When Tradition Is Forcibly Overturned

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.

Time to buy old US gold coins

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.

Reprinted with permission from Bionic Mosquito.

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