Connecting Luther to Trump. Pondering the Legacy of the Reformation on a breezy California Morning

california fires

Anniversary of the Reformation

We’re coming up on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and there are a torrent of books and talks attempting to explain the significance and the consequences of this movement that reshaped our world. One voice I’ve appreciated is Brad Gregory. In his latest book Rebel in the Ranks he puts forward his thesis that the Reformation didn’t just create that patchwork of churches we call Protestantism but it fundamentally changed how the West defined and understood what “religion” was. For a brief treatment of his thesis you can listen to this lecture as a part of this series of lectures.

Here is an outline of how this process might have occurred. These are some of my composite ideas because I haven’t yet finished Gregory’s book.

Behavioral and Practical Pluralism Exposes Religion

One thing you might notice looking for religion in ancient or traditional places is what today looks like naive assumptive hiddenness. In a lecture on African myths the professor made what he presented as a dramatic point that in the context where these myths emerged “religion impacted all of life”. I thought “huh, same point my Bible teacher in Christian high school made when he told us ‘all of life is religious’.”

You will note in the Western classical period the same thing. Cities had temples and patron gods, emperors were divinized. There was little separation of politics from religion. The Old Testament struggles between Yhwh and the constellation of Canaanite religions we find in the books of Judges and Kings might have felt regressive, provincial and tribal to residents of the large ancient empires.  Pluralism was managed in the empire through poly-theism. Sure you could have your own household God as long as you paid your dues to the civic cult. Wasn’t this the great question Augustine engaged in his great work the City of God? It’s clear from the New Testaments that the Romans understood religious pluralism but it had its limits for them. Those who wished to live at peace with the Emperor needed to acknowledge his place and meet his demands.

In the late Roman period after Constantine you saw a wave of Christian self-definition as the Catholic faith attempted to define itself in its internal conflicts. Councils sometimes called by Christian emperors tried to get the church to resolve internal doctrinal divisions through definition and differentiation. Creeds were written that articulated the Trinity, Christology and canon of Scripture. These movements attempted to define “The Catholic Faith” Read the first sentence of the Athanasian Creed. “Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic faith”

Christian Pluralism in the Christian Roman Period

Creation of these credal documents did not destroy heterodox communities. Arians and many others continued to live and thrive within the Roman Empire. It is almost never remembered that Alaric I who is more recognizably labeled a “barbarian” (ethnic slur?) was an Arian Christian whose forces respected the sanctuary offered by Christian churches in the sack while plundering pagan temples and pagan mansions. The latin “Catholic” church in the late Roman period is one of a number of competing Christian movements including the Donatists who were prevalent in Augustine’s context.

The Catholic faith would finally achieve supremacy as Islam destroyed the hegemony of Christianity in the old eastern empire and North Africa, diminishing many of the non-Catholic communities while evangelizing backwards, pagan Europe. The institution of the church itself would dominate medieval Europe in what looks to us today as at least as much a political institution as a religious one. If you pay any attention to the titles and language surrounding the papacy you’ll note the inheritance of those titles from Imperial Rome. St. Peter’s Square with its obelisk, colonnade, statuary and basilica draws its symbolic inheritance form classical Egypt, Greece and Rome. Ceasaropapism speaks for itself.

Catholic Hegemony Breeds Innovation and Corruption 

The hegemony of the Roman Catholic church in late medieval Europe allowed for a freedom in thought and practice that can be seen in the renaissance. Freedom and looseness are sometimes two sides of the same coin. Lack of seriousness in doctrine and life affords freedom to artists and corruption to the clergy. The freedom/looseness that birthed the Renaissance also sparked the Reformation. Luther is both a product of the humanism that the Renaissance birthed and becomes the most potent critic of the corruption and freedom that birthed it. These are from the notes of Bartlett’s treatment of the Italian Renaissance.

III. The Reformation and Counter-Reformation made ideas dangerous rather than exciting, inhibiting challenges to the status quo.

A. Princes in Europe were encouraged to use force to convert their subjects and war to defeat Protestants.

1. Charles V and his son, Philip of Spain, warred constantly in the name of Catholicism against the Dutch, the English, and the German Protestants.
2. The French Wars of Religion were among the most terrible on the continent.
3. All these events spilled into Italy directly as a result of Habsburg control of large parts of the peninsula and a desire on the part of the ecclesiastical establishment to keep Protestants and Protestant ideas out of Italy.

B. By the mid-16th century, the free exchange of ideas that had given such an impetus to the Renaissance was suppressed through such instruments as the Roman Inquisition and the Index of Prohibited Books.

1. Scholars, teachers, and educated individuals were afraid to speak if there was any chance their words could be construed as heretical.
2. Secular rulers, wanting to keep peace with the Church and with the Habsburg power in Italy, supported this suppression of thought and speech, often enforcing the Index and arresting heretics.
3. Religious oaths were required from those who wished to graduate from universities.
4. Society became much more conservative, with people looking for safe, solid, and secure places, without the taint of controversy.


The religious/political fabric of life that Europe assumed was destroyed by the Reformation and the issues it raised. Roman pluralism gave rise to creeds. The Reformation gave rise to confessions as religious and political factions had to define with increasing clarity what exactly they believed and why exactly it mattered.

The seemlessness of the practical and religious was what made every religious conflict a political one.

Besides these radical differences in the material conditions of life, religion held an utterly different place in society than it does in Western countries today. In our time religion is considered an individual choice, and that choice includes the option not to be religious at all. Religion today is a distinct area of life—separate from your career, professional relationships, recreational activities, consumer behavior, and so on. None of this was true in the early sixteenth century: religion was neither a matter of choice nor separate from the rest of life. Except for the Jews, who made up a tiny percentage of Europe’s population around 1500, everyone became a Christian through being baptized with water; baptism was a prerequisite for the possibility of eternal salvation after death. Almost always baptism took place just days after birth. That way, if a baby died—as one in four did from disease or malnutrition before their first birthday—she would be saved by God. Baptism was a rite of initiation into the local parish church and into the community in which you lived. Like the other sacraments, it also conferred God’s grace—his spiritual presence and power in and through the material world he had created. Except in emergencies when there was immediate danger of an infant’s death, baptism was administered by the local priest. He had joined the clergy through a special ritual of ordination, and his vow of celibacy and duty to administer the sacraments set him apart from laypeople, who made up the large majority of Christians.

A parish was coextensive with the local community; a small village would often be a single parish, while a city might include many parishes, each of them an urban neighborhood. Europe included tens of thousands of parishes reaching from Scandinavia to the Iberian and Italian peninsulas. Rural and urban parishes alike belonged to the Catholic Church, which had its administrative and symbolic center in Rome and was headed by the pope. Parishes were geographically organized into dioceses, the Church’s administrative units, each headed by a bishop responsible for overseeing all the parishes and priests in his diocese. For most Christians, however, the pope and even bishops remained remote figures. Local experience of the Church meant participation in a web of social relationships of family, kin, and neighbors linked by customs, rituals, and worship led by a priest.

Though for most Christians Rome lay far away, religion played a central role in everyday life—from the primary relationships between family and kin to the practice of politics and commerce. Social relationships and gender expectations were inseparable from Christian norms. And both public and private morality were conceived in Christian terms. Rather than standing apart from government or courts of justice, religion informed both politics and law. At the same time, Christianity was not aloof from the buying and selling of goods and pursuit of profit; Christian ethical teachings sought to shape economic transactions and restrain greed. Education, from the teaching of ABCs in humble small-town primary schools through instruction in one of Europe’s sixty or so universities, was imbued with Christian ideas. In short, religion included a lot more of life than religion includes today. Known as Latin Christendom, this social, political, intellectual, and cultural totality was the medieval predecessor of today’s European nation-states.

Gregory, Brad S.. Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (pp. 4-5). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

The trauma of rending this seamless garment impacted life at every level. At some point the trauma had to end and Christendom needed to stop killing itself. This of course would then give birth to the Enlightenment.

Again to summarize in the broadest possible strokes:

  • The fall of the Roman empire is institutionally succeeded by the rise of the Catholic church as organizing institution in Europe
  • The hegemony of the Roman Catholic church in Europe breeds both freedom and corruption which (through the Crusades) will flower into the Renaissance.
  • Because life and religion are so inextricably and unconsciously united in Medieval life the religious Reformation rends the medieval fabric yielding an age of bloodshed as Europe tries to sort itself out on many levels.
  • The inability to broadly resolve confessional differences will lead to a “separation of church and state” as imagined in the Enlightenment and practiced in the new secular revolution in the American revolution.

I’m skipping over a ton of steps and some very interesting history (a lot of it involving the Dutch) but the Christian pluralism in colonial North America forces the founding fathers to implement ideas put forward in the European enlightenment. A new political order that imagines civic peace by an implicit redefinition of religion as private piety rather than public policy.

The Divination of Process

The greatest points post Enlightenment atheists score is the God is not accessible to our investigations. The greatest defense of this point is the Christian definition of God himself.

The Reformation itself, in some ways is a fight all about how the will of God is known and applied. The pope wants to locate it in the institution of the Catholic church, Luther wants to locate it in the Bible. The difficulty with the Bible becomes pervasive interpretive pluralism. The Reformation fractures into thousands of different interpretations and therefore practices. The quest to resolve pervasive interpretive pluralism wedded with the rise of a “scientific approach” yields the theological and Biblical studies tradition we find in the West. The failure of the Bible to yield the uniformity creates the need for confessionalism and denominationalism.

What if the consent of the governed can replace the revelation of Scripture? Whether or not the people are right in the eyes of God, at least they won’t kill each other. What the United States of America eventually does is divinize a process. Because we can’t agree on what God wants, let’s at least agree on how we together can come to agreement.

Politically this is a genius move. Warring religious groups, if they can agree to a process, can keep their particular perspective as long as they agree to the inter-confessional, and inter-faith processes of decision. Gregory’s great point is the implicit way this of course must relativize all the particular religious claims. Religion itself changes in the process in ways that most of us are deeply comfortable with.

The secular West in a way pulls off a grand bargain. You can keep your religious freedom and institutions if agree to redefine religion in ways compatible with pluralism. Beneath this grand bargain are a whole bunch of other smaller bargains, assumptions and compromises that in our present context we are dealing with.

People will have limits to that bargain and the culture wars we are experiencing are the working out of those limits.

  • If science defines individual human identity at viability (abortion), the state will allow freedom to terminate a pregnancy before that point.
  • If two men or two women or two or more non-binary persons wish to “marry” the state will afford them equal recognition as traditional marriage afforded hetero couples.
  • Should a Christian college that because of its tradition of Biblical interpretation understands marriage exclusively as an institution between one man and one woman be able to comply with Title IX and participate in the public student financial aid program?

Contextualizing Trump in this Larger Conversation

The election of Donald Trump changed America and the world. What deeply disturbs critics on the left, and many on the right (See Michael Gerson, former speech writer for George W. Bush) is the threat he regularly signals on Twitter and in speeches to the God of Political process. In all fairness many critics from the right have their own bones to pick with the religion of the left which I like to call Progressive Liberationism which has made its own religious inroads into attempting to use the divinized process to instantiate their own new brand of civil religion.

Prominent new atheist Sam Harris has an interesting conversation with Timothy Snyder which touches on Trump and our moment in politics. Snyder is one of the most prominent contemporary experts on 20th century totalitarian regimes and he has just written a little book on 20 lessons from the 20th century on how to avoid slipping into tyranny. To make a short book short it is all about the institutions and practices that maintain our god of political process. It is all about the kinds of things the West had to hammer out because of Martin Luther.

Part of what has made Trump such a potent political figure is that he contains within himself various incongruous streams of our conflicted consciousness that he embodies with flamboyant inconsistency

  • He postures himself as the defender of conservative religion without himself being a religious conservative in nearly any way (third marriage, crotch grabber, Playboy, etc.)
  • He embodies the self-validating “my individual truth is found within me” that has expression both on the left (“I define my own gender/sexuality/identity”) and the older cowboy expressive individualism (“I make my own rules and create my own destiny”) on the right.

Whether by ignorance or hubris he is, in a way imagining himself to be monarch and pope, at least in the late lonely hours of the White House left alone with Fox News and Twitter on his smartphone. The God of Political Process is shoved away and replaced by the God-within and the Donald as his instrument.

Is the God of Process Simply Another Idol?

The terror that Donald Trump is creating is possibly the fact that he is exposing the God of Process as vulnerable to the panoply of human religions. Our dualistic thinking falls short as we begin to recognize that humanity is ardently polytheistic when it comes to our gods.

  • Donald Trump is feared because he’s finally his own god who first brings chaos and then attempts to bring order by his own word, which 60% of Americans find to be selfish or incoherent. Might he destroy the God of Process and himself become a tyrant? (Research the background story of Plato’s Republic.)
  • Mike Pence is feared because he seems like a theocrat who will employ the God of Process as a shill for old Cold War Christendom
  • Obama/Clinton (she tried to run on his legacy remember) is feared they too will subvert the God of Process and use it to enforce Progressive Liberationism as a new religion. Many who voted for Trump did so because they feared this god more than they feared him.

What a God is For

Lately I’ve been pondering the wave Jordan Peterson is surfing. Peterson invites secular, even atheists to once again reconsider ancient religion and mythology. He notes that we seem to have a persistent need for a god or gods to locate truth, authority and justice beyond our grasp. He notes that the great insight of the post-Constantine Roman Christianity was to not confuse the man sitting at the top of the political hierarchy with with ultimate. Christian emperors could not be divinized. Why not? Read the OT books of Samuel and Kings. The deep message of these books expressed in the persistent demand that Israel’s shepherds obey God’s decrees lays the foundation both for Christian emperors and the post-Enlightenment God of Political Process. It is found in the anti-Trump cry from the right and left “no man is above the law”. It was found in that same cry against Obama from the right.

What Itch is Jordan Peterson Scratching

Jordan Peterson listening atheists who re-consider Christianity get caught on horns of the big question dilemma that Donald Trump is testing. Is it sufficient to divinize a process? Can a human process actually be safe from tyranny? If we made it, can’t we also destroy it and if it is in danger then aren’t we always vulnerable to ourselves? Is there no place to run and hide?

The reason Peterson gets a listen from atheists is because he has so far coyly avoided the third rail of atheism, Taylor’s buffered self and immanent frame. We feel safe from God if he is an idea, or a construct, or an archetype. The integrity of personhood can resist such a thing, as Donald Trump illustrates daily on Twitter. What we finally, however, have no defense against is the person, which is the point of CS Lewis’ observation on pantheism. When Jordan Peterson invites his follows to “act as if it is true”, he offers them a fig-leaf to re-enter the enchanted world.


God is finally for a hope beyond ourselves, a protection from ourselves and our neighbors when we are confronted by pluralisms we don’t like.

  • Luther destroys the medieval consensus and unintentionally seeds a secularism that offers new answers to the pluralisms tolerated by the medieval church.
  • Luther offers the Bible as an antidote to institutional corruption but that antidote yields institutional pluralism and a marketplace of religious ideas and institutions.
  • The Bible is rescued from the attempt to turn it into an idol by a pervasive interpretive pluralism which cannot be dispelled by “scientific” approaches to its interpretation. It will not become a paper god.
  • The West divinizes political process as a means of taming religion but Trump (as have many others in the past) exposes the God of Political Process as insufficient to finally protect us from ourselves.
  • Pervasive Interpretive Pluralism that rescued the Bible from idolatry seeds the post-modern skepticism regarding texts. Jordan Peterson is attempting to rescue the Bible from the post-modernists through Piaget, Darwin, Jung, Nietzsche and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

All of this drives us back to the seemingly everlasting questions we find the Bible dealing with. What are we here for? Does God speak? What does he want? How should we live? Where can we find security and meaning and what will the trade-offs be?

If you’re still reading you have both my appreciation and my sympathy for enduring this meandering, stream of consciousness posting by which I am just trying to record my ponderings on the world while the wine country burns.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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