Theology is morality is politics is law—and whether or not it’s immediately obvious, the world is steeped in theology. In contemporary America, and especially in the more secular precincts of Western Europe, it seems unlikely that one could look at a property deed or a government budget and find, just beneath its explicit reasoning, traces of old theological disputes and their resolutions. But they’re there, and examining them offers a view of what might have been, had history—in particular, the Protestant Reformation, ignited 500 years ago this October by a German monk named Martin Luther—unfolded differently.
Luther cuts a perplexing historical figure. In various depictions, he is by turns fiery or meek, bombastic or shy, licentious or pious, revolutionary or reactionary, cunning or naively bewildered by what his high-minded remonstrance unleashed on the world. In Erik Erikson’s famous study of the early Luther, we find a young monk in the throes of an identity crisis that would eventually hurl Europe into a similar one; in Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand, we find Luther beset by tumultuous bouts of desolation as well as stunning moments of insight and clarity. Luther’s theology would place an emphasis on spiritual simplicity, but his interior life was anything but uncomplicated.
In Lyndal Roper’s new biography, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, he’s a charismatic, irascible German chauvinist with a temper as quick as his wit, who is caught somewhat flat-footed by the trajectory of the revolution he launched. Roper notes that major fractures would begin to appear among Luther’s followers less than a year after he defended himself at the Diet of Worms in 1521; three years later, the Peasants’ War broke out, a popular uprising fueled by the anti-authoritarian thrust of Luther’s ideas, and one that wouldn’t be rivaled in size in Europe until the French Revolution. Luther, Roper observes, initially castigated both the rebellious peasants and their feudal lords, but he eventually endorsed the cause of the princes, declaring the rebels “mad dogs” up to “pure devil’s work.” “With this stance,” Roper writes, “the social conservatism of Luther’s Reformation became apparent.”
This paradox—that the Reformation could birth a peasant revolt while its instigator rallied behind the princes—is a picture of Protestantism’s confusing political legacy in miniature. Protestantism arguably brought about many of the preconditions for the Enlightenment and liberalism, and at the very least introduced Europe to a headier skepticism of authority than had prevailed before. (Indeed, Roper credits the Reformation with sparking the secularization of the West.) On the other hand, the release of significant portions of life—namely politics and economics—-from the purview of religious authority may have expanded certain freedoms, but it didn’t result in a betterment of conditions for the most disadvantaged, even as it helped transform the Christian message into something far more internal and private than that of the earlier Church.