The Fall of Protestantism, a Weakening of the West

Andrés Ortega

7 mins - 19 de Enero de 2024, 07:00

Cultural issues, and especially religious issues and the values associated with them, weigh, and indeed have always weighed, on politics and geopolitics. One of them is how classical Protestantism, that of Lutherans and Calvinists, empowered the West, among other things because it encouraged its followers to learn to read, to study the Bible directly, not through the intermediation of the Church as is usually the case among Catholics, and catapulted the values of personal effort and social discipline. It transformed the world, albeit by the hand of a minority in global terms. Max Weber, one of the fathers of sociology, saw this in his most famous work, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905). For the German scholar, religion was a central factor in the development of Western and Eastern cultures. Emmanuel Todd, sociologist, demographer, and historian – one of the most interesting French intellectuals of our times – draws from these roots and concludes in La défaite de l’Occident (2024) that the decline of Protestantism in the United States and the United Kingdom is a central factor in what he does not hesitate to call the “defeat of the West”. He gives a reference date: 2015, the year around which most Western societies approved same-sex marriage.

“As a matter of principle,” Todd explains in line with Weber, “Protestantism makes the populations it controls literate, because all the faithful must have direct access to the Holy Scriptures. A literate population is capable of technological and economic development. The Protestant religion accidentally created a highly efficient workforce”. This traditional Protestantism is at the heart of Western history in two ways: the educational and then economic boom with the Industrial Revolution, colonialism, and imperialism, and the idea that men are unequal, as opposed to a Catholicism that counts for little in this vision of the West, although Todd has analysed it in other works. However, it is worth considering that a new Catholic counter-revolution, as presented a few months ago by the Financial Times, is underway in Europe, or at least in France, Italy, Spain, and Poland, where movements of this kind insist on conservative family values.

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“Protestantism, which largely made the West economically strong, is dead,” Todd argues. A “zero state” of this religious matrix has been reached (other, very different Protestantisms have emerged in the Americas, which Todd does not go into, although they are the ones Trump has cultivated the most). This decline has made the US neither moral nor rational, but “nihilistic”, leading it to cultivate violence. For Todd, “the election of Trump, champion of vulgarity, followed by that of Biden, champion of senility, will have been the apotheosis of this zero state”. Other factors follow, of course, such as the industrial crisis of the West, the end of the nation state, or the end of meritocracy, with the paradoxical inequalities in education at the root of so many social differences.

Todd has written several books with vision. Diving into the sociological and economic underpinnings, especially its infant mortality, he concluded in 1976 (La chute finale) that the Soviet Union was going to collapse. In 2002, in the midst of an apparently unipolar moment, he published After the Empire, on the USA. The study of different family structures - in Russia patrilineality predominates - has always been at the basis of his analyses, and they return in this recent work, one of the conclusions of which is “the ideological loneliness of the West and its ignorance of its own isolation”.

Todd believes that Russia, which he defines as an “authoritarian democracy”, has recovered economically, socially, and industrially (partly thanks to Western sanctions), although its low fertility rate means Putin knows he has only five years to win the war in Ukraine because he cannot afford to mobilise any more. But he sees a stable Russia because the ‘Putin system’ is “a product of Russian history and not the work of one man”. By contrast, “the West is not stable; it is even sick”. The paradox Todd posits is that, even if Russia does not count so much in global stability, “it is Russian military action that will lead to a crisis in the West” (the book is written before the escalating war in the Middle East, though it has an appendix on “American nihilism in the face of the Gaza ordeal”). Now, the West’s defeat comes from within, not from without. It does not mean, however, that Russia will win.

“Questions of morality have acquired a strange importance in international relations,” says the sociologist. They weigh on geopolitics. The introduction of “marriage for all”, according to him, symbolically marks the end of Christianity in a country. 2001 in the Netherlands, 2005 in Spain and Canada, etc., and its generalisation in the US states in 2015.  Today, with its opposition to gay marriage, let alone trans rights, Russia has become a beacon for that other world, “the rest” of what is not the West. “Russia knows that its homophobic and anti-transgender policies, far from alienating other countries in the world, attract many of them. This conscious strategy gives it considerable soft power. The revolutionary soft power of communism has been replaced by the conservative soft power of the Putin era.” And Putin is making good use of this in the lack of support from the “rest” for sanctions against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine. The West is very much on its own. Even that so-called “collective West” in which Europeans are left as vassals of the US. “The West seems to have frozen somewhere between 1990 and 2000, between the fall of the Berlin Wall and a brief moment of omnipotence”. Arguably, Russia or China know where they want to go; the West does not.

This analysis, from which the Eastern culture and awakening is all too absent, is likely to irritate and exasperate the reader. It coincides with some Pew Center surveys, according to which, China aside, the most unbelieving populations are to be found in Europe and, increasingly, in the US. Todd considers that “the progressive implosion of WASP culture - white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant - since the 1960s has created an empire devoid of a centre and a project, an essentially military body led by a group with no culture (in the anthropological sense) of its own. The fundamental values are power and violence”. No Russian crisis destabilises the global balance. “It is a Western crisis, and more specifically a terminal American crisis, that threatens the balance of the planet”. Hence his conclusion that we are “on the eve of a turning point (basculement) in the world”.

From this can be derived another very worrying situation, which Amin Maalouf (Le labyrinthe des égarés : L’Occident et ses adversaires, 2023) takes as his starting point in a review that does include Japan and China. Namely, that “all those who fight against the West and challenge its supremacy, for good or bad reasons, are even more bankrupt than it is”. What, according to the Lebanese writer, makes the present moment particularly serious is that “neither the West nor its many adversaries are capable of pulling humanity out of the labyrinth into which it has got itself”. To the detriment of all. The world is worn, exhausted. Nor does Todd advocate a return to this weakened Protestantism as a solution.
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