Historically, Protestant Christianity was decisive in forming western civilization as we know it, especially in the United States. You can’t imagine modern individualism, democracy, or freedoms without it – and it has given us some other legacies which we might not like so much. But it’s not just a subject of historic interest. There are a billion Protestants in the world today, and in Africa, China, Latin America and other places the numbers are rising fast. Protestantism is going to be one of the key forces shaping the world this century, and we’d better understand it.
The first Protestants didn’t set out to create the world we live in now, but some key features of that world come directly from them. The ideal of free enquiry and free speech; the assumption that we’ve got a right to challenge our rulers, and that in spiritual terms we’re all equal; and the notion of limited government, that there are freedoms of conscience over which no political authority has any jurisdiction. If you want, you can push that to say that Protestants created modern democratic capitalism, though they didn’t do it alone. More to the point, if you look at all the really decisive ideological conflicts of the modern age – for and against religious toleration, slavery, colonialism, nationalism, fascism, Communism, women’s rights, civil rights – in all of those you’ll find Protestants at the heart of the argument: and on both sides. Protestants love to argue. The world we live in is the world their arguments made.
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