To hear some people talk, you would think that the birth of freedom, democracy, and the modern world started with the Protestant Reformation. In fact, the coincidence of faith and modernity has less to do with Martin Luther than with John Calvin, the reformer who had the audacity to question the rule of bishops and substitute the authority of presbyters (elders). According to Abraham Kuyper, in his oft-quoted Lectures on Calvinism (1898), “Luther never worked out his fundamental thought.” Only with the rise of Calvinism “can it be said that [Protestantism] has consistently and logically followed out the lines of the Reformation, has established not only Churches but also States, has set its stamp upon social and public life.” For Kuyper, Calvinism went hand in hand with constitutional liberties and its effects were obvious in the political systems of countries where Reformed Protestantism had taken root, namely, England, the Netherlands, and the United States.
If Kuyper, a Reformed minister and theologian before becoming the Netherlands’ Prime Minister, was guilty of cheering for the home team, similar estimates of Calvinism come from observers on the other side. Christopher Dawson, a Roman Catholic historian, identified similar connections between Reformed Protestantism and modern politics. The Harvard professor posited that democracy emerged from “the spiritual world of Calvinism and the Free Churches.” This was completely different from the “political and social outlook” of Lutheranism.” According to Dawson, the “genius of Calvin was that of an organizer and legislator, severe, logical, and inflexible in purpose.” Consequently, Calvin, not Luther, was the one responsible for inspiring Protestantism “to dominate the world and to change society and culture.”
Assessments of the Reformation and the classical liberalism associated with John Locke and the American Founding, whether positive or negative, are numerous with assertions that Reformed Protestantism contributed—often directly—to the structures that modern governments take for granted.
The problem, however, is that in the rush to assign credit or blame, the historical record suggests a less straightforward path from the Reformation to the modern world of republics, constitutions, freedom, and democratic elections. Consider the chapter on the civil magistrate from the Westminster Confession of Faith. The ministers and theologians who wrote this statement convened at the request of the English Parliament, a body that was at war with the English king, Charles I. The movers and shakers of Parliament were fed up with arbitrary and at times tyrannical rule of the Stuart monarchy, so much so that in 1649 they executed Charles for treason. This is another way of saying that the Westminster divines met in politically charged times and at the request of legislators who could well have overturned the existing political arrangements, in ways comparable to those of the colonists in North American 125 years later.
And yet, the Westminster Divines conceived of the civil magistrate in ways much more reminiscent of the Holy Roman Empire than a modern republic committed to protecting citizens’ rights. The twenty-third chapter includes this summary of the ruler’s duties (unclear is whether they meant Parliament or the king). It begins with the assertion that the magistrate may not “assume to himself the administration of the Word and sacraments, or the power of the keys of the kingdom of heaven.” That sounds promising to modern ears at least because few contemporary Christians would want, even the best of presidents, say, Abraham Lincoln or Barack Obama, to minister word and sacrament. But the Divines also attributed powers to the magistrate that would give the biggest Protestant fans of Lincoln or Obama pause. A magistrate, they wrote, has:
authority, and it is his duty, to take order, that unity and peace be preserved in the Church, that the truth of God be kept pure and entire; that all blasphemies and heresies be suppressed; all corruptions and abuses in worship and discipline prevented or reformed; and all the ordinances of God duly settled, administered, and observed.
Would anyone seriously want the president of the United States or even the governor of Kansas to make theological determinations that led to closing Mormon tabernacles? Or what about singing only psalms in worship? Should Congress pass a law? Yet, that is implicitly what the Westminster Assembly had in mind. For what it’s worth, the last assertion of this particular paragraph (23.3) conjures up images not even of John Calvin’s city council in Geneva but the first Christian emperor, Constantine. “For the better effecting whereof,” the Divines wrote, the magistrate has “power to call synods, to be present at them, and to provide that whatsoever is transacted in them be according to the mind of God.” That kind of authority goes well beyond even what moderators of a Presbyterian General Assembly or a Reformed Church Synod have. It does, however, more or less capture the dynamic between emperor and bishops at the Council of Nicea (325), the one called by Constantine and the one where his presence was in the background to deliberations about the Trinity.
If English and Scottish pastors and theologians as late as 1646, almost 125 years after Martin Luther’s initial provocations, were looking to Christendom in their understanding of the state, did the Reformation contribute in any meaningful way to the rise of the political structures that modern people, Christian and unbelieving, take for granted? The answer has much more to do with the political consequences that resulted from the rise of a church that rivaled Rome’s monopoly on European church life.
The effects of the Reformation on politics were evident on two fronts, one ecclesiastical and one civil. In the former case, Reformed Protestantism introduced a model of church government not seen since before Constantine’s conversion. Calvin’s Ecclesiastical Ordinances (1541) was a blueprint for presbyterian church government, with a delineation of four separate offices (pastor, teacher, elder, and deacon) that ruled over church affairs through councils or synods. Calvin was not creating a church government ex nihilo. He paid careful attention offices in the New Testament. What is more, the idea of ruling the church through councils, as opposed to the pope’s monarchical power, was influential during the fifteenth century. Then, as a remedy to the crisis of having two rival popes, one in Rome and one in Avignon, councils of bishops intervened and restored one pope to Rome. The larger effect of Calvin’s reflections on church government spawned the sort of presbyterianism that characterized national churches in Scotland and the Netherlands. In addition, the English Puritans were so skeptical of ecclesiastical power that they went all the way in the direction of congregationalism—which meant the autonomy of local churches and rule by ordinary church members.
If Calvin’s teaching on church government challenged the rule of bishops and pope, the rise of Protestant churches also gave civil magistrates incentives and leverage to act independently of pope and emperor. Put simply, the Reformation broke down Christendom, a vague order that put the pope at the top as Europe’s highest spiritual authority and that valued highly the Holy Roman Emperor as a recovery of Rome’s ancient glory with the added gloss of Christianity. With the rise of Protestantism in Germany, Switzerland, England, Scotland, and the Netherlands, for instance, local rulers were able to consolidate power and create national churches independent of Rome. These were mini-Christendoms where the ideal of a single faith guiding and strengthening the magistrate’s effort to create a peaceful and orderly society still prevailed. That is evident in the Westminster Confession. But these local Christendoms were no longer part of one greater Christian Europe.
Even the rise of national churches, however, did not include modern liberal developments that we associate with the American and French revolutions. The ideal of a united European society died hard and spawned religious wars that pitted both Protestants against Roman Catholics and Protestants against each other. The Peace of Westphalia (1648) established the norm of allowing each ruler to choose the version of Christianity for his territory and prevented him from trying to impose his ideals on other states. Those wars of religion, sometimes blamed exclusively on Christians when economics and politics were also at play, did encourage political theorists and some statesmen, to conceive of the civil realm without the need for religion. If Europe or colonies in North America, for example, were going to include a diversity of Christians and non-Christians, finding a basis for civil authority apart from explicit references to God made pragmatic sense.
Whether that process of segregating religion and politics inherently included the separation of church and state (or a high wall), leaders in the British colonies and even churchmen recognized that the Reformation’s teaching on the state would have to change. Evidence of Protestant alterations came from American Presbyterians who at the convening of their first General Assembly revised their Confession. Instead of a ruler with a duty to keep the church pure and the nation free from heresy, Presbyterians spoke of the magistrate’s responsibilities as a “nursing father” with a duty to protect all denominations. According to the American revisions, the magistrate was also supposed to protect all religions and even unbelievers:
It is the duty of civil magistrates to protect the person and good name of all their people, in such an effectual manner as that no person be suffered, either upon pretense of religion or of infidelity, to offer any indignity, violence, abuse, or injury to any other person whatsoever: and to take order, that all religious and ecclesiastical assemblies be held without molestation or disturbance.
That statement was a long way from how the reformers thought about civil rulers. It took almost 250 years for a modern liberal order to emerge from the Reformation’s initial steps to secure cities, republics, and kingdoms for reformed churches. The reason for delay was that Protestantism was not inherently a political. It instigated changes that eventually played out politically. But 1517 was not responsible for 1789.
D. G. Hart teaches history at Hillsdale College and is the author of American Catholic: The Politics of Faith in Cold War America (Cornell University Press, forthcoming).