500 Years After the Reformation: the Fall of American Protestantism

It is an age of apocalyptic visions. Since that fateful evening of November 9, 2016, the American imperium has been forced to live with its own, deformed mirror image sitting on the throne, savage weather has lashed against the Earth itself and fascism is on the rise in Europe. It is a time which could be called Biblical due to its feverish sense of portent and divine retribution. Fittingly, this October marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, that moment in 1517 when Christianity was cut in two by Martin Luther’s 95 Theses nailed to a door in Wittenberg, Germany. It is the moment when the modern world truly begins and the separation between church and state becomes a palpable concept. Less discussed is how the Reformation would lead to the Radical Reformation, when some of the earliest variants of communism and socialism would form in mass peasant uprisings.

While the Reformation produced figures of reactionary spirit such as John Calvin (“A fascist” as Chris Hedges once told me after a talk in Santa Monica), and even Luther himself aligned with the lords of the land, the radical phase of the Reformation produced fiery revolutionaries such as the iconic Thomas Muntzer and the Anabaptist rebels who believed the old, monarchical world had to be destroyed and replaced by a society where “all things are in common.” Muntzer would lead a rebel force convinced the end of the world as nigh, but before the coming judgement a communist society had to be established and the kings of the world overthrown. He would of course die under the sword of the German princes, but would become a Marxist hero with his face stamped on East German currency. Frederick Engels would write soon after the failed European revolutions of 1848 an inspired book, The Peasant War in Germany, in which he would describe the era of Muntzer and the peasant rebels as a time when “the German peasants and plebeians were full of ideas and plans that often make their descendants shudder.” Even Luther himself was so taken aback by the wave of popular revolt the Reformation unchained that he urged the German princes to crush the rebels.

But even Luther would be astounded to see where the American brand of Protestantism finds itself today. Hollowed out, commercialized and deformed after decades of political prostitution and deep corruption, the modern Protestant community in its various denominations has become a pure reactionary agent aligned with the worst aspects of capitalism, political repression and violent foreign policies. Before the 1980s, Protestant culture still produced figures of great moral force such as Martin Luther King, Jr. or Eugene Debs. These were Spartacist figures who used Biblical language to denounce the injustices plaguing their society. When King would say “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that,” and when Debs would condemn capitalism as “the kingdom of evil,” they were following a tradition as old as the Old Testament texts, where figures such as the prophet Isaiah declare, “If you remove the yoke from your midst, the pointing of the finger and speaking wickedness, and if you give yourself to the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness And your gloom will become like midday.”

Today major Protestant figures now ally themselves with the oppressor. For years now figures like Pat Robertson and their multi-million dollar enterprises such as The 700 Club have almost become parodies of themselves, but it is within the more insolated corners of American church-going that truly nefarious attitudes become manifest. This was made crystal clear during the 2016 election, which should be seen as a watershed in the history of American Protestantism. Faced with dwindling numbers (particularly among young people), church leaders still found it in themselves to support Donald Trump and give him the evangelical vote by an impressive 81 percent. Even after the revelations concerning Trump’s history of quite immoral habits concerning women and sexual assault, a renowned preacher like John MacArthur of California’s Grace Community Church warned an audience , “I’m voting for an ideology that is closer to scripture that elevates the law of God written in the heart,” adding that “people say ‘well it’s scary to think of what Donald Trump might do’ and I say ‘it’s scarier to know what Hillary will do.” After the election a relieved MacArthur entombed that America had been pulled back from a cliff. Safe from the threats of welfare and gay rights, America could now sleep peacefully under the threat of nuclear war.

In the contemporary imperium the Protestant church has fully equated moral stances with right-wing nationalism. The military is glorified and popular Christian radio programs such as  Wretched , hosted by the bombastic Todd Friel, take clear stances against the “Bend the Knee” movement, warning that they are “offending the country.” Other camera-grabbing preachers such as Robert Jeffress warn that the Harvey Weinstein scandal is a direct result of removing prayer from public schools. Evangelicals have rallied around fellow Bible-thumper Roy Moore’s campaign for the Alabama senate during which Moore has demanded that Muslims be banned from holding elected office. Vice President Mike Pence, possibly the most powerful right-wing evangelical to hold office, believes in gay “conversion therapy.” Pence also believes in banning the burning of the U.S. flag and doesn’t believe federal agencies need warrants to conduct domestic surveillance on the imperium’s inhabitants (one can only imagine what he has in store for the unpeoples of the world). The New Yorker recently reported that Pence holds Bible studies in the White House.

American Protestantism’s views of the outside world are quite terrifying and harrowing. Preachers like John Hagee and Christian authors such as Mike Evans have obsessively fed their flocks the view that the current world arena is divided between the heavenly-blessed United States, the chosen people of Israel and the barbaric dragon of Islam and in particular Iran. Hagee hosts an annual “Christians United for Israel” summit in Washington, D.C. every summer where Benjamin Netanyahu sends a taped greeting and local political gurus like Newt Gingrich give blaring speeches subtly promoting World War III in the Middle East. In this world Palestinians don’t exist, Yasser Arafat was “demon-possessed” and left-wing Israelis are self-hating Jews. For a good serving of this mindset, check out the channel of a fascinating Arab-American preacher in Hawaii named J.D. Farag. His weekly “Bible Prophecy Update” grabs about 100,000 views per week and is a guide to every facet of American Protestant paranoia ranging from a liberal agenda to destroy the country from within, Barack Obama’s supposed socialism, Trump’s unfair treatment by the media and a coming conflagration in which Russia, Iran, China and North Korea will team up to target Israel, prompting Armageddon.

This is all a betrayal of much of the original ethos of original Reformation groups. The Anabaptists, who are a more direct ancestor to evangelicals than Lutherans since they began the practice of adult baptism, believed the material world was fallen, and therefore separate from the spiritual world. All rulers would eventually be corrupt. Nation states were meaningless before the Kingdom of God. A real Christian would therefore be opposed to the toxins of nationalism, the hierarchies of class and senseless wars of conquest. In his seminal work The Pursuit of the Millennium, Norman Cohn describes the early Anabaptists as Medieval proto-anarchists. “Anabaptists refused to hold an official position in the state, or to invoke the authority of the state against a fellow Anabaptist, or to take up arms on behalf of the state,” writes Cohn. In the city of Munster, Germany, cages still hang from the towers of a cathedral marking where Anabaptist rebel leaders were hanged for attempting to establish a utopia in defiance of their overlords.

The revolt that marked the first true impact of the printing press by making the Bible available to millions in their common tongue now produces agents of ignorance like Ken Hamm, who establishes a tribute to hubris with the Ark Encounter theme park in Kentucky designed to attract visitors and their wallets, while hoping to dissuade them from learning actual science. Former TV star turned Christian movie hero Kirk Cameron produces documentaries longing for the good old days of the Puritans and their Taliban-style laws.  In Latin America Protestantism has taken on the form of money-obsessed Pentecostalism influenced by American trends such as the prosperity gospel. One particularly popular preacher has the fitting name of Cash Luna. Much of this brand of Protestantism revolves around intense superstition involving “healings,” and that old southern tradition of speaking in tongues, jumping around to stomp on the devil and making sure your preacher dresses in fine linens. As expected, these groups have a right-wing agenda and openly supported the U.S.-backed 2009 coup in Honduras, and Dilma Rousseff’s removal from office in Brazil. I recall back in 2004 reading an article by Mexican Christian singer and one-time Spanish service preacher for Joel Osteen, Marcos Witt, in which he endorsed George W. Bush as “the moral choice.”

Five hundred years since Martin Luther initiated the first major spark of the modern world before the French Revolution and his children now wander blind, full of greed and paranoia. Public schools are dens of homosexual conspiracies and while they don’t want government in their lives, they cheer on the government as it snuffs out the lives of others overseas (and at home under the glow of squad car lights). In the same way in which the Left looks back on 100 years since the Russian Revolution, Protestants should look back at 500 years since the Reformation and wonder what has gone wrong. Do they really want the Age of Trump to be the last gasp of a tradition which, like all movements, has had its faults and produces its monsters, yet glowed with some ideas still ahead of even our own time?

Alci Rengifo is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles. He frequently writes film criticism and political commentary.