Tag Archives: Catholicism

American Christianity: A Story of Pick-and-Choose Protestantism

The Affordable Care Act has constantly been making headlines since its inception back in 2009, and now is no exception. As previously mentioned on this blog, Hobby Lobby, an American crafts company, has a case against the Obamacare contraception mandate that is headed to the Supreme Court. Hobby Lobby is not the only organization complaining about this apparent infringement on its freedom of religion—there have been several other cases like this one in the past.

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Americans protest Obamacare on the grounds of religious freedom.

Hobby Lobby is an Evangelical company, so it only makes sense that it would fit the Evangelical political mold in its displeasure with certain contraceptives that are believed to be similar to abortions in their use. But have Evangelicals always thought this way? As Jamelle Bouie, author of the Slate.com article entitled “God Does Not Regard the Fetus as a Soul”, tells it, Evangelicals certainly have not always been “obsessed” with abortion and contraception. As the article explains, Evangelicals—and most other Protestant Christians—in America, at the time of Roe v. Wade, were actually quite apathetic to abortion. Some Evangelical denominations, namely the Southern Baptists, openly preached during the 1960s and 1970s that the use of abortions in most situations was perfectly acceptable. It wasn’t the Evangelicals, but the Catholics who firmly discouraged abortion consistently throughout these culturally-turbulent decades. By the 1980s, however, most Evangelical and other conservative Christian denominations came to join forces with their Catholic counterparts and advocate the moral flaws inherent with abortion.

But how can such a change happen, and in so short of a time?

The American attitude has always been one of freedom and preservation of the individual. Among the first settlers of what would become the United States were those who sought religious freedom. Those men and women would inevitably establish a Protestant America, a trend that remains even to this day—51.3% of Americans self-identify as Protestant Christians, according to the most recent PewResearch Report on American religious affiliation. Why has Protestantism thrived throughout American history, even with over two centuries of immigration introducing other denominations and religions to the public?

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Some of Protestantism’s many denominations and how they’ve evolved across time.

Protestantism and the American identity grew together as the country established itself. America has been a hotbed of Protestant thought, fostering the creation or maintenance of several thousand denominations, by some estimates. The ideals of both American thought and Protestant thought are essentially the same. They were founded off the same notion.

America was founded as a result of the Enlightenment and revolutionary philosophical ideas. Freedom was essential to the new nation. To be able to do as one wished was fundamental in the United States, and it still is to this day. Protestantism was founded as a result of the Reformation, which was also a revolution—but instead of rebelling against the British Monarch, the people were revolting against the established Catholic Church. This was the first step in forming what has become characteristic of what it is to be American: the ability to pick and choose what an individual wanted to belief. It was one of the first radical events to occur in the western world on the front of individualism.

America is a pick-and-choose nation. An individual’s ideals and preferences are almost sacred in this country. This environment has created the perfect setting for a religion as subjective as Protestant Christianity to thrive in.

Because of this, American Christianity is especially subject to change with the times, or, as Bouie put it, to not be “immune to the winds of the world around [it]”. American Protestants are especially vulnerable to this cultural-moral shifting, but American Catholics are not necessarily exempt, either.

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Breakdown of American Catholic legal views on abortion according to the Pew Research Forum.

Catholicism, unlike Protestantism, has maintained the same doctrine throughout the existence of the Church. It is required that Catholics follow this teaching in order to be in full communion with the Church. That doesn’t stop American Catholics from falling victim to their national environment, though: according to the PewResearch Forum, 16% of all American Catholics believe abortion is legal in all cases, and 32% believe it is legal in most cases. This is a far cry from the Vatican’s official teaching.

The American atmosphere is one that is inherently Protestant. Its very nature is to change and pick and choose its own ideals, and no two people are guaranteed to have the same ideals. Any religion introduced to America is almost guaranteed, upon some degree of assimilation, to become a little bit more Protestant and a little bit more American—those two things may not be quite as different as they seem. As Catherine Albanese puts it in her book America: Religions and Religion, there is a Protestant cultural establishment. All subsequent religions must either fight through or conform to this American, Protestant institution.

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Grains of Salt and Degrees of Faith: What Makes a Miracle?

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Miracles in America.

How do you really know whether something is real? Espeically in the age of dime-store card tricks and photo shop, it seems we cannot even trust our own eyes half the time. Beyond that, though, there is also so much suspicion regarding such things.  With this in mind, where can miracles actually come into our lives? In his article, “The power of miracles: Naples’s prodigious blood,” BBC ‘Heart and Soul’ correspondent and former friar Mark Dowd tries to find a good answer.

Taking what he calls “a very large dose of salt to accompany [him],” Dowd explores the credentials of a few ‘miracles’ throughout the world and especially Italy, ranging from the Neapolitan feast of San Gennaro (or, Saint Januarius) in which a vile of the saint’s ancient blood can turn from a 5th century solid back into liquid form.  to the supposedly posthumously healing of Pope John Paul II, and even a comparatively much ‘smaller’ and substantially lesser-known miracle in an Italian suburb in which a man (Signor D’Alfonso) was brought out of a comma through the praying ferocity his sister-in-law, a nun, who organized prayers for him.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about these stories is that all of them are either confirmed or toted as real miracles not just by Dowd, but also by the Vatican and other faithful. The scope of the miracles ranges incredibly, as does their respective celebration and their acceptance. For example, while thousands gather in the streets to witness whether or not Saint Januarius’s blood will change and consider it a moving miracle if it does, many – including Dowd – would “like to [examine] the phials and their contents several hours beforehand” to be sure the change was not mere illusion.

On a similar note, although Signor D’Alfonso’s case has been holistically confirmed in the Vatican through multipe medical testimonies, he rarely speaks of the event in fear that it “will be misinterpreted as mere vulgar ‘magic’ rather than as an invitation to deepen one’s faith because of a sign.” In efforts to canonize Pope John Paul II, many must also sort through and investigate uowards of 3,800 claims of his extraordinary posthumous intervention in believers’ lives.

Ultimately, Dowd’s experience leads him to state that miracles much be viewed “through the eyes of faith” and while I agree, the term feels a bit overly-simplistic. Clearly what makes up a miracle (and how people should incorporate such miracles into their lives) varies tremendously depending on the person, like all ‘faith.’

To return once again to The Color of Christ, the face of God is ever-changing, both through how he is seen and shared. The original missionaries in America, Catholics appropriately enough, brought with them a god or god image of rules and statures, of colonizing rather than adaptive faith, much the same way the ritualistic observation of the saint’s blood in Naples  remains fairly uniform for decades at least. In contrast, the Moravians brought a more malleable interpretation of Christ and Christian faith, with more of a focus on the sacrificial and healing capacity of Jesus, which fit more easily into the lives and culture of Native Americans than the mission-based image given by the early Catholics the way that Pope John Paul II’s healings and the miracle for Signor D’Alfonso are significantly more individual. Rather than basing the variance of such miracles on the “eye of faith” then, we might also consider the lens of circumstance. After all there is a substantial difference between witnessing a miracle in the middle of a Church festival, and seeing one at home or in a hospital room.

Feast of San Gennaro in Naples

This of course, does not mean that any miracle is less important, or that any image of Christianity should be dismissed. Despite their differences after all, the Jesuits, Protestants and Catholics of old (and those to whom they witnessed) were brought to the same God. These miracles happened somehow and are real to someone.

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