Around the time of the Kennedy-Nixon campaign in 1960, I had a brief, adolescent fling with a girl who was both Irish and Roman Catholic. I'm Protestant and not Irish. In the northeast of that time ethnicity and religion mattered a lot, so we were pioneers of ecumenism. We had a little fun together until the subject of religion came up. As I recall it ricocheted off her parents' infatuation with JFK.
She said it was "easy" to be a Protestant because we had so few religious requirements, and hard to be Catholic because they had a lot. She intimated that I would probably go to Hell. I knew a little about Catholicism, so I let her have it. Protestantism was hard, I said, because we didn't have the escape hatch of Confession, or Hail Mary's, Purgatory for the semi-bad, Limbo for infants or any "mumbo-jumbo" - a poor choice of words. I lied that we Protestants encountered God face to face, without intermediaries.
That pretty much ended our relationship, and not much later I had a fistfight with her Italian cousin because she reported my heresies to him. I resented that, but I wasn't surprised. To be clear, I didn't get my opinions at home. My parents were largely prejudice-free. I'm pretty sure that I just picked them up, in the post-war ethnic hothouse of old industrial Connecticut.
There were also some hard facts in my head, like my horror at an open-casket, Catholic wake I attended in 1959, for one of our football players who died of a brain injury suffered in a game. The kid was Polish. He lay in his coffin with a white linen cap covering his shaved head and surgery scars. Rosary Beads were coiled around his hands.
His wake, what we Protestants call "viewing" or "visiting hours", was scary, with lots of praying, sobbing, bead-fondling, kneeling, crossing, and prolonged painful viewing of the body. Protestant visiting hours were as they should be, with visitors as apparently dead as the deceased, and quieter than a catnip mouse.
There was also a nunnery in our town, at the Italian parish on the east side. It sent squads, platoons, companies of nuns to the Saturday streets, looking for any of my Catholic schoolmates who might be in line for a banned movie, or smoking a cigarette; swearing near the open windows of the YMCA gym, or in a variety store browsing the mags.
And there was the Friday fish thing, First Communions, Confirmations, the secretive CYO and the fey priests at Little League games. Protestants had none of this. We were free to smoke, swear, watch horror films, read "Cavalier", sit during the Doxology and lose a baseball game manfully, without consoling prayers.
I moved away from there, and learned much later that my girlfriend was radicalized by the ethical sham and humanist platitudes of The Age of Aquarius. She went off to some precious ladies' college up north. If I wonder who she's making miserable today, she was right about Protestantism then. It was easy; even easier now.
The "mainstream" Protestant churches in the suburbs of my old home town offer an insipid poster-art Christianity. Denominations no longer matter, because having nothing controversial to assert, they agree on everything and cook up a bland theological slurry to feed victimized groups rather than plainly ministering to sinful individuals.
The old forms of self-disciplined, personal Protestant belief are preserved by the members of independent churches, some of whom I know and respect, and most of whom (as I was), are Baptists. Attend a service in one of their little building-block sanctuaries and you hear none of the cant that dilutes The Gospels for temporizing clerics and ambivalently repentant sinners. They refuse to make it easy, and I admire them for it.
The old urban American Gothic Protestant churches are about all gone now. The uptown, white-steeple Protestant churches hang on, but like Anglicanism, their days are numbered. And lo, the urban parishes of Italian, Polish, Irish, Latino (and others)Catholic churches are still there and thriving. They've outlasted several architectural cycles, countless assaults by the world, liberalism, Guido Sarducci, Pope-on-a-rope-soap, priesthood scandals, and some have revived the Latin Mass. They labored on, in spite of the odds, and their flocks kept coming.
I've been thinking about this a lot. In this world, the penalty for spiritual sloth is your own cold, indestructible rationalism. You're free of religion but imprisoned by your ego. In the next world, if you're lucky, the mild penalty is just non-existence; if you're not lucky, it's Judgement Day. During his lifetime, the morally apathetic man will, if he's lucky, be simply superseded and not conquered by enemies who will subdue him without breaking a sweat. You don't prevail by just sticking around. I was lucky to have been superseded by devout Catholics and anti-establishment Protestants. It could be a lot worse.