Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Evolution of Religion, Politics and Law: Back to the Future?

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            The Enlightenment of the 17th century was a major turning point in the evolution of religion, politics and law in the Western world.  It was initiated by advances in knowledge and reason, and it transformed a politics based on the sovereignty of God and the divine right to rule into a politics based on the sovereignty of man and governed by the libertarian concepts of democracy and human rights.     

            The Roman Catholic Church was the source of political legitimacy in the Western world until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century opened the door to change.  The seemingly endless medieval religious wars were testimony to the dominance of religion in politics until the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648 superseded the sovereignty of God with Hugo Grotius’ concept of national sovereignty that paved the way for international law, democracy and human rights.

            Martin Luther was the most influential theologian of the Reformation.  He was a “Renaissance-era disruptor” whose subversive ideas were given wide-spread coverage through a new means of social media (the printing press).  Alec Ryrie has compared Luther with Donald Trump.  It is a useful, if far-fetched, comparison of two men of power who shared egocentric and authoritarian personality traits, and who were hostile to those who criticized them. 

            Like Trump, Luther was audacious enough to challenge the dominant power structure of his day, the Roman Catholic Church, and he did so using vulgar language and crude tactics.  And like Trump, Luther demanded unquestioned loyalty.  He used political alliances with secular rulers to deny any Protestants who questioned his rigid Lutheran doctrines the same freedom to dissent that he had demanded for himself when he challenged rigid Catholic doctrines.

            Ryrie noted that Luther would not likely have identified himself with Trump, but instead identified Trump with Henry VIII, a contemporary secular despot who, like Trump, used religion to promote his personal ambitions:

Henry VIII was a man who combined narcissistic self-importance, bearish charisma, intellectual laziness, a throwaway attitude toward women, a degree of real shrewdness that he himself persistently overestimated, and a lack of any sustained interest in the nitty-gritty of government. A man who first struck a very public pose against the Lutheran cause when it suited him politically and who performed a 180-degree turn a few years later. His new Protestant allies never quite trusted him, but they couldn’t resist the opportunities he offered them. Only a handful of lonely figures in England, bolstered from afar by Luther himself, stayed true to their Never Henry principles.

            Luther, Henry VIII and Trump mixed religion and politics to promote their power and then used their power to oppress dissidents.  In Luther’s day, religious and political power were virtually indistinguishable.  In our day, Trump and his Christian evangelical supporters have sought to replicate that volatile mix of religious and political power.  In so doing they may have unintentionally initiated a new Reformation—or revolution—in both religion and politics.

            Could Trump—or any populist despot for that matter—take America back to the future?  Ryrie suggests that’s possible if the populist despot can find a person “…like a Cardinal Wolsey or Thomas Cromwell…who can be left alone to manage the business of government capably while his boss looks after the show business and takes the credit.  That has happened in U.S. politics at the state and local level, so it’s not hard to imagine at the national level.

            The Enlightenment changed the trajectory of history in the Western world with the libertarian concepts of democracy and human rights.  But democracy is not enough.  Liberty and justice for all depends on human rights to protect minorities from a tyranny of the majority.  Our Founding Fathers knew that, but recent presidents have been ambiguous in promoting human rights, and President Trump has been even more inconsistent than his predecessors.

            Fared Zakaria has characterized Trump’s refusal to promote human rights as “a step back to a not-so-liberal world order.”  It is little consolation that Nikki Haley, U.S. ambassador to the UN, has railed against nations on the UN Human Rights Council for ignoring human rights when the U.S. no longer promotes them.  Until the priority of human rights is restored in U.S. foreign policy, the evolution of religion, politics and law could well move back to the future.

Notes and related commentary:

The seminal work of Hugo Grotius On the Law of War and Peace (1625) set the stage for the sovereignty of man to replace the sovereignty of God following the Treaty of Westphalia (1648).  Grotius introduced the concept of national sovereignty governed by international law.

On Lawrence Summers’ view that the U.S. has experienced “a hinge in history,” moving from 75 years of progress in human betterment to a period of regression based on the inept and counterproductive actions of a post-rational, unpredictable and unreliable president.  See

On freedom and human rights as an integral component of U.S. foreign policy, and comparing the record of President Reagan on freedom in foreign policy with that of President Trump, see

On the inconsistency of Trump’s selective focus on human rights, see

On God and country: resolving conflicting concepts of sovereignty, see

On religion, human rights and national security, see

On liberty in law: a matter of man’s law not God’s law, see

On the evolution of religion and politics from oppression to freedom, see

On irreconcilable differences and the demise of democracy, see


  1. The comparison between Trump and Henry VIII is intriguing. I suspect that Henry was more politically savvy, though. Henry didn't need even the semblance of the consent of the governed, but Trump does. An unpopular King of England is still King of England. An unpopular president loses power fast. That's why I have hope that the future of American democracy can still be very bright.

  2. You're right about kings and politicians, Jon, but Trump (and other billionaires) are more like kings than politicians. They can be unpopular and still be billionaires. What bothers me most is that after more than 5 months in office almost 40% of our electorate still consider Trump to be their political messiah.

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