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Divisions in the Sixteenth Century and Now: Why the Reformation Still Matters by Brad S. Gregory

Americans today confront many concerns competing for their attention at a time of deep political division, cultural conflict, environmental problems, and socioeconomic inequality. So it’s reasonable to expect some justification, beyond escapist entertainment, for a book about what happened in Europe five hundred years ago. Why spend time reading about Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century when so many other issues seem more obviously pressing and relevant to our current challenges?

The answer is that that world made our world. Not directly, or obviously, or all at once, but indirectly, in complicated and unintended ways that unfolded over centuries. Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World tells the story of how this happened. It does so with accessible and vivid prose, starting with a single spiritually anguished Augustinian friar steeped in the medieval Catholicism that was intertwined in every area of European life in the early sixteenth century, and ending with rancorously divided Americans free to ignore evidence and eschew arguments that challenge politically protected beliefs and values, regardless of what they are. Rebel in the Ranks explains how the world we’re living in today came to be as it is, regardless of your own religious views or lack thereof.

This big-picture story of historical change traces a series of unintended consequences and paradoxical outcomes. None is more fundamental than how efforts to make sixteenth-century society more authentically Christian, in the estimation of Reformation leaders, led to religious disagreements and conflicts whose eventual management entailed secularization through the redefinition and marginalization of religion. Many Protestant reformers who cheered Luther’s rejection of Roman Catholicism disagreed with him about the interpretation of the Bible; right from the start, already in the early 1520s, Luther never had control of the movement he inadvertently initiated. Different understandings of scripture prompted different churches, political rivalries, and the enmity of Protestants toward other Protestants. At the same time, large areas of Europe defended Roman Catholicism, rejecting the Reformation as another chapter in the history of medieval heresies. Because what was at stake was regarded as so important—the right ordering of human life according to God’s will and the hope of eternal salvation—Western Europeans were embroiled in recurrent conflicts between the 1520s and the 1640s, commonly known as the “wars of religion.” But because of how connected Christianity was with the rest of life, Rebel in the Ranks refers to them as the wars of more-than-religion.

By 1650, at the end of the most devastating of all such conflicts, the Thirty Years War, Catholic and Protestant theologians were no closer to resolving their disagreements about biblical interpretation, doctrine, and Christian practice than they had been during the 1520s. What to do?  Exhausted Europeans, weary of violence, understandably weren’t eager for another cataclysmic war of more-than-religion. So they started experimenting with new ideas and new institutions which, together with a restrictive redefinition of religion that moved in the direction of what we usually mean by it today, reconfigured the relationship among religion, politics, society, and culture. Starting in the Golden-Age Dutch Republic before it was institutionalized in the founding documents of the United States in the late eighteenth century, religion was made a matter of individual preference and politically protected as such. The solution to the problem of religious conflict and intolerance had seemingly been found: just allow everyone to believe whatever they wanted to, and worship however they wished, and engage in whatever devotional practices they preferred, so long as they obeyed the state’s laws. These changes accompanied new ideas about nature, human nature, morality, and values associated with modern philosophy and the Enlightenment—neither of which is imaginable without the backdrop of the wars of more-than-religion.

Not coincidentally, the new Dutch attitudes and practices regarding religion as something individually chosen, separable from the rest of life, fit neatly with the unabashed promotion of trade and pursuit of wealth that made the Holland of Vermeer and Rembrandt a global commercial powerhouse, despite its small size and few natural resources. The British learned from, competed with, and eventually dominated the Dutch, wedding the spoils to a much more politically ambitious empire (supported by a bigger and much more powerful navy). It’s this British Empire from which the upstart United States declared their independence and fought a successful war of rebellion in the late eighteenth century, based on the high ideals of freedom, self-governance, and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

If one sets aside the staggering contradictions of race-based slavery and the decimation of indigenous peoples, the new country’s dominant Protestant culture, despite its composite character as a legacy of the Reformation, helped to counterbalance the individualism protected by the new state. Despite their differences, participants in that culture, who also ran the country, thought they saw God’s guiding hand in their nation’s territorial growth, economic expansion, and military triumphs, just as the eighteenth-century British or the sixteenth-century Catholic Spanish had before them. This culture could even accommodate a significant influx of Catholic and Jewish minorities, grateful for the political protection to believe and worship as they pleased. But what would hold the country together without that culture, as has happened with the dissipation of the mainline Protestant churches in recent decades?

The closest thing to an answer seems to be consumerism, regardless of whether one shops at Walmart or Bloomingdale’s. But it turns out that being able to buy as much as you want of whatever you want has serious environmental consequences. As it happens, there are grave political consequences, too, when decades of economic neoliberalism that permits enormous social inequalities begets millions of angry voters. And there are consequences to allowing everyone to believe whatever they want, live however they wish, say whatever they want, and ignore obvious realities whenever they please. This is what freedom now means, in real, lived, politically consequential terms in the United States—so radically different from what Martin Luther meant by “the freedom of a Christian,” and at the same time one long-term, unintended outcome of what he unintentionally started. Attempts to resolve sixteenth-century divisions laid the foundations for our own.

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