The Magazine

What Luther Wrought

Protestant Europe and the invention of the modern world.

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By JAY WEISER
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The Reformation shows the power of ideas. After Luther questioned the received verities, other thinkers--and dynasts and peasants--began following the logic wherever it led. Four centuries later, referring to the equally potent Communist and fascist ideologies of the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes said, "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." In the Reformation, this was exemplified by the Anabaptist Jan of Leiden, a butcher (or tailor) who took over the German city of Münster in 1534, proclaimed himself king, and took as many as 22 young wives. When the forces of order, appalled by his excesses, retook the city the following year, there was massive slaughter.

Luther's intellectual explosion led to an enforced rationalization of thought. Both Reformation and Counter-Reformation were intimately tied to state power, which led, after the mid-16th-century War of the Peace of Augsburg destroyed Charles V's dream of a universal Catholic monarchy, to the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (he who rules, his religion). As part of the rationalization, theologians required subjects to be drilled in appropriate beliefs. These catechisms are now associated with Catholicism, but Catholics in fact borrowed the concept, and sometimes the text (uncredited, of course), from Lutherans.

This push for consistency ultimately led to the Enlightenment--but before that, to vengefulness against those who would not comply. The Reformation was the golden age of burnings at the stake and persecutions of witches, both particularly favored by Catholics. Protestants, in turn, executed homosexuals with particular vigor. And many of the tribunes of the new, rationalized religion--Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, Erasmus, and Luther himself--were virulent anti-Semites, though within Italy's papal states, most popes continued their historic policy of protecting their Jewish population.

For those who refused to comply with local religious demands, there were state-ordered executions, or expulsions on threat of death. The Reformation generated hundreds of thousands of (mainly Protestant) refugees who refused religious conversion.

In the quests of Catholics and Calvinists for religious domination, the Reformation also teaches the power of exhaustion. The "long, twilight struggle" of the Cold War lasted a year less than the 44-year reign of Queen Elizabeth, who herself was a blip on an island at the edge of Europe during the two centuries of Reformation wars. By the early 18th century, the ideological fires were banked, even though Austria's Habsburgs continued to persecute Protestants for another 50 years.

Finally, the Reformation teaches the power of fragmentation. Even in the medieval period, Western culture was fragmented, with princes holding secular power and religious power concentrated in the Catholic Church. But the Reformation produced waves of Protestant sects seeking godliness in their own ways. Lutherans and Calvinists were joined by Anabaptists (the ancestors of today's Mennonites and Baptists), Quakers, and, in the 18th century, Methodists. This became a paradoxical source of strength. While Calvinists spearheaded the early phases of the Dutch Revolt, and dominated the Roundhead side in the English Civil War, they lacked the numbers and economic clout to impose a centralized theology in those countries.

That same fragmentation prevailed when the two countries planted their colonies. While there were established churches in North America in the 17th century, massive immigration meant that no denomination could prevail in the American stew, to the point where MacCulloch argues that the United States--the last religious country in the West, and a source of constant religious innovation--is the true heir to the Reformation. The path to Madison's Federalist 10, on the virtues of counterbalancing factions, was laid.

Even Catholics were less unitary than their Counter-Reformation theology suggested, with new or revitalized orders like the Jesuits, Jansenists, Capuchins, and Discalced Carmelites reaching out into the world to spread their vision of the truth, and often running into conflict with established authorities. The Catholic French monarchy fought for centuries against the equally Catholic Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. The hostility was so deep that, as neither book emphasizes, one of the Catholic monarchies was usually allied with Protestants against the other monarchy, even while continuing to persecute Protestants at home. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church and the Habsburg monarch were centralizing forces that arrayed themselves against modernity--the proscription against Galileo's contention that the earth moved around the sun in 1633 being only the most famous example. Even in the late 19th century, Rome regarded democracy as a heresy, and in our era, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with their absolutist views of papal power, are worthy successors to the Counter-Reformation tradition.

The tangled, bloody history of the Reformation should give pause to those calling for an Islamic Reformation today. As Collinson notes, Islam has already had its Reformation. It was called Wahhabism--the militant 18th-century back-to-the-pure-faith movement with similarities to Calvinism, and the theology still driving Islamist fascism today. So while, as George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," those who oversimplify it may not do much better. The Reformation was brutal and intolerant--and in its insistence on the primacy of the individual soul, its systematizing, and, ultimately, its grudging pluralism, it is one of the foundations of our modern world.

Jay Weiser teaches law at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business.