Preachers, and pastors, and priests – oh, my!
There is a lot of imprecision about Christianity as it exists today. It’s very confusing to most people when they hear a distinction made between “Christians” and Catholics, between “Christians” and Protestants, or a wholesale inclusion of Evangelicals as the fount of today’s Religious Right. Even those of us who work inside faith organizations sometimes find our eyes rolling to the back of our heads in confusion. So let me see if I can unpack this a bit.
From the origins of the Common Era (CE), there ultimately became one church we now know as Roman Catholic. With the 15th C. Reformation, Protestants – those literally protesting against Catholicism – arose in many ways, but all without deference to the Pope and many of the Catholic principles. Lutheran, Presbyterians, Calvinists were but a few branches of Christianity that set out new ways of interacting with God and metaphysics.
Overall, however, Protestantism split very early into two main branches: one was based on the teachings of Jesus leading people to search for justice and truth. The other was salvationist leading people to focus on their status as the saved. All of them suffered persecution from the dominant Church. Most survived and grew stronger as institutions and patterns of faith practice.
In America Puritans, Anglicans, some Quakers, and a handful of Catholics (confined to Maryland) were the original faiths. The first smattering of what became evangelical began with Roger Williams’ ousting from Massachusetts and founding of Rhode Island. His “divine light” views eventually became the American Baptist denomination. Until 1776, these were the only significant Christian churches in the colonies. There were numerous theological disputes that existed, but institutionally these were the prevailing organized faiths.
Because the Crown was trying to re-establish Anglicanism as the state church in the colonies, and because Puritans utterly dominated New England without tolerance of other faiths, the founders of the Constitution erected the Jeffersonian “wall” separating church and state and rejecting any religious test of loyalty to any faith at all. Free practice of religion and belief was essential to preventing the new evangelicals and other faiths from being overrun by any other religion.
With the formation of the United States and rapid migration to the frontier, The Great Awakening that accompanied that expansion began a major split between Protestants and what were now the new Evangelicals. The latter, born a great deal on the frontier where preachers were animated by the spirit but poorly educated about the meanings in the Bible (if they could read at all) put emphasis on emotion, zealotry, charismatic leadership, and focus on the self. Personal salvation and its rules for obtaining it were pervasive where life was hard, material support scarce, and the future unknowable. The promise of paradise was all many had. Social justice was irrelevant or inimical to the idea that you were solely responsible for your own salvation and only your own. You could proselytize but you shouldn’t intervene in someone’s suffering. They had to accept Jesus as their savior. He would provide, not man. The material status quo was not for humans to change.
Simultaneously the mainline churches, confronted by slavery and the civil war, were being challenged to pursue justice. Many denominations, notably Methodists, Congregationalists, Quakers, were openly and powerfully abolitionist. Personal salvation, if it mattered, was to come via works of justice. There is no perfect single thread here, but overall mainline Protestants and Evangelicals split very cleanly during this period. Mainline churches were more oriented to preserving the union and ending slavery. Evangelicals favored slavery with slaves responsible for their own salvation and emancipation in heaven.
By the 20th C. c.1901 the Evangelicals gave rise to another splinter” Pentecostals. Even more conservative than Southern Baptists who were, in the Pentecostal view, too worldly, Pentecostals became a growing force and quickly took leadership of yet another movement started c. 1935 The Family or The Fellowship.
This brand of religion openly rejected social justice and its secular manifestations – the New Deal. All uplift in their eyes came from turning over your life to Jesus (and to the church leaders) who would save you, bless and reward you on earth and heaven. Thus was born the worship of power and money as manifestations of your salvation, the “Prosperity Gospel”. It required no work, no pietism, no changes in behavior in the world, only total submission to the movement. Over the following decades, the goal was to take over secular institutions and “turn them to Jesus”” with domination of the world as the ultimate goal. Preparing for the End Times, this dominance would pave the way. Hence – Dominionism was born even if adherents don’t use the term at all. In the pews this became the New Apostolic Reformation. In politics it is the “C Street” people, the televangelists with megachurches, the advocacy groups such as Focus on the Family all of whom seek their dominion over the earth – and everybody who disagrees with them.
They now believe they are the ONLY actual Christians on earth. Nobody else deserves that term, in their view. Today this has political consequences when Dominionists want to reserve all rights to ONLY Christians.They don’t mean Protestants and Catholics. They mean only themselves, “born again” Pentecostals and evangelicals. They don’t even include liberal evangelicals of whom there are many.
Meanwhile, mainline Protestants became more devoted to justice work and thought especially through the civil rights movement and into the anti war efforts. Today, all mainline Protestants embrace a separation of church and state and believe the state must be an arm of justice. Charity was insufficient to heal the injustices. People in need are not victims of non-belief but of systematic social constructions that reinforce their inequality. These mainline Protestants uniformly accept full participation of all people as equals in society including LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, racial equity, and immigrant rights. Most of all, this view upholds the equity of belief, the preservation of religious diversity.
This pits mainline Protestants against Dominionists (that have incorporated most of the evangelicals though not all) meaning there is a necessary distinction to be made between Protestants and Dominionists. The people MRFF is standing against are Dominionists. Dominionists embrace the “7 mountains mandate” to control all aspects of our secular society from the military to Hollywood. Protestants as well as Catholics are a target of Dominionist wrath since they do not accept domination by this one, narrow view and reject the Dominionist desire to ‘break the wall’ separating church and state. They also continue to believe we ARE our ‘brother’s keeper” via social programs not just the whims of charity.
This is why only in the most technical sense of “not Catholic” are Dominionists “Protestant”, they aren’t Protestant anymore. They have their own new religion, one that worships the acquisition of power and money as the highest good. In fact Pat Robertson once dismissed these denominations all as non Christians, “mere Protestants”.
The quest for global domination has been successful in many ways. However, it is beginning to fall apart as Dominionist operations have been made public. According to the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) last year Dominionism took a nose dive on followers making mainline Protestants the largest force in religion. That threat to their hegemony actually makes Dominionists far more dangerous – they are enraged by their declining power and refuse to let go. This is why California Council of Churches IMPACT stands with Mikey and MRFF. Everything we value of faith and Constitution is on the line.
And we Protestants don’t ever wish to be lumped in with Dominionists. We are radically different and wish to stay that way. Dominionists aren’t Christians. Christians aren’t Dominionists. It’s a whole new world, and we need those – not their – distinctions.
So there’s my thumbnail sketch of US religious differences. Any good theologian would gasp in horror, but it is reasonably accurate if rather over simplified.
Public Policy Advocate
California Council of Churches/IMPACT