The old ways discarded, statues smashed, icons destroyed, what had been revered a short time ago now regarded as beyond the pale.
Sounds familiar? The Protestant Reformation is 500 years old this year, dated and symbolised by Martin Luther nailing his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg. (In fact we have only his fellow reformer Melancthon’s word, recorded decades after the supposed fact, that he did so. As befits a religion that relies solely on The Word, Protestants could spin a good narrative, as the Catholic hierarchy found out to its cost when evangelicals made devastating use of Gutenberg’s printing press.)
Commentators love to compare points in history, usually in the context of remarking on the ‘uncanny’ similarities between then and now, invariably as a tool for prediction. Of course in reality history never repeats itself so neatly: Brexit, for example, has often been compared to the English Reformation, because of the sundering of England from Rome. In fact the comparison is a shallow one: Brexit was a genuine ‘bottom up’ insurgency against a corrupt and arrogant supranational political class. Though it pains my – banished – Protestant soul greatly to admit it, the English Reformation was in fact far more similar in character to the ‘long march’ of liberalism and ensuing culture war that has so utterly routed social conservatism in Western societies since the 1960s, which has culminated in what Brendan O’Neill calls today’s ‘hippy dictatorship’. English Catholicism was not corrupt in the way German Catholicism was, and was a vibrant and integral part of English life. Although until very recently all good Protestant Englishmen (was there any other kind? – once a serious question if you were a Catholic) were brought up to believe it, there is little evidence of a widespread anti-clerical revolt on these shores. Instead, largely elite reformers turned the church inside out probably against the wishes of a reluctant population.
In comparison, Lutheranism was the real deal. A genuine popular uprising inspired by a brilliant theologian who used the new media to fight – and win – the arguments against a deeply corrupt Church that kept the general population in ignorance and fear. The Protestant Reformation that Luther inspired was of course not perfect and in England, at the outset, it was more of a political affair than a theological dispute. Protestants, too, could be intolerant; much art and architecture was needlessly smashed. Luther himself became increasingly anti-Semitic in his later years, according to some historians sowing the evil seed that eventually led to the horrors of Nazism 400 years later.
All that said, the Protestant Reformation must be regarded as a good thing; in Britain especially, despite our shaky and somewhat unprincipled start, it culminated in the Glorious Revolution and spread of civil and religious liberty – eventually, dare I say it, even for Papist idolaters – and paved the way for the Scottish Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution.
Today, we face a Kulturkampf every bit as profound as the Reformation, in fact a kind of secular counter-reformation. Corrupt and arrogant elites are subverting democracy and rebuilding the aloof and dictatorial supranational power structures of the pre-modern age. Just as the old Roman Church fought to keep the Bible in Latin, so modern media corporations seek to limit access to alternative viewpoints. Just as the old guard sought to keep sundered England as Catholic as possible, so the Remainer superclass seek to keep us wedded in all but name to their own secular mother church – Brussels. The individual liberty that the Reformation did so much to spread is being replaced by the cancer of identity politics, and the reason of the Enlightenment by emotionalism.
Catholics and Protestants are rarely enemies these days: we both have bigger and far more dangerous foes to fight. As we soldier on with our own revolution, it is fitting that we all celebrate the life of Martin Luther, 10 November 1483 – 18 February 1546, who stood because he could do no other, just as we should do so now.