This article is based on a talk given at Aarhus University, Denmark, at a conference on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, May 21, 2017. Part I on the Lutheran phase of the Reformation is here. Part II on the Reformation and the origins of identity politics is here.
The Reformation and the Birth of Modern Liberalism
A third consequence of the Protestant Reformation was its role in the emergence of modern liberalism as a political doctrine. In this respect, it was not doctrine as much as the accidental chain of real-world consequences of the Reformation that led to this result.
Liberalism is a political doctrine that begins with the premise that individuals are born with natural rights, which include the right to life, private property, and individual autonomy with regard to religion, speech, and other aspects of personal choice. Governments in this view are legitimate only to the extent that they protect those rights; there is no collective good or divine right of rulership that overrides these rights.
There was of course a doctrinal connection between Protestantism and liberalism, in the sense that Luther and other Reformation thinkers emphasized faith and the individual believer’s direct and unmediated connection with God. But it is also the case that early Protestant societies, both Lutheran and Calvinist, were anything but liberal in the sense we understand that doctrine today. As noted earlier, Lutheranism spread initially not simply through sermons and individual conversions, but as the result of princely power that simply imposed Protestant worship on often unwilling subjects. Calvin’s Geneva was essentially a theocratic dictatorship in which other confessions were not tolerated, and in which the state intervened in the private lives of its citizens to an extraordinary degree.
Modern liberalism emerged only in the second half of the 17th century as the accidental byproduct of the wars set off by the Reformation. With the rise of the post-Tridentine Church and the Counter-reformation in the second half of the 16th century, the Papacy, the Empire, and individual Catholic monarchs were willing to use force to contain the spread of the Protestant heresy. This led to civil wars across Europe, most notably in France, England, and above all Germany, where the Thirty Years War led to the deaths of perhaps a third of the German population in the first half of the 17th century.
Many of the doctrines underlying modern liberalism were born in England, as a direct consequence of the religious conflicts that culminated in the great English Civil War of the 1640s that pitted a heavily Puritan Parliament against a high-church Anglican Stuart monarchy and led to the beheading of King Charles II in 1649. Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan was published in the immediate aftermath of those traumatic events and became a foundational work in subsequent Anglo-American liberal thought. Hobbes argued that rights were not inherited or conventional, but inhered in human beings qua human beings. The most vivid human passion was the fear of violent death, which established the fundamental right to life itself. The social contract establishing the state is an agreement on the part of citizens to give up their natural freedom to deprive others of their lives, in return for protection of their own rights. The horizon of politics was thereby lowered: instead of seeking the good life, as determined by religious doctrine, the modern state would seek merely to preserve life itself and relegate disputes over the good life to private life. Though Hobbes and Locke represented different sides in an enduring controversy between English liberals and conservatives, the conceptual distance separating them was not great. John Locke accepted Hobbes’ natural right framework, and argued that governments could also violate those rights, leading to a right on the part of citizens to resist governments that did not receive popular consent. Political legitimacy in liberal societies would henceforth be based on “consent of the governed.” Locke directly influenced Thomas Jefferson and the American Founding Fathers, who declared their independence from Britain on the basis of the protection of their rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
Liberalism originated in a pragmatic compromise between religious factions that understood that they would be better off settling for religious tolerance than seeking their maximal goals of a religiously grounded polity. But the stability of this system depended also on the emergence of ideas that legitimated a regime preserving individual rights. Individualism was deeply ingrained in English culture from well before the Reformation, but the Reformation’s emphasis on inner faith cemented the view that all human beings were autonomous agents who were subject to God’s grace as individuals. In later years the religious component underlying notions of agency would erode, but the individualism would remain as a foundational principle of modern Western civilization.
The emergence of modern liberalism out of sectarian conflict has implications for the present. The early 21st century has seen the spread of not just terrorism on the part of Islamist groups, but also spreading sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shi‘a throughout the Middle East and beyond, funded and provoked by Iran and Saudi Arabia. There was no real liberal tradition in Muslim history; there was a degree of tolerance in Muslim societies as under the Ottoman millet system, but not a notion of individuals as rights-bearers untouchable by the state. Religion and the state tended to be less separated than in the Christian West. (The idea that such a separation was impossible in the Muslim world and native to Christianity is not historically sustainable, however; see Fukuyama 2011). How then will liberal politics be introduced into this region? The rise of liberalism in Europe may serve as a precedent: 150 years of unremitting violence prepared the ground in Europe for the spread of a more tolerant form of politics after 1648, as populations grew to realize that religiously linked states were a formula for endless violence. Liberalism was not a doctrinal or direct political child of the Reformation; rather, it was an adaptation to the reality posed by the decline of the Catholic Church’s universal authority and the spread of sectarian religious politics. One can only hope that this recognition will occur in a shorter amount of time than it did in Europe.