I teach an introduction to American religions, which I’ve organized as a historical survey of religious diversity. For the past week, we’ve been working through the settlement of the British colonies, with an emphasis on the various forms of Protestantism imported from Europe. Today, in the last two minutes of class, a student asked me a question he must have been wondering for some time but had probably hesitated to ask for fear of looking foolish. He wanted to know, “What’s a Protestant?”
I want to be clear that in sharing this anecdote, I in no way intend to disparage the student. This post also isn’t a lament about religious illiteracy in the U.S. today, tempting though it is to launch into that song-and-dance. I’m simply struck, from a historical perspective, that this particular student has apparently never moved through a discursive milieu where the term “Protestant” was used in a way that would make its meaning evident. I tend to think of that as “common knowledge,” and I presume that for most Americans it still is; I think this student is atypical. Still, I’m inclined to see this as a sign of the times. A century ago, there were organizations in this country still advocating for the Protestant character of the nation. Now I have a student–a white American student with an English surname, ergo a student who could be descended from WASPs–who doesn’t know what a Protestant is. Robert Baird and Josiah Strong can’t be happy.