The Reformation's impact on political ideas

September 24, 2012 12:17 pm

Few things in history take more devious twists and turns from their origins than ideas, and few ideas have taken more devious twists and turns than how those of the Protestant Reformation helped lead to such things as the triumph of capitalism, democracy, and women’s rights.  In fact, to fully understand this progression of ideas, we need to go back to the Italian Renaissance and the four major ideas that came from it:
Secularism: the belief this world and life are worth studying and living for now, not just as a preparation for the afterlife;
Humanism: the belief that humans are not helpless pawns in the divine plan, but capable of their own great accomplishments;
Individualism: the belief that individuals alone, not just groups of people, can accomplish great things on their own; and
Skepticism: the belief we should challenge accepted authorities views, rather then blindly accept them.

When these ideas made their way out of Italy and combined with the more religious attitudes of the Northern Renaissance, they helped lead to the Protestant Reformation.  Two of Luther’s ideas would have dramatic and unforeseen effects: the beliefs that God sees all useful jobs as equal and all believers as equal.

While Luther also believed in pre-destination, it was Calvin who especially emphasized it.   That combined with the idea that all useful jobs are equal led to the conclusion that if one is a merchant, it is because he was predestined to be a merchant.  Therefore, it was God’s will that he work hard to earn profits for the good of the church and community.  However, as religious fervor cooled over succeeding generations, Calvinist merchants started keeping more and more of their profits for themselves.   Eventually, some merchants would lose all their religious fervor, leaving only a fervor for profits, which we still refer to as the Protestant work ethic, and the triumph of capitalism in Northwestern Europe.

The idea that God sees all believers as spiritually equal also had surprising repercussions through the succeeding centuries.  For one thing, the idea of spiritual equality was seen as applying to women as well as men, but not in the political or social sense…. at first.  A major, though little noted, turning point came in the 1600s with a Protestant sect known as the Quakers.  They figured that, if women were spiritually equal, they should have the right to preach.  However, the church was the center of their social life as well, and women assumed a more prominent place in Quaker society overall.  Fast forward two centuries to 1848 and the Seneca Falls Conference, which was the start of the women’s suffrage movement in America.  Of the five women at that conference, three were Quakers who would take the lead in gaining women the vote.

The spiritual equality of all believers also had profound political effects in another way.  The reasoning was that, if all believers and the jobs they do are equal, which would discredit the quasi-religious status of rulers and the doctrine known as the Divine Right of Kings.  Calvin said that if people were religiously repressed and kept from worshiping God in the proper manner, they had the right to resist, but only non-violently through civil disobedience.  It didn’t take long for a Calvinist leader in Scotland, John Knox, to extend this to justifying revolution on religious grounds.  The problem was that religion and politics were so intertwined that a religious revolution had major political implications as well.  This mixture of religious and political issues played out in nearly a century of religious wars that raged across the Netherlands, France, Germany, and England.

The English Revolution (1603-88) also saw economics mixed in with religious and political issues.  In 1694, the rise of a capitalist middle class and triumph of democratic principles (in a very limited form) led a remarkable book by John Locke, Two Treatises on Government, which summarized what that revolution had been about.  Locke saw government, in typically capitalist fashion, as an implied contract between the ruler and subjects where each had mutual rights and obligations, as opposed to everything existing for the benefit of the ruler. The people owed their ruler obedience, but he was obligated to protect three things: their lives, liberties, and property.  If the ruler failed to live up to these terms, the contract was null and void, justifying revolution on purely political grounds.  Thus, less than two centuries after the start of Luther’s reformation, his purely religious ideas about the equality of believers and their jobs had transformed into ideas justifying political revolution on purely secular grounds.

In 1776 the American Declaration of Independence would merely restate Locke’s ideas, substituting “pursuit of happiness” for property.  The “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen” in 1789 during the French Revolution wouldn’t even diverge that far and would inspire revolutions across Europe and the globe over the next two hundred years.

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