Thursday, May 23, 2019

The New World

The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society.

What does Gregory mean by “secularization”? 

…[secularization] refers specifically to the declining influence of religion in public life…politics, law, economics, education, social relationships, family life, morality, and the culture at large.

This secularization is described by Gregory as the broadest and most far-reaching outcome of the Reformation.  A major impact of this secularization is the loss of any ability for the Church (or some form of unified Christianity) to stand as a decentralizing force in governance. 

Gregory points to two other unintended consequences: first, the proliferation of versions of “Protestants.”  I would say that they multiplied like rabbits, but then one of you would make a Catholic joke and all hell would break lose in the comments section.  So I take that back.

Second is the relationship of Magisterial Protestantism (Lutherans and Calvinists) and Catholicism; they agreed that non-Lutheran and non-Calvinist Protestants had to be done away with.  Neither Catholic nor Protestant leaders intended to divide Christendom or bring on recurrent violence.  It seems to me that this could be true of much of the clergy given the number of councils and other attempts at reconciliation over many years.

The Reformation cemented heresies as far as the Catholics were concerned; it also gave new life to the Antichrist (as far as Protestants were concerned) in Rome.  It resulted in religion being controlled by politics, as opposed to informing politics and providing a check on power.  Religion became an individual matter, which meant it would play no institutional role in society.

Intellectually, theology had to be separated from philosophy and the investigation of the natural world.  I don’t even know how the former is possible; as to the latter, it only means artificially limiting the definition of the term “natural world” by introducing the concept of the supernatural (as if all of the “natural” in the universe can be comprehended by man).

It is no accident that modern philosophy and the Enlightenment emerged in the seventeenth century as intellectual reactions to the problems of the Reformation era.

Two of the major thinkers of this Enlightenment, René Descartes and Thomas Hobbes, were directly and adversely affected by the so-called wars of religion: the former as a soldier during the Thirty Years’ War and the latter who took refuge in Paris during the English Revolution.  They would attempt to base morality on reason alone – reason devoid of religion and tradition.  As Gregory describes this effort: “Or at least that was the plan.”

The plan has seen its fruits in the twentieth century, and is now being replace by a new plan – a post-modern plan, where there is never such a thing as a knowable objective truth.  New atheists are attempting to combat this with the same tools used by Descartes and Hobbes: reason devoid of religion and tradition.  Edward Feser has examined the claims of these new atheists and found them lacking.

In the Dutch republic, religion was restricted and in its place commerce was unleashed. 

According to the Union of Utrecht (1579), the Dutch republic’s most important founding document, each province is allowed to address religion as it sees fit, without interference from other provinces, “so long as each person shall be permitted to remain free in his religion and that no one shall be permitted to be investigated or persecuted for reason of religion.”

Shortly thereafter and as a result of the continuing wars with Spain, Catholic worship is outlawed altogether.  Meanwhile, the southern provinces establish the Union of Arras, which mandates Catholicism as the established religion.  Protestant refugees flee to the north.

With numerous religions and sects present, the one thing that binds the Dutch community is trade.  Trade is open to all: Calvinists, Arminians, Lutherans, Mennonites, Catholics, and Jews are all represented in the wealthier class.  Yet magistrates continue to monitor religion, out of a concern that some might decide to get overly political.

It turns out that regardless of their religion, almost everyone likes more and better material things.

This mix still works as at the time, because for the most part, Christians are Christian.  They share much more in common than they are divided by their differences.  Marriage, family relationships, responsibilities to others, civic duties, and a common sense of morality remain; differences regarding interpretation of scripture, grace and salvation, the sacraments, etc., are pushed to the rear – at least as far as political life is concerned.

Within about a century, the Dutch are replaced by the English as a global trading empire.  The English have learned something about religious toleration and commerce from the Dutch, with London replacing Amsterdam as Europe’s leading commercial city.

John Locke publishes his Tolerations, arguing for a sharp separation between church and state; Isaac Newton’s discoveries inspire a new variety of Protestantism – Deism: God created the universe and set its laws in motion, then took a long nap from which He is yet to wake.  Scripture might be useful for moral teaching, but nothing more – even here, it is good for moral teaching that conforms to reason derived absent scripture!  Which eventually pretty much renders scripture useless.

America’s founding documents make clear that religion is completely separable from the rest of life.  There is no publicly supported church – at least at the federal level; many states, for a time, offer such support.  Madison and Jefferson continue in the Dutch tradition:

Religion has to be construed as something that will not disrupt public life or divide citizens.  That means its scope has to be restricted, and what it applies to has to be limited.

Jefferson famously offered: “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”  Easy enough to say when virtually all Americans were Christian of some sort, although it took the horrors of almost two centuries of European conflict to get to even this point.

The modern Western understanding of religion succeeds in the early decades of the United States, but not because Americans are rugged religious individualists, each eager to go her or his own way.  It succeeds because most of them are Christians, especially English-speaking white Protestants, who continue to share so much in common despite the disagreements that divide their churches.

It is best that I have no comment to any of this….


We look at the founding documents as establishing some form of common culture: “America is an idea,” we are often told.  This is not correct.  The founding documents presupposed a common culture; it was this common culture that was the foundation for the ideas in the documents.

What happens to the ideas in the documents when even the remnants of this common culture are lost?  Are the documents any longer of functional use, or are they merely museum pieces?  And then what?


  1. You should listen to Fr Thomas Hopko’s magnificent lecture, The Abolition of Man in which, this topic is covered in amazing detail. Gripping.

  2. If you are not a jesuit, you are an acolyte and really doing a great job of carrying water for them.

  3. "What happens to the ideas in the documents when even the remnants of this common culture are lost? Are the documents any longer of functional use, or are they merely museum pieces? And then what?"

    The label on the bottle of Champagne says it is Champagne, but slowly it has been filled with piss. I hear all the time, "it is unconstitutional" or that the "SCOTUS ruled it is constitutional."

    Then what? We continue drinking what is the bottle and call it Champagne.

  4. Bionic, I’ve read your blog posts on religion with alacrity. As mentioned before, I’m not a believer, and as far as I can recall even as a youngster I was skeptical about such a thing as a supreme being.

    However, reading your discussions on the ideas presented in various writings by religious scholars, I’m beginning to think that even if one is not a believer, it is likely a good idea to assume there is indeed a supreme being and proceed with life accordingly.

    I was reared in the Christian tradition, which as you’ve suggested, most Americans were before mid-20th century. It’s a tradition I can enthusiastically support because if people behave as they are instructed by this tradition, the result will predictably promote peace and benevolence toward our fellows more than the inexorable slide into chaos we are witnessing in the present day.

    The above isn’t to say I don’t appreciate the impact of political squabbling on the body politic, which is not only substantial, but may be directly related to such “slide into chaos.” Nor do I overlook that humans, in spite of their better impulses, will often enough degenerate into barbaric behavior. Peg

  5. Isaac Newton may or may not have been a deists, though deists may have been of less impersonal that we think today. Ben Franklin suggested an on-your-knees prayer meeting in that secret convention for intervention by God in their impasse. Smithsonian now hides (or lost) a once-famous painting depicting it.

    And the first act of the new Congress was to thank God for his divine intervention.

    As for Isaac Newton, and in the same sentence about deists and neglecting scripture?! Wow. Isaac Newton wrote more about the Bible than he did science and math! He wrote about prophecy a lot. And predicted from it that man would invent >70 mph transportation before the Second Coming.

    Freedom from the secular co-Regency of Church and state, Pope and King, of course unleashed ugly stuff with the good.

  6. The Puritans came to America to practice their religion without interference. There was strong prejudice against Catholics from the get go. However, as Timothy Gordon states repeatedly in his recent book Catholic Republic; Why America Will Perish Without Rome, "America is the republic wired Catholic, labeled Protestant, and currently functioning secular." The European religious wars terrorized many into silence- hence the Crypto-Catholicism that enabled liberty to flourish in the light of natural law in America. Without it we are doomed.