WASHINGTON -- We are overwhelmed every day by stories about religions on the margins of the American experience.
But there is one religion we almost never see in the news these days. And this is not only strange but also demands some thoughtful appraisal. That religion is Protestantism.
It was unquestionably Protestants who founded the United States. It was Protestant virtues that laid the basis for democracy, for capitalism and for modern science.
Indeed, the Protestant idea has so influenced the modern world that some of the greatest world leaders -- think Nelson Mandela, a Methodist, and Angela Merkel, a Lutheran -- are and have been profoundly Protestant. Or, little known, that the great Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., originally known as "Little Mike," was renamed in 1934 after his Baptist pastor father traveled to Germany and was inspired by the Reformation and the works of Martin Luther.
But the deafening silence in America about Protestantism's founding principles becomes even more paradoxical when we realize that this month marks the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, when the German Augustinian monk Martin Luther tacked his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. It was on Oct. 31, 1517, that Luther challenged a corrupt and unfeeling papacy, opening that door and infinite others to the light and the complexities of the modern age.
Yet I have seen exactly two print articles about the anniversary and no coverage on television. The only exhibits I have heard about are in Minnesota -- nothing here in Washington where, as we know, nothing is ignored accidentally.
So how can it be that the actions of the German monk, who intended only to start a disputation about the Vatican's excesses, the most tiresomely cited one being the selling of "indulgences" to oil your way through Purgatory, are being so ignored? And why?
True, the mainline Protestant churches are losing members, but why should that stop genuine observations of history by those who remain? At the same time, evangelicals, Mormons and Pentecostals (who now can boast a 10th of humanity and a quarter of all Christians) are increasing worldwide.
One problem is there is no overall institutional voice for Protestants and no dominant Protestant thinker, such as the great Reinhold Niehbuhr. But the problem is more complex than mere institutions.
To my mind, mainline Protestants, perhaps silenced by the political correctness that disdains any praise of the American past, seem to be embarrassed, even ashamed, of their success. In contrast to the old missionaries who wanted to bring values to a benighted world, today's Protestants are guiltily overwhelmed with memories of a slavery long gone in America, while evangelical Protestants have been obsessed with single issues such as abortion and gay rights.
Around the world it is the original principles that Protestants are adopting. In still "communist" China, Protestants now number between 50 and 100 million and are respected for their moral uprightness. South Korean Protestants constitute almost a national church. In Africa, Protestantism is booming, and in expert discussions one increasingly hears that Muslim countries are doing poorly because Islam "needs a Reformation."
What did Martin Luther -- a brilliant man, stubborn in his principles, a man who most enjoyed good discussion and a pint of beer -- really teach? At a time when the Latin Bible was permitted to be read only by Catholic priests, Luther translated it into German, which everybody could read, to bring ordinary people "closer to God." The Scriptures bound him, he said, because "my conscience is captive to the Word of God."
Destiny stepped in at the same time with Gutenberg's invention of the printing press, and by 1524, there were 990 different books in print in Germany, 90 percent of them by Luther and his followers. More than 100,000 copies of his German translation of the Bible were in circulation by the time of his death.
One thing is certain: From Luther's time on, human beings from all ends of the Earth were freer, more daring, more innovative, more bold and more joyful in their faith. The great German sociologist Max Weber, at the turn of the 20th century, wrote famously and persuasively of a "Protestant ethic" whose work ethic, efficiency and readiness to risk for a better future underlay free enterprise, representative government and the pursuit of science.
In a remarkable book published for the 500th anniversary of Luther's Theses in Wittenberg, "Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World," historian and pastor Alec Ryrie wrote of this faith: "It is that old love affair: a direct encounter with God's power, whether as a lived experience, a memory or a hope. ... It is through that promise to change lives that Protestantism has changed the world."
So why the silence in America? One need not demean other faiths to proclaim your own. Indeed, why -- when a weary world full of the poor and suffering is waiting with ever greater impatience for exactly the virtues and values of these people and their "love affair" with God?