H. Richard Niebuhr on Culture-Protestantism and Fundamentalism

So, this year I have been reading H. Richard Niebuhr for the first time, and I have been finding him very interesting. While I often disagree with him, he is a great writer (as I have mentioned before) and he has a way of making one – or at least me – think about things in new ways. It could just be because he is so foreign to me, in which case I have been engaged in broadening my horizons.

In any case, here is a particularly provocative, insightful, and ponderous piece on the relation of fundamentalism, Roman Catholicism, and Culture-Protestantism. As usual, at least in my experience, he is an equal-opportunity offender. This passage comes from the chapter “The Christ of Culture” from his well-known volume, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1951), and emphasis has been imported by myself:
The widespread reaction against cultural Protestantism in our time tends to obscure the importance of answer of this type to the Christ-and-culture problem. But we are warned against cavalier treatment of the position by the reflection that some of its severest critics share the general attitude they purport to reject…How often the Fundamentalist attack on so-called liberalism—by which cultural Protestantism is meant—is itself an expression of a cultural loyalty, a number of Fundamentalists interests indicate. Not all though many of these antiliberals show a greater concern for conserving the cosmological and biological notions of older cultures than for the Lordship of Jesus Christ. The test of loyalty to him is found in the acceptance of old cultural ideas about the manner of creation and the earth’s destruction. More significant is the fact that the mores they associate with Christ have at least as little relation to the New Testament and as much connection with social custom as have those of their opponents. The movement that identifies obedience to Jesus Christ with the practices of prohibition, and with the maintenance of early American social organization, is a type of cultural Christianity; though the culture it seeks to conserve differs from that which its rivals honor. The same thing is true of the Marxian-Christian criticism of the “bourgeois Christianity” of democratic and individualistic liberalism. Again, Roman Catholic reaction against the Protestantism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries seems often to be animated by a desire to return to the culture of the thirteenth; to the religious, economic, and political institutions and to the philosophical ideas of another civilization than ours. In so far as the contemporary attack on Culture-Protestantism is carried on in this way, it is a family quarrel between folk who are in essential agreement on the main point; namely, that Christ is the Christ of culture, and that man’s greatest task is to maintain his best culture. Nothing in the Christian movement is so similar to cultural Protestantism as is cultural Catholicism, nothing more akin to German Christianity than American Christianity, or more like a church of the middle class than a worker’s church. The terms differ, but the logic is always the same: Christ is identified with what men conceive to be their finest ideals, their noblest institutions, and their best philosophy.


D.W. Congdon said…
Good quote. Niebuhr's critique is as true and relevant today as it was then.
brainofdtrain said…
This is one of my favorite quotes from that chapter. I look forward to our upcoming discussions.
Luke said…
Very interesting Travis. Popular religion usually is one step forward than the official one. I will only say one thing about the last statement: indeed, Christ is identified with the finest values in our culture, … but is this the case? Christ calls into question our world, institutions, ideals, philosophy, hopes… In this sense he does not preach an humanism.

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