Luther's Enduring Lessons to Europe

By Fabrizio Tassinari, Executive Coordinator, School of Transnational Governance, European University Institute, Florence, and Lars Vissing, Senior Analyst, Danish Institute for International Studies in Copenhagen. They are the authors of Living in Denial: The Cultural Factor in European Politics and History

FLORENCE and COPENHAGEN: As the 500th anniversary of the 95 theses by Martin Luther approaches on October 31st, Europe seems to have forgotten the lessons of the Reformation. The European Union has styled itself as a post-modern polity, where cultural alignment is the norm and the pursuit of gradual convergence among different countries serves the purpose of unity. But as Britain prepares to leave the EU, Greece tries to recover from the Euro-crisis, Germany from an unprecedented influx of refugees, and even as Catalonia tries to secede from Spain, the enduring legacy of the Reformation to Europe is that cultural differences ought to be taken seriously and handled with caution.

Max Weber’s hypothesis on the Protestant ethics of capitalism has drawn major attention to the Reformation as an ethical and cultural divide, but what do these contrasts actually amount to, before and after 1517? Luther initially saw himself as invested with Catholic legitimacy: his aim was to reform what existed, not to establish an alternative church. The abuse of the indulgences—the sales and purchases of penances for sins committed—represented an extreme exploitation of a very specific Latin cultural trait: the reliance on intermediaries. The clergy, the saints, and even Mary are all compulsory channels between God and the believer. The Catholic Church itself is based on the central role of a corpus of professionals, religious technocrats of sorts.

This type of hierarchy caused frictions in cultures, like that Northern European ones, that put a premium on direct links, strong local cohesion, autonomy, and self-reliance. The indulgences, in this respect, cut right through the middle of a governance gap: how communities run by principles of civil discipline and close participation ought to cope with a distant and mainly verbal authority, at a moment when words clearly did not match deeds. The Reformation was effectively sparked by a cultural stress-test gone wrong.

What followed was a long series of religious encounters and cultural conflicts. In 1518, it was direct confrontation, between the Church and Luther as an emerging heretic. In the intervening years, the discussions on substance deepened, with arguments about whether the Church needed to perform the Confession—as such the very epitome of an institution requiring intermediaries. Catholics and Lutherans started to look for compromises on anything from free will to the need for and methods of penance. The discussions surrounding the elimination of the Mass similarly revealed a fundamental cultural opposition: between the religious ostentation of the Roman liturgy, which theatrically separates the world in actors and spectators, and a more integrated Germanic culture assuming a more unitary, egalitarian space. There were genuine moments where confidence and trust between the parties could have led to a pragmatic deal. But as the ground of negotiation shifted from the theological to the political, Protestants and Catholics gave up on reaching a common interpretation.

The Reformation was not an outlier in European history but rather the epitome of a more fluid dynamics that has always been at play. The cultural distinction between Europe’s North and South was already apparent to ancient Roman historian Tacitus. Long after the Reformation, the Enlightenment provided some breathing space for a universalistic “cultural peace”. Yet, the following decades again revealed a confrontation between Prussian Lutheranism and Catholic conservation, not incidentally known as Kulturkampf.

Nor were the sensibilities of the Reformation alien to Europe’s South. In spite of the Latin penchant for nepotism and clientelism, Roman historian Titus Livy was uncompromising in his unconditional respect for what is “public”—the Res Publica. Florentine political theorist Niccolò Machiavelli stressed the political health of German and Swiss confederations as models of virtù, for others to follow. And his contemporary Francesco Guicciardini even admitted: “the positions I have had in the service of several Popes have forced me to love their grandeur… had it not been for this purpose I would have loved Martin Luther as much as myself.”

In today’s Europe, we often denigrate the search for mutually acceptable compromises, whether through language or diplomacy. European communiqués on anything from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to immigration read as half-hearted or watered down, but they are the result of a patient, persistent attempt to round off sharp national edges. Former European Commissioner Pascal Lamy exemplified this succinctly in relation to the attitudes in the ongoing Brexit talks: “the British still think this is a negotiation. It is not a negotiation. It is a process to be managed to minimize harm. It involves adjusting.”

On the other hand, exacerbating or abusing culturally-engendered red lines, whether by portraying German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Nazi fatigues or recommending Greece to mortgage its islands to pay off debts, has only led to more disagreement. Constructive ambiguity, in the form of diversions, manipulations or endlessly long procedures, is what has enabled Europe to advance and deepen its political project. From the creation of the common currency to the free movement of people, the European integration project is full of successful examples where countries were allowed to sign-up, while adducing exceptions or opt-outs, as they are known in Euro-speak.

When properly explained, these practices would be all the more valuable in a political season such as the present one, marred by exclusionary nativism and Manichean narratives, which deliberately simplify and preclude bipartisanship. The rise of anti-immigrant populist parties across the Continent is a chilling testament to this predicament. The fallout and uncertainty following the referendum proposing the secession of Catalonia from Spain similarly shows the perils of posing complex, nuanced questions of statehood, authority and representation in binary terms.

French philosopher Jacques Derrida famously saw in Europe’s “difference”, the making of a hybrid category of the political, where diversity becomes constitutive of a new socio-cultural whole. The EU’s own motto “United in diversity”, reflects this aspiration. But when seen through the lenses of actual historical experiences, the reality is much more mundane. Europeans have succeeded whenever they have accepted that deeper cultural factors, whether organized along national or regional lines, are in fact non-negotiable and that any prospect of cooperation has to accept this reality and indeed work around it. If there is one universal lesson from the Reformation is that any such a thing as a European “identity” resides in its systematic, relentless attempt at accommodating differences.

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