Tuesday, December 5, 2017

The Graceless Body Politic

Luther and His Progeny: 500 Years of Protestantism and Its Consequences for Church, State, and Society, edited by John C. Rao.

What happens when tradition is forcibly overturned, when competing governance structures are eliminated, when the source of law is monopolized in a single physical sovereign?  We are offered a real-world examination of these questions in the transition from medieval Europe to Renaissance Europe; the fulcrum is Martin Luther.

Inherently the examination involves Christianity and the Catholic Church – the Church was the foundation of the common tradition, it was the governance structure competing with the physical sovereign.  Certainly in the last 2000 years of western history, I can think of no better example through which to examine the questions raised in the opening paragraph.

For those who don’t appreciate the value of religion in human affairs, replace the Catholic Church of the time with any institution that you believe might play a similar role.  If you don’t like the use of “graceless” in the title, replace it as you like; how about “the fantasy-football-less body politic”?  You know, something like that.  And then find for me a 1000 year example.

The author of this chapter is Christopher A. Ferrara. Here he cites Luther Hess Waring:

Thus the ecclesiastical Reformation led to a political one….It would be a great mistake, a grievous error, to regard the movement of which Luther was the source and center as purely religious.

According to Ferrara, Luther played a “seminal role in the emergence of the modern nation-state.”  Citing Brad Gregory:

The reformers’ rejection of the Roman church left them entirely dependent on the secular authorities for protection….

Hence the monopoly.  As I have offered before, were you a king or prince of the time (especially a less-than-scrupulous one), wouldn’t you take this opportunity to eliminate the competition?

Ferrara, like many of the authors in this compilation, does not shy away from the shortcomings and faults of the Church:

…the resentment-breeding privileges and perquisites of the Catholic clergy and the ecclesiastical bureaucracy, the Renaissance splendors of the papal court, the wide penetration of the “new learning,” the fiscal demands of Rome upon the empire.

Yet, the institution was not totally separated from the people; citing Protestant historian Euan Cameron:

The Christianity of the later Middle Ages was a supple, flexible, varied entity, adapted to the needs concerns, and tastes of the people who created it… It was not an inflexible tyranny presided over by a remote authority.

Luther’s new religion did not grow naturally, voluntarily accepted by the masses.  Instead, the force of law was often employed:

The resulting program included local laws revoking the jurisdiction and privileges of Catholic priests and prelates, ordinances compelling attendance at Lutheran services on Sunday under penalty of fines, corporal punishment, forfeiture of property and banishment, and civil penalties for heresies against Lutheranism, not excluding the death penalty.

This paragraph can easily be written today – not in terms of law used to destroy a unifying church, but laws to compel today’s orthodoxy of political correctness, gender fluidity, and bastardized patriotism.  And today’s description can easily be used to explain at least partly the backlash against the establishment that gained visible form in the election of Trump – perhaps the beginning of a new revolution.

It should not be surprising that Protestantism was launched as a political movement, for Luther’s invention represented a supreme act of will directed against the entire existing order.  The emergence of Protestantism thus led inevitably to the exercise of political power for the imposition of its demands.

Another paragraph that could also be written today; modification is necessary only for the details.

Ferrara offers a critique of Hobbes and his “liberal prescription for liberal disorder” (keeping in mind that this was in the time after and during Europe’s many post-Reformation religious wars):

…“the only way of saving royal authority, and thus civil peace,” as Pierre Manent observes, “was to detach completely the king’s power from religion by making the king fully sovereign over it.”

Ferrara refers to Locke as “the confused man’s Hobbes”:

Locke…will then follow to prescribe his own liberal cure for liberalism….Locke’s Law of Toleration, the ultimate liberal solution to the religious chaos religious liberalism had unleashed, would become the governing principle of political modernity.

The state becomes uniquely supreme, in a form completely alien to anyone living during the time of the Middle Ages.  Citing Westel Willoughby:

[N]ot only as giving ultimate validity to all law, but as itself determining the scope of its own powers, and itself deciding what interests shall be subject to its regulation…[t]he state is distinguished from all other persons and public bodies…[I]t sets to itself its own right and the limits to its authority…Obligation, through its own will, is the legal characteristic of the state.


The overthrow of the Church by the Protestant Reformers could only leave the individual helpless before the power of the state.  Protestant Man, alone with his God, can do no more in opposition to the state than to cast the one vote allotted to him.  For him there is no appeal to a higher authority, no defender of freedom beyond fifty percent plus one of the governing electorate, no idea of what true freedom really is.

And the modern state, as opposed to governance in the Middle Ages, monopolizes the law, enforcement and punishment.


Ferrara offers “Luther’s Season of Regret”:

Inconsistent to the end, Luther would bitterly lament the outcome of his own religious revolution.  Above all, he was aghast at the moral consequences….

Luther offered, in a sermon given in 1528 (emphasis added by Ferrara):

That we are now so lazy and cold in the performance of good works, is due to our no longer regarding them as a means of justification.

Luther adds, in 1535:

People talk about Christian liberty and then go and cater to the desires of covetousness, pleasure, pride, envy, and other vices.

Today the state subsidizes each vice, as if to ensure that no competitor in governance will arise.


  1. Luther was a "white supremacist" I hear. Ditto with John Locke - he is now protested because he is a "white supremacist".

    All the vices are funded by the state, true, but they are also funded by corporations like Apple, and those corporations are happy to spend money doing so.

  2. "The overthrow of the Church by the Protestant Reformers could only leave the individual helpless before the power of the state. Protestant Man, alone with his God, can do no more in opposition to the state than to cast the one vote allotted to him. For him there is no appeal to a higher authority, no defender of freedom beyond fifty percent plus one of the governing electorate, no idea of what true freedom really is."

    This is a common strawman stereotype of Reformed and Protestant thinkers. Reformed means democratic? Reformed means individualist? No power against the state? No idea of true freedom? Where are they getting that from!?

    We put emphasis not on our own understanding, and so govern ourselves individually (although this is a common problem among all believers, thanks to dismal church practice). No, rather Reformed theology places emphasis on the council of elders and the *local church*! What is more decentralizing and powerful than groups of local communities, with traditions and common culture, with leadership to hold each other accountable? Was Rome not attempting to consolidate power to herself?

    It still does not follow that the RCC could have prevented this consolidation of power by the principalities if not for the Reformation. This seems like correlation, but not causation.

    Forgive me bionic, but it's hard for me to draw a lesson from this book, as it's basis seems more focused on polemics, complete with mischaracterizations of what we believe. Reformed doesn't mean individualism and antinomianism.

    1. What followed was the elimination of Rome as a competing governance institution. This is undeniable.

      What did not follow was some version of Lutheranism creating a competing governance institution. This is also undeniable.

      Where was the "council of elders" that competed against the now liberated princes and kings? They never formed, and have yet to form. This is also undeniable.

      Please find a strawman in this.

      Take off your hat of defending theology and merely consider the politics and influenced by the eliminated traditions.

    2. The strawman was not what you write in your reply (the undeniable facts), but rather from what I quoted above. I defend the theology from mischaracterization. If the Reformed theology asserted democracy, absolute individualism, and antinomianism (all destructive to libertarianism), then I would have no argument with Rao. But it doesn't.

      The elimination of Rome as a competing governing hegemon? Good. That it led to liberated kings is regrettable. We're together working on the elimination of the prince's hegemony now.

      The councils of elders are most certainly established in local churches. In these places are the seeds of decentralization and liberation from government intrusion. Where else would it come from? The LP?

      That they haven't yet has much more to do with the woeful job they have been doing. Key emphasis on "yet." Luther may have better progeny than we think. One hegemon down, more to go.

    3. " I defend the theology from mischaracterization."

      That's fine, but it has nothing to do with my point, nor with the reality of what happened in Europe. Additionally, I do not say it was Luther alone - many influences both before and after contributed to the change. But the most significant single event was the fracturing of the church body.

      "...a competing governing hegemon..."

      An oxymoron.

      Hegemony: 1. leadership or predominant influence exercised by one nation over others, as in a confederation.

      2. leadership; predominance.

    4. You have to know by now that this is not a safe space; enter only if you are open to dialogue.

  3. Schematically, with the end of the Roman Empire a thousand small time warlords arose to battle each other to become the monopoly tax authority across a thousand European territories. In time one warlord was victorious over another. Victors took on victors in a way similar to the seeding structure of the US open. Over the centuries warlords gained control of larger and larger swaths of territory whose outlines began to resemble the modern nation states of Europe.

    It is at this moment that the concept of nationalism first appears. Nationalism is an invention. As Bionic points out up until this point if you asked a European what is his identity he would reply 'Christian'. After the invention of nationalism it became possible to say one was French, German, English an so on. The modern nation state was created in order to bureaucratize the production of war. Foucault tells us that for the first time in history, the people and resources within a nation state were systematically organized to aid in the production of war. And of course it is at this point as well that the civilian population of a nation state became fair game for attack by competitive nation states.

    Before this, say during the Hundred Years Wars, few French or English had any idea the war was ongoing. It was fought entirely by members of the 'nobility', the elite political class. Civilians and property were off limits - the whole point of warfare was to conquer a territory intact from which to extract tax revenue.

    It is with the invention of nationalism that civilians become disposable pawns to be impressed into the military and slaughtered as enemy combatants. One could say that WWII was a kind of summing up of the strategy of the modern nation state. Germany literally diverted all of its resources and subjects to participate in one vast war enterprise culminating in the wholesale destruction of Europe.

    Where European warlords at least had the goal of maximizing tribute and taxes, the goal of the modern nation state is not so clear. Its not difficult to make the case that sheer power over all others is its fundamental objective.

  4. Heinrich Himmler believed in the supremacy of the state. According to his biographer, Peter Longerich, Himmler believed Christianity, particularly the Catholic Church, was the strongest competitor for the hearts and minds of German people. Himmler regarded the struggle against Christianity as the most important mission of his life.

  5. Ironically, there has been a disproportionate representation of Catholics in the military academies and the elite fighting forces (e.g. Marines, Navy Seals, Green Berets, etc.) in the U.S. over the past century. Several writers at LRC over the years have made the point that warfare by the U.S. would become much more difficult if the Catholics would simply refuse to fight immoral wars for the nation state. Catholics went from being a restraint on the "kings" to being their legions, at least in the U.S.

    1. I try to correct my Bishop on this. My priest is very good, but it is hard to swim upstream against the tide of federal "welfare" dollars the bishops get, which help them toe the line on warfare.

  6. One heroic exception to my prior comment is celebrated in this great song by David Rovics:

  7. Bionic you should also consider this: In medieval Catholic Europe the cardinal sin was greed. In the modern Protestant West the cardinal sin is sloth, idleness.

    The goal of medieval Catholicism was to experience life in sacred terms, along mystical lines. In fact this is the REAL reason the Church opposed Gallileos reworking of the solar system. They understood that the scientific perspective would make it impossible to experience life in strictly mystical terms. And so it was. In post Galilean Christianity one can have faith that divinity exists but it is no longer possible to experience ones life as a sacred journey through a divine realm.

  8. We recall also that State supremacists in Communist Eastern Europe met their greatest opposition from the Catholic Church

  9. It is an error to say that Luther rejected the Roman Church, the Roman Church rejected Luther. Probably due the the incredibly lucrative nature of the indulgence. Church corruption of this sort was at the heart of the issue, not politics. It took others who were against Christianity per se to make the move a political one. Sorry no, I don't track with your conclusion. It wasn't Roman Catholicism that gave us freedom of religion, but American Protestantism. It wasn't Roman Catholicism that gave us freedom of conscience but American Protestantism. Not to mention an end to the corruption of indulgences among other things.

    1. Is there not some difficulty in representing American Protestantism as exerting a liberating influence ? Now during medieval Catholicisms thousand year reign the Church played the role of dispenser of justice. Crime was understood to be the failure to reconcile ones actions to Gods will. The criminal was exiled rather than incarcerated. He was sent out on penance to a distant monastery. The outward journey functioned to bring his inward spiritual journey back into accord with God.

      In contrast to this in the fledgling Protestant USA the first large public works project was the massive Eastern State Penitentiary begun in 1821 and modeled to the letter on Jeremy Bentham's infamous panoptican. From the very beginning the US was set up to be a surveillance and carceral society notwithstanding the fact that the Progressives promoted their penitentiaries as Utopian sites for social reform. In fact Transcendentialism developed out of the radical Protestantism of the founders and framers. Transcendentialism developed into Marxism / Progrssivsm. Progressivsm 's first great project was Prohbition culminating in the hideous second act of the War on Drugs which has largely effaced all pretense of a free society in the USA.

    2. "...the first large public works project was the massive Eastern State Penitentiary..."

      Interesting. This compared to the countless monasteries, churches and universities that constituted "public works" for much of 1000 years.

  10. Lutheran theologian supporting Hitler. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZQaC_Hxr5Lg

  11. I am genuinely curious. How did the authors explain expanding state power in the regions that remained with the RCC?

    1. They have not. But I will suggest the following: it is the regions that remained connected to the Catholic Church that remained the most decentralized for the longer period – Italy and Germany until 1871.

      Poland offers an even more interesting example:


      The liberum veto (Latin for "free veto") was a parliamentary device in the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. It was a form of unanimity voting rule that allowed any member of the Sejm (legislature) to force an immediate end to the current session and to nullify any legislation that had already been passed at the session by shouting, Sisto activitatem! (Latin: "I stop the activity!") or Nie pozwalam! (Polish: "I do not allow!"). The rule was in place from the mid-17th century to the late 18th century in the Sejm's parliamentary deliberations. It was based on the premise that since all Polish noblemen were equal, every measure that came before the Sejm had to be passed unanimously. The liberum veto was a key part of the political system of the Commonwealth, strengthening democratic elements and checking royal power and went against the European-wide trend of having a strong executive (absolute monarchy).