I was reminded of this not long ago when I read the oft quoted but so far unascribed but pithy observation: “America is such a Protestant country…even the [Roman] Catholics are Protestant.” If this was true of Roman Catholics, it was even more true of Eastern Christians. The Byzantine liturgy is not simply foreign to America but alien to most of the cultures of those who immigrated to America. It remains a tradition somewhat cloaked in mystery to most Americans. The curious iconostasis raises questions to Americans accustomed to an upfront and rather transparent form of worship. What goes on behind those walls? The odd vesture, the lack of pews, the many candles, the icons themselves, and the sound of the chant all combine to make it clear to any American who wanders in, "Toto, we are not in Kansas anymore." Yet even the various jurisdictions of Orthodoxy have left the safety and comfort of neighborhoods and disbursed more than most could have imagined.
Lutherans were also strangers in a strange land. The beer halls contributed to the rise of the Temperance Movement and with that a rather typical condemnation of things German. Two world wars did not help. But Lutherans found it safe to be a little less Lutheran in their venture to the American landscape. So much was this accommodation to the resident culture that when others came to America they condemned the Lutherans who had gone before as Lutheran in name only. CFW Walther was one but not the only voice suggesting that Lutherans had tilted too far to the side of Protestantism. While it was also true of the Scandinavians, they assimilated more easily than the Germans while retaining a bit more of their Lutheran appearance than some others.
The problem in all of this is that the Protestant forms have prevailed. Even Roman Catholics suffer from a tendency to see dogma as choices in a smorgasbord of truth and what binds is less a common set of beliefs than it is a common tradition and common affinity for the Pope. Visit any typical Roman Catholic congregation today and you will hear the mighty hymn of the Reformation and pop-Gospel more than chant, a praise band that mirrors contemporary Christian music more than the organ, and spoken liturgy more than chanted. Lutherans say they have not abolished the mass but it might be hard to find a Lutheran to defend that proposition today. Lutherans prefer Protestant terms like the Lord's Supper to mass or Eucharist and, even though we use Divine Service I am not sure our people get why. It is not for lack of teaching but for the press of American culture and its Protestant shape. The larger the Lutheran congregation and the more likely you will find there a praise band and music from the Protestant playlist more often than a Lutheran chorale.
So it is no wonder that there are arguments from folks reading this blog. They probably grew up in the period in which Lutherans were more comfortable in their Protestant skin than in the catholic clothing of their Augsburg Confession. I grew up in that era as well. I watched my home congregation and pastor shift from a quarterly Holy Communion to monthly and then twice monthly and then on the fifth Sundays and festival days as well. I saw my home pastor move from the Geneva gown to cassock surplice and stole to alb and now occasionally chasuble. However, it is more typical to presume these to be personal affectations of the pastor than representative of Lutheran identity. What bound us together was the Small Catechism but as congregations have used other materials to supplement or even replace the Catechism, even this common focus of belief and prayer is either weakened or missing entirely. It is as if Lutherans tolerate the liturgy more than embrace it and perhaps Walther would criticize our forebearers as much as he berated the Lutherans he found in America in the 1840s and beyond.
My meandering thought today is that the Protestant ethos is so deeply rooted in us that no matter how hard we are pressed to acknowledge our catholic identity, it is a difficult idea to sell. Still. And if Rome has become the Protestant Catholic Church in America, it would be strange for us to try and steal their thunder. We are not sure what to do with the Orthodox, so, I guess we will continue to be a church of many colors, mostly red, white, and blue.