Death is still segregated in American society. You may be surrounded by diversity in your school or your workplace, but when you die, you stick with your own. There are black and white funeral homes, Jewish funeral homes, Irish and Italian funeral homes, etc. It may not be like that all over the country, but it is certainly that way in the three states that I have lived in. And the biggest divide amongst the funeral homes is not racial or ethnic or even inter-faith but inter-Christian. There are Catholic funeral homes and there are Protestant funeral homes. Which means, though you may define yourself however you want–call yourself an Evangelical, or a Lutheran, or a Reformed Calvinist, or a Baptist, or a Quaker, or even an Anglo-Catholic–but at the end of the day, you will die a Protestant. That is your only option, and for America, that is considered good enough.
It is considered good enough because America is a Protestant nation. This is more deeply true for us than it has ever been true that Sweden is Lutheran or that England is Anglican. I daresay it may be more true than it is that Ireland is Catholic or that Greece is Orthodox. For Americans, Protestantism is in our bones. It is in our DNA. Jefferson and Adams and Washington were not exactly Christians, but they were most certainly Protestants. We live and breathe Protestantism. By that, I mean that we are so completely attuned to the idea that Christianity is something we choose how to live for ourselves, based on our personal criteria about what seems right, that we never question that assumption. That is simply what Christianity is: personal, free, and uninhibited by tradition. This is not the classical or historical definition of Protestantism, but it is the one that American Protestants have adopted over time. Even those Americans who choose highly traditional forms of Christianity like Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy are operating out of a kind of Protestantism. The tradition we choose for ourselves is no tradition at all, and yet we affirm our right to choose it all the same.
And we are never more Protestant then when we are using the word Protestant as a substitute for the word generic. This is where the idea of the Protestant funeral home becomes particularly absurd. What is it that makes a funeral home Protestant? They do not seem to have statements of belief, nor any particular practices in caring for the dead that make them any different from their Catholic counterparts. What makes them Protestant is that they exist to serve those who have subscribed to any variety of Christian faith, no matter how passionate or nominal, so long as it is not Roman Catholic. They exist to affirm your right to choose your own Christianity by blending all forms of Christianity together into a thin soup of platitudes.
Choose Your Own Adventure
There are so many layers of irony to the American Protestant experience that it is difficult to peal them all back at once. The American Protestant chooses his Christianity because he believes that Christianity can only be chosen, yet he inherits that belief as a kind of tradition from those who came before him and he believes it almost subconsciously, without really questioning where it came from. He believes it every bit as blindly as the uneducated Roman Catholic who thinks that holy water and saint medals are magic and that you will only be able to sell your house if you bury a statue of Saint Joseph in the back yard. Nevertheless, the more strongly the American Protestant believes that each person must choose his own Christianity, the more generic his options become. Try going to a “Protestant” service some time at a campground or a private school function, anywhere in which all Protestants are supposed to be Protestant together. Suddenly, there is no difference at all between Methodists and Mennonites, Calvinists and Arminians, Lutherans and Baptists. We shave off the hard edges for the sake of momentary unity. We give up our distinctions and distinctiveness for the sake of upholding what we have in common. And once all manner of diversity of thought and practice has been sanitized away, all we are left with in common is our choice to be Protestant in the first place. We are unified by our disunity that we have freely chosen for ourselves together. (Try saying that three times fast.)
But the greatest irony of all is that there never really was a thing called Protestantism to begin with. To be sure, there are many Protestantisms. There are many Christian traditions that have evolved separately from one another since the Reformation. And there are things that these traditions hold in common with one another, though the areas of overlap vary drastically depending on which two groups of Reformation Christians you are trying to compare. But the differences are real and they are important. I have a great deal in common with my Baptist friends and neighbors, indeed much more than I have in common with those who do not profess the Christian faith at all. But my Baptist friends and neighbors, regardless of which Baptist confession they affirm, believe that Baptism is something we do for God, not something that God does for us, and so it can only be validly entered into by an adult or at least by a child past a certain age of maturity. On the other hand, I believe that Baptism is God’s work, not ours, that it is the application of His promise of salvation, and that to refuse to baptize infants is not only wrong but a grave sin that denies the children in question real grace. That is not a small difference. That is, quite literally, everything. But in the American conception of Protestantism, the heart of our faith is not unity in essentials but unity for unity’s sake. To point out the truth that Baptists and Anglicans are not yet unified in Christ is to be intolerant of our individual right to have Christianity our own way. It is to commit the cardinal sin of American Protestantism, to suggest that truth is more important than autonomy.
Protestantism vs. the Reformation
None of this is meant to be an affront to the Reformation or our inheritance of its riches as Anglicans. Indeed, one of the great gifts of Anglicanism is that we are permitted to receive and consider the great lights of all Christian traditions. We need not read only Anglican reformers or Anglican thinkers (though it would do us some good on the whole if more of us would include at least a few early Anglican thinkers in our repertoire). I am grateful to the Reformation for the recovery of the doctrines of grace and sola fide. Moreover, I do not think there is anything wrong with using the term Protestant as a descriptive in certain instances. I have no trouble, for instance, with the “Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America,” because Protestant Episcopal is a way of describing our church as being in the historic apostolic succession but not through the Roman hierarchy. I am also aware, though somewhat skeptical, of the claim that Protestant as a term is less about protesting against Rome than it is about protesting in the older sense of the word, which means to confess and bear witness. If that is how you want to use the term, fine. But what are we confessing? Why do we have multiple “denominations” from which we confess if not for the fact that the confessions themselves are divergent? I have heard many people argue that the advent of multiple denominations is merely about giving Christians different flavors of Christianity from which to choose. Nothing could possibly be more American than that.
Reformational Christianity is quite real and quite rich. And we who are inheritors of the Reformation, in our various traditions, are much in need of serious ecumenical work so that we may, as divided Christians, repent of the sin of our divisions and seek together unity in the truth of the Gospel. But Protestantism is an invention. Calling ourselves Protestants as a way of ignoring our differences only serves to hang our faith on something less real and less solid than the cross. Generic Protestantism is a darkened room built to keep us from looking in the mirror and really seeing ourselves or our brothers and sisters in Christ. The sooner we dispense with the fiction that we are already unified through our affirmation of personal choice, the sooner the real quest for Christian unity can actually begin.