Of the 2 billion Christians in the world today, Protestants make up about a quarter, while Roman Catholics represent a little over a half. If Protestant Christendom appeared in the sixteenth century within European Latin Christianity and represented a number of fractures within it, then it would be wrong to associate modern Protestantism with western society (especially with North America). Protestantism has become a world phenomenon, present in Asia (more than 25 percent of South Korea’s population is Protestant), Latin America (at least 10 percent of its population), and Africa (17 percent of the population). In the year 2000, out of every 100 Protestants, 31 were in Africa, 25 in Europe, 17 in North America, 12 in Asia, 12 in Latin America, and 3 in Oceania (where they represent 42 percent of the population, the highest proportion in any continent) (Hillerbrand 2004).
Protestantism has its origins in a number of key reformations within European Christianity in the sixteenth century: the Lutheran Reformation in the Germanic world, the Calvinist Reformations in France, Switzerland, and Scotland, the Anglican Reformation in England, and the Radical Reformation of the Anabaptists and Spiritualists. Even if the Protestant world includes branches which appeared later (Baptism in the seventeenth century, Methodism in the eighteenth, and Pentecostalism in the twentieth), it was these reforms which laid the doctrinal foundations for Protestantism and gave it shape. The Protestant world constitutes an extremely diversified and complex religious situation. It is polycentric – Geneva is not Rome – pluri-confessional, and multifaceted. A Lutheran church service in Sweden is quite different from a Pentecostal assembly in Brazil, or from a Baptist service in the Southern US. It is, in each case, one of the number of different faces of Protestantism. Although the Protestant world is uniform neither in its doctrine nor its organization (it is characterized by its theological and ecclesiastical pluralities), three fundamental principles give it a certain unity: (1) reference to the Bible, (2) religious individualism, and (3) a sense of Christian duty in the world.
Whatever the Protestant confession – whether it be Reformed/Presbyterian, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, or any other – great importance is given to the Bible within individual and collective piety, and reference to the holy scriptures is considered a fundamental source of religious truth and Christian behavior. From there, the ecclesiastic institution and its authorities have been relativized. They are fallible and their faithfulness is measured according to the given scriptures (sola scriptura, ”only scripture”). Luther’s heirs felt freer to found other ecclesiastic organizations when they realized their church had become disloyal: there has been, throughout the course of history, a number of reforms among the heirs of the Reform itself. In certain respects, it can be stated that the desacralization of ecclesiastic institutions favored the development of free enterprise in religious spheres, as was the case of denominalizationism in North America. This stance is thought to be the cause for the strong division between clergy and laity, which has contributed to ”the universal ministry of the faithful” and the calling for each believer.
The second point which the Protestant world has in common is the concept of religious individualism (not to be confused with being isolated within religion; such individualism, on the contrary, nurtures all facets of sociability, including a sense of community centered sociability). Durkheim (1951) found that the highest incidences of suicide in Protestant populations were linked to such individualism and to a low level of collective integration. This depended on the community, whether Lutheran, Baptist, or Methodist, although it is primarily the concept of personal suitability of religion which is of primary importance in the Protestant interpretation of Christian living; whether this suit ability be intellectual or emotional, whether it subscribes to the psychosocially ”liberal” branches of the church (those which are pluralist and care little for monitoring the beliefs and practices of their faithful), or whether it subscribes to the psychosocially ”orthodox” branches of the church (aimed at a society of believers sharing a common model and having the necessary means for control).
The third major characteristic deals with fulfilling one’s Christian duty. The reformers, while criticizing monasticism, valued worldly saintliness rather than non-worldly saintliness; that is, an inner rather than external monasticism being the source of an intramundane asceticism within the puritan posterity of Protestantism. The Protestant world is active in contributing to education (through schools and youth organizations), society (a variety of activities, the ”social gospel”), and culture (philosophy, literature, music, etc.).
These three principles – reference to the Bible, religious individualism, and religious vocation, practiced in the secular world – have generated a particular religious culture and have shaped certain modes of behavior. From a sociohistorical point of view, Protestantism represents the beginning of a new way of living Christianity individually and collectively and which has not only endured but also grown. Far from being a historical digression, the Protestant Reforms of the sixteenth century were able to accomplish a lasting institutionalization of new religious societies as well as new individual attitudes. The result is a sociology of Protestantism which must not only research all branches of Protestantism and their inner dynamics, but also analyze the relationships within its environment and see where such relationships stand in the modern world.
Strict Ideological Control of Religious Groupings
The domains of ritual, ideology, and charisma are present within every religious group, but in differing ways. Above all, they are hierarchically different according to religious tradition. One can immediately notice the importance of ritual in an Orthodox church service (the main role being the liturgy), the importance of charisma in Pentecostalism (the main role is played by the preacher prophet), and the importance of ideology in a Reformed service (the main role is played by the preacher theologian). In Protestantism, ideology is important owing to the strong emphasis on the Bible and its interpretation. The question of faith in the Protestant perspective is no longer an institutional one, but rather a question of hermeneutics. The objective is the interpretation of the Bible, and the debate about the truth of Christianity becomes a debate for exegetes and academics. The claim that religious truth is a question of interpretation leads straight to the heart of religious organization – a permanent debate on religious truth. The world of Protestantism is one of debates and controversies, divisions and unifications, based on disagreements and agreements of doctrine. Ritual is by no means absent, as it is emphasized quite heavily in certain spheres of Lutheranism and Anglicanism, but within the symbolic economy of this religious world, in general, it takes second place. Charisma is equally important, but it is only in certain Pentecostal assemblies that it tends completely to relativize its ideology. Protestantism is a religion of the senses, of sound more than vision, expressed particularly through music and song (from Huguenot psalms and Lutheran choirs to Afro American spirituals and Gospel music). Protestantism is overall a religion centered on the senses just as much as the intellect.
Protestantism is beset by a tension between church and sect, so it is unsurprising that the sociology of Protestantism still accords attention to the classic Weberian/Troeltschian distinction between church and sect. Within this religion, the notion of church is also interpreted as being that body which administers what is required for salvation and whose function it is to exercise authority. It embraces everyone irrespective of their religious qualification, whereas the concept of sect is seen as a grouping unifying only people who are religiously qualified on the basis of their voluntary approach to religion. Within Protestantism there is constant tension between the religious group perceived as coextensive with society and delivering its requirements for salvation to all, and the religious group perceived as an association of militants making up a particular subculture within society. This tension is constitutive of Protestantism and is also constituted by established and liberal churches whose criteria are more flexible with regard to religious inclusion and religious practice (such as the Lutheran church) and those churches regarded as local voluntary assemblies where the faithful are qualified believers (as is the case for the Federations of Baptist Churches).
The Reforms of the sixteenth century are linked with the emergence of a new type of clergy (in the sense of religious profession): a clergyman/theologian allowed to marry, yet enjoying the state of being a lay person. The emergence of the pastorate represents a certain secularization of the clergy, a secularization marked by the passing of sacred power to intellectual and moral power (Willaime 1986). With the Protestant pastor, in effect, the clergyman is no longer considered to be a holy figure who enjoys a peculiar ontological position. On the contrary, he is a man like any other. Protestant ministers are ordained, but their ordination is not a sacrament; they are not intermediaries bound to the religious lives of the faithful. This first secularization contributed to the reintegration of the clergy into society and everyday life. But the important intellectual and moral magisterium practiced by the pastor, added to the fact that all sacred authority had not disappeared -notably by means of the monopoly to administer the sacraments of baptism and communion -was limited to the effects of this first secularization. The priest dispenser of rites was substituted with the Protestant pastor doctor and preacher of holy scripture, thereby placing great importance on theological knowledge within access to religious legitimacy.
The concept of the ordered ministry was not very ecclesiastic and facilitated the admission of female pastors, who are nowadays accepted by the majority of Protestant and Anglican churches. Consequently, with the Protestant figure of the clergy, women having access to theological knowledge constituted a decisive step for Protestantism. If in effect it considered theological qualifications fundamental to exercising religious authority, then the fact of women holding qualifications in theology would only seriously weaken the argument of those opposed to female pastors. The admission of women into the pastorate can be seen as a second secularization of the role of the clergy, a second secularization marked by the loss of power by the clergy and the dissolution of its status. The acceptance of women into the pastorate serves to reinforce a functional concept of the ministry (women pastors placing on hold their pastorate when on maternity leave). The feminization of the pastorate is party to a broader transformation of pastoral practice and moves quickly in the direction of secularization, and toward a type of declericalization distinguished even more than the pastoral ministry.
Protestantism, Economics, and Politics
From a sociohistorical point of view, religions could not be confined to the religious sphere, but must be considered as sociocultural facts that have exerted some influence in the various spheres of social life. Whether dealing with work, economics, family life, education, or politics, people’s behavior in these fields is linked to the way they represent the world and humanity. These representations, arranging social activities in a hierarchy and giving them meaning, influence people’s attitude towards them, positively or negatively. Religious cultures played a role in shaping thought and people because of a system of representations that determines a certain kind of behavior in one sphere of activity or another. From this perspective, social sciences study the influence of Protestantism on economic and political domains.
Weber (1998), in his famous thesis on the Protestant ethic and capitalism, established a relationship between some Protestant concepts and the spirit of enterprise. Disclosing some affinities between the behavior of the Protestant Puritans and the spirit of capitalism, he wanted only to show that some forms of Protestant religious thinking encouraged the rationalization of business and its development: it is a matter of considering, says Weber, ”how the contents of the religious beliefs biased the emergence of an ‘economic mentality’ or ‘ethos’ of economics.” A more precise title for Weber’s study could have been ”The Contribution of Puritan Work Ethics in Shaping the Ethos of Western Capitalism.” As Weber’s friend Ernst Troeltsch, theologian and sociologist, quite rightly wrote in a 1923 text, ”religions are not economic ideals, no more than economic structures and financial interests are religious laws. Their relationship is thus only indirect” (Troeltsch 1991: 138).
It is undeniable that the Calvinist perspective and its Puritan posterity developed a strong religious legitimization of work. From the Calvinist point of view, not to work means not to honor God. Since people do not own their possessions but only ”administer” them, they should act as good administrators of worldly goods. Money is not evil in itself – it is how it is used that makes the difference. Such a view of work answered the needs of the petit bourgeois -craftsmen and farmers – who totally devoted themselves to production and who were about to become entrepreneurs. As Hill (1962: 223) points out, they needed a conceptual system which ”would attribute full dignity to their work and bring into question at the same time the wealthy, the negligent and the squandering, and the poor, the lazy and the irresponsible. They found both these things in Puritanism.”
According to Weber, the importance given to work and economic success by religion does not explain all. In order to devote themselves to business completely, people needed a psychological drive. It is at this level that Puritan Protestantism, acting like a ”spiritual motive power,” positively influenced economic development. There are various examples supporting this point of view: Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, and Methodists have all excelled in business. John Wesley himself, who deplored the rise to the bourgeoisie of his flock, remarked: ”The Methodists become industrious and frugal everywhere they are, and as a consequence their wealth increases.”
Weber’s thesis was very controversial and led to a great number of studies and critiques. Troeltsch, whose line of thinking followed the direction of Weber’s, insisted very much on the difference between ”old Protestantism” (sixteenth and seventeenth centuries) – especially characterized by the ecclesiastic culture of the Middle Ages – and ”modern Protestant ism” (eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), which fully accepted the emancipation of the secular world from religious protection: ”In so far as Calvinism applied to the capitalistic production, that it had tolerated, its methodical and permanent zeal, contributed notably to the emergence of the capitalistic mentality which rewarded work for work. As was the case for both sects and Pietism” (Toeltsch 1991: 163). As long as the religious factor is considered as just one among many others that played a role in the development of western economic rationality; as long as it is kept in mind that influence on economic activity was exerted in an indirect and temporary way through certain individuals; and as long as there is an awareness of its shortcomings (as Weber was aware), then it is justifiable to give Weber credit for his thesis. It is undeniable that a kind of work based religion is present in the Puritan consciousness, a work based religion where work is conceived as regular and dutiful practice of an activity. This practice has a link partly with a worldly ascesis and partly with the growing importance of efficiency (and thus with the development of the activity and its results).
Protestantism, in some respects and through some of its components (especially Calvinist and Baptist ones), made a contribution to democracy. By provoking a new division within Christianity, and being divided in itself, Protestantism first of all promoted the secularization of politics. In the political sphere, this is the consequence of the secularizing effects of pluralism: ”The fragmentation of Protestantism represented an important element in the development of religious tolerance” (Bruce 1990: 48). In desecrating religious authority, Protestantism contributed to desecrated political authority and asserted the willingness that it should be controlled by people (although Lutheranism increased the princes’ power over the church). The ecclesiastical organization of Protestantism had some political elements which were in line with the process of democratization: synodal assemblies and the importance of the local church (Congregationalism). In France, during the reign of Louis XIV, Protestantism had ”republican” features that threatened absolute monarchy. In the US, although some Puritans were theocratically oriented, others, such as the Baptist Roger Williams (1603-84) and the Quaker William Penn (1644—1718), experienced some elements of democracy before their time. The US was founded by immigrants who brought a ”democratic and republican” Christianity, remarked Tocqueville, who was impressed by the relation in the US between the ”spirit of freedom” and the ”spirit of religion.”
Although Protestantism influenced democracy through some of its principles, it does not mean that its relationship with politics was just one way. Three main attitudes characterized the connection between Protestantism and politics: conformist passiveness, radical conviction, and an ethic of responsibility. Thus, there were two extreme attitudes – withdrawal due to indifference and radicalism due to an ethic of conviction – in which one can distinguish a third: that one which, originating in the ethic of responsibility, induces a kind of mistrust of power and commitment in public matters. From a historical point of view, conformist passiveness was fostered inside Lutheran Protestantism and inside Evangelical and Pentecostal Protestant ism. Since, in contrast to indifference, it is religious approval of sociopolitical commitment that is rewarding, the politician will often be inspired by an ethic of conviction, inciting radicalism in any given domain (e.g., abortion laws, military installations, the environment, education, and civil rights). Whether it deals with fundamentalist theologies or theologies of freedom, political commitment is thus a categorical imperative and a religious duty. This radicalism can be either “conservative” or “progressive.” The third attitude, inspired by an ethic of responsibility, consists in being a ”good administrator” of the worldly issues promoting both individual and collective responsibility and never trusting power and its appeal.
Protestantism within Contemporary Ultramodernity
Since Protestantism embodies a process of deinstitutionalization, declericalization, and deconfessionalization of Christianity, it represents a secularization of Christianity from within. Making tradition relative, Protestantism also introduced a permanent principle of transformation that enabled it to go with modernity and adapt to changes, notably in the area of the family ethic. The Reformed Churches have since been quite permeable to social and cultural change. And because of this permeability, they evolved together with global society, despite the strong opposition of fundamentalist groups to change. But the social paradox is that Protestant churches did not take advantage of their comparatively positive adaptation to modernity. As shown in various studies (Kelley 1972; Bruce 1990; Willaime 1992), those liberal churches that were more open to their secular environment often declined before the more conservative churches with a strong identity. If, as Gauchet (1985) put it, Christianity is the ”religion of the sortie/end of religion,” is Protestantism the denomination of the end of Christianity? Its comparatively good adaptation to modern societies carries with it the risk of dissolution into the secular environment and a lack of visibility.
At the same time, in secularized and pluralist societies, the Protestant way of living Christianity is in accordance with developments pointing to identity reassertion and religious revitalization in the shape of groups of militant converts. Protestant sensibilities that insisted on personal conversion are in line with this context, where religion is no longer inherited but made by con version. In secularized societies where religion is no longer an objective dimension of society but a subjective dimension of the individual, Protestant religious individualism is a sign of the exhaustion not only of Christianity (Christianity with respect to political structures) but also of Christianness (Christianity with respect to global culture). Underlining the fact that the church is not a geographical space, nor something coming from tradition, but a regularly called local meeting of converts, the Protestant movement, especially in its Evangelical and Pentecostal expressions, witnesses in particular the dissolution of Christianity as an all-inclusive culture in synchrony and as an inherited culture over time. Evangelical Protestantism, in its social expression of religion, is an example of the recomposition of religion within ultramodernity. Evangelical churches formed reference groups with a social importance for their members. In these groups, individuals, strongly symbolically structured and supported by a worshiping milieu, learned how to operate in a complex and uncertain secular universe. In societies where Christianity does not have the same cultural strength and capacity to organize society, it finds a way to reassert itself through some minor and militant forms, which – in Protestantism as in Catholicism – question and can sometimes destabilize ecclesiastic institutions accustomed to the quieter mass Christianity.
- Bruce, S. (1990) A House Divided: Protestantism, Schism and Secularization. Routledge, New York.
- Durkheim, IE. (1951) Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Free Press, New York.
- Fath, S. (Ed.) (2004) Le Protestantisme evangelique. Un christianisme de conversion. Entre ruptures et filiations (Evangelical Protestantism. A Conversion Christianity. Between Ruptures and Filiations). Brepols, Turnhout.
- Gauchet, M. (1985) Le Désenchantement du monde. Une histoire politique de la religion (World Disenchantment: A Political History of Religion). Gallimard, Paris.
- Hill, C. (1962) Puritanism and Revolution: Studies in Interpretation of the English Revolution of the 17th Century. Secker & Warburg, London.
- Hillerbrand, H. J. (Ed.) (2004) The Encyclopedia of Protestantism, 4 vols. Routledge, New York.
- Kelley, D. (1972) Why Conservative Churches Are Growing. Harper & Row, New York.
- Troeltsch, E. (1991) Die Soziallehren der christlichen Kirchen und Gruppen (The Social Thought of Christian Churches and Groups). Mohr, Tübingen.
- Troeltsch, E. (1991) Protestantisme et modernité (Prostestantism and Modernity). Gallimard, Paris.
- Weber, M. (1998) The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. Roxbury Publishing, Los Angeles.
- Willaime, J.-P. (1986) Profession: Pasteur (Profession: Preacher). Labor et Fides, Geneva.
- Willaime, J.-P. (1992) La Precarite protestante. Socio logie du protestantisme contemporain (Protestant Precariousness: Sociology of Contemporary Protestantism). Labor et Fides, Geneva.
- Willaime, J.-P. (2005) Sociologie du protestantisme (Sociology of Protestantism). PUF, Paris.
Back to Sociology of Religion