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The Link Between the Protestant Reformation and Polarization


Look at the cultural landscape around you. Are you shaking your head like I am on a daily basis at the polarization?

The United States is fractured. Half the country seems to live in an alternate reality from the other.

Masks save lives, or they are harbingers of government control over our lives.

Vaccines will end this Covid crisis, but why should we take it? It’s going to give us all autism.

Biden won the election, or he didn’t. Or he did, but only with thousands of illegal votes.

This is ridiculous. Not only do we not have the same conclusions about what is going on in our country, we do not even have the same set of facts to get to those conclusions.

All of this has an eerie similarity to another season in history: the Protestant Reformation. I want to explore what the similarities are between that time and ours and how it may show us a way out of our polarization – or at least a path through it.

In this post, in no way am I saying that the Protestant Reformation was all bad, nor am I saying this is the only lens through which to understand our time. That being said, there is a through-line you can draw between what happened then and what is happening now.

Let’s explore it.

Let’s Go Way, Way Back

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Five hundred years ago, there was another establishment full of elites running the show. It was expanding its tentacles of control over the masses, this time in Europe. Behold, the dreaded Roman Catholic Church!

Sure, they did a few good things. They fed the poor, taught people to be moral, and generally encouraged nations to not kill each other for stupid reasons. But European culture was in the vice-like grip of the church. Everything found its reference point and identity in the Catholic faith and world view.

The clergy had become bloated and corrupt. Popes, caring more about power and money than theology, came and went. It was ugly.

The Protestant Reformation upended all of this. Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door in Wittenberg. With that, spiritual and cultural convulsions began rippling through Europe.

Instead of people relying on what the “deep church” was telling them about Christianity, they began reading the Bible for themselves and coming to their own conclusions.

They chucked the larger tradition, centuries of theological thought, and the insights of the brightest minds in Christendom. They did their own research. After all, how could anyone trust the fake news coming out of the Vatican? Everyone knew they were corrupt.

Sound familiar?

Finding a Home

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Europe began to fragment religiously. The Reformation did not provide the unity some may have hoped for.

The dream was that if everyone read the Bible, they would all come to the same conclusions. The free flow of information was supposed to bring people together.

The Bible is a pretty complicated book, though. People began pulling different conclusions from the same data set. Groups splintered off from the Catholic church and then splintered again and again when those within the new groups disagreed with each other.

What is left when the glue of a common religion no longer holds neighbors and families together? National identity takes its place. When our community cannot be grounded in an all-encompassing religion, our country will have to do.

In the 1800’s, great composers like Wagner in Germany, the Mighty Handful in Russia, Verdi in Italy, and French musicians were turning to their national roots to find inspiration. They mined the folk lore and folk songs of their countries, composing music that inspired nationalism in those who heard them. It was like they were looking for something to center their identity.

In England, a kind of holy (or unholy) union of the state and church merged into the Anglican communion. Instead of the pope, the King of England became the head of the church.

In all of this, whether in the realms of philosophy, religion, or government, the individual reigned more and more supreme. Notice the devolution from the larger Catholic faith which encompassed the world to the smaller nation state which encompassed only the boundaries of one’s own country.

As time went on, people began to loose all reference to any larger intellectual, religious, or philosophical construct.

The United States of Polarization

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The great experiment of the United States of America seems to be the pinnacle of this deconstruction. We are a “nation of immigrants,” which is to say we are a patchwork of differing beliefs, world views, cultures, and values. (Oh yeah, and ethnicities)

Despite its name, the reality is that there is no unifying belief in the United States other than the belief that we are not unified. For better and for worse, you can literally be whatever you want to be. You define yourself. You decide was is true for you.

On the one hand, this is liberating. The atheist, Muslim, and Christian have no need to worry the thought police will throw them in jail (at least not yet). It is also disconcerting, though. We can not agree definitively on any truth or any center of meaning at all.

Throw the internet into the mix, with its ability to mirror all our disparate thoughts, neurosis, philosophies and values on a worldwide scale and voila: polarization! Behold, the bastard child of the Protestant Reformation.

Ok, but wait…

I am certain someone reading this will cry “foul.” And you should. The Catholic Church most definitely needed reform when Martin Luther was around. It always needs conversion. Let us acknowledge and thank the lone reformer. We always need prophets crying out in the wilderness.

But notice I said “reformer,” not “splinter group.” The building needs to be renovated, not burned to the ground. Five percent of the Catholic Church was messed up. So fix the 5%! Leave the rest well enough alone. We tend not to realize what we lose when we burn everything to the ground.

In the same way, we need the whistle blower and the brave journalist. But let us reform our secular institutions when they need reformation. Let us not defund them in righteous indignation or ignore the decades of hard work and research they have put into their fields. The police, the scientific community, the statesmen and women all need our support, even while we hold their feet to the fire.

Poison Then, Poison Now

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The root of the problem was the same 500 years ago as it is today. The same poison was at work then that is at work now and has been at work all this time.

What is that poison? Broken relationships. Polarization. Mistrust at every level. Cynicism. We assume our institutions are irredeemable. We assume the worst of our leaders. We shun the experts. With an unbelievable amount of hubris, we exalt our own understanding of the world to a God-like status.

Part of this is because so many feel betrayed and rightly so. There are bad bishops as there are bad politicians as there are bad police officers. “Fool me once, shame on you,” we say. We will not be fooled twice.

But when no one trusts anyone anymore, where does that leave us? How much will that kind of cynicism corrode our social fabric?

The Normandy invasion during World War 2 took an enormous amount of trust on the part of the soldiers who gave their lives for what the generals thought was best. Cathedrals were built over generations because everyone came together to create them.

Great projects and movements happen not because of great people, but because of many ordinary people pulling together for the same purpose, even when they do not understand all the ins and outs of that purpose.

If we truly want to make America great – or our world for that matter – we have to trust and work with our institutions and each other. We cannot be questioning every little initiative our governing bodies put forward.

What is the Solution?

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The Reformation happened in large part because the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church became bloated. Clergy were rich and corrupt. I will say it again: the church needed reform. But in response to it, what came from that fire lit by Luther and others tore the continent to shreds from the polarization.

When that fire was in full rage mode, the Catholic Church enacted what was not an unsuccessful Counter Reformation or Catholic Revival. It involved not only great missionary zeal, but also soul-searching. Leaders forced priests into more austere living standards. Seminaries flourished and educated men who could then educate the faithful with greater capability. Catholic theologians would debate protestant ones.

The church worked to gradually bring the faithful back to their fold. They changed to reach them, both by returning to their own core values and by adjusting their methods.

Some Practical Ideas Against Polarization

What would the secular version of this look like for our own country and world? What is the path we should take if not to eradicate polarization but at least to muddle our way through it? Here are some ideas.

  1. Media companies need to do some soul-searching of their own. Have they been contributing lies and misinformation to muddy the waters? If they can not be impartial, then other watch-dog organizations need to step in. Other media companies need to form to provide balanced assessments of all sides of every story.
  2. There need to be more formal debates on a national level. We need to push debate forums like “Intelligence Squared” to the front of the public’s vision. These settings are not places where one side polemicizes while the other cowers. Both sides receive equal time to lay their case out before a watching public.
  3. When Covid finally blows over, there need to be more conversations going on at the local level. Black people need to meet real police officers in non-confrontational settings. Republicans need to sit down to meals with Democrats. More opportunities should be provided to give people in a single community a chance to mingle. More block parties. More potlucks. More neighborhood get-togethers.

We Need an Answer

Why would any of this help with polarization? Because it is not about one side evangelizing the other.

No one is entirely right this time around. Sometimes those on the right make good points, and sometimes those on the left do. But it is easy for everyone of us to play king-maker. We can so easily speak and not listen. Consensus is our only path through this, and that can only happen when we speak the truth as best we can and listen.

In that spirit, I want to say, I know there are holes in this post. I know there are things I’m not seeing. Still, whether you agree with me or not on any of this, count this post as one more attempt at a solution. Consider it a conversation-starter if nothing else.

We can not go on with this kind of polarization. A house divided against itself will not stand. And right now, we are more divided than ever.

©2020 Catholic Anonymous


4 thoughts on “The Link Between the Protestant Reformation and Polarization

  1. I read a comment recently about Calvinism leading to nihilism which struck me. That is pre-destination, or the lack of free will, leads to depression, as there is nothing we can do about our eternal destiny, we are absolutely powerless. This brings on despair and an entirely negative and pessimistic outlook, a pathway to nihilism.

    1. It would be interesting to see if that traces through history. I read, “The Universe Next Door” in college by James W. Sire who traces the deconstruction of Christian thought over the course of the last few hundred years – how one thing leads to another. That was a big inspiration for this post.

      1. In a Catholic understanding, we have free will and we co-operate with God in gaining our salvation, “we are God’s co-workers” 1 Cor 3:9.
        Our response to God’s grace determines whether we are saved in the end. Although salvation is a free gift from God, we have a part to play, we have to accept the gift. And that gives us hope, and this motivates us to “work out our salvation in fear and trembling” Phil 2:12.

      2. I read last year “The Last Superstition: A Refutation of the New Atheism”, by Edward Feser, who traces Western thought from Aristotle through Sts Augustine and Aquinas, and its “deconstruction” by Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, to the modern atheists, exposing their “intellectual dishonesty, philosophical shallowness, and historical, theological and scientific ignorance. A fantastic read. I highly recommend it.

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