Saturday, September 30, 2017

The 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation: What Does It Mean Today?

   By Rudy Barnes, Jr.

            This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.  It’s a good time to reflect on how that watershed event shaped our religion, politics and culture.  The Reformation did not liberate Christians from religious oppression in Europe.  In fact, it exacerbated religious oppression with sectarian wars that did not end until the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648.

            It was then that Europeans, exhausted with religious war, accepted the concept of secular sovereignty.  It was the precursor of the Enlightenment, with its democracy, human rights and the secular rule of law.  They were political concepts that originated in natural law and reason, not in religion, and they superseded the political sovereignty of God with the sovereignty of man.

            The real transforming power of the Reformation was not in the Protestant theology of Luther or Calvin, but in the power of the printing press.  It made the Bible available to the public and freed people from the dictates of the Church, and it allowed them to question the divine right to rule.   But it did not prevent religious war from ravaging Europe for almost 130 years.  It would be the end of the 18th century before democracy became a political reality.

            Thomas Jefferson was a child of the Enlightenment who drafted the Declaration of Independence and promoted the religious freedom enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.  Jefferson was inspired by John Locke (1632-1704), who assisted the Lord’s Proprietors of Carolina to draft a Fundamental Constitution in 1669 that provided, “neither pagan nor Mohometan nor Jew ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth because of his religion.”

            But Jefferson was a slaveholder, and the political freedoms of the Enlightenment were initially limited to white men in America.  It would take a Civil War that cost more American lives than all its wars since, and then two Constitutional Amendments (the Thirteenth in 1865 and the Nineteenth in 1920) before political liberty was extended to blacks and women.

            The Enlightenment marked the end of religious war and the dominance of religion in politics in Europe, but it did not bring peace to America.  Religion was a dominant factor in the Civil War, especially in the South where it defended slavery; and since then religion has been a major factor in American culture, politics and military crusades—often at the expense of reason.

            Religion, reason and political freedom have a symbiotic relationship.  Freedom allows immorality, and laws cannot eliminate immorality without curtailing freedom.  Moral decadence and radical religion in America have challenged both reason and the purpose and power of Christianity.  The test of any religion is whether its followers choose to obey the moral dictates of their faith when they are free to disobey them.  And Christianity has failed that test.

            For Jews, Christians and Muslims the greatest commandment to love God and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves—including our neighbors of other races and religions—is a common word of faith.  That moral imperative of faith cannot be enforced by law, and it did not prevent Christian Americans from going to war against each other; and since that Civil War it hasn’t prevented other misguided military crusades or reduced moral decadence in America.
            Unlike Europe, America never experienced a religious reformation, but America is a religious nation that needs to restore reason to its religion, politics and culture.  Radical religion and politics threaten the demise of democracy.  On the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, new innovations in communicating ideas, like the printing press over 500 years ago, could and should stimulate a new and needed reformation of our religion and our politics.     


Alan Wolfe has predicted the merger of Christianity and other religions in Western democracies with the secular libertarian values of the Enlightenment, and projected that Islam will follow suit.  In And the Winner Is…the Coming Religious Peace (The Atlantic, March 2008), Wolfe noted that The Protestant Reformation of 1517 quickly engulfed half of Europe, migrated to the New World, and…by 1618, the Thirty Years’ War had begun, resulting in the devastation of large swaths of western Europe and the death of some 30 percent of Germany’s population. Every new outburst of religious passion, while producing ecstasy and revelation for some, had disrupted established loyalties, fueled intolerance, and led to violence between the chosen and the damned.
Looking to the future, Wolfe referred to a recent cover story in The Economist, titled “The New Wars of Religion,” that proclaimed, “Faith will unsettle politics everywhere this century.”
Things have changed since Wolfe’s article in 2008.  While religion has indeed unsettled politics everywhere this century, it has not been in the way that Wolfe envisioned it.  In predicting a coming religious peace, Wolfe opined that …breathless warnings about rising religious fervor and conflicts to come ignore two basic facts. First, many areas of the world are experiencing a decline in religious belief and practice. Second, where religions are flourishing, they are also generally evolving—very often in ways that allow them to fit more easily into secular societies, and that weaken them as politically disruptive forces.The most important phenomenon in the United States. is…the creation and spread of a free religious marketplace which …revives religious devotion wherever it reaches, but also tends to moderate the religions offered within it.  Wolfe went on to say that American evangelicalism is becoming less hostile to liberal ideas such as tolerance and pluralism.  Political events since 2008 have proved Wolfe wrong in predicting that religious revivals will lead the United States to a coming religious peace, unless the elections of Donald Trump and Roy Moore are considered moving in the direction of peace.  See

Kurt Andersen has a presented a more dire—and fantastical—picture of religion in Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (Random House, 2017).  Andersen sees the Reformation as allowing Protestants to reject the Vatican and start their own religion, then reject that religion and “start their own new religions again and again.”  Then “The Enlightenment liberated people to believe anything whatsoever…and in the marketplace of ideas, [it was assumed that] reason would win.”  Andersen contradicts Wolfe in noting that reason never did win in this religious and political free-for-all in the marketplace of ideas, and he cites Emanuel Kant’s explanation that religion is burdened by questions “it is not able to ignore, but which…it is also unable to answer.”  Today the fantastical mystical doctrines of religion continue to trump more practical moral doctrines (pages 52, 53).  It should be noted that Andersen’s book emphasizes the fantastical (mystical) side of religion and does not address its moral imperatives.

In reviewing Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not, Christopher Kissane of The Guardian considered Rubin’s view of the Reformation (and the printing press) in Europe, and how it related to Islamic culture:
The driving motivation of most rulers is not ideology or to do good, but to maintain and strengthen their hold on power: “to propagate their rule”. This requires “coercion” – the ability to enforce power – and, crucially, some form of “legitimacy”. In the medieval world, both Islamic and Christian rulers claimed part of their legitimacy from religious authorities, but after the Reformation, Rubin thinks that European governments had to turn away from religion as a source of political legitimacy.
…Islamic rulers, by contrast, continued to rely on religious legitimation and economic interests were mostly excluded from politics, leading to governance that focused on the narrow interests of sultans, and the conservative religious and military elites who backed them.
…The source of Europe’s success, then, lies in the Reformation, a revolution in ideas and authority spread by what Martin Luther called “God’s highest and ultimate gift of grace”: the printing press.
…Europe’s long reformations were more a maze than a path. As Rubin notes, “getting religion (mostly) out of politics took centuries” – centuries of radical social upheaval and destructive warfare. He argues persuasively for the importance of both religion and secularization in economic history, but religious change affected not just politics but culture and ideas.

On Thomas Jefferson’s role in drafting the Declaration of Independence and promoting the Freedom of Religion in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, see Jon Meacham, Thomas Jefferson: The Art of Power, (2012, Random House), Part III. 
On a Fundamental Constitution drafted for the colony of Carolina by John Locke in 1669 that provided a measure of religious freedom, see James Lowell Underwood, The Dawn of Religious Freedom in South Carolina (2006, University of South Carolina Press), at pages 2-4.

On how social media and the internet have transformed American politics (much like the printing press), and how Steve Jobs gave us Donald Trump, see

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(12/15/14): Faith and Freedom
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(1/18/15): Love over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy
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(1/23/16): Who Is My Neighbor?
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