Is the Anglosphere “Really” About Protestantism?

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.

15 thoughts on “Is the Anglosphere “Really” About Protestantism?”

  1. Follow the money?
    I suspect the tripping stone would be the Catholic stand on loaning money, capital. Restrictive usuary laws tended the retard economic growth and thus power which was dependent upon economics. The gold from the New World couldn’t sustain the Spanish system. IIRC, the British adaptation of the Dutch [Protestant] business model is what had significant influence upon the growth, expansion, explosion of the Anglosphere at the start of the 18th Century.

  2. Don, what about the Italian city-states of the Renaissance? It seems to me that they had a very healthy understanding of trade and economics. They even invented double-entry bookkeeping. Pacioli really only organized and set down in writing the practices that Venice had followed for centuries.

    It seems that proximity to the Vatican did little to stifle their mercantile instincts.

  3. What Mitch said, and more. The Italian city States centuries before the Renaissance were pioneers of capitalism, as were the towns of Flanders. Catholicism worked out its issues with interest on loans in the middle ages. Monasteries were organized as capitalist enterprises and loaned at interest centuries before the Reformation. The Weber thesis, that Protestantism caused modern capitalism is baseless. Look at Braudel, for instance, and the new Rodney Stark volume.

    In any case, the larger point remains. Both England and Holland had many of the characteristics which led to political freedom and economic growth before the Reformation, and kept them through the Reformation. What exactly the Reformation may have added is a worthy question, but not one which has a simple or obvious answer.

  4. Iirc, Huntington does indeed argue for the “Protestantizing” of American Catholics in Who Are We?, and I tended to buy it. Your interesting take, that they were, rather, “anglicized”, leads me to reconsider.

  5. Moira, with the caveat that I need to let Huntington speak for himself, I am confident that it American Catholics were “Americanized” or even “Anglospherized” without being “Protestantized”. Tocqueville discussed American Catholics, not at length. He saw them as (1) responding to the “market competition” of serious Protestant religiosity by becoming even more serious about their own religion, and (2) adopting the social norms needed to succeed in America and obtain the trust and esteem of their neighbors. It was at once a strengthening of religious identity with an assimilation to those non-religious elements in American culture which seemed necessary to succeed here. I think about the old Irish ladies from Boston whom I recall from childhood who were very devout Catholics and very patriotic Americans, who would not have taken well at all to the notion that to the extent they were “good Americans” it was because they had become “honorary Protestants”. My Heavens, an icy chill would have descended on the room. And rightly so.

  6. Lex, great post. I think Weber missed the forest for the trees. You are exactly right and I’ve felt the same way for some time now. It’s not Protestant ethic, it’s english ethic. That too became very clear to me when reading about Thomas More, seeing the incredible respect for the rule of law that existed in england during that time, from the commoners to lords.

    That continues to this day. European work ethic is the same everywhere but the UK, whether it’s spain or holland, it’s all about pensions and holidays.

  7. I need a dedicated hotkey that just spits out “great post, Lex.”
    Weighing in from the “other side,” I’ll just mention a few things:
    Great alt-hist idea there (England remains Catholic but nonetheless opposed to, or is at least a sharp contrast with, much of the Continent). I can imagine a further twist in which France goes Protestant and nonetheless (or as a result) goes through a Revolution very much like the one it had, spawning tyrannies down to the present day as the ideological descendants of the National Assembly attempt to repeal human nature in one country after another.
    There’s nothing especially Protestant about what a forgettable blogger once quoted about the Anglospheric preference for process over principle: “The laws of the Romano-Germanic family are coherent but, one may say, ‘closed’ systems in which any kind of question can, and must at least in theory, be resolved by an ‘interpretation’ of an existing rule of law. On the other hand English law is an ‘open’ system: it has a method that can assure the resolution of any kind of question that may arise, not substantive principles which must, in all circumstances, be applied. The technique of English law is not one of interpreting legal rules; it consists, beginning with those legal rules already enunciated, of discovering the legal rule — perhaps a new legal rule — that must be applied in the instant case. This is accomplished by paying very great attention to the facts of each case and by carefully studying the reasons that may exist for distinguishing the factual situation in the case at hand from that in a previous case. To a new fact situation there corresponds — there must correspond in the English legal mentality — a new legal rule.”
    I note that no analogue of the Thirty Years’ War occurred in England (though there was, of course, the dissolution of the monasteries). Geography, or a penchant for avoiding excessively bloody solutions?
    The result of kicking the front door down with your boots and sitting wherever you want appears, to this evangelical Protestant, to be a church that is at least as “culture current” as any of the ones I’ve ever been active in — the last Mass I attended (here) included almost no music from before AD ~1980. American exceptionalism, indeed. ;^)

  8. From this tattered corner of the Francosphere, it appears that the reason England’s regard for the rule of law, representative government, private property, and a strong civil society predates the Reformation is that those principles derive from Greece and Rome, not England.

  9. Jay, re: this:

    “English law is an ‘open’ system: it has a method that can assure the resolution of any kind of question that may arise, not substantive principles which must, in all circumstances, be applied.”

    This is a critical point. Common law adjudication can be responsive to change by generating new law on an incremental basis by analogy. This is a huge advantage over the Continental, Roman-derived, Code system. It allows a new rule to arise by induction as a new category of disputes gives rise to a new body of case law. This is barely understood. I had one — count ’em, one –law professor who got it.

    As to rotten music in Catholic Churches, I quite literally pray to God that we have bottomed out on the post-Conciliar ugliness and get the Church back into the main channel of two millenia of artistic greatness. There is no excuse whatsoever for what has happened in the last 40 years. Benedict XVI is concerned with such issues. How far his writ will run is an open question with any Pope, whatever his theoretical powers. Saint Cecilia, pray for us.

  10. One would think that anyone who’s had to read opinions by Holmes, Cardozo would have gained an appreciation for the inductive development of new rules that Lex alludes to. Or even anyone who’s had to read the string of opinions by Justice Traynor on products liability.

    I do wish to address the doge’s believe that the English system derives from the Roman and Greek heritages. I don’t think, in fact, that the exceptionalist character of the English common law, which supports the Anglosphere in general, is derived from the Roman or Greek systems at all. Recall that the Greek system was a pure democracy (not a representative one as the modern term would connote). The Roman system on the other hand was code-based: It was derived from similar traditions that gave rise to Hammurabi’s code, and it in turn inspired the Code Napoleon.

    Rather, the peculiar character of English law stems laregly from the consequences of minority Norman rule over a majority Saxon population. Where Continental experiences drove censi (such as the Domesday Book), law was largely left in the hands of local judges with respect to the development of new rules. Older law was systematically collected and standardized, strengthening stare decisis.

    In fact, the libertarian strand which flows under much Anglospheric thought probably most derives from the absenteeism of the Normans, and their successors the Plantagenets. While France often flagged when ruled by incompetents (such as the House of Valois), resulting in invasions (from the Burgundians and, ironically, the English), England’s island location and the absenteeism that came of it fostered a generally milder series of transitions of power.

  11. The Doge’s point about the Graeco-Roman origins of representative government, etc. is partly true but in a roundabout way that makes it perhaps not entirely pertinent to the question at hand. Both the Greeks and Romans of early classical times had the sort of tribal assemblies that characterised many of the barbarians that settled Europe. Greek civic democracy and the institutions of the Roman republic developed from them. However, they were gradually submerged under the bureaucratic patterns of the older Mediterannean civilizations they conquered and whose institutions they gradually adopted. Remember that Cato was famed for his orations before juries; not too long after, jury trials died out in Rome. The Germanic barbarians who gradually replaced the Roman empire had similar institutions to the early Greeks and Romans, and the Frankish and Gothic kingdoms of early medieval Europe saw them slowly evolve into the institutions of medieval constitutionalism. This complex fabric was swept away for the most part on the Continent (see Brian Downing’s work, frequently cited by Lex and me, for details on how and why this happened) by the needs of land military competition; they survived primarily in Britain. Montesquieu studied the evolution of medieval institutions from Frankish law and was quite aware of the roots of both English law and the old Norman customs (being replaced as he wrote).

    So British open institutions capturing the “wisdom of crowds” were collateral descendants, as it were, of the early Greek and Roman institutions, and direct descendants of the Germanic tribal institutions. Because they shared ultimately common roots, it was possible for the English to see parallels in Cato’s orations and the deliberations of the Greek city assemblies — it’s not coincidental that Patrick Henry’s “Give me liberty or give me death” was taken from Addison’s play on Cato, popular at the time. (People then would have understood it as a reference to popular culture, as if somebody were to quote “make my day” in a political speech today.)

    So, while it was true that all of tthese good things had parallels in greek and roman antiquity, and these parallels were not coincidental, that fact is not useful in solving the real riddle, which is why they died out everywhere else, but evolved into modern institutions only in Britian and its daughter societies.

  12. Speaking as a Filipino Protestant living in the Philippine Archipelago, I must say that the Anglosphere comes through much more clearly through the King James Version of 1611 than the Latin Vulgate or even the New American Bible. Yet a sea of Roman Catholics here was long ago absorbed by Hollywood–more familiar with James Dean and Jesse James, and speaking a not very strange dialect of English.

    So the Anglosphere is certainly “bigger” than Protestantism. But what is it “smaller” than, I wonder?

  13. “But what is it “smaller” than, I wonder?”

    It is smaller than “the West”, as I mentioned here. Of course the Anglosphere’s worldwide career means that it is probably bigger than “the rest of the West” put together at this point. The Anglosphere is also smaller than “Christendom”, a word that may have utility in the future as we see Christianity spreading widely in areas where it never was before (Africa, China) or where people were very lightly evangelized (much of Latin America). The extent to which the Anglosphere continues its deep historic ties with Christianity, abandons them, or experiences a revival, will have an impact on its dealings with the newly-Christianizing parts of the world in the decades ahead. Vast forces are in play. How these transformations will play out is a question which we cannot even begin to answer.

    Bruce, while I am in general agreement, I take issue with this: “law was largely left in the hands of local judges with respect to the development of new rules.” Not “local”. The key thing about English Common Law under the Normans and after was that the circuit-riding judges imposed a law that was “common” to the whole kingdom, it was national not local law. This promoted uniformity of law throughout the realm. England, very early, became a place with orderly and uniform law, since the Normans ruled with a firm hand but in a lawful and predictable fashion. Economically optimal, as it happens.

    Ditto on Jim’s response to the Doge. The actual connection between Greco-Roman institutions and Anglospheric developments is remote compared to other later forces.

  14. Right, Lex. I should have been more clear in stating that the common law often incorporated the local rules that made sense to the circuit judges. Because it wasn’t drastically different from what locals were used to, it was probably easier to swallow.

    And in support of your comment, I do note that judges sometimes stamped out some older practices, such as trial by ordeal, that perhaps no longer made sense.

  15. Protestantism was simply an empty vessel, a vector for the truly important idea which is central to the success of the Anglosphere: freedom of speech.

    If our modern notion of freedom of speech, worship, and of the press had been carried on the back of some other belief system — in a parallel universe maybe Hindu Indian expatriates in England demanding freedom of worship — it wouldn’t have mattered. All that mattered is that the free exchange of ideas became understood as one of the defining characteristics of the Anglosphere.

    Science could be practiced in freedom and safety because Martin Luther printed a Bible in German, but that had nothing to do with what was actually printed in the Bible.

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