Posted by Lexington Green on January 28th, 2006 (All posts by Lexington Green)
When talking about this Anglosphere business, one occasionally gets asked whether discussions of Anglosphere culture and values are not ” really all about Protestantism?”
The short answer is “no”.
The somewhat more elaborate answer goes about as follows:
As a matter of demonstrable historical fact English exceptionalism preceded Protestantism by at least one thousand years. Furthermore, Anglosphere exceptionalism continues now, when most of the Anglosphere is not Protestant. Protestantism is therefore an episode in the Anglosphere, one part of its history. It is an important and influential episode, but it is only a portion of the whole story, and it is not the defining element in the story.
The fundamental origins of Anglospheric liberty are some combination of Teutonic folkways and medieval constitutionalism, which led to the development of representative government, common law, government power being subject to law, strong notions of private property, a strong civil society, etc. Note this is not a matter of mistaking origins for essence, as some commenter once said. Rather, it is a matter of seeing and understanding the existence of an unbroken line of development which, again, is a matter of demonstrable fact.
These cultural and institutional developments in England were strongly in place prior to the Reformation. To wax counterfactual, none of those need necessarily have gone away if the Reformation played out differently in England. A Catholic England would still have been a Catholic ENGLAND. Thomas More’s world (as depicted so vividly by Peter Ackroyd) is recognizably the active, decentralized, voluntarist, outward looking, mercantile, law-abiding, enterprising civil society we see in other ages of English History — and it is Catholic top to bottom. The world Ackroyd shows us is not a monolithic Catholicism, but a varied and dynamic Catholicism, with many different groups and orders and local parishes all doing their own thing within an overall religious commonality — again, a very Anglospheric-looking Catholicism. And, of course, the Reformation era was marked by many setbacks for Anglospheric liberty, such as the use of the Star Chamber court. So, the influence of the Reformation era on Anglospheric developments is multifaceted, and not all positive. On the other end of the timeline, America was once almost entirely Protestant. But, of course, today it is a highly diverse place religiously — and irreligiously. And we see that Anglospheric institutions and cultural values have been successfully adopted and adapted by various non-Protestant individuals and groups.
To the extent English or American conservatives see themselves as preserving a specifically Protestant — or even Christian — national identity, a larger conception of the Anglosphere may present a hardship for them. Many good-hearted men and women of a conservative disposition, in particular in England — the erstwhile “Protestant Island” — would like to define their national identity this way. Many want to “restore” a national identity along the line of religious identity. Curiously enough, this is so even, or especially, when they personally rarely set foot in a Church. While I often agree with such people on much else, this part of the program won’t work.
In short, Protestantism and Protestant cultural values have had a strong and important and in many ways affirmative influence on the Anglosphere. But Protestantism and Protestant cultural values do not define the Anglosphere.
(On a personal note, as a Catholic American I grow rather weary of being granted the status of an “honorary white man”, like Gunga Din, on the theory that all Americans have all really turned into Protestants now. The subtext is that we benighted Papists will eventually give up on our priest craft and idolatry and eventually become true and complete Americans. For now we are free to use the front door anyway as a gesture of tolerance from our betters. Thanks anyway, but we’ll just kick the front door down with our boots and sit wherever we damn well want. Ha. I am a well-balanced Irishman. I have a chip on each shoulder. I have not yet read Samuel Huntington’s book Who Are We? I understand it has more than a touch of this. But Huntington is a solid thinker, and I will get to him, and let him speak for himself.)
Cross-posted on Albion’s Seedling.