The Devil in the Details
Michael Massing’s attempt to explain the enigma of American evangelical support for Donald Trump [“How Martin Luther Paved the Way for Donald Trump,” May 14] appears to be a straightforward case: Martin Luther’s reform efforts were in fact a faux-populist desire to make Christianity great again, a desire unconsciously transmitted to evangelicals through their indebtedness to Luther’s theology and inflamed now by Trump. In Luther, Massing finds the missing link connecting Trump’s personality to theologies that for him define American evangelicals. Thus, by believing as Luther believed, American evangelicals unwittingly became expectant watchers for a leader like Luther, found in Trump.
Luther would wholeheartedly agree with Massing’s view that our beliefs have unintended consequences. False doctrine, however abstract, if sincerely believed could result in something as tangible as the mass exploitation of people. Or so Luther argued in his epochal work, the 95 theses. There Luther questioned the power afforded indulgences, which for him had supplanted the Gospel, the better to fleece the laity. Luther challenged why the pope sold indulgences rather than dispense them freely, and why he built St. Peter’s Basilica “with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep” rather than his own money. The threats of excommunication that followed did not dissuade Luther, for concerns about his own well-being rarely entered his consideration. Most know his famous stand at Worms, but few recall his subtler braveries, such as leaving hiding to calm a riot by preaching patience for those we disagree with, or housing a bitter enemy in his hour of need.
If the above does not sound like Trump, it is because historical figures are rarely as simple as our need for caricatures to service easy explanations. And Massing’s Luther is a simple one, stripped of his complexity and world to help make sense of our own. Many works already published can correct Massing’s factual and interpretive errors; here, let’s consider some of his omissions. To arrive at his simple Luther, Massing ignores how commonplace crass rhetoric was in Luther’s time. He dismisses Luther’s most popular writings in favor of obscure works, some virtually unknown until the 20th century. He appears unaware of Luther’s foundational “theology of the cross” and insistence upon suffering for the neighbor in love. Lost is Luther’s criticism of those like Trump, whom he called theologians of glory for preferring “works to suffering, glory to the cross, strength to weakness,” being blinded by hate and self-love.