The Halloween candy is mostly eaten, but the celebrations of Reformation Day (which also falls on October 31st) are still in full swing. The Reformation is a watershed event in religious and political history, but was it a good thing?
To be sure, Martin Luther’s actions and arguments gave us Evangelicals, Baptists, Pentecostals, individuality, the idea of religious freedom, church shopping, free markets, and brought about the (counter-) reform of the Roman Catholic Church, but it also laid the groundwork for the rise of secular society. It’s Martin Luther’s world and we’re just living in it.
In a series of publications that include his lengthy and erudite Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society and the recently published trade version Rebel in the Ranks, award-winning European historian Brad Gregory argues that the Reformation was an unintended disaster that has fundamentally and inescapably shaped the subsequent course of Western history.
In particular, the Protestant reformers Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli (et alia) set in motion a chain of events that led to the secularization of society. The Reformation was a violent and bloody affair; leaders struggled to maintain interpretive control in a world in which the Bible was the lone source of moral authority. The Bible alone, Gregory wisely observes, does not produce a single set of standards about how society should be organized or run. It produces many. As Gregory describes it, “Protestant appeals to scripture alone produced an unwelcome pluralism of competing Christian truth claims.” The only way to enforce one’s own particular interpretation and its own concomitant worldview was with force. And enforce they did: Catholics killed Protestants, Protestants killed Catholics, and everyone killed Anabaptists. The central Christian virtue of caritas (let’s describe it as a generous kind of love) gave way to a focus on obedience.
After the religious struggles and bloodshed of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, eighteenth-century Christians were willing to try anything else. In the place of love, obedience, and Truth now stood the concept of religious toleration. We are all free to believe and practice what we like, but we cannot impose those beliefs on other people. And, of course, there’s no better example of this new social organizing principle than the First Amendment.
The problem with religious freedom, Gregory argues, is that it leads to what he calls the “Kingdom of Whatever”: a hyper-pluralistic world in which individual religious beliefs, preferences, and opinions reign supreme over claims to religious and moral truth. We don’t talk about absolute Truth (with an uppercase “t”) anymore, Gregory observes; we’re moral relativists who will validate a whole host of personal truths as long as it is what we authentically feel.
For many of us, this is progress, but for Gregory it is the beginning of the end. Religious toleration only worked, he argues, when everyone shared the same central ethical standards and agreed that religion should be essentially private. But as the US, for example, became more pluralistic and diverging views of what it means to be “good” and “moral” emerged, it became impossible to form a moral consensus. As a result, our society, and legal system, have become polarized to the point of paralysis. Luther and his cohort could not have anticipated the end result of their actions; they’d likely be appalled by the world that we live in today.
Gregory told the Daily Beast, “[The] Reformation affected more than just religion because religion was more-than-religion in the Middle Ages and sixteenth century.” The way that we solve problems has been deeply affected by the Reformation in ways that the Reformers themselves never intended. “None of this is a direct consequence of the Reformation,” he told me; “it’s indirect, long-term, and unintended, the opposite of what Luther, Calvin, and other Protestant reformers wanted. They would have been aghast at the sexual revolution, for example, and contemporary sexual promiscuity and the hook-up culture, to say nothing of gay marriage or transgenderism.” There’s no reason to stop here; I imagine that the Reformers would be hostile towards women’s fashion, women’s rights, and the lack of overt anti-Semitism in modern America. And that’s before we talk about social media.
This isn’t to say that the Reformation was utterly destructive. In addition to its helpful biography of Martin Luther, Rebel in the Ranks traces out the various ways that the legacies of the Reformation shaped identities around the world, agrees that religious tolerance is a good thing, and argues that the Reformation was a productive wake-up call for the Catholic Church.
Nor are the devastating effects of the Reformation only a problem for conservatives. Gregory connects the Reformation and the decline of public discourse about what is actually true to recent voting trends. In the Kingdom of Whatever, evidence based debate has been supplanted by confirmation bias and political discourse remains “at the level of bumper sticker-slogans. The Reformation helped create a world in which Americans feel free to “ignore evidence and vote for completely inexperienced candidates for US President.”
In a similar way the rise of consumerism and consumer based rights empowers us to ignore the devastating environmental effects of that consumerism. As Gregory puts it “Politically protecting individual rights allows you and everyone else to buy as much as you can of whatever you want.” And this in turn, leads to climate change, global warming, and the destruction of the planet. It’s a difficult problem to solve when, as Gregory writes, consumerism has replaced religion as the “shared basis for the organization, values, and priorities of human life.” Perhaps Marie Kondo and millennials can help save the planet.
Not everyone finds modern society as objectionable as Gregory, few share all of his bipartisan views on the ills that plague the modern world, and most do not want to “unsecularize” society. But those Christians who agree, even in part, that the world is going to hell might have to face the harsh truth (or, I’m guessing, Truth): that the Reformation ruined everything.