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Dmitri Furman, Soviet expert on US Protestantism

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Post 19 Sep 2020, 02:04
Dmitri Furman worked for the US Canada Research Inst. in the USSR. He wrote a book about US Protestants, with deep historic roots going back to the Reformation. Perry Anderson in this long article contrasts his take with Max Weber ... -stood-out

This book he wrote in 1981, and it came out in english in 1988 ... flicts.pdf

. His first book, Religion and Social Conflicts in the USA (1981), focused on the role of Protestantism in American history and society, flanked soon afterwards by an essay on the ideology of the Reformation in early modern Europe. Weber’s Protestant Ethic, written just before and after his trip to the US in 1904, set out to show that the inner-worldly asceticism of Puritan doctrines had been a decisive condition of the rise of capitalism in the West – in effect, though he would later deny this, the critical differentia specifica separating Occidental development from the rest of the world. For Furman, this was too narrow a vision: the implications of the split in Latin Christianity were not merely or even principally economic, but of much broader scope, and the relevant canvas for considering them was not capital as such, but modern bourgeois society as a whole. Where Weber essentially whittled the drive of Protestant theology down to the notion of ‘calling’ – a biographically rooted obsession of his own that he overextended backwards – Furman located its explosive dynamic not in the realm of will, but of knowledge.

Historically, specific to Christianity as a world religion was the extreme ‘anti-formalism’ of the teaching of its founder. Jesus left no written texts, and no more than a handful of parables. Not his preaching, but the miracle of his death and resurrection was the revelation that defined the new faith. Once, however, the community of believers had grown to a point where they encompassed the rulers of the empire, the construction of a universal church required a codification of the faith that over time produced the extreme opposite of its original anti-formalist simplicity – an exceptionally ramified formalisation of doctrine overlaying the artless gospels themselves, its very rigidity at once precautionary lid on a cauldron of primordial impulses still simmering below, and psychological compensation for them. As in every major religion, Furman argued, this formalisation eventually detonated a revolt calling for a return to its initial inspiration. Distinctive of Protestantism was that its turn to the past unlocked a logic of the future. For in rejecting the institutional authority of the church in the name of the scriptures, the Reformers – scholars without charismatic authority, neither saints nor prophets – involuntarily opened the door to their interpretation by anyone.

Epistemologically, the medieval church’s synthesis of ancient philosophical rationalism and Christian mythology had never been entirely stable, but it had supplied a comprehensive account of this world and the next, and the path of the believer from one to the other. Protestantism, in discarding this sophisticated cosmology for the bare letter of the scriptures, was ostensibly regressive. But from its irrational premises issued non-dogmatic conclusions. For since the Bible itself said relatively little about the natural world, empirical science could proceed unchecked by Aristotelian axioms, and since it had even less to say about many problems of contemporary life, a zone of ethical indeterminacy arose, where the individual conscience alone could be the guide – Puritans clinging to a handful of biblical prescriptions with such intensity because they had so few safety rails otherwise. The unwitting result was an immense liberation of human energies, leading in due course to a reconstruction of every sphere of social life. Weber’s conception of the Protestant ethic offered a psychology of the capitalist entrepreneur, but alteration of monetary drives was at best a peripheral aspect of the Reformation. Capitalism itself was a far more complex phenomenon than an economy based on private enterprise, comprising a unitary socioeconomic formation whose relations of production could not exist without forces of production that included new levels of science and technology, popular education, national consciousness, legal and political guarantees of private property.

Protestantism was connected with all these interacting elements. It was enough to think of its insistence that the Bible be translated and read in the vernacular to see its impact on the growth of mass literacy and national identity. Critical in the last resort, however, was its role in enabling the emergence – before factories, laboratories or elections – of a new type of person, trusting his own judgment yet treating his conclusions as fallible and allowing for his own moral errors. This proto-bourgeois individual was the cultural-historical premise for all the processes of capitalist development. Not that the Reformers themselves ever envisaged these. In seeking to give new form to the anti-formal impulses of early Christianity, they could not help repeating in some fashion the trajectory of the Catholic Church, soon dividing in dogmatic disputes themselves. But the crust of their formalisations was much weaker, the magma below it erupting more easily. New sects arose on one side, and sceptical religious indifference on the other. Under dual attack, the Protestant centre could not hold, and toleration arrived.

In the New World, what were the consequences? Furman’s book on the United States offered a detailed empirical sociology of American churches, denominations and sects in the 20th century. Its focus became the hallmark of his comparative work henceforward: the influence of religion on not the economic but the political life of society.10 During his trip to the US, Weber had taken some note of the role of Protestant sects in sustaining civic associations in the country, but it was a passing interest: such springs of active life were doomed, he thought, to be overtaken by the same general processes of bureaucratisation that were proving so relentless in Europe. Furman’s concern was framed very differently. Why, he asked at the outset, had France known four revolutions since the 18th century, and some 15 constitutions, and the United States just one of each? Could religion have something to do with it?

Bourgeois society in America, he argued, had from the beginning combined exceptional dynamism with extreme stability: a combination that could not be understood apart from the peculiar salience of Protestantism in its formation. For, on the one hand, there was the unfettering of a drive for knowledge (Harvard founded within 16 years of the landing of the Mayflower, nine colleges and forty printing presses by 1769, when there were still just two universities in England), yet aversion to abstract thought – practicality becoming the measure of cognition, and success the material sign of it, in an open-ended process of development whose very flexibility insured the social order against shocks to it. On the other hand, there was biblical respect for the immutability of the constitution, treated as if it were not only the law of the land but of the Lord, at once trumping the will of the people and supplying compensation for the emotional emptiness of the revolution, whose tasks were politically limited in a settler society without feudalism or absolutism. This had remained a country still so saturated with religion that at the height of the Cold War more Americans identified communism with atheism than with the abolition of private property. Though officially church and state were separated, the reigning ideology of the nation mingled religious rituals and symbols with secular forms and themes in a promiscuous potpourri whose very lack of clear divisions or borders was permissive of continual economic and social change.
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