We are nearing the 500th anniversary of perhaps the most important date in Western Civilization: Oct. 31, 1517. This is the date on which Martin Luther tacked to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, his 97 theses that launched the Protestant Reformation. From this simple if rebellious act emerged the burgeoning Protestant movement and its myriad branches and churches.
Starting with Fresno, the importance of this Protestant Revolution against the Catholic Church of the time is overwhelmingly apparent. The Protestant churches of Fresno can be seen in innumerable places. It is hard to drive anywhere in Fresno without seeing such a church.
Their impact on the citizens is first of all, of course, spiritual, giving a moral and ethical base to its adherents. It is hard to think of our community without this immense pillar underlying the moral and ethical conduct of its citizens.
But these churches do far more. They are active in multiple charitable efforts from succoring the poor to providing education to young and old alike.
More controversially, they are a political force in such issues as abortion, gay marriage and the prohibition of narcotics.
And the Catholic Church was itself transformed in response to this movement beginning with the Counsel of Trent (1545-1563). The Catholic Church we see today was completely revitalized in response to this Protestant movement.
The impact of this Protestant movement looms over much of United States history. The Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in 1620 were Protestants leaving England to protect their version of worship. And the flood of immigrants who followed them were frequently motivated by their Protestant faith. And these New England settlers left an indelible mark on our society.
Perhaps the greatest impact is suggested by Max Weber in his “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” Weber writes that modern economics and the frugality and industriousness of Protestants and Protestant nations were the source of modern economic systems and prosperity.
It is easy to find support of this theory. The Industrial Revolution began in Protestant Great Britain in the early Nineteenth Century. Why here and not elsewhere? Weber would surely claim that the deep Protestant roots of England motivated folks to seek this revolutionary economic transformation.
And it is easy to look beyond England to the vibrant lands that were Protestant: Holland, Belgium, Northern Germany, the Scandinavian Countries. All of them prospered in the 19th and 20th centuries while Catholic Spain, Italy, Portugal, and France lagged then and by many measures lag today.
In this setting then, one must pause as he looks to the future. Charles Murray in his book “Coming Apart” notes a serious decline in church support and attendance. And he applies this to his view of the founding virtues of our country: industriousness, honesty, marriage, and religiosity. He notes a serious decline in these values especially in the underprivileged.
For example, couples living together out of wedlock are proliferating among those without a college degree. Per-capita incarceration in the U.S. rates are the highest in the developed world. And work force participation percentages are at all time lows; out-of-wedlock births are soaring.
Indeed, one can find in the recent populism of the Republican/Trump resurgence a desire to return to these values by reducing dependence on government, increasing employment, and increasing job availability. Query if these adherents can set back the clock.
So, as we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Movement, are we looking at the ebb tide of its immense influence in the U.S.? It is the very heart of the America we know. It is time to celebrate this great achievement but also to pause and think about what made America a “shining light on a hill.”
Time to look into the future and ponder what we need to do to keep our nation compassionate yet supportive of our founding Protestant values.
Phil Fullerton of Fresno is a retired lawyer.