(RNS) On Monday (Oct. 31) in Sweden, Pope Francis took part in an ecumenical service commemorating the beginning of the Protestant Reformation’s 500th year.
It is stunning to think the start of this momentous anniversary features a visit from the Roman pope.
And it raises a question: Does the Reformation still matter?
For much of my life, I was sure it did. It was a part of my story. My first American ancestor was born in Wittenberg, the Saxon town where Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 Theses to the church door.
In this country, the Lupfers were churchmen and church ladies. Though they joined various sects, they embodied both civic-mindedness and personal devotion, all the while following the Protestant work ethic toward their piece of the American dream. For better or worse, we epitomize most WASP stereotypes.
Though I had been in Methodist Sunday school for many years, I did not know what a Protestant was until I saw the term in our local newspaper. Most obituaries listed denominations I had at least heard of: Baptist, Episcopalian, etc. Some just said, “Protestant.”
“What’s a Protestant?” I asked my father. I still remember his answer: “Someone who’s not Catholic but doesn’t go to church.”
Later, I pursued theological education at a conservative Christian college and a liberal seminary — worlds apart yet both Protestant.
I wanted my Protestantism to mean something. But I found little evidence that it really mattered — to me or to anyone else.
Rick Warren, a Southern Baptist megachurch pastor and best-selling author, laughed off a 2013 report that the number of Protestants had declined precipitously:
“That’s an old term. It’s like saying, ‘I’m a Pilgrim.’ No one calls themselves a Pilgrim or a Puritan anymore,” Warren said.
Theologian Stanley Hauerwas has argued that Protestantism may be coming to an end, noting: “There is also the ongoing problem that Catholics have responded to the Protestant critique in a way that the Protestant critique no longer makes much sense.”
In our era, religious people have strong ecumenical impulses even as secularization continues apace. But the theological gulf between Catholics and Protestants remains vast, regardless of whether people talk about it.
American Protestantism is still clubby, even if it is no longer a significant social or cultural marker. But today, staking an identity as “not Catholic” has become unfashionable and unnecessary.
Across the political spectrum, Protestants can find much more common cause with Catholics than with their own brethren who happen to have different politics.
While the Reformation indeed addressed some serious concerns, it created a few of its own.
Luther’s “sola scriptura” — “Scripture alone!” — is the essential Protestant rallying cry. Yet it is highly problematic, requiring a rejection of the church that Jesus built on Peter in favor of a book that was canonized centuries later and subject to endless unresolved and unresolvable conflicts of interpretation.
Sola scriptura unleashed innumerable fights over which interpretations will prevail in churches and institutions. This has led to an endless proliferation of sects and denominations.
Historian Molly Worthen’s 2013 book, “Apostles of Reason,” argues that evangelicals suffer from a crisis of authority. Protestants say they follow the Bible, but their institutions compete for the prestige and authority to judge which biblical interpretations will be licit and orthodox.
Whereas in some countries, Protestants are less doctrinally diverse and more politically cohesive, American Protestantism is such a mishmash and melting pot that it quickly loses its distinctiveness.
In Europe, Protestantism unleashed an expansion in literacy, individualism, capital markets, and political liberty that became hallmarks of Western civilization.
And in America, the democratized churches were community bastions where the civic skills and resources for republican governance were taught and practiced.
A great debate rages over the effects of Protestant colonization. But missionaries brought more than just the gospel to the world’s people, for good or ill.
Both liberal and conservative Protestants expected the 1900s to be “the Christian century,” a triumph of Christianity’s self-evidently superior ideas and values. But today, Protestantism is in the doldrums. Its historic denominations are in decline while its growing sects hardly emphasize their Protestant identity.
From now through next October, the world will mark the quincentenary of one of the most consequential revolutions in human history. We will remake Luther in our own image, and suppose him to be the forefather of our different sects.
Five centuries is a long time, but I don’t know how long the choose-your-own-adventure story will last. In another 500 years, Protestantism will have either gone back to Rome or splintered into a billion churches of one.
(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)