When we study the roots of Protestantism, we find that it the product of the dialectic between liberal values and conservatism. At the heart of this great theological confrontation was a political debate. When Martin Luther posted his famous 99 theses on the doorsteps of the Catholic Church, his was an act of rebellion against perceived authoritarianism by the extant official order. The theses were based on commonsensical criticism of the flaws and excesses accrued by the Catholic tradition. (Morgan, 2002, p.56) One could consider the theses to be an early modern political document, second only in historical import to the Magna Carta.
As Schofield Clark observes, the founding principles of Protestantism have led to the Protestantization of modern societies. Take say, the value of individualism. (Clark, 2002, p.8) It is a value that is strongly equated to advanced industrial societies. The concept is used in Occidental discourse as the opposing principle to collectivism, which is said to represent the Orient. While most liberal democracies portray this value as a political ideal, nowhere is it more celebrated than in the USA. The much cherished national idea of the ‘American Dream’ is founded on the concept of right to own property, one of the legislative provisions that resonate with the individualistic ethos. More importantly, this contemporary manifestation of individualism can be traced back to Martin Luther’s plea to the Catholic Church, whereby he make a claim to eschew elaborate ritualized liturgy. In its place, according to Luther, should be a more direct interaction between God and individual through the medium of the sacred text.
Likewise, the rights for freedom of expression and freedom of choice that we take for granted today, have had their origins in the Protestant Reformation. In Luther’s milieu, it meant foremost the freedom of the individual to ‘interpret’ the holy text as is cognizable to the faithful. This principle was promoted in critique of the role of official clergy, who had taken upon the role of sole arbiters of the divine word. Breaking away from this stifling tradition, Protestantism reinforced the primacy of the connection between God and the faithful. (Silk, 1995, p.36) It achieved this by giving believers the freedom to own, read and interpret the Bible as they see fit. It also includes the freedom to inquiry using God endowed intellectual faculties (intellectual inquiry). The freedoms we enjoy as consumers or as citizens today can thus be called Protestantization of law and culture. Moreover, by emphasizing that all religious experience as belonging to the realm of the individual, Protestantism paved the way for modern democracy, with attendant structures in the form of elections and vote franchise.
Pluralism and tolerance can be seen as two sides of the same coin. Underlying both these principles is political liberalism and the famous maxim – ‘separation of Church and State’. (Morgan, 2002, p.56)
Hence I would strongly agree with Schofield Clark’s theory of protestantization of contemporary culture. In the manifestations of values of currency such as individualism, freedom, tolerance, pluralism, democracy and intellectual inquiry, we see the presence of Protestant ethic. The fact that the political and business elite dominate most Western societies is a significant factor towards this end. Yet, the innate merits of each of these Protestant values are what sustain their existence in the meme pool of our culture. The sheer presentation of logic and numerous concrete examples makes me agree with Clark’s thesis connecting Protestantism and Protestantization.
Protestantization in secular media:
a. Media: Citibank (Television); Specific cultural value(s): Protestant work ethic, democracy, pluralism;
Representation: The readily identified values of the Protestant work ethic are built into the slogan ‘the citi never sleeps’. The ad attempts to showcase the bank’s work culture as steeped in hard work and perseverance. A collage of busy urban life is shown through the visuals just as the voiceover proudly announces the culture of hard work and enterprise inherent to America. The people shown in the collage of shots are drawn from various racial groups, representing the cosmopolitan urban America, of which Citibank has become a ubiquitous symbol.
b. Media: The IBM e-Server i-Series ad (Television); Specific Cultural Values: intellectual inquiry;
Representation: The ad in question shows a junior executive giving a duo of top managers a presentation on building their server systems. The young man, obviously ignorant of the prowess of IBM i-Series servers, prepares an elaborate configuration of servers to meet the various needs of the organization. Finding his ignorance hilarious, the two experienced managers covertly decide to bring in the rest of the team, so that they can share the hilarity. This ad shows America’s love affair with technology and how its culture is shaped by advances in technology. It is no surprise that the Silicon Valley serves as the epi-center of this Protestant tradition of intellectual inquiry.
c. Media: Presidential Campaign of Barack Obama (Print); Specific Cultural Values: pluralism, democracy;
Representation: President Obama is seen giving a broad smile and his body language exudes optimism. The accompanying slogan reads ‘Yes, We Can’. In the run up to the 2008 Presidential Elections, Mr. Obama was on the cusp of becoming the first black President. Obama’s eventual victory was widely interpreted by commentators as a victory for America’s pluralism. It was seen as a watermark event in the backdrop of the country’s chequered racial equality record.
d. Media: Mad Men (Television series); Specific Cultural Values: individualism, freedom;
Representation: This popular TV series deals with the world of advertising industry in 1960s America. The 60s were a heady mix of hip hop culture, liberal political movements and gender and racial emancipation. All these socio-cultural changes were encapsulated in various episodes of the series. In particular, the soaring business ambitions of the ad executives represent the values of individualism and freedom. Although the 60s were depicted as a vice prone era in American history, they also exemplified the Protestant ethic in quotidian life.
e. Media: Schindler’s List (Movie); Specific Cultural Values: tolerance, pluralism, intellectual inquiry;
Representation: This is an odd choice for representing American media, for the country was not directly affected by the Holocaust. Yet, the success and popularity of the film in America proved that its citizens share compassion towards the victims. That the director Steven Spielberg is himself a Jew is a testament to America’s growing reputation for religious and cultural tolerance. Moreover, it is important to note that the Third Reich commanded by Adolf Hitler was on good terms with the Catholic Church even during the peak of the atrocities. This can be construed as a veiled proclamation of the origins of Protestantism. The fact that modern audiences could relate to this viewpoint points to the Protestantization of contemporary culture.
f. Media: Coca-Cola Ad (Print); Specific Cultural Values: freedom, democracy;
Representation: This is a classic World War I newspaper advertisement of Coca-Cola. The ad is rich in symbolism and tinged with nationalistic sentiment. The American soldiers engaged in the torrid conditions of trench warfare were given a steady supply of Coca-Cola to refresh and renew their energies. Thus the consumption of Coke was showcased to be both utilitarian and patriotic. The fact that victory in war would save the nation’s democratic values and civil liberties was tied into the message. In this fashion Protestantism was integrated into advertisement messages from the early decades of the twentieth century.
The examples from popular media given above only reinforce the concept of Protestantization of society and culture. I encountered no undue difficulty in locating the six media examples in support of my tentative thesis. If my initial choice of arguing ‘for’ the said proposition was one taken on educated surmise, I felt more and more confident about the choice with each media example. Moreover, the chosen examples are straight from popular mainstream culture. Mad Men had won several Emmy awards. Likewise Schindler’s List bagged several Oscars and acquired international acclaim as well. Hence there is no scope for criticism that the choice of media was selective and orchestrated toward satisfying the thesis. Besides, I would even venture to say that Protestanization could be evidenced in any random selection of six media examples.
In a similar vein, the print media ads of Coca-Cola and President Obama made me realize the wide reach of Protestantization. While the former is a sugary syrup drink whose promotion was purely for commercial profit, the latter is the most important democratic exercise for the country. That such disparate and remotely connected endeavours were seeped in Protestantism has convinced me of how central its ethos has become. Conversely, it has demonstrated how, far from being a theological mission, Protestantism is essentially a set of progressive-liberal political values. These values include pluralism, tolerance, freedom, democracy, intellectual inquiry and individualism that thrive in mainstream culture today. The three exercises carried out hereby underscore the validity of Schofield Clark’s theory of Protestantization.
Readings from Course:
Schofield Clark, Lynn. “Overview: The “Protestantization” of Research into Media, Religion, and Culture.” Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media. Eds. Stewart M. Hoover and Lynn Schofield Clark. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 7-33. Print.
Silk, Mark. “The Phantom of Secularism.” Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1995. 33-46. Print.
Morgan, David. “Protestant Visual Practice and American Mass Culture,” Practicing Religion in the Age of the Media. Eds. Stewart M. Hoover and Lynn Schofield Clark. New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. 37-62. Print.
Chosen Media Items:
IBM iServer eSeries Ad, retrieved from < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kWN0MMUbfH0>. Web. 15th October 2014.
“Yes, We Can”, President Obama Presidential Campaign Ad, retrieved from < http://eng.hebus.com/image-216895.html> . Web. 15th October 2014.
Steven Spielberg et al, “Schindler’s List” (Feature Film), Produced by Amblin Entertainment, Distributed by Universal Pictures: 1993, United States
Matthew Weiner, “Mad Men” (Television Series), Produced by Warner Bros, Silvercup Studios et al, 2007-2014, United States
“Howdy, Friend”, Coca Cola Ad, First published in 1916, retrieved from < http://www.vintageadbrowser.com/coke-ads-1940s/4>. Web. 15th October 2014.
“Citi Never Sleeps”, Citibank Ad, retrieved from < http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2s_lVOCfUXQ>. Web. 15th October 2014.