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

Original Article

When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany in 1517, 500 years ago this week, 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 started by Luther set in motion an awakening that stimulated an unusual concentration of human genius and extraordinary wisdom that would culminate in the birth of a new nation — one unprecedented in human history, dedicated to upholding its citizens’ unalienable rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. If there had been no Reformation, there would be no United States as we know it today.

American history from the very beginning — with the Anglicans settling Virginia, the Puritans and Presbyterians settling in New England, the Reformed Dutch settling in New York, and the Quakers settling Pennsylvania to name a few — is inextricably linked to the Protestant Reformation. To understand the relevance of the Reformation, let’s revisit its core ideas and central figures and assess what is happening today.

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 conscience in religious matters. In addition, Luther introduced the radical notion of human equality in a “priesthood of all believers.” With obedience to authority and class stratification 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 and equality of all believers, regardless of class, was the proper basis for religious and political life.

After Luther, it was John Calvin of Geneva 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. A majority of America’s Founding Fathers had read and probably memorized a brief summary of Calvin’s theology contained in the Westminster Catechism because in those days it was part of the curriculum of almost every school. Calvin’s most important work, the multi-volume Institutes of Christian Religion, was cited by John Adams, Ben Franklin, Alexander Hamilton, and James Madison in their correspondence and deliberations over the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution.

After the American colonies won the war of independence from Britain, the real work of forming an effective government for the United States began with the Constitutional Convention of 1787. That was no easy task for the 55 delegates who convened 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 the convention delegates could muster the tolerance and big-mindedness to agree on 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’s culture has been progressively enveloped by “political correctness” — which restricts discussion to stereotypes and requires that all social and political reality be seen through a particular “lens.” The politically-correct agenda has been advanced by manipulating the meaning of language, while it has also been helped by a public conditioned to ignore reality and common sense and accept distorted and even false narratives.

Because political correctness narrows the range of political thought, 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.

Today’s problems are also compounded by social media, which has many benefits, but also tend to promote groupthink conformity that marginalizes and silences opposing and independent voices. Because most people avoid inviting criticism, denouncement or being bullied, there is a “spiral of silence” on social media, which reinforces the default groupthink of what is trending and what appears to be the social and cultural majority.

As we survey the popular culture in America today, we get a sense that the Reformation that ushered in an unprecedented appreciation of both freedom and equality, as well as a deeper and more personal relationship with God the Father, has not completed its destiny. Indeed, in the last two or three generations there has been a significant regression of some of the Reformation principles and basic common sense that was endowed by God the Creator, both of which flourished in early America.

History shows that the great leaps forward in progress were almost always spurred by individuals who had original ideas and the courage to challenge the assumptions and stereotypes of their times. May this 500th anniversary of the Reformation be an occasion to commit to a spiritual revival and a renewed passion to protect our nation’s freedoms and rekindle the liberty of conscience that elevates tolerance, original thinking, courage and character.

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.