Catholics and Protestants (Part 2)

I apologize to anyone who follows this blog. It’s been a while since I’ve written, mostly because I’ve become preoccupied with a writing project about religion and culture. From this work, I would like to continue on a recent theme regarding possible differences between Catholics and Protestants.

An interesting trend that is clear about Cathlolics and Protestants concerns very different growth rates over the past 40 yeras or so. Whereas Mainline Protestant (for example, Episcopal, Lutheran) churches have declined in membership, stricter religions (for example, Evangelical Protestant, Muslim) have grown wildly. In fact, the fastest growing religion in America is “non-denominational Christian.”

In attempting to explain these trends, the sociologist Dean Kelley speculated that Evangelical Protestant churches tend to emphasize values such as salvation that are less available in secular venues. In a related vein, these churches tend to be more “strict” or “serious,” as they tend to be characterized by absolutistic beliefs that they hold the one truth, conformity to the group, and fanaticism about convincing others of their beliefs. As a result, members are thought to be characterized by a wholehearted commitment to their religious beliefs, great discipline with respect to the tenets of these beliefs, and strong missionary zeal to evangelize to others. These characteristics, in turn, Kelley thought promote greater institutional vitality (for example, greater growth in church membership) because they help fulfill the essential function of religion, which described as “explaining the meaning of life in ultimate terms.”

In contrast, Mainline Protestant churches and the post-Vatican II Catholic Church seem to emphasize (in practice, though not necessarily in theology) values that also may be emphasized in secular venues, such as community, knowledge, social justice, and political change. They tend to be characterized by relativistic beliefs that no one has a monopoly on the truth, individual responsibility, and reserve about expressing religious beliefs. Given this, members tend to be more lukewarm with respect to their commitment levels, more appreciative of diverse perspectives, and more interested in dialogue with others holding different beliefs. Although Kelley noted that in many ways these characteristics are desirable, he also noted that they are not as effective in fulfilling the essential purpose of religion concerning the provision of meaning, and therefore result in various forms of institutional weakness (for example, declines in church membership).

I think this theory is really insightful. It helps to explain differences in membership rates, but also helps to explain some possible differences in the outcomes of those committed to different affiliations and why. I’ll pick up on this theme in a later post.


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