Historian Niall Ferguson on the roots of today’s political polarization

Historian Niall Ferguson argues that today’s political polarization echoes the religious polarization of the Reformation. Both were brought about by technological disruption: The printing press, in the case of the Reformation; and the personal computer and internet, in the case of today. From Niall Ferguson’s Long Now Seminar “Networks and Power”: http://longnow.org/seminars/02018/nov…

Billy Graham, Cold Warrior for God

The German press nicknamed him “God’s machine gun” for his aggressive, staccato preaching, but the name also fit for deeper reasons. Mr. Graham described these trips as “crusades” and saw West Germany as ground zero in what he called “Battleground Europe,” a Cold War fight to redeem the “land of Luther” from its Nazi past and secure its future as a stronghold for American-style democracy, capitalism and evangelicalism.

.. Billy Graham’s culture wars are inseparable from his role as an international Cold Warrior. He wasn’t just America’s pastor; he was God’s Cold War machine gun.

..  “Berlin is prayed for in the world more than any other city,” he declared, calling the city “a battleground, a continent for conquest” — not for earthly power, as the world wars had been, but a new battle “for the hearts and minds of the people.”

..  he affirmed that West Germans were his “brothers in arms” literally as well as spiritually. To strengthen a Christian democratic West against a godless Soviet East, he cast his weight behind German rearmament.

.. Mr. Graham portended a similar Americanization of German religion with its emphasis on conversion and its use of modern communication technologies for evangelism.

.. Some Germans deemed Mr. Graham a Hollywood huckster who, as the German news media put it, “advertised the Bible like toothpaste and chewing gum.” Others sensed an unnerving parallel between his mass gatherings and Germany’s fascist past.

.. “Religion for Mass-Consumption,”

.. argued that Mr. Graham’s real goal was to steer souls away from Communism more than toward God

.. German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller and the American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr ..  protested Mr. Graham’s equation of Christianity with America, anti-Communism and free-market capitalism

.. After the Watergate scandal, Mr. Graham withdrew from political debates and returned to his early focus on simply “preaching the gospel.”

A word too far? Some evangelicals may have reached the breaking point with Trump.

Trump is, however, very much what the religious right has long rejected. The moral majority from which modern evangelical political activists descend rose in response to the immorality of the 1960s and ’70s. Sensing that American norms and morals were quickly changing for the worse, Jerry Falwell Sr. and others rallied to push back against a culture embracing sex outside of marriage, pornography and licentiousness. So it is no small irony that Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr., helped rally many evangelicals to a man who embodies all the things Falwell Sr. stood against. Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, even posed with his wife in front of an old cover of Playboy that featured Donald Trump.

.. Scripture commands we care for the widows, the poor, the orphans and the refugees, but some of the president’s evangelical supporters are cheering on the government breaking apart families through immigration policies.

.. a large number of evangelicals have convinced themselves that their politics and faith are two separate things and they can champion a politician like Trump without it affecting their souls or salvation. They have rationalized their way into a bastardized version of Martin Luther’s two kingdoms theology.

.. These evangelical activists believe God has ordained the two governments and never the two shall meet, so what they do in politics has no bearing on the church or the advancement of God’s kingdom.

.. This will keep a solid base of shallow evangelicals for the president, but Trump won the electoral college by only 70,000 votes spread over three states, while losing the popular vote. There is a sizable though overlooked minority within evangelicalism, and they threaten not just the president’s power, but the GOP’s majority.

.. A subset of evangelicals are increasingly attracted to a Protestantism that derives from reformed theology. The GOP is risking losing some of these “reformed evangelicals.”

.. The party was supposed to be the party that championed the concerns of people of faith. Instead, it is a party that demands people of faith support a party ahead of their God.

.. The point is Trump believes people from these countries are undesirable immigrants. Many reformed evangelicals now have children from those countries, have funded missionaries to those countries, and consider citizens in those countries their partners in ministry and mission. Trump’s attack is an attack on their work to glorify God and care for their children. They believe all people regardless of nationality and background are made in God’s image and deserve honor and respect.

 

Luther’s 95 Theses, 500 Years Later: A Mixed Legacy

it would do well to learn from Luther’s inability to control the revolution he somewhat unwittingly inspired.

.. The Lutherist reformers spurred the bloody peasant revolts; Burkean liberals yielded to radical revolutionaries; Girondins yielded to the Jacobins until in turn the Jacobins ate their own; the Mensheviks yielded to Bolsheviks and catalyzed the deaths of nearly 100 million people. And here on the American right, the Bannonites see our current “establishment” and vow to “burn it down,” without having any real idea how or what to build on the embers.

.. Luther originally posted his theses while expecting his mission to be within a long and honorable tradition of reform within the existing (Catholic) church.

.. Before Luther died, the church’s own Council of Trent had begun its deliberations, which in effect led to acknowledgment that Luther had been right about the abuse of indulgences and other clerical corruptions.

And 500 years later, what became his signature theological doctrine, “justification by faith,” was largely (if with slightly different emphases) affirmed by the Catholic Church itself.

.. (Luther, for example, believed that while the Eucharistic bread and wine did not physically change into the body and blood of Christ, it still contained, spiritually and fully, Christ’s “real presence.” Karlstadt went farther, saying that the Eucharist was merely symbolic.)

.. When well over 100,000 peasants died in a fruitless quest for greater rights, Luther was aghast at what he had wrought (while strongly denying that he was the instigator).

.. For the last 30 years of his life, the disputatious Luther was in constant battles, largely unsuccessful, to control the forces both theological and cultural that he had unleashed. He argued not just against the pope’s hard-liners but against earnest reformers such as Erasmus who wanted to hold the church together; he argued on the other side against Protestant radicals such as (in addition to Karlstadt) Zwingli, Calvin, Muntzer, and the Anabaptists ..

.. He brought to the masses a belief that individuals of any class were commissioned to think about and understand the deepest questions for themselves, with the “freedom of a Christian” leading inevitably to a popular taste for, and later an insistence on, political freedom as well. (The political theories associated with the Enlightenment clearly owed much to seeds sown by Luther.)

Who Won the Reformation?

and while the disreputable sort of Calvinist and the disreputable sort of Catholic still brawl online, in official ecclesiastical circles the rule is to speak of the Reformation in regretful tones, like children following a bad divorce who hope that now that many years have passed the divided family can come together for a holiday, or at least an ecumenical communion service.

Meanwhile, the secular intelligentsia can only really celebrate the Reformation’s anniversary in instrumental terms. From the perspective of official liberalism, most of the Reformation fathers were fundamentalists and bigots, even worse in some cases than the Catholics they opposed. So for the Lutheran and Calvinist rebellions to be worth memorializing, it must be as a means to secularizing ends — the liberation of the individual from the shackles of religious authority, which allowed scientific inquiry and capitalism to flourish, made secular politics possible, and ultimately permitted liberalism to triumph.

.. a world that was built on the wreckage created by Christian civilization’s civil war. Neither the Protestants nor Catholics won that war between the faiths: The instrumentalists did, the Machiavellians, the Westerners who wanted political and economic life set free from the meddling of troublesome priests and turbulent prophets.

.. 500 years after Luther threaded his 95 tweets together and pinned them to a door in Wittenberg, it’s their propaganda that deserves the most scrutiny, the most skepticism, the strongest doubts.

At the heart of that propaganda is a simple story about authority and the individual. First, this story goes, Protestantism replaced the authority of the church with the authority of the Bible. Then, once it became clear that nobody could agree on what the Bible meant, the authority of conscience became pre-eminent — and from there we entered naturally (if with some bloody resistance from various reactionary forces) into the age of liberty, democracy and human rights.

.. The Reformation and its wars did indeed diminish religious authority, secularize politics and allow certain kinds of individualism to flourish. But they also empowered (and were exploited and worsened by) the great new gods of modernity, the almighty market and the centralizing state, which claimed their own kind of authority

.. eventually revived the worst tendencies of the old Christendom, anti-Semitism and millenarianism, in fascist and Communist experiments that added the genocide of millions to the modern state’s list of crimes.

.. because Cromwellism, mass murder in the service of secular power and commercial wealth, has just as strong a claim as liberty or individualism to define the world that succeeded Christendom’s collapse.

.. It is also possible to imagine a world where an undivided Roman church harnessed science and technology to its own sort of religious-totalitarian ends, and became a theocratic boot stamping on a human face, forever.

So perhaps the modern world as we know it was the best we could do, the only path to liberty and pluralism and mass prosperity, however many Cromwells it required to get here.

.. But my own (biased, Catholic) guess is that given the technological and social changes already at work in early modern Europe, the great new modern powers, the state and the commercial interest, would have come to bestride the world no matter what happened to Christian unity.

.. the history of Western colonial ventures, in which for hundreds of years it was mostly the intensely religious (as compromised and corrupted as their churches often were) that remonstrated against mass murder and enslavement, that sought to defend natives and establish norms for their protection

.. What are our pan-national institutions, our United Nations and European Union, all our interlocking NGOs, if not an attempt to recreate a kind of ecclesiastical power, a churchlike form of sovereignty, on the basis of thinner, less dogmatic but still essentially metaphysical ideas — the belief in human dignity and human rights?

.. But they are a made-up religion whose acolytes at some level know it — and the thinness of their metaphysics, their weak claim on human loyalties, makes them mostly just a pleasing cloak over the dark power that’s actually stabilized the modern world, the terrifying threat of nuclear war.

Nobody listened to Luther at first. That’s why he succeeded.

He was able to build his support only because it took so long for word to spread.

.. A simplified version of the Reformation that many people hold in their heads typically goes something like this: Disgusted by the corrupt sale of indulgences, Martin Luther rose up against the practices of the Roman Catholic Church. And thanks to Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press, he was able to get his message out quickly and widely. In this way, the historical anniversary we observe this week is as much about a communications revolution as it is about a phase shift in Christian theology.
 But study the process by which Luther developed, refined and published his ideas, and you stumble on another, overlapping truth. While Luther was indeed able to leverage a communications technology unavailable to his reform-minded predecessors, he did the vast bulk of his work in isolation at the friary of the Hermits of St. Augustine. And even once he’d gone public, it took years for religious authorities to fully digest the importance of his ideas.
.. But Luther’s legacy as one of history’s most influential thinkers shows us that there are certain epic projects — such as the systematic rethinking of foundational dogmas — that require time to mature and space to germinate before they are safe for universal exposure.
.. Luther’s first set of theses — not the famous 95 titled “Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” but a more plodding 99 denouncing Aristotle’s influence on Christian theology — was almost completely ignored.
.. Luther waited, pathetically, for many weeks, expecting some form of appreciation or critique from fellow scholars. Even when he produced his more provocative set of theses in October 1517, it took more than a month for any feedback to roll in — despite Luther’s efforts to move things along by sending personal copies to local bishops.
.. But news still traveled by horse and cart in the 16th century, and this fact was critical for Luther. Indeed, it probably saved his life and his ideas — because it meant that he could win over the town before the district, his fellow monks before strangers, Germans before Italians.
.. What sympathy he attracted in his early days was owed, in part, to the intellectual and social capital he’d earned from those who knew him personally and had heard him preach. Many of these friends and admirers took extraordinary risks to defend him, which in turn gave others courage do the same — a cycle that gradually expanded his sphere of support outward from Wittenberg.
.. What sympathy he attracted in his early days was owed, in part, to the intellectual and social capital he’d earned from those who knew him personally and had heard him preach. Many of these friends and admirers took extraordinary risks to defend him, which in turn gave others courage do the same — a cycle that gradually expanded his sphere of support outward from Wittenberg.
.. Cardinal Cajetan formally examined Luther at Augsburg. But that was not done until mid-October, more than a year after Luther published his theses.
.. one of Prince Frederick’s protective strategies was to ensure that Luther got his hearings on German soil, where his ideas could be better understood in the context of local complaints about Rome’s arrogance.
.. Luther took the standing-room-only crowd by surprise, for instance, when he lapsed into common German during his debate with theologian Johann Eck — a tactic then seen as taboo among doctrinaire church officials.
.. The Catholic Church was very much alive to the threats from heretics and schisms, and had procedures in place for dealing with them ruthlessly. But the apparatus could work only as fast as the reports that fed it.
.. It wasn’t until early 1521 that he was formally excommunicated — more than three years after he composed his 95 theses. And by then, as we now know, it was too late to snuff out his influence.
.. These networks make us more professionally productive and accountable. But they also can make us more cautious, since we know that any new idea can expose us to instant censure from complete strangers in other parts of the world who know nothing of our local circumstances. This phenomenon goes by different names — groupthink, political correctness, herd mentality. But in every form, it serves the interest of the orthodox and frustrates the heretic.
.. The same miraculous technology that allows would-be reformers to communicate their modern, pluralistic interpretations of Islamic liturgy also allows hard-liners to brutally suppress them.
.. Even in my Toronto neighborhood, in the heart of one of the most liberal and tolerant nations on Earth, a friend of mine who leads a group of ex-Muslims takes pains not to reveal the location of her monthly meetings, lest such information attract the attention of extremists on the other side of the planet. If modern Islam had its Luther, we might never know, because he could be silenced, or worse, before his ideas could take root.
.. Luther lived in that historical sweet spot between the invention of the printing press and the invention of the telegraph, when communication was not quite too fast nor quite too slow. As such, he was able to tune out the noise of history — not to mention the threat of death at the stake — and transform his demons into an idea that set the world ablaze. Since then, there has not been a religious revolutionary like him. My guess is there never will be again.