On Halloween, exactly 500 years ago, a Roman Catholic monk nailed a piece of paper to the door of the All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The paper contained 95 revolutionary opinions, called theses. If he were alive today, he would have posted his opinions on Facebook. Or sent 95 Tweets.
The monk was Martin Luther, and his posting started the Protestant Reformation, a movement that led to the creation of denominations such as the Lutherans, Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists and Pentecostals. But the Reformation was every bit as political as it was religious.
Clergy in the Roman Catholic Church were not the only ones upset with Luther. Political leaders had issues as well. The Holy Roman Emperor declared him to be an outlaw and a heretic, and Luther might have been killed if a prince had not given him protection. This allowed Luther to embark on a 10-year project of translating the Bible into German.
At the time, the Bible used by the church was written in Latin, which very few people could read. When Luther created a German Bible, he made Scripture accessible to the masses. Suddenly, literate Christians in the German-speaking world could read the Bible for themselves, and come up with their own interpretations. The individualism unleashed by the Reformation continues today with the diversity of religious and political opinions — some divisive and destructive — that appear online every day. Luther released a genie that we’ll never get back in the bottle.
Even the term “Protestant” has roots that are more political than religious. When the Holy Roman Emperor put pressure on the rulers of the German states to turn against Luther, a number of princes issued a protest, saying that their duty to God was higher than their duty to the emperor. Because of this stand, their opponents labeled them Protestants, a term that eventually spread from politics to religion.
Despite his clashes with the emperor, Luther was not anti-government. He understood that society could not be ruled by Christian principles alone, and acknowledged that civil powers had a role to play. “A man who would venture to govern an entire community or the world with the gospel would be like a shepherd who should place in one fold wolves, lions, eagles, and sheep,” he said. “The sheep would keep the peace, but they would not last long.”
At the same time, Luther believed in speaking the truth to political power. “Christ has instructed us preachers not to withhold the truth from the lords,” he insisted, “but to exhort and chide them in their injustice.” Speaking to civic leaders, he said, “We will suffer what you do to us, but to keep still and let it appear that you do right when you do wrong, that we cannot and will not do.” Today, preachers such as William Barber, one of the founders of the Moral Mondays movement in North Carolina, have followed Luther in exhorting and chiding leaders for injustice. It was no accident that the greatest Civil Rights leader of the 20th century was Martin Luther King, Jr.
The Reformation has also shaped our practice of democracy. On a recent episode of “Jeopardy,” the answer appeared, “John Knox led the establishment of this branch of Protestantism that uses a system of elders to govern.” Question: “What is the Presbyterian Church?” The Presbyterian form of church government had a profound effect on the formation of representative democracy during the American Revolution. In fact, the uprising was a “Presbyterian rebellion,” from the English perspective — a Maryland loyalist named Isaac Atkinson called the revolution “a religious dispute and a Presbyterian scheme.”
So Presbyterians are heirs to the Reformation tradition that people can exhort and chide their leaders for injustice, but also rule themselves through representative democracy. According to this tradition, citizens should point out the errors of leaders and give them the opportunity to change, but if not — vote them out. Those of us who are Virginia voters will keep that in mind when we go to the polls on November 7.
The American way is based on the Presbyterian way — a political stance built on the foundation of Protestant religious conviction. Martin Luther may have been trying to reform the Catholic Church when he nailed his 95 Theses to the church door, but he ended up planting the seeds of a democratic society that is still growing, and still full of problems and possibilities.