedly deep.

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