Now that the people of Iowa have chosen Republican Mike Huckabee and Democrat Barack Obama as their nominees for president, pundits will spend much of the next few days (until New Hampshire at least) analyzing the results. Many will note religion as an important factor-especially as evangelicals turned out largely for Huckabee.
But evangelicals are not the only religion story from Iowa. Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama represent something much more profound in American politics and religion. With Huckabee as a Southern Baptist and Obama as a member of the United Church of Christ, the two men symbolize the poles of Protestantism, the divided soul of America's majority religion.
In the late 19th century, American Protestantism divided into fundamentalist and modernist camps. In the political realm, fundamentalists believed that personal conversion was the foundation of politics. If Jesus changed individuals, individuals might change society if God so called them. But they more typically shied away from politics as sinful, defining it as an essentially hopeless enterprise. They eschewed social change in favor of a kind of feisty Jesus-centered ethics of personal responsibility, private prayer, and morality. They bemoaned the possibility of political change without being born again.
Modernist Protestants argued that politics existed as part of larger social structures-economic, social, and class systems. These structures were corrupted by sin and injustice. Yet, they could be transformed through human goodness and God's justice. Instead of emphasizing individual morality, modernist Protestants extolled a political theology of the common good regardless of personal faith. As a result, they stressed hope, change, and the future in their politics-and its communal emphasis tended to resonate with African-American Protestants.
During the last century, these two visions have gone through several historical permutations. However, they continue to shape American Protestantism. As a Southern Baptist, Huckabee emphasizes Christian conversion, personal morality, and individual character. Obama, as part of a liberal denomination, articulates the communal vision of progressive Protestantism, appealing to human goodness, optimism, and social justice. Whereas Huckabee speaks of the "zeal" of individuals to "do the right thing" and act heroically, Obama preaches on "building a coalition" to transform the nation through innovation and creating a new global community. They are replaying, in dynamic new voices, an old disagreement in American religion.
The Iowa winners represent the two major traditions of Protestant political theology. If Huckabee and Obama wind up as presidential nominees, it would be the first time since the Great Protestant Divide that candidates so clearly articulated these two versions of religion and politics-and so clearly have the opportunity to reshape an old argument. Although it is far too early to make such predictions, the next election could be a referendum on the Protestant political soul.
Diana Butler Bass (www.dianabutlerbass.com) is one of Sojourners' Red-Letter Christians and the author of six books, including Christianity for the Rest of Us: How the Neighborhood Church is Transforming the Faith (HarperOne, 2006).