The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation and What it Means Today

Originally published at The Orange County Register

When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, 500 years ago this October 31, he probably had no idea what forces he was unleashing. Although his intention was to spur reform within the Catholic Church rather than breaking off and starting a new church, he ended up accomplishing both. In fact the Reformation went further than Luther could have possibly fathomed, bringing about some of the most profound changes in human history.

American history from the very beginning — with the Anglicans settling Virginia, the Puritans and Presbyterians settling in New England and the Quakers settling Pennsylvania to name a few — is inextricably linked to the Protestant Reformation. To understand the relevance and meaning of the Reformation in America today, let’s start with revisiting its core ideas and central figures.

The drama starts with Luther, who after being expelled from the Catholic Church, stood trial, and stated publicly that it was wrong for anyone to act against his or her conscience in religious matters. With obedience to authority having been the norm for most of recorded history, Luther appeared to be either a fool or a subversive for proclaiming that liberty of conscience was the proper basis for religious and political life.

After Luther, it was John Calvin who contributed the most to advancing the depth and breadth of the Reformation. Calvin’s “resistance theory,” which justified the people’s right to disobey unjust rule, would later find expression in the Declaration of Independence. After the American colonies won the war of independence from Britain, the real work to form an effective government for the United States began. And this was a seemingly impossible task given the diversity of delegates attending the Constitutional Convention in 1787 — individuals who had conflicting and shifting positions in the midst of a depressed economy, rampant inflation of the Continental dollar, territorial threats, and even talk of secession by New England.

By today’s standards, it was nothing short of a miracle that 55 delegates to the convention could muster the tolerance and big-mindedness to agree on the substantive terms of the new Constitution in just four months. But as good as that Constitution was (and is), it had to be ratified by the states to become the law of the land. Fear of corruption and abuse of power from a central government caused several key states to withhold support until the Constitution was amended with a Bill of Rights — starting with the all-important First Amendment of protecting and tolerating freedom of speech, press and religion.

This being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation it’s appropriate to reflect on the present state of those freedoms embodied in the First Amendment.

In the last thirty years, America has seen its culture increasingly enveloped by what is known as “political correctness” — which amounts to a set of stereotypes by which all social and political reality should be understood. The politically correct agenda has been advanced by manipulating the meaning of language and terms, while also conditioning the public to ignore reality and common sense and accept distorted and even false narratives.

Political correctness also embraces narrowing the range of political thought. And this is why its adherents tend to be intolerant — seeking to shut down and silence people with whom they disagree on college campuses across the country, clamoring for removal of historic statues and monuments, and even demanding that people with opposing views on such subjects as climate change and gay marriage be silenced, fined or arrested.

Our problem now is also compounded by social media, which has many benefits, but also tends to promote a kind of groupthink conformity that marginalizes and silences opposing and independent voices. The part of human nature that prompts most to avoid being criticized or denounced, leads to a “spiral of silence” on social media, which reinforces the default groupthink of what is trending and appears to be the social and cultural majority.

Scott S. Powell

Senior Fellow, Center on Wealth and Poverty
Scott Powell has enjoyed a career split between theory and practice with over 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur and rainmaker in several industries. He joins the Discovery Institute after having been a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution for six years and serving as a managing partner at a consulting firm, RemingtonRand. His research and writing has resulted in over 250 published articles on economics, business and regulation. Scott Powell graduated from the University of Chicago with honors (B.A. and M.A.) and received his Ph.D. in political and economic theory from Boston University in 1987, writing his dissertation on the determinants of entrepreneurial activity and economic growth.