When Martin Luther posted his 95 theses on the church door in Wittenberg, Germany, in 1517, 500 years ago this Oct. 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.
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 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 advanced 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 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.
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, 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.
Today it’s appropriate to reflect on the present state of those freedoms. In the last 30 years, America’s culture has been progressively enveloped by “political correctness” — which restricts discussion to stereotypes and a “lens” through which all social and political reality should be seen. The politically correct agenda has been advanced by manipulating the meaning of language, while also conditioning the public to ignore reality and common sense and accept distorted and even false narratives. 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.
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 of their times. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is an occasion to commit to reviving a passion to protect our nation’s freedoms and rekindle the liberty of conscience that elevates tolerance, original thinking, courage and character.
Scott Powell is senior fellow at Discovery Institute.