Martin Luther, The Reformation,
and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World


Brad Gregory, (Harper Collins, 2017).


[4.1] Going Dutch: Restricting Religion and Unleashing Commerce

[4.2] Enlightenment, Enrichment, and a New Empire

[4.3] Founding Secularization: Religious Freedom in the United States

[4.4] Suspending Secularization: Tocqueville on Religion in America

[4.5] Advancing Secularization: The United States and Europe

[4.6] Separated and Diminished Religion, Secularized and Divided Society

[4.7] Free at Last?

THE REFORMATION is a paradox: a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society.

In the later seventeenth century and well into the eighteenth, most European rulers continued to regard religious uniformity as the ideal for a well-regulated state, even after the Thirty Years’ War and the English Revolution. Seeing the devastation wrought by such disruptions convinced them more than ever that religious division was dangerous. Sharing a common faith would support the obedience that rulers wanted in both the Protestant and Catholic regimes of Western Europe. And so political authorities continued to pursue religious uniformity, as did Charles II in 1660 when he reconstituted the Church of England or as Louis XIV did when he took measures against the Huguenots in France that culminated in the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685. For most political authorities, nonconformist religious minorities remained a problem.

New ways of trying to deal with the difficulties of the Reformation era did not emerge all at once. No European rulers, reeling from the Thirty Years’ War, made a beeline for modern liberal democracy or toleration or pluralism or capitalism. Not at all. In retrospect, we can see that scattered practices pointing in these directions started as early as the sixteenth century in local settings where Christians from different traditions rubbed shoulders. Encounters between Catholics and Protestants did not automatically lead to violence; Christians sometimes began hammering out face-to-face ways of putting up with heretics or papists they may have disdained or even despised. Their pragmatism in trying to work out day-to-day accommodations implies that they considered grudging coexistence better than disruptive hostility, let alone war.1

 In subsequent decades and indeed centuries, the ideas, behaviors, and institutions that contributed to secularization spread across Europe, unplanned and uncoordinated. They coalesced out of the countless human desires, decisions, and actions taken at the local level, which taken together contributed to uneven and piecemeal long­term developments. Often it’s harder to discern history’s gradual processes than its discrete events. In order to see them, we have to stand back and cast a wide gaze on changes across centuries. This is true as well of the unintended processes of secularization that followed the Reformation era; they did not emerge quickly or win the day suddenly in the seventeenth century or even the nineteenth.

Without a doubt, though, these secularizing trends, which developed over centuries, have dramatically transformed the Western world. Today in Europe and North America, no religion has anywhere near the public presence in or the influence upon society that Christianity exerted on European life during the Reformation era and, before that, the Middle Ages. A profound transformation has occurred. Because over the long term it resulted in vastly reducing religion’s influence in public life, the Reformation has had the overriding eventual outcome of bringing about secularization in Western society. It is a secularization that would have dismayed and confounded sixteenth-century Protestant reformers and their Catholic rivals alike, all of whom wanted to make their society and culture more thoroughly Christian, not less. But the conflicts that derived from their attempts to do so prompted decisions and actions that, despite their intentions, have made religion much less prominent in public life in the early twenty-first century. Ironically, their actions led to the reactions that have in turn led to this result.

This paradoxical, long-term process of secularization is the broadest and most far-reaching outcome of the Reformation era. Yet there have been other unintended consequences. Two of them we’ve already seen, both of which have endured since the seventeenth century and have been transformed along the way. The first concerns Protestantism, while the second involves the relationship between magisterial Protestantism and Roman Catholicism.

The first unintended consequence of the Reformation itself was the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism. Luther proclaimed the gospel as he understood it based on what he took to be the Bible’s clear, correct meaning. He did not set out to start his own church or to initiate a movement whose outcome would be the construction of separate Protestant churches at odds with each other. Neither did he want to open a Pandora’s box of competing interpretations about the meaning of God’s Word. But those are the things that happened right from the start of the Reformation in the 1520s as a result of his own emphasis on sola scriptura. The very same principle on which he based his rejection of the papacy and the Roman Catholic Church also inspired competing and contentious claims about the Word of God. Separate Protestant churches and rival readings of the Bible have persisted for five hundred years, all the way up to the present.

Between the end of the Anabaptist Kingdom of Münster in 1535 and the beginning of the English Revolution in 1640, persecution and the marginalizing of radical Protestants put a brake on the open-ended pluralism of Protestantism. But that open-endedness is obvious in how diverse Protestant churches and religious groups have proliferated under the political conditions of modern liberal democracies. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the United States since its founding in the late eighteenth century. This proliferation would have horrified Luther and Calvin, who were appalled already by the much smaller numbers of Protestants who disagreed with them in the sixteenth century.

A second major unintended consequence of the Reformation era came out of the relationship between magisterial Protestantism and Catholicism. Just as the reformers never intended to pave the way for any and all interpretations of God’s Word, so they never intended to facilitate endless doctrinal controversy or recurrent violence, let alone to divide Christendom itself. Neither Protestant nor Catholic leaders wanted this to be the outcome of the Reformation era. Catholic clerical and political leaders wanted the Catholic reforms that were already underway prior to 1517 to continue. They wanted as well a Counter-Reformation that would successfully suppress the Reformation, as medieval heresies had been suppressed, or would at least contain and control the new sixteenth-century heretics. And those Protestant reformers and political leaders who didn’t think the  apocalypse was nigh wanted the Roman Church to collapse and their own version of the restored gospel to triumph, whichever version theirs happened to be.

Neither happened. From the Catholic perspective, heresy was institutionalized in multiple forms. As far as Protestants were concerned, the Antichrist got a major second wind. The Reformation did not overcome or abolish Roman Catholicism; rather, it actually contributed directly if unintentionally to rejuvenating the Roman Church. While Protestants were rejecting Rome, missionaries from Catholic religious orders, at first Franciscans and then especially Jesuits, were spreading Catholicism more widely around the world than it had ever been spread before. Catholicism in its global diversity remains as much a part of the modern Western world as is Protestant pluralism. It would have chagrined both Catholic and Protestant leaders in the Reformation era to see how entrenched this unintended Christian split has remained. And Western Christianity remains divided today despite the many ecumenical efforts and achievements of the past half century.2

Throughout the modern era to the present, religion has remained a constant presence in Europe and North America. Here, then, secularization does not mean the disappearance or elimination of religion. It doesn’t mean merely a decline in the number of people who attend worship services or pray or say they believe in God. Instead, it refers specifically to the declining influence of religion in public life—all those areas of human life that in the Middle Ages and the Reformation era Christianity was supposed to inform: politics, law, economics, education, social relationships, family life, morality, and the culture at large.

Indeed, the story of how the modern era took shape in the Western world is fundamentally about how countless human decisions and actions contributed to secularization. This story has everything to do with managing and controlling religion precisely because in the Reformation era Christianity itself became such a wide-ranging problem. Disagreements about Christian doctrine and practice mattered so much because religion was about so much more than religion during this life, not to mention its implications for eternity. So when the disagreements gained social and political traction—as they  did in the Holy Roman Empire, France, England, and the Low Countries—the results were cataclysmic.

The basic solution to the problem, then, required finding ways to make religion’s disruptive and divisive elements matter less in public life. For centuries, Christianity had been embedded in all areas of human life and had been intended to influence everything. So moving toward a solution meant that its problematic elements or features would have to be disembedded from everything. What would that look like?

To separate religion from public life first required people to start conceiving of religion as something that could be separated from politics, economics, and social relationships. At the same time, they also had to conceive of politics, economics, and social relationships as things that could and should operate apart from religion. In short, religion itself had to be redefined and its scope drastically curtailed. This new way of thinking relegated religion to a combination of one’s interior beliefs, preferred practices of worship, and individually chosen devotional practices. These were fine, because they didn’t aspire to influence anything that was supposed to apply to everyone. They are essentially what we usually mean by religion today.

This redefining of religion went hand in hand with making religion an individual choice: individual religious freedom became possible because religion’s scope was greatly restricted. In the Reformation era individuals disagreed about religion, sometimes even within the same families, which meant that religious freedom would have to be protected at the individual level. This too represented a dramatic change from adhering to religious beliefs and practices that were meant to apply to everyone.

Religion, regardless of its content, could be tolerated so long as all who benefited from individual religious freedom agreed on its newly limited scope and agreed as well to obey the political authorities who extended and protected that freedom. Making religion a personal choice and restricting its scope made religious freedom as well as religious toleration possible. It also led to separating out many other areas of life from religion. Because restricting religion meant viewing it as separable from the rest of life, those who imagined restrictions on religion also came to imagine the rest of life as separable from religion. Restricting and redefining religion opened the way to secularization through separation, though in practice that detachment remains a complicated process that has been unfolding over centuries.

As an ongoing, long-term process, secularization also has an intellectual dimension. During the Middle Ages, Christian ideas about reality, human nature, and human life provided the intellectual backbone for Latin Christendom. The Reformation turned that backbone into a bone of contention. Theological controversies that opened in the 1520s remained unresolved in the 1650s, after the Thirty Years’ War and the English Revolution. How could entrenched religious opponents agree about human nature, morality, the nature of government, and other issues at once fundamental and divisive? They would have to agree to disagree; they would have to set aside their contentious religious views when they embarked on common endeavors. As a religious intellectual endeavor, theology would have to be separated from philosophy and the investigation of the natural world, neither of which could depend on anything divisively religious if either wanted to enlist Christian adversaries in a common enterprise.

It’s no accident that modern philosophy and the Enlightenment emerged in the seventeenth century as intellectual reactions to the problems of the Reformation era. Neither is it an accident that two major thinkers whose ideas have deeply influenced the modern world were themselves directly and adversely affected by the wars of more-than-religion: René Descartes (1596–1650), who was a soldier during the early phase of the Thirty Years’ War, and Thomas Hobbes (1591–1679), who took refuge in Paris during the tumult of the English Revolution.3

Seeking to avoid the theological controversies that followed in the wake of the Reformation, Hobbes, Descartes, and other influential thinkers turned to reason in order to ground morality, justify political authority, and conceptualize society. If descriptions of human beings and prescriptions for human life hoped to persuade people who disagreed about religion, these descriptions would have to avoid contentious references to religion. If you didn’t want just to keep preaching to the choir, you had to learn to sing a different song. In principle, secular philosophy would depend on reason and reason  alone. While people held different religious beliefs, they all shared the ability to reason, which would allow secular philosophy to avoid the theological controversies that had roiled Europe for more than a century. Or at least that was the plan.

This incremental—and largely piecemeal—process of secularization is the subject of this chapter. The aim is to trace how ideas, practices, and institutions central to modern liberal democracies are interrelated aspects of the ways that the modern Western world addressed problems inherited from the Reformation era. These intertwined ideas, practices, and institutions include individual freedom and autonomy, freedom of religion, religious toleration, the separation of church and state, secular public discourse, and the pursuit of human fulfillment through material well­being, none of which characterized the Reformation era.

Tracing the course of this historical trajectory will show why understanding that alien world from five centuries ago is crucial for understanding our world today. It will thus show why, regardless of your own beliefs and whether or not you’re a religious person, the Reformation remains relevant in the early twenty-first century.


[4.1] Going Dutch: Restricting Religion and Unleashing Commerce




The process of managing religion in order to address the problems of the Reformation era begins in an unlikely place: in a strange little republic at war with Europe’s most powerful monarchy, from which it has just declared its independence.

At a time when European monarchs are trying to consolidate and centralize their power, the Dutch Republic emphasizes local privileges and provinces. The new country has only around a million inhabitants and few natural resources. Large stretches of its territory are under water or subject to flooding. It has just rebelled against Spain, with whom it remains at war. Furthermore, it is home to multiple religious groups at a time when the Reformation has made religion an unprecedented problem.4 This isn’t the sort of place that looks poised to change Western history. Yet that’s what happens.

Religious freedom is an issue from the very beginning of the United Provinces of the Netherlands. According to the Union of Utrecht (1579), the Dutch Republic’s most important founding document, each province is allowed to address religion as it sees fit, without interference from the other provinces, “so long as each person shall be permitted to remain free in his religion and that no one shall be permitted to be investigated or persecuted for reason of religion.”5

The Union of Utrecht contrasts sharply with the Union of Arras, which mandates Catholicism as the established religion of the southern provinces in the Low Countries.6 The only exception to the religious policy proclaimed by the Union of Utrecht is that it prohibits the reestablishment or restoration of Catholicism by force. Shortly thereafter, in 1581, amid the ongoing strife of the war with Spain, Holland officially outlaws Catholic worship altogether.

Because the Unions of Arras and Utrecht diverge so sharply, more than a hundred thousand Protestant religious refugees—pushed by fear of persecution and lured by the prospect of religious freedom— move from the southern to the northern provinces in the years that follow. Immigrants come from elsewhere in Europe too, including many Lutherans from northern Germany and Scandinavia.

The economic impact on the cities in Holland, the leading province in the Dutch Republic, is immediate and dramatic.7 By the 1590s, Leiden, where the republic’s first university was established in 1575, becomes one of the leading centers for textile production in all of Europe. In the seventeenth century, Holland’s cities, newly teeming with immigrants, establish niches to capitalize on the suddenly booming Dutch economy. One such city, Gouda, produces huge quantities of cheap clay pipes for smoking tobacco, a New World import cultivated intensively in Gelderland, east of Holland. Delft becomes known for its ceramics, especially the signature blue-on-white designs inspired by Chinese pottery that Dutch merchants bring back to Europe.

 Holland’s biggest urban economic success story is Amsterdam. In the mid-1580s, as part of the back-and-forth conflicts of the ongoing war, the city benefits from the naval blockade of Antwerp, many of whose merchants relocate to Amsterdam. Within a decade, Amsterdam is on its way to replacing Antwerp as northern Europe’s leading center of commerce. Merchants develop and expand an already extensive shipping fleet long used to import grain, and in the seventeenth century the city becomes the maritime hub of the Dutch Republic’s fishing, whaling, shipbuilding, construction, and sugar-refining industries, among others. Amsterdam is transformed into the center of the world’s first genuinely global commercial empire. Its traders turn Holland’s lack of natural resources and coastal location into an advantage by looking outward.

Already in the 1590s, merchants are venturing across the Atlantic to the Caribbean and around the southern coast of Africa to Asia. Established in 1602, the Dutch East India Company, Europe’s first joint-stock enterprise, encourages investment and proves enormously profitable by pooling the resources of investors and limiting their individual risks in trade with Asia. Within the next decade, the Amsterdam Exchange Bank and Stock Exchange are set up, and the Dutch West India Company follows in 1621, sparking spectacular economic as well as demographic growth. In less than twenty-five years, the city’s inhabitants more than double, growing from 30,000 in 1585 to 70,000 in 1609. By 1622, just thirteen years later, Amsterdam tops 100,000, and by the 1680s its population more than doubles again to 220,000.8 In less than a century, the city grows seven times larger.

The Dutch economic miracle wouldn’t be happening if its most influential magistrates had tried to make Reformed Protestantism into the mandatory religion of the United Provinces, the way magistrates in the southern Netherlands are imposing and maintaining Catholicism. Throughout the cities in Holland, political influence, trade, and wealth all go together. Between 1600 and 1625, three-quarters of the forty-one men appointed to Amsterdam’s city government are involved in commerce.9 And Dutch trade is open to merchants and investors, buyers and sellers, from different religious backgrounds, for much is literally to be gained by this sort of religious toleration. Among the wealthy entrepreneurs are Calvinists, Arminians, Lutherans, Mennonites, Catholics, and even Jews.

Amsterdam’s powerful mercantile class buys into a solution to the defining problem of the Reformation era, a solution that facilitates profitmaking and includes religious toleration in exchange for a narrowed view of religion and restrictions on how it can be practiced. This directly concerns what the Union of Utrecht is interpreted to mean by being “free in your religion.” Soaring economic prosperity, coupled with permission to believe and worship in private as one wishes, appeals to beleaguered religious minorities; they understandably prefer it to banishment, imprisonment, or worse. By and large, non-Calvinist Christians are grateful.10 They have it a lot better than do the groups that are considered beyond the pale even in Amsterdam and are officially prohibited. These include Socinians (the predecessors of modern Unitarians, who deny the Trinity and the divinity of Christ) and atheists (an accusation leveled against the Jewish philosopher Spinoza).

By comparison, the situation is better for Amsterdam’s Catholics, although not as good as it is for Lutherans or Mennonites. By the second half of the seventeenth century, there are more than twenty partly clandestine Catholic churches in the metropolis, with masses being celebrated behind multistory brick facades that from the street look just like other canal houses. (One of them has been preserved and restored and can be visited today as a museum, called Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder—”Our Dear Lord in the Attic.”)11 In other cities the situation is often more difficult. Sometimes local officials accept “recognition money”—in effect, regularly paid bribes—to allow priests to say mass and administer the sacraments. On other occasions, they raid Catholics gathered for worship, arrest priests, and exact fines. 12

In Amsterdam too, Catholics have to pay off officials, but there you can be a prosperous Catholic, believing and practicing your faith behind closed doors. So long as you don’t dream of your religion influencing politics or economic policies or fantasize about staging a public procession on a feast day or organize a pilgrimage to a saint’s shrine, you probably won’t get into trouble. Sharing their religion with Spain, with whom their own country is at war until 1648, Catholics remain the most problematic of the tolerated religious minorities in the Dutch Republic. Lutherans and Jews, by contrast, receive permission to construct public places of worship in Amsterdam.13 Small wonder that Holland becomes renowned as a haven for religious refugees from elsewhere in Europe. It isn’t perfect if you aren’t a Calvinist, but by comparison there is no comparison.

The restrictions on religion affect the state-supported Reformed Protestant Church in a different way.14 It is the politically backed “public church,” yet the ruling magistrates in Holland’s cities and above all in Amsterdam don’t allow it to dictate the tenor of public life. Political authorities pay the salaries of Calvinist ministers, who have a monopoly on both public worship and the use of church buildings, which gives them a public presence and a source of support enjoyed by no other religious groups. But in contrast to almost everywhere else in Western Europe, you don’t face persecution or explicit penalties if you don’t belong to the public church. And most people choose not to belong, though the number who do grows during the seventeenth century. Consequently, during the new nation’s Golden Age, Calvinists are a paradoxical, politically privileged, state-supported religious minority in the Dutch Republic. Belonging to a church community no longer coincides with belonging to a civic community or being a political subject. Public social and political life are being separated from religious life as part of the secularizing process.

At the same time, this separation is made easier because Christians continue to share so much in common despite their particular religious differences. They’re divided over the interpretation of scripture, grace and salvation, the sacraments, the nature of the Church, and other contentious issues. But the vast majority of Christians still share the same fundamental ideas about marriage, family relationships, responsibilities to others, civic duties, and morality in promotion of a shared urban life and its day-to-day interactions. Some Protestants even make explicit appeals to basic Christian doctrines and piety to foster concord and coexistence.15

 But even in Amsterdam there remains no shortage of hard-core Calvinists who reject such appeals as a dilution of true Christianity. Similar to their English Puritan contemporaries, they dream of a city more in line with Calvin’s Geneva. But even while they try to attract more non-Calvinists into the Reformed public church, they don’t get their way. Amsterdam’s wealthy and powerful magistrates, related by intermarriage and commercial ventures, call the shots. And this mercantile oligarchy creates the most unusual urban experiment in Europe for addressing the problem of religion that follows in the wake of the Reformation. It marries a limited religious toleration and religious freedom with a restricted public church and a dynamic economy. Hundreds of men from dozens of families make spectacular fortunes through global trade in spices or luxury goods, armaments or slaves. Multiple generations of the Trip family, for instance, derive the core of their fortune from iron and armaments and later branch into commercial ventures and banking services. Two of the Trip brothers build a spectacular house on Amsterdam’s Kloverniersburgwal in the early 1660s, like other wealthy men who build along Amsterdam’s canals beautiful homes that four centuries later continue to project power and prosperity.16 But these families are just the most conspicuous tip of the iceberg.

What really makes Holland’s economic miracle miraculous—and its innovative solution to the problem of religion so eventually influential—is how many thousands of people literally profit from it. In Amsterdam and other cities in Holland, artisans, shopkeepers, lawyers, teachers, ministers, and merchants’ employees all get richer. With their money they pursue and buy more possessions. Thousands of them can even afford original paintings, such as the portraits and landscapes and still lifes that make Golden-Age Dutch art famous. It is an unprecedented display of more widely distributed social commercial power, and it contrasts sharply with the few wealthy patrons in the fifteenth century who commissioned Italian Renaissance art. Urban manual laborers in the Dutch Republic benefit also, enjoying increases in real wages of some 20 to 40 percent from the 1580s until around 1640.17

 Seventeenth-century visitors to Holland often comment on both its prosperity and its distinctive approach to religious pluralism. In a book-length description of the republic in 1673, William Temple, England’s ambassador to the United Provinces, writes that “as in other places, ‘tis in every man’s choice, with whom he will eat or lodge, with whom go to market, or to court; so it seems to be here, with whom he will pray or go to church, or associate in the service or worship of God; nor is any more notice taken, of what everyone chooses in these cases, than in the other.” Like eating or shopping, religion has become an everyday matter of individual choice. Temple states that its power “lies in every man’s heart” and that through it “everyone falls most into the company or conversation of those whose customs and humors, whose talk and disposition they like best.”18 In Temple’s estimate, religion in the Dutch Republic has become a matter dependent on your likes and dislikes.

At the same time, Temple makes clear that political authorities are anything but indifferent to religion. Knowing that religion can cause trouble—just as it had during the early German Reformation, among the Anabaptists at Münster, during the English Revolution, in the Dutch Revolt, and in the conflict between Dutch Calvinists and Arminians in the 1610s—magistrates keep watch on the gatherings of religious groups, alert to “anything that passes there to the prejudice of the state, in which case the laws and executions are as severe as against any civil crimes.”19 In other words, the authorities determine whether and when religion becomes objectionably political, and they take action if it does. They oversee religion and control it.

The urban magistrates of Holland, no less than Louis XIV in France or Charles II in England, are seeking to control religion. But they’re doing it very differently: through a public church that is not a state religion, combined with a redefinition of religion that restricts it to individually chosen beliefs, worship, and devotional practices distinct from politics, economic transactions, and social life at large. Religion is being separated from domains of human life in ways it had not been before. Compared to the coercion, persecution, and violence taking place elsewhere during the Reformation era, the Dutch stick isn’t too menacing and its carrot is appetizing: you get to worship in private with your fellow believers with less harassment, and there’s the prospect of payoffs regardless of your religious views in the booming Golden-Age economy.

The Dutch innovation provides not only different sorts of Christians but also Jews the opportunity to devote themselves to something besides religion. It turns out that regardless of their religion, almost everyone likes more and better material things. More and better possessions make their lives more comfortable as they pursue them according to their own preferred beliefs and priorities. Religion can no longer hold society together. That has become painfully obvious since the outset of the Reformation, despite repeated, determined attempts to make it work through political coercion and military force. But maybe a new vision of the good life as the goods life can substitute for religion, if everyone buys into it.

The Dutch turn conventional wisdom inside out. Tolerating false religion is supposed to provoke God’s wrath while fostering true religion is supposed to elicit divine approval, and the presence of multiple religious groups is supposed to be a recipe for conflict. The Dutch show instead that toleration of restricted religion combined with political obedience is a promising formula for peace and prosperity. No wonder their experiment appeals to religiously divided men and women! Whatever its shortcomings, it looks a lot better than the prospect of additional more-than-religious hostilities.

The widespread desire to gain more possessions, which fuels the embrace of economic ambition, departs in a striking way from the views of the major Protestant reformers as well as their Catholic counterparts and medieval predecessors. Luther was even more hostile to usury—the charging of interest on loans—than were medieval Catholic scholastic authors or their intellectual heirs in the sixteenth century. Calvin railed against showy dress, and in 1557, Geneva had approved loans at between 6 and 7 percent to restrain greed not stimulate it.20

In medieval Christianity, greed, or avarice, was one of the seven deadly sins. Jesus warned about it in the Gospels: “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15). Greed is denounced repeatedly throughout the Bible. When Dutch Calvinists, Catholics, Lutherans, and Mennonites start down the Golden-Age path to riches as the solution to the Reformation era’s problems of religion, they’re walking away from what scripture and more than fifteen hundred years of Christian tradition warned about: avarice, wealth, and the pursuit of possessions endanger Christian faith. As it turns out, down the road this aspect of secularization will continue to sell very well.

Not everyone is content among the seventeenth-century Dutch or thinks affluence comes without costs. Some Mennonites bemoan that their congregations are being harmed by toleration and the wealth that accompanies it. Through the hardships of persecution and martyrdom in the sixteenth century, Anabaptist communities retained a clear sense of community and a strong sense of identity, but over time toleration and assimilation risk sapping them of their spiritual strength. The most famous Mennonite martyrologist, Thieleman Jans van Braght, writes that life is more dangerous for their communities at the height of the Dutch Golden Age than it was in the sixteenth century. At that time Satan attacked them openly, but now he seduces them with the money and possessions that are pouring into Holland’s port cities from around the world.


[4.2] Enlightenment, Enrichment, and a New Empire


In the early seventeenth century the Dutch also are observing the natural world and using it in new ways—which is not surprising since these endeavors are closely connected to commerce and moneymaking. If you understand what plants, animals, and minerals are made of, you can figure out what they’re useful for and how to turn them into a profit.21 Observing and describing nature is available to Lutherans, Catholics, Calvinists, Arminians, Jews, and everyone else in equal measure. The same is true for charting the courses of the stars or figuring out the motions of the planets or determining that the physical forces involved with moving objects on earth can be represented with mathematical formulas.

Discussing such things in the early seventeenth century doesn’t involve broaching the interpretation of scripture or the nature of the Church; these things can be set aside. Investigating the natural world in pursuit of knowledge and truth can be bracketed from divisive doctrinal disagreements. Similarly separable from religion is technology. That is, rival interpretations of Christian doctrines matter little for how the new knowledge of the natural world can be applied to serve human desires—including desires for more possessions, comfort, and enjoyment. Not only in the Dutch Republic but just about everywhere else in Europe, people are keen on acquiring material things to make their lives more pleasant.

Across the channel from the Dutch Republic in England, Francis Bacon (1561–1626) thinks human beings should not just observe nature but actively intervene in it—experiment on it—in order to develop new ways to alleviate suffering and promote enjoyment. In France, René Descartes, who fought in the Thirty Years’ War, holds a similar view, as do many other Enlightenment thinkers in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Descartes conceives of the natural world as a vast mechanism of interconnected causes and effects. The better they’re understood, the better they can be turned to human advantage.

Whereas theology relies on divine revelation, philosophy and natural philosophy rely on human observation and reason alone, apart from revelation, which has divided Christians since the 1520s. Unlike theology, which shows no signs of resolving the controversies of the Reformation era, natural philosophy can actually be applied to get the things people want. Within modern philosophy and the Enlightenment lies a strong impulse to turn away from theology and toward the investigation of nature, to cordon off references to anything supernatural. Or at least to bracket the contentious aspects of theology, such as interpretation of the Bible, and issues that depend on particular interpretations of scripture, such as sin, grace, salvation, sacraments, ministry, and authority. This endeavor is called “natural theology”—talking about God on the basis of reason alone, without reference to revelation or scripture. Natural theology contributes to secularization by relegating more explicit, robust Christian theology to the sidelines, away from public life.

The mid-seventeenth century is a watershed not only in ideas but also in the principal motivations for war among European nations. In 1648 the Peace of Westphalia ends the Thirty Years’ War, which started in central Europe in the midst of fierce, more-than-religious tensions in the late 1610s. Between 1652 and 1674, however, the Dutch and English fight a series of three naval wars. Trade and money, not religion, animate these conflicts between northern Europe’s two leading Protestant powers.

These naval wars plus a costly land war, restrictions on trade, high wages, and other developments mark the 1670s as the decade when the Dutch magic begins to fade.22 Weak central institutions earlier served the United Provinces well, but now their absence has become a liability. Meanwhile, the English are headed in the opposite direction, despite their crisis of the 1680s, when James II, a Catholic, ascends the throne in 1685 and provokes considerable anti-Catholic consternation. Leading English Protestants invite William III of Orange and his wife, Mary, from the Dutch Republic to oust the papist king in the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688, which they do. (Five years later the first college established in England’s North American colony of Virginia will be named William and Mary in their honor.)

After English-Dutch conflicts in the previous decades, England’s relationship with the Dutch Republic becomes less belligerent but more controlling.23 In addition to gaining experience through their own maritime endeavors, the English have been trading with and learning from the Dutch for a century. Now they watch Dutch military and economic clout wane, and London replaces Amsterdam as Europe’s leading commercial city. The English wed the know-how they’ve acquired to a stronger and more ambitious empire of their own, one with many colonies abroad. It includes their colonies on the east coast of North America, before and after the union of England with Scotland creates Great Britain in 1707.

From the Dutch, the English also learn something about commercial ruthlessness and limited religious toleration, which they meld with their own fraught history of Christian conflicts since the days of Henry VIII. After 1660, measures against dissenters at first are harsh, with the memory of more-than-religious “enthusiasm” still fresh from the 1640s and 1650s. Then these measures are softened to accommodate nonconformists who embody and exemplify the  unsought Protestant pluralism of the Reformation. New theories of religious toleration are articulated as Enlightenment ideas. In 1689 John Locke publishes A Letter Concerning Toleration, which is based on a sharp separation between states and churches, politics and religion, external and interior things, bodies and souls.24 In the same year, a Toleration Act is passed by Parliament that permits anyone who wants to remain outside of the Anglican Church to do so, ending a process that originally sought to include as many Protestant dissenters as possible within that Church.25 A smaller fraction of English subjects belong to the state church than at any time since its creation by Henry VIII.

Protestant pluralism in England continues to increase. As the political control of Protestantism in England diminishes, the open-endedness of the Reformation itself becomes more obvious. Isaac Newton’s scientific breakthroughs inspire new varieties of Protestantism with minimal connections to the Bible. This is ironic, since the majority of Newton’s own writings concern biblical prophecy and apocalypticism, but they remain unpublished at the time and therefore unknown until much later. Newton’s published views, by contrast, overlap with natural theology and inspire deism. Deists believe in a God who created the universe and kick-started its vast cause-and-effect mechanism but then stepped aside and does not interact at all with the world, including with human beings. Scripture matters little to deists, except perhaps as a way of reinforcing moral views they believe can be independently derived from reason alone. Just the opposite is true of John Wesley and his followers, called Methodists, starting in the 1730s, with their emphases on the Bible and individual religious experience.26

This English and Scottish Protestant pluralism travels with colonists to the east coast of North America beginning in the early seventeenth century. In 1614 the Dutch start colonizing what will become the British middle colonies, between New England and the Chesapeake Bay, with New Amsterdam becoming New York in 1664 and reminders of its Dutch past lingering in names such as Harlem, Brooklyn, and Wall Street, the place where Dutch colonists built a wall to shield themselves from Indians.27 Only in Virginia is the  Church of England the established church. Puritans who hate Archbishop Laud’s “beauty of holiness,” his Catholic-looking aesthetic and liturgical changes in the Church of England, leave for Massachusetts beginning in 1630—and within a decade they encounter the same problems of dissent and separatism that marked Reformed Protestantism in England. One of those separatist dissenters, Roger Williams, heads south and establishes a haven of religious toleration in Rhode Island. Starting in the 1670s, William Penn and thousands of Quakers emigrate to Pennsylvania and New Jersey, only recently switched from Dutch to British political control. After Louis XIV revokes the Edict of Nantes in 1685, Huguenot refugees settle along the Carolina coast. And all of them, like the Catholics who emigrate to Maryland beginning in the 1630s, participate in the increasing commerce and consumption that characterized the Dutch and then the English.

The city of Boston illustrates how the relationship between religion and commerce changes in England’s North American colonies between the 1630s and the 1750s.28 The earliest New England Puritans rail against greed and endeavor to punish it in ways that would have made Calvin proud. By the late seventeenth century, however, with several different sorts of Puritan churches, plus Anglicans, Huguenots, Quakers, and other Protestants living in Boston, many Puritans have undone the position of their predecessors. They now interpret material prosperity, including the highly profitable participation in the Atlantic slave trade, as part of God’s benevolent plan for the chosen people of England, his elect imperial nation. In a dramatic reversal, the pursuit of profit is being aligned with religion, not regarded as a deadly sin or a grave danger to your soul or the common good. By 1750, it’s becoming difficult if not impossible to tell a revivalist fan of the famous preacher and theologian Jonathan Edwards from a Quaker from a Newtonian deist in terms of their economic practices. They’re all buying and selling and acquiring and aspiring in similar ways, as participants in the same market-driven economy. Their shared practices and those of everyone else doing likewise are helping to hold the colonies and the expanding British Empire together.

Religion is no longer restraining economic behavior. In fact, if anything, increasingly it is thought to sanction and even encourage the pursuit of money and possessions as part of God’s providential plan. More and more, religion is being limited to your personal beliefs, worship, and devotional practices, whatever those happen to be. Economic life and politics will go their own ways no matter what you believe. But economic life and politics are still the product of how you and everyone else lives, the outcome of a vast, unplanned process made up of individual decisions and actions. So, depending on what beliefs people hold, public life can still be informed and influenced by religion, despite the ways that religion is being redefined and restricted to address the problems inherited from the Reformation era.


[4.3] Founding Secularization: Religious Freedom in the United States


In the early United States, religious freedom belongs to a larger story of secularization. This is a paradox. Usually religious freedom is regarded as the opposite: the foundation for why the United States has been so religious throughout its history, in contrast to modern European countries with their state churches. American religious freedom is often viewed as a story of how individual freedom of conscience, belief, and worship are enshrined in the country’s founding documents and how this politically protected freedom then inspires similar protections in other countries.29 That story is true, and it’s exactly what makes it part of the story of secularization. The guiding ideas and founding documents of the United States construe religion narrowly, as an individual matter of what you believe and of how, where, and with whom you worship. The ideas within the documents themselves imply that religion is something separable from the rest of life.

Right in the founding documents of the United States, the freedom of religion contained within itself the possibility of freedom from religion. In this new country you will have the right to believe whatever  you want, including the right to believe that nothing religious is true or that all religion is harmful, dangerous, and worthy of criticism. And everyone else will have these same rights. How American society and culture develop will depend crucially on how individuals exercise their politically protected right to freedom of religion and how their actions and the new American laws and institutions inform collective public life. And as it happens, the ways in which American religious freedom has been exercised have changed dramatically over the course of the country’s history.

The United States of America follows the United Provinces of the Netherlands in declaring its independence from a powerful empire, in its case separating from the British rather than the Spanish. Unlike the Dutch, the Americans break new ground in declining to support a public church. In the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, church and state are separated in support of individual religious freedom.

Things are more complicated, though. It turns out that the individual states aren’t necessarily separated from churches, even though the federal government doesn’t establish any church or favor one church over another. But some of the most influential American thinkers in the 1770s and 1780s share the winnowed view of what religion had become for the Dutch in the seventeenth century: a matter of individually chosen beliefs and worship practices, separable and increasingly separated from public life. The public arena of this new country fosters commerce, and Americans in their slave-holding republic are devoting themselves eagerly to pursuing money and material possessions. Like their colonial predecessors earlier in the eighteenth century, they engage in acquisitive pursuits no matter what their religious beliefs happen to be, now acting on their protected rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

And yet, for the fledgling United States, problems inherited from the Reformation era have not been left behind in Europe. Questions persist about how to manage the religious pluralism exported from Britain and elsewhere in relation to politics and the rest of public life. In the later 1770s and 1780s, individual states face the question of whether to support an established church. If so, which one, and what form should it take? What would the consequences be? Throughout the colonial period, Virginia supported the Anglican (or Episcopalian) Church, a position that in the early 1780s continues to have its defenders.

James Madison disagrees. He takes notes on this issue during a meeting among Virginia’s delegates in late December 1784. Madison’s remarks show how the same contentious doctrines that had divided European Christians since the 1520s remain alive and well in the young United States. Here’s what Madison writes:

What is Christianity? Courts of law to judge.

What edition [of the Bible], Hebrew, Septuagint, or Vulgate? What copy—what translation?

What books canonical, what apocryphal? The papists holding to the former what Protestants the latter, the Lutheran the latter what other Protestants and papists the former.

In what light are they to be viewed, as dictated every letter by inspiration, or the essential parts only? Or the matter in general, not the words?

What sense the true one, for if some doctrines be essential to Christianity, those who reject these, whatever name they take, are no Christian society?

Is it Trinitarianism, Arianism, Socinianism? Is it salvation by faith or works also—by free grace, or free will—etc., etc., etc.30

Which edition and translation of the Bible should be used? How should it be interpreted, and by whom? What does the Bible teach, and which of its teachings are essential as opposed to secondary? How are disagreements about such disputes to be adjudicated?

It might as well be the 1580s as the 1780s.

Madison’s questions echo more than two and a half centuries of divisive controversies and disagreements. What they produce in the United States is religious pluralism, divergent and separate Christian churches. Is there any reason to think that Madison’s questions can find answers in 1784? Every one of them, if answered in a way that supports an official state church, will fail to satisfy the religiously divided citizens. This is exactly the problem with all proposals for an established, state-supported church. The unintended Christian pluralism from the Reformation era hasn’t been resolved. And now the thirteen individual states have to figure out how they’re going to address it.

Madison and his friend Thomas Jefferson devise influential answers to this problem in the 1770s and 1780s. Their solutions follow along lines pioneered by the Dutch. Religion has to be construed as something that will not disrupt public life or divide citizens. That means its scope has to be restricted, and what it applies to has to be limited. If citizens agree to this reduction, then the permissible content of religion can be expanded—theoretically to include anything. This move will extend religious freedom beyond what the Dutch Republic had allowed. If you let everyone believe what they want and worship how they please in exchange for political obedience, then you can dispense with a state-supported public church altogether.

Following in this tradition, Madison grounds the “free exercise” of religion in the “individual conscience,” conceiving religion as fundamentally an interior and individual matter, crucially restricting the range of religion. “The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man,” Madison writes in 1785, “and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate.”31 Left unsaid, though fully understood, is Madison’s belief that the way you exercise religion cannot impinge on anyone else or on public life in a way that affects anyone else against their will.

Jefferson thinks it doesn’t matter what you believe so long as it isn’t publicly disruptive or damaging. “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”32 Note the sharp difference suggested here between someone’s expressed beliefs, which Jefferson implies are not injurious, and bodily actions, which could be. It’s this founder’s version of “sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me.”

This view or something close to it has become what most Americans and Europeans today think religion is: your individual beliefs, worship, and practices of devotion, such as prayer. It’s a separate area of human life for those who decide to embrace it. What you choose to believe and how you decide to worship are  completely up to you. You are your own final, supreme religious authority, with total freedom to change your beliefs and practices at any time and for any reason. And everyone else is their own final, supreme religious authority in just the same way.

At the same time, for you and everyone else, religion is not about how political authority is exercised or how the economy is regulated or what laws get made and enforced. Not only state and church but also politics and religion are separate things, and they should remain separate. This idea is partly due to the impact of Jefferson, Madison, and earlier Enlightenment thinkers who influenced them, such as John Locke. It seems obvious in the early twenty-first century to many people that this is the solution to the problem of religion as more-than-religion that we inherited from the Reformation era. It enables people who believe different things about the deepest concerns of human life to coexist in relative tranquility. And in the judgment of many commentators in recent years, it also highlights a basic difference today between Western Christianity and Islam, a tradition in which it remains much more widely thought that religion can and of course should influence public political life and shape the wider society and culture.

The modern Western understanding of religion succeeds in the early decades of the United States, but not because Americans are rugged religious individualists, each eager to go her or his own way. It succeeds because most of them are Christians, especially English-speaking white Protestants, who continue to share so much in common despite the disagreements that divide their churches. The federal government can dispense with an established church because there are already so many established churches to which Americans belong—and more of them spring up and thrive in the early nineteenth century.

A few Americans exercise their individual religious freedom by starting new religions; Joseph Smith, who founds Mormonism in the 1830s, is the best-known example. But most Americans exercise their religious freedom by belonging to one or another Christian church, the vast majority of which are Protestant of some sort. American Protestant pluralism in the early nineteenth century reflects the Reformation’s founding principle of sola scriptura. Recall that disagreements about the meaning of God’s Word have divided Protestants without interruption since the early 1520s. In the United States, because the range of scriptural interpretations is not restricted by political authorities, as in the magisterial Reformation, the radical Reformation can flower. Or, put another way, in the United States the distinction between the magisterial and radical Reformations disappears. The new religious freedom of an American citizen vastly exceeds Luther’s very particular freedom of a Christian. The Reformation looks very different once political authorities stop enforcing some particular version of Protestantism and instead let the Reformation be itself.

Nineteenth-century American Protestants demonstrate abundantly that you can read the Bible in whatever way you want. In the United States, the Reformation is democratized in ways that had not taken place anywhere in Europe, even in the Golden-Age Dutch Republic.33 Beginning in the 1790s, the Second Great Awakening, a powerful Protestant religious revival, infuses much new energy into this process. The movement emphasizes transformative personal experience and individual conversion. It helps to power the astonishing growth of multiple Protestant denominations whose boundaries it also overspills: the 460 Baptist churches in the United States in 1780 mushroom to 12,000 by 1860, while 14,000 American Methodists in 1784 swell to nearly 20,000 Methodist churches by the start of the Civil War.34

In principle, the American right to individual religious freedom opens the way to secularization. By construing religion narrowly, it separates religion from the rest of life. Individuals can simply choose not to be religious. For those who are religious, their religion will remain separate provided they stick strictly to their beliefs, worship, and devotions and do not seek to influence public life—to keep their beliefs to themselves and not try to impose them on others, as the saying goes. In practice, however, the right to individual religious freedom helps to explain why Protestantism of one sort or another ends up marking American society and culture to the extent that it has in U.S. history. The large majority of Americans for most of the country’s history exercise their religious freedom by being Protestants of one denomination or another. And in practice most of them view religion less restrictively than Madison or Jefferson did.

In Madison’s phrase, their “conviction and conscience” dictate that they should exercise their faith in ways that include concrete, real-life, public actions to influence their neighborhoods and communities and to shape society and culture. In this respect, American Protestants extend a Reformation-era and even medieval tradition but within a very different political and legal context, one that protects individual religious freedom rather than prescribing a particular version of Christianity. And for a big chunk of American history, the available individual choices within Protestantism share enough in common that they help to inform and stabilize society, in a similar way that European regimes of the Reformation era had sought to achieve through mandated religious orthodoxy.

Because Americans continue to hold in common so many religious views, as well as moral convictions derived from them, the American disestablishment of religion in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries works for quite some time. Americans transmit beliefs, values, and virtues that not only sustain their religious communities but also influence their public coexistence as citizens. And those beliefs and values inform politics as well within individual American states, which at the nation’s founding are not subject to the federal constitutional restrictions on support for churches. Connecticut, for instance, continues to fund select churches until 1818, while Massachusetts continues the practice until 1832. Virtually all states also pass laws that favor Protestantism, including laws that punish blasphemy and impose religious restrictions on who may hold public office. Many of these laws will remain influential well into the twentieth century.35

In the late eighteenth and most of the nineteenth centuries such laws seem normal and natural to most American citizens. Largely drawn from what most Protestants of British background share in common, these commitments make it seem normal and natural, for example, to prescribe Protestant prayers and the reading of the King James Bible in public schools. Registering their dissatisfaction, however, American Catholics exercise their religious freedom by creating a separate system of their own church-supported schools, which eventually grows into the largest such system in any country in the world. Paradoxically, the increasing number of religiously self-aware Catholic and Jewish immigrants who immigrate beginning in the nineteenth century will play a key role in the advance of secularization. Their mere presence demonstrates that there is no natural or necessary connection between American politically protected freedom of belief and Protestantism of any kind.


[4.4] Suspending Secularization: Tocqueville on Religion in America


One of the most astute observers of the American relationship between religion and politics in the early nineteenth century is the French aristocrat and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville (1805– 1859). He spends several months traveling in the United States in the early 1830s. Tocqueville grew up in a France sharply polarized between harshly antireligious supporters of the legacy of the French Revolution and strongly religious Catholics who favored a privileged relationship between the French state and the Catholic Church. When he arrives in the United States, Tocqueville is astonished by American religious freedom and its relationship to democracy: “The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States,” he writes in his masterpiece published a few years later, Democracy in America.36

Tocqueville is amazed that religion in the United States, without any mandated state church, is contributing to the country’s social cohesion rather than fostering conflicts. Through individual religious freedom, it seems, the country has solved the problem of religion and politics inherited from the Reformation era. Of course, particular doctrinal differences still divide American Christians, just as they have divided European Christians since Luther. Baptists, Methodists, Disciples of Christ, and other Protestant groups augment the already existing Protestant pluralism, which includes Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and other older groups. Yet beneath these differences, they still share moral assumptions,  values, and priorities that taken together inform the wider society and culture. Tocqueville sees that the divisive doctrinal differences of the respective churches are distinct from their shared moral commitments, and that distinction is critical for moving beyond the vexing and destructive problems of the Reformation era.

Well aware of how the Reformation is playing out in American Protestant pluralism, Tocqueville comments, “There is an innumerable multitude of sects in the United States. They are all different in the worship they offer to the Creator.” Yet despite the divisions and differences in worship among Americans, Tocqueville adds that “all agree concerning the duties of men to one another” and “all preach the same morality in the name of God.”37 That is, they continue to share more than just beliefs and worship: they embrace public duties and the religiously inflected morality that informs public life in common.

The influence of religion on American public life remains social and political, but it’s indirect and uncoerced; it’s the collective outcome of millions of Americans practicing their religion as guaranteed in the new republic under the Constitution. Religion is playing a role in public life, not because political authorities are imposing and policing Reformed Protestantism or Lutheranism or Catholicism, but rather because people of their own free will are exercising their politically protected freedom of religion. “Religion, which never intervenes directly in the government of American society,” Tocqueville concludes, “should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions.”38 He is underlining the political and social significance of religion in the United States, even though the country sponsors no official state religion or federally established church. In this new country, the state doesn’t support any church, but the churches support the state and sustain society.

This is astonishing: by not having an established church—letting Americans believe what they want and worship as they wish—the society is held together by religion in ways that European nations had sought to achieve through state churches. In Europe, politically backed churches had resulted in the recurring more-than-religious conflicts of the Reformation era; in the nineteenth century, European  countries modify this practice in different ways. Most of them decriminalize religious dissent during the course of the century, although religious discrimination remains common, as indeed it does against non-Protestants in the United States. But official, privileged state churches remain the norm in Europe.

Not so in the United States, where there is only a religious society with shared morality and mores despite doctrinal disagreements between Protestant churches. Religion, by informing individual consciences, continues to influence people’s actions in public life, including in politics. What you believe continues to influence how you live, what you care about, and the sort of person you become. The result is played out in the society and culture as a whole. In Tocqueville’s words, “All the sects in the United States belong to the great unity of Christendom, and Christian morality is everywhere the same.”39

What Tocqueville observes is not the unity of Christendom of the early sixteenth century, before the Reformation. At that time, the religious beliefs and practices and institutions of medieval Catholicism were simply taken for granted; they influenced every area of life. But neither is the United States in the 1830s a nation in which each individual has her or his own religious beliefs and practices, different from those of everyone else. Not even close. What Catholics and many kinds of Protestants and Jews share in common is substantial. Their commonalities inform the political and cultural identity of the young nation.

Paradoxically, a secularizing foundation has made possible this particular religious outcome in the United States around 1830. At the same time, the secularizing foundation renders that outcome contingent and fragile. The founding documents of the United States did not establish a common culture; they presupposed one. Jefferson’s phrasing in the Declaration of Independence acknowledged that individual rights are divinely endowed by a creator; he even claimed that his assertions are “self-evident” truths: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of  happiness.”40 That people are created by God—a fundamental Christian (as well as Jewish) belief—explains why “all men” are equal and have rights to begin with. In the late eighteenth century this notion is not in dispute among Protestants or between Protestants and Catholics—though nearly all of them seem blind to the possibility of applying it equally to black slaves in the United States and to white women as well as white men.

Neither the Declaration of Independence nor any other American founding documents say anything about how you should live, what it means to exercise your liberty, or what you should do to pursue happiness. That, of course, is by design; the whole point is to leave people free to provide their own answers rather than prescribing answers, as Reformation-era authorities had done. In the early nineteenth century most people happen to embrace answers given by one of Tocqueville’s “innumerable multitude of sects.” But no one has to. Legally, you can believe whatever you want, just as Jefferson implied in his remark about “twenty gods, or no god.”

New implications of Luther’s stance from the early sixteenth century have thus begun to emerge in a very different context. In the mid-1790s, Thomas Paine, the pamphleteer of the American Revolution, inspired a voluntary—and impressively successful—effort to promote largely traditional Protestant views of scripture and morality. At the same time, he wrote, “My own mind is my own church.”41 Both Jefferson and Paine recognized that radical individualism is implied in the Declaration of Independence and First Amendment. In this American form of individualism, Luther’s “Here I stand” is applied to everyone, regardless of what they believe.

Tocqueville also comments insightfully about the pursuit of money and material possessions in the United States. This is the other practice that contributes powerfully to the cohesion of American society. He sees that Americans effortlessly marry their passion for acquisition with their religious views. Medieval and Reformation-era Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike, repeatedly were taught the biblical view that the pursuit of money and possessions is closely related to sinful and dangerous avarice. Seeking more than you need when others don’t have enough for the basic necessities of life damages both your soul and the common good. Following the Dutch, British, and other northwestern Europeans in the eighteenth century, Americans reject and reverse this assessment.42 Enlightenment thinkers such as Adam Smith, first and foremost a moral philosopher, tell them that their pursuit of more and better possessions is an expression of natural self-interest, and exercising that self-interest would have no adverse effects on the common good.43 On the contrary, Smith writes in The Wealth of Nations, “the natural effort of every individual to better his own condition,” if left unimpeded, “is so powerful a principle” that even without assistance it is “capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity.”44

Pursuing your own desires for more and better things, in Smith’s vision, helps to improve life for everyone. Not ascetic self-restraint but acquisitive self-seeking is the key to improving society. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries more Christians are coming to believe that the market’s “invisible hand”—Smith’s image—is the very mechanism through which God exercises divine providence. More of them are coming to think that providence is the same thing as “progress,” which becomes one of the central buzzwords of the nineteenth century on both sides of the North Atlantic.

In the United States, Tocqueville writes in Democracy in America, “religion is often powerless to restrain men in the midst of innumerable temptations which fortune offers,” and it “cannot moderate their eagerness to enrich themselves.”45 In many cases, though, this isn’t even an issue. The real point is that so many Americans fail to see any problem in the pursuit of fortune and enrichment because of their religion—starkly reversing the teachings of the major Protestant reformers, the Bible, and Christian tradition from the first through the sixteenth centuries. Listening to American preachers, Tocqueville notes, it’s often hard to tell “whether the main object of religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.” Consequently, “people want to do as well as possible in this world without giving up their chances in the next.”46 The American “prosperity gospel” has deep historical roots. In 1835, for example, Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, the Episcopal vicar of Trinity Church, Boston, preaches a sermon defending inequality of wealth as divinely willed for “the political, the intellectual, and the moral and religious improvement of the human race.” Indeed, inequality is “essential to producing the greatest amount of knowledge, virtue and happiness.”47 Many Americans enthusiastically embrace this version of the gospel, extending what their colonial predecessors had inherited from Britain. Tocqueville writes that in the United States “love of comfort has become the dominant national taste. The main current of human passions running in that direction sweeps everything along with it.”48

Americans are hardly alone in their devotion to the goods life as the good life in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Their colonial predecessors had acquired their habits of consumption and nourished their taste for commerce by participating in the British Empire’s thriving Atlantic trade in slaves as well as in cotton, sugar, tobacco, and other commodities. Nineteenth-century industrialization —beginning in Britain but quickly spreading to North America—is fueled by desires for more and better possessions, more comfort, and more leisure. All of these are widely viewed as contributing to greater contentment and happiness, although the conditions for workers in the factories of newly industrial cities such as Manchester hardly seem conducive to either. Industrialization spreads on the European continent too. In nation after nation, industrial entrepreneurs make fortunes by manufacturing everything from clothing to chemicals to steel for railroads; citizens at every income level buy more manufactured things more cheaply than before; and governments levy taxes to build their bureaucracies and militaries on unprecedented scales.

Higher education begins to play a crucial role in these developments as well. Starting in Germany and then widely imitated in other European countries and the United States, modern research universities are established. The University of Berlin, the first of them, begins with an emphasis on philology and philosophy around 1810, but after midcentury all research universities start to place the natural sciences at their center. Scientists’ discoveries are applied in the manufacturing technologies that make businessmen rich and enable factories to supply the things people want to buy. Similarly, in North America, industrial capitalism provides novel opportunities for new objects of desire and new patterns of devotion for many millions of people. It’s no accident that modern department stores make their appearance in the late nineteenth century on both sides of the North Atlantic.

By the 1770s and 1780s, Americans take over from the British a belief in themselves as a nation and a people favored by God. Connected to this belief is economic prosperity and freedom, along with Enlightenment notions of progress. None of it would have been possible without individual religious freedom, the New World solution to the Old World problem of religion, inherited from the Reformation era.

Limiting the scope of religion and turning it into a discrete and separable domain of life—rather than a worldview that informs all of life’s domains—makes religious toleration and religious freedom possible. At the same time, these restrictions are essential components for the secularization that will eventually take place in every Western country. Religion is made a politically protected individual choice, separate from direct influences on politics, economic life, law, or education. The character and tenor of public life will remain the collective product of how individual citizens exercise their freedom to believe whatever they want to, and to act accordingly.


[4.5] Advancing Secularization: The United States and Europe


The same basic framework that permitted religion to become in the United States, in Tocqueville’s words, “the first of their political institutions” has also permitted pervasive American secularization since his time. Values and moral commitments that were then widely shared no longer are. This is the outcome of a long historical process, and it also lies at the root of some widely acknowledged frustrations in American public life and political culture today, difficulties that have never been more apparent than since the election of November 2016.

Major historical developments have contributed to the process of secularization in the United States, stemming in significant measure from the deeper fragmentation of Protestantism itself. The history of the United States has added another, later chapter to the story of this fragmentation that began when the Reformation escaped Luther’s control in the early 1520s.

The Bible is a large, complex collection of ancient texts that can be and has been interpreted in many conflicting ways. Because they lack any shared authority outside scripture, Protestants have no one to settle disputes among their competing interpreters and churches. This divisive legacy of the Reformation has characterized Americans throughout their history; it was just as true during the decade of Reagan in the 1980s as it was for Madison and his contemporaries in the 1780s.

The common Protestant ethos, which so impressed Tocqueville, was shattered by regional differences over slavery, race, and the Civil War (1861–1865), as American Protestants simultaneously attacked and defended slavery based on the Bible.49 In addition, the influence of modern scholarly methods of biblical interpretation, and the view of history they presupposed, which German scholars pioneered, challenged the traditional Protestant view that the biblical text had been straightforwardly received through divine revelation. Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution prompted divergent Protestant responses in the late nineteenth century and dealt another major blow to the American relationship among religion, politics, and society that so amazed Tocqueville. Much more than the Scientific Revolution in the seventeenth century, Darwinian evolutionary theory helped to catalyze perceptions that religion and science in and of themselves— not just a certain literalist way of interpreting the Bible, on the one hand, and some particular views of Darwinian theory, on the other— are incompatible.

Protestant groups responded differently to the theory of evolution, and, combined with their differing reactions to modern biblical scholarship, this led to a major split between liberal and fundamentalist Protestants that persists today. In 1925, the Scopes Monkey Trial in Tennessee focused on whether the theory of evolution could be taught in American public schools, an issue that still arouses opposition from fundamentalist Protestants. Such Protestants tend to believe that the Bible cannot be mistaken about anything, and if the Bible and science appear to conflict, they reject science. They tend to reject the theory of evolution because they think it can’t be reconciled with the biblical accounts of creation (there are two of them, one in each of the first two chapters in the book of Genesis).

Liberal Protestants, on the one hand, and fundamentalists and evangelicals on the other, typically hold rival political, social, and moral views—the opposite of what Tocqueville observed. They definitely do not “all agree concerning the duties of men to one another” or “all preach the same morality in the name of God,”50 as is clear from what are their usually sharp disagreements on abortion, same-sex marriage, gun control, and a host of social justice issues. As a result, Protestantism can no longer inform American society in any coherent way. This has been obvious at least since the upheavals of the 1960s, which divided American Protestants as sharply as did the Civil War in the 1860s.

Influences outside of American Protestantism have also contributed to secularization. Ironically, some derived from the religious commitments of newcomers who were not Protestants, which underscores the challenges associated with religious pluralism. Millions of Catholics and Jews emigrated from Europe to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. They objected to the Protestant views and values that were woven into laws, schools, and other institutions at the state level, regarding them as sectarian preferences that impinged on Catholics’ and Jews’ own religious freedom. Legal challenges paved the way for broader federal decisions by the Supreme Court in the 1940s in a series of landmark rulings about the First Amendment and what the separation of church and state means. Chief among these court cases was Everson v. Board of Education (1947), which nevertheless far from settled the matter.51

Separation of church and state remains contentious, especially because it’s not identical to the separation of religion and politics. “Church and state” is focused on institutions; religion’s influence on politics is more diffuse. But no one can doubt that religion exercises much less influence in American public life today than it has at any point in American history. Certainly it has less influence than in the 1950s, when in the midst of the Cold War “In God We Trust” was first added to American currency, replacing “E Pluribus Unum” as the nation’s official motto. The 1960s were a major watershed in this as in many other respects, and that decade’s influence becomes ever clearer in retrospect.

The sixties were arguably an even bigger watershed for secularization in Europe. In the 1960s Europe experienced a stunning drop-off in the number of Christians who regularly worship and otherwise participate in religious life. This is one of the key differences usually cited to distinguish European secularism from American religiosity in the early twenty-first century. The exclusion of religion from shared public life in both Europe and the United States, though, means the two are more similar than they sometimes seem.

Factors that contributed to secularization in European countries differed from those in the United States.52 State churches, whether Catholic, Lutheran, or Anglican, endured in modern Europe, and the stronger that European forms of nationalism grew, the more problematic did this legacy of the Reformation era become. State support for churches made it almost impossible for members of the clergy to stand apart from the imperialism and military involvements of their respective countries, which funded and privileged them. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries it was hard to be a European Christian and a critic of the nationalism of one’s own country. By and large, European church members and preachers defended the colonial activities of their own nations, arguing that they “civilized” indigenous peoples in Africa and South Asia. Indeed, European Christians often openly encouraged such endeavors. Lay Catholics and Protestants were among the politicians and entrepreneurs who fostered “progress” as Europeans divided up Africa and the Middle East for their own competing nationalist ends. When those rival imperialist nations went to war in 1914 in World War I, members of the clergy exhorted the troops on both sides. Their cause was noble, just, and right—worth killing and dying for. They transformed the rhetoric of Christian martyrdom and holy war into calls for allegiance to imperialist nation-states. European church leaders and pastors likewise acted on behalf of both fascist and liberal regimes in the 1930s and World War II.

Americans have never experienced anything like what Europeans endured between 1914 and 1945, although many Indian tribes in the United States have suffered longer-lasting barbarities that have devastated their populations. In Europe, the two world wars plus the genocides killed tens of millions, not to mention the untold suffering of the wounded and refugees. (By comparison, probably about 750,000 men died in the American Civil War, which is more than were killed in all other wars in American history combined.)53 Following World War II, in the period of rapid European decolonization, the truth about European imperialism began to emerge—the truth about what progress had meant for the indigenous peoples on other continents whom Europeans had sought to “civilize.” It wasn’t pretty. And neither, for that matter, were the decades of violent decolonization that followed in many newly independent countries, a fallout from and legacy of European colonialism. After World War II, the horrors of war were followed by revelations that several European states had committed colonial atrocities in many countries, extending back into the nineteenth century. It hardly seems surprising that one way people responded to these shocks in the second half of the twentieth century was to retreat from the churches that had partnered with the states—to leave the churches that together with their nations had legitimated both the wars and the colonial brutalities that had killed so many people.



[4.6] Separated and Diminished Religion, Secularized and Divided Society


Secularization continues to be paradoxically enabled by the freedom of religion, which itself was conceived as a solution to problems inherited from the Reformation era. What has changed, however, is the range of what people believe and how they exercise their freedom. If we want to understand the kind of society we live in today and where it came from, this range of beliefs and exercise of freedom must be seen in relationship to the ever-expanding opportunities derived from the connections among bureaucratic states, technology, and consumerism.

To judge by most people’s actions today, they believe the goods life is the good life, and they devote themselves to this whether or not they also believe in God or engage in worship or prayer. In public culture and society as a whole, in both the United States and Europe, the consumption of goods and pursuit of enjoyment has essentially replaced religion. Whether you happen to be religious has no effect at all on the dominant culture. This would have horrified—if perhaps not surprised—Luther and Calvin and other sixteenth-century Protestant reformers.

At the same time, advanced secularization doesn’t mean that religion has disappeared. In the United States, for instance, you have to try hard not to see it. But religion doesn’t inform public life in anything like the ways that Tocqueville described. Aside from a shared commitment to consumerism, neither Christians nor religious persons in general share moral or political views in common in ways that are capable of informing the wider society. On the contrary, the views of religious women and men reflect the divisions that characterize society at large. Like their nonreligious fellow citizens, religious Americans line up as liberals or conservatives, with a smattering of radicals or reactionaries, on opposing sides of divisive political and social issues. When they do act according to conscience in the public sphere, they do not change society at large but instead mirror and contribute to already existing rifts and trends.

Advanced secularization means that religion has been separated from politics in the sense that it’s incapable of coherently influencing political culture or politics in practice. This could change if, in the future, religious persons came to share the same moral views and acted on them in the public sphere, as American Christians did around 1830. But in recent decades this has not taken place at all— again, aside from a widely shared enthusiasm for the freedom to consume and pursue whatever you happen to want. Apart from this, religious believers share no common values or causes simply by virtue of being religious; they’re divided by contentious political and moral issues such as abortion, immigration, national identity, economic inequality, and (in the United States) gun control, just like members of the population in general. Rooted in the upheavals of the 1960s, the American culture wars have demonstrated this since the 1980s, and the election of 2016 provided a startling indication of just how deep the rifts now run.

The law supports this open-ended diversity of beliefs and values. However, today the varieties of “twenty gods, or no god” extend far beyond what American Christians expressed in the nineteenth century. They include rival camps of politically engaged believers who, protected by individual religious freedom, oppose each other fiercely—the unintended consequence of Protestantism’s devotion to Luther’s principle of sola scriptura. Diverging interpretations of God’s Word from the early German Reformation established a pattern that never disappeared. In fact, religious freedom in modern nation-states has enabled Protestantism to develop in ways unconstrained by the opinions of reformers or pronouncements of political authorities. You can believe whatever you want, worship as much as you want in whatever ways you want (or none), and do anything else you want as an expression of your beliefs, so long as you obey the laws. It’s not surprising, then, that this diversity has resulted in countless claims about what is true, what matters in life, how to live, and what laws and policies countries should adopt. Neither is it surprising that individuals espouse countless rival views on these issues, whether they’re religious or nonreligious. This is simply a product and outcome of modern, politically protected individual freedom as an extension of individual freedom of religion.

It’s also not remarkable that so many conflicting religious views have contributed to a more familiar meaning of secularization: a decline in the number of persons who profess any religious beliefs or engage in any religious worship or devotion at all (though quite a few people say they are “spiritual not religious” or some variation on that theme; in Europe it is sometimes called “believing without belonging”).54 This has been most conspicuous in Western Europe, where, as noted, regular church attendance plummeted in the 1960s and has remained low ever since. Surrounded by so many incompatible religious views, millions of people seem to have decided not to subscribe to any.

From pluralism, people often infer relativism. The greater the pluralism, the more likely the inference, so it makes sense that relativism’s influence on secularization would be greater now than it was in, say, the late nineteenth century. There was contact then, of course, among people with different religious beliefs and from different religious traditions. Indeed, there had already been such contact for centuries. But nineteenth-century means of communication —telegraph and newspaper and travel by steamship—pale by comparison to our instant online communication, constant online news, and unprecedented levels of international air travel. The late nineteenth century was a world of pluralism; ours is a world of hyperpluralism. As a result, more people have become religious relativists. Being exposed to so many different religious claims, enabled by politically protected religious freedom, has itself contributed to secularization.

Tocqueville was struck by the way shared Christian moral views indirectly strengthened American democracy (leaving aside what democracy meant for black slaves, Indians, and women). These moral views have been replaced by an open-ended pluralism of religious and nonreligious beliefs about values, priorities, and politics in a nation that for several decades has been deeply divided. Its raw antagonisms, so visible following Donald Trump’s frenzied executive orders and antagonistic tweets beginning in the first days of his presidency in January 2017, led some analysts to start questioning, within weeks of his inauguration, the sustainability of American democracy itself.

Until recently it was common for Europeans to look upon the culture wars of the United States as an American exceptionalism of a sort they had happily managed to avoid. Americans were polarized over moral and political issues, zigzagging back and forth between Republican and Democratic presidents, their Congress mired in partisan gridlock, but sensibly progressive Europeans had evolved beyond such divisions to collaborative cooperation. All the more painfully, then, has the realization dawned among Europeans, especially since 2015, that beneath a veneer of reserved secularity and the umbrella of the European Union, their own countries are similarly divided in ways that make American exceptionalism look less exceptional. The Brexit vote in the United Kingdom in June 2016 and the sharp moral, political, and cultural divisions provoked by the influx of especially Syrian refugees on the European continent has led to considerable anxiety, uncertainty, and hand-wringing. As in the United States, though provoked by different specific influences, there is deep disagreement in many countries, including Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, and the United Kingdom, about what should be done and how to proceed. A European commitment to human rights has started to look as though it might be thinner than the commitment of some European countries to their own national sovereignty and desire for self-determination.

The influence of religion on Western societies has declined substantially in the past half century. Nothing has taken its place aside from an ideology of individual choice, asserted with growing militancy. “Do your own thing” has proved to be more than just a passing slogan from the 1960s. To this slogan should be added the crucial corollary of “buy your own things.” In the absence of shared norms and values analogous to those once provided by Christianity, what holds our secularized societies together, or at least has held them together in recent decades, is the combination of increasingly assertive individualism, powerful nation-states, and consumerist capitalism.

What the Dutch started four centuries ago, the British extended, and the Americans intensified. Today consumerism has become the taken-for-granted pattern of modern Western human life on both the personal and public levels. In this respect it was only in the twentieth century, and especially after World War II, that Europeans followed the lead of the United States and went all-in for consumerism; shopping malls in Europe were first modeled on American ones.55 On both sides of the North Atlantic now, it is assumed that whatever else you believe and regardless of your income level, you want more money and better possessions so that you can maximize your choices and enjoy life more. Because the pursuit of money and possessions is widely regarded as a prerequisite for a fulfilling human life, citizens evaluate their governments based on how well or poorly they foster this endeavor. Political leaders and parties that can’t deliver the goods find themselves voted out of office. The goods life as the good life is deeply entrenched in the modern Western world, regardless of your country.

Affluence and consumerism have not only become the substitute for religion, they have also contributed to secularization. Time that people dedicate to making money so they can buy whatever they want is time they are not spending in worship, prayer, or service to others. Economists call this “opportunity cost”—what you give up by making the choices you make. In the contest over what you should live for, religion has lost out in the dominant culture to money and material possessions, perhaps even more conspicuously in the United States than in Europe. The pursuit of more money and better stuff to serve individual desires is the default objective of human life in the society as a whole.

It’s also the default for the vast majority of those who believe in God, worship regularly, and pray. And that’s because even most religious believers keep their economic and religious lives segregated. Most people, religious or not, are the heirs of Locke, Madison, and Jefferson, whether they know it or not. They think of religion as something personal, individual, and interior rather than something shared that is meant to inform public life. For individuals who choose to be religious, religion has become one part of life alongside others. It does not shape all of human life. It does not inform economic, social, or political life in the public square, and it is variously forbidden from interfering with it in overt ways.

To grasp the extent of secularization and the pervasiveness of consumerism as the replacement for religion, ask how much influence those who live deliberately nonconsumerist lives exert on global capitalism. The answer is none. Constant manufacturing, advertising, marketing, selling, shopping, and buying churn along regardless, facilitated ever more by technology. Whether or not you choose to live a materially austere life, you can’t step outside a global economic system geared toward increasing wealth and consumption. This is true even if you find consumerism objectionable on religious grounds —even if you regard it as fundamentally contrary to what the Bible says about greed and the pursuit of wealth and possessions, as did the sixteenth-century Protestant reformers and their medieval Catholic predecessors.

In modern Western societies, you can believe whatever you want and worship as much as you want and be as devout as you want, thanks to your politically protected right to individual religious freedom. And to be sure, millions of men and women since World War II have been inspired by the example of extraordinary Christian leaders on both sides of the Atlantic, from the German Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer to the lay Catholic activist Dorothy Day, from the evangelical preacher Billy Graham to the tireless champion of the destitute Mother Teresa, from the South African Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu to the first-ever celebrity pope, John Paul II. But the impact of this inspiration on global capitalism and consumerism seems negligible at best. Belief, worship, and devotion are unlikely to influence a consumerist culture in which you also have a right to buy as much as you want of whatever you want. You don’t have to take account of anyone else as you exercise that right, and everyone else has the same right not to take account of anyone else. This individual, secularized freedom of the early twenty-first century is the long-term, unintended outcome of the Reformation era. Within the laws of the country in which you happen to find yourself, you are your own authority: you can believe whatever you want, live however you wish, buy whatever your means allow, and pursue your self-chosen desires regardless of what they are.

One can hardly imagine a greater contrast to what Luther meant by “the freedom of a Christian”: living in paradoxical bondage to selfless, loving service of your neighbors, tirelessly tending to their needs whatever they might be, as a result of gratitude for the unmerited gift of God’s saving grace. Freedom as understood by Luther, as well as by the other Protestant and Catholic reformers of the sixteenth century, was based on a radically different understanding of what human beings are, what the point of human life is, and how one ought to live. No wonder it seems so alien today to most Westerners.

In 2017, the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation, some interpreters are celebrating Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation as heralding modern individualism and modern freedom. The irony is that Luther would have disdained both and wanted tribute for neither. It is not only misleading but also disingenuous to see the freedom espoused by the Reformation as leading in any direct or substantive way to present-day freedom.

Luther would deride the idea of freedom we know today and disclaim any credit for it. In fact, he would be disgusted by it, because it has nothing to do with what he regarded as the only real freedom, the bound freedom of a Christian. Neither Luther nor any of the other Protestant reformers sought or envisioned anything like modern individual freedom, nor did the Protestant Reformation as such lead to it. What led to it were the more-than-religious conflicts between magisterial Protestants and Catholics in the Reformation era, which created a situation that led indirectly, unintentionally, and eventually to the making of a twenty-first-century world that nearly all committed Christians of the Reformation era would have deplored.

It was restrictions on the reach of religion that made religious freedom and religious toleration possible. These constraints facilitated the separation of church and state and led to an emphasis on politically protected individual rights, beginning with the freedom of religion as the right to believe and worship as one chooses. The pursuit of wealth and material possessions that allow people to choose their own pleasures and enjoyments has become an alternative to religion and is nearly universal in its appeal. It demonstrates across the world its power to organize societies otherwise divided over what to believe and how to live. For several centuries now, the large majority of Westerners have given their assent: whatever else they believe and whatever their disagreements, they can agree on this. The hard-won solutions worked out to address the problems inherited from the Reformation era have been extraordinary achievements in many respects. They’ve also led to some unintended problems of their own.



[4.7] Free at Last?


Those individuals who are free to believe what they want as a result of secularization are bound to hold differing opinions about the results of this centuries-long process of secularization. This is just one corollary of contemporary hyperpluralism. We hold different opinions about where we find ourselves as a whole, whether we think on balance it’s a good thing or a bad thing and whether we like particular aspects of it or not. And since we don’t know what the future holds or how things will turn out, we might well change our present views, whatever they are, depending on what happens down the road. Narratives depend on knowing how the story ends, but we don’t know that yet.

Yet whatever our disagreements about where we are going, it cannot be denied that a massive shift in the place of religion in shared human life has taken place since the Reformation. The Reformation made religion into an unprecedented problem in Western Europe, to which the dominant institutions, ideas, and practices of the modern world have been the response. Because there are so many different, competing views about what is good and bad, right and wrong, desirable or not in the culture we inhabit, it would be impossible to consider them all. I offer here only a few thoughts on which responses to the Reformation seem to have been successful and which have unintentionally emerged as problematic.

First, then, on the plus side: the political protection of individuals to believe and worship (or not) as they please is regarded almost universally in the Western world as a great good. By and large, it has worked as a way of enabling religiously divided Christians, and members of other religious traditions, to coexist in relative peace. In this sense, it did indeed solve the basic problem inherited from the Reformation era that it was intended to address. And insofar as relative social peace is better than recurring violent conflict, this is certainly a good thing. Almost everyone in the Western world thinks that it is morally wrong to try to force someone to believe something against their will and that doing so produces at best resentment and grudging outward conformity to prescriptions, just as it did in early modern Europe. Given the reality of religious pluralism, nearly everybody agrees that protecting individual religious freedom and restricting the scope of religion is far better than any attempt to  impose and police some religious views and practices while prohibiting others.

Virtually no one would prefer more wars of more-than-religion to modern individual freedom of religion. What was true in the seventeenth century is even more obvious now, in light of the frighteningly destructive military technology of the twenty-first century. This is one reason why militant Islamism is so disturbing to nearly all Westerners. It is a dramatic, insistent rejection of individual freedom of religion that has been demonstrably combined with a willingness to kill for a particular version of Islam.

Today there are few Westerners who would prefer some form of state-imposed communism, socialism, or fascism to liberal democracy. At a minimum, the political protection of individual rights in modern liberal democracies seems incomparably better than any modern alternatives as a way of addressing the problems inherited from the Reformation era. Only in recent decades have concerted efforts been made to extend the same protections to women, ethnic minorities, children, and disabled persons—and this too is overwhelmingly and rightly regarded as a positive development. (Unborn human beings remain a battleground of contestation.) People overwhelmingly prefer the protection of individual human beings, and commitments to basic values such as equality and freedom, over the appalling brutalization of human beings under tyrannical regimes such as Stalin’s Soviet Union or Hitler’s Third Reich.

To facilitate secularization, modern liberal democratic states have partnered most heavily with modern industrial capitalism. It has enabled literally billions of people around the world to lead longer, healthier, less onerous, more comfortable, more fulfilling, and more varied lives than were lived by human beings in the preindustrial world. Almost no one who says they yearn for a world before modern technology, modern conveniences, and modern opportunities actually means it. And among those who do, nearly all would need to live for only a few weeks in the conditions of sixteenth- or eighteenth-century Europe to cure them of their nostalgic and escapist fantasies. If nothing else, the need for effective medicine would send them scurrying back to the twenty-first century. At the same time, the lives and working conditions of today’s factory laborers in China,

 Bangladesh, Vietnam, or Mexico bear little resemblance to the lives of the affluent American, British, French, or German consumers who purchase the things they make. Nevertheless, even though the distribution of wealth generated remains shockingly unequal, the impact of industrial capitalism has been stunning in its capacity to satisfy human desires that have contributed to human flourishing. The more sophisticated the means of production and distribution, the greater the capacity, right up to and including the globalizing present.

At the same time, most people would likely agree that however preferable they seem to any realistic alternatives, modern solutions to the problems of the Reformation era have given rise to unintended problems of their own, beyond staggering inequalities of wealth and resources. Arguably the greatest of these, which continues to press on us with ever more urgency, is global climate change. Pretending there’s no problem won’t make it go away. And what has led to it is the combination of modern liberal democracies and global consumerist capitalism—what in other respects is a great triumph and an impressive solution to the problems of the Reformation era.

Politically protecting individual rights allows you and everyone else to buy as much as you can of whatever you want. Factories and vehicles around the world emit the CO2 that contributes to global warming when they produce what people want and take people where they want to go. Unless human beings get their collective act together in ways that have never occurred before—within nations, across nations, and among billions of individual consumers—the exercise of individual freedom appears to be leading to a grim future. Earth could become a much warmer planet, in which a radically altered climate makes human flourishing in any ordinary sense impossible. If so, it would be partly an unintended problem made possible by the modern solution to a different problem inherited from the Reformation era. The individual freedom that tamed early modern religion as more-than-religion also underwrites the modern consumerism sheltered within sovereign nation-states that, through global warming, is threatening the biosphere of our planet. Considering all that is at stake, some current environmentalists understandably sound like secular evangelists, their apocalyptic language and strident tones exhorting a global congregation to become crusaders to save the Earth.

Other downsides to secularization and the ways that freedom is exercised are less global in their implications but perhaps more immediately frustrating. Political culture and public life among the free citizens of the United States have become increasingly polarized, angry, and hysterical in recent years. Many people on all sides engage in hyperbole and demonize their opponents. Well before the election of 2016, a divided American citizenry found a parallel in a gridlocked Congress. Much of what passed for political discourse in the United States remained at the level of bumper-sticker slogans among citizens whose worldviews were often sharply antagonistic.

Yet few observers or analysts imagined that the clash of American voters and their values would result in the election of an ethnonationalist president whose complete lack of political experience was touted by millions of his supporters as one of his strongest attributes. Since Donald Trump was inaugurated on January 20, 2017, we’re living in a new and newly uncertain world, with even deeper divisions and angrier adversaries. What happens from here on out, in the United States and around the world, is anybody’s guess.

The specific causes of the current antagonisms in the Western world differ from country to country. The particular features of each are rooted in the decisions and actions, politics and processes, of recent decades. But it would be a mistake not to see that more is going on here. These recent developments are also part of much longer historical trajectories that go back to attempts to deal with the problem of religion as more-than-religion that the modern world inherited from the Reformation era. At the heart of recent developments lies their failure to offer anything besides consumerism to take the place of religion as a shared basis for the organization, values, and priorities of human life. If one or another modern philosophy had succeeded in providing such an alternative on the basis of reason between the seventeenth century and the present, as so many modern philosophers tried to provide, then all reasonable people would agree about what is true, what is right and wrong, what we should care about, and how we should live. Then the Enlightenment and modern secularist dream of leaving religion behind would have succeeded.

But nothing like that has come close to happening. Instead, competing secular philosophies find their adherents, just as competing religions do. Despite disagreeing with one another, secular philosophies all lay claim to truth based on reason, which contributes to our hyperpluralism. “Reason alone” has not led people to agree about morality or meaning any more than “scripture alone” did. Dispute about reason has been going on since the seventeenth century, which is why, in the late twentieth century, various critics started calling out the entire endeavor and pronouncing it a failure. They introduced in its place postmodernism, the idea that all values and norms are not discovered by objective reason any more than they’re revealed by God; rather, they are constructed by human beings. There is no objective truth in these contentious matters. Such a to-each-his-own claim might sound liberating. But liberals who find this postmodern rejection of objectivity appealing when it serves their own moral and political causes find it appalling when it informs constructions of reality that owe more to Fox News and Breitbart than to the New York Times and MSNBC.

So now what? It’s hard to see where any persuasive answers about morality and meaning, purpose and priorities can come from that might inform our fragmented societies and support any new consensus. We’re too free for that—free even to ignore evidence we don’t like or to dispense with logic, if that’s our preference, when disputed, divisive questions arise. Persuasive answers won’t come from science, no matter how astonishing its technological applications continue to be. Science cannot tell us what we should care about, how we should live, or the sorts of persons we should be. Science describes but it cannot prescribe without ceasing to be science; it is explanatory, not normative. It can’t tell right from wrong or good from bad. Those are questions religions have addressed for millennia and, in countless competing ways, still address today, as do rival modern philosophies, even though they are criticized for this by postmodern thinkers.

We find ourselves in our present situation of hyperpluralism because individualism and liberalism have succeeded so well, beginning with an individual freedom of religion that has proven simultaneously to be freedom from religion. You can believe whatever you want and live however you wish within the laws of the state, and so can everyone else. That’s both a great blessing and a big problem. So here we are: so very free and so very far away from Martin Luther and what he started in a small town in Germany five hundred years ago.



[1] Benjamin J. Kaplan, Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2007).

[2] Mark A. Noll and Carolyn Nystrom, Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).

3 Stephen Gaukroger, Descartes: An Intellectual Biography (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995), 65–67; Noel Malcolm, “A Summary Biography of Thomas Hobbes,” in The Cambridge Companion to Hobbes, ed. Tom Sorrell (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1996), 28–33.

4 My treatment of the Golden-Age Dutch Republic makes use of Maarten Prak, The Dutch Republic in the Seventeenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005); Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches: An Interpretation of Dutch Culture in the Golden Age (New York: Knopf, 1987); and Jonathan Israel, The Dutch Republic: Its Rise, Greatness, and Fall, 14771806 (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1995).

5 Herbert H. Rowen, ed. and trans., The Low Countries in Early Modern Times: A Documentary History (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 73–74 (translation modified).

6 Rowan, Low Countries, 260–66.

7 Much of the material about the economic success of the Dutch Republic in the following paragraphs is drawn from Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude, The First Modern Economy: Success, Failure, and Perseverance of the Dutch Economy, 15001815 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1997).

8 Prak, Dutch Republic, 28, 171; de Vries and van der Woude, First Modern Economy, 63– 65.

9 Prak, Dutch Republic, 125.

10 On religious minorities in the Dutch Republic, I have drawn on R. Po-chia Hsia and H. F. K. van Nierop, eds., Calvinism and Religious Toleration in the Dutch Golden Age (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2002), as well as Prak, Dutch Republic, 211–21.

11 Kaplan, Divided by Faith, 172–74. For the museum and the church, in which Catholic masses continue to be celebrated, see the website Museum Ons’ Lieve Heer op Solder, (consulted January 26, 2017).

12 On Catholicism in the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic, see especially Charles H. Parker, Faith on the Margins: Catholics and Catholicism in the Dutch Golden Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2008).

13 Joke Spaans, “Religious Policies in the Seventeenth-Century Dutch Republic,” in Calvinism and Religious Toleration, ed. Po-chia Hsia and van Nierop, 81.

14 For the character of Dutch Calvinism in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, see Alastair Duke, “The Ambivalent Face of Calvinism in the Netherlands, 1561–1618,” in Reformation and Revolt in the Low Countries, 269–93 (see chap. 3, n. 51), and Prak, Dutch Republic, 208–10.

15 Judith Pollmann, Religious Choice in the Dutch Republic: The Reformation of Arnoldus Buchelius, 15651641 (Manchester, UK: Manchester Univ. Press, 1999).

16 Prak, Dutch Republic, 122–25.

17 Prak, Dutch Republic, 139.

18 William Temple, Observations upon the United Provinces of the Netherlands (London: A. Maxwell, 1673), 183.

19 Temple, Netherlands, 178–79.

20 Gregory, Unintended Reformation, 266–67 (see chap. 1, n. 65).

21 Harold J. Cook, Matters of Exchange: Commerce, Medicine, and Science in the Dutch Golden Age (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2007).

22 De Vries and van der Woude, First Modern Economy, 674–80.

23 For the Dutch economic influence on the English, see Steve Pincus, 1688: The First Modern Revolution (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 2009), 50–59, 81–87; and more broadly, Lisa Jardine, Going Dutch: How England Plundered Holland’s Glory (New York: HarperCollins, 2009).

24 John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. James H. Tully (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1983), 26–28.

25 W. M. Spellman, The Latitudinarians and the Church of England, 16601700 (Athens: Univ. of Georgia Press, 1993).

26 Henry D. Rack, Reasonable Enthusiast: John Wesley and the Rise of Methodism, 3rd ed. (London: Epworth Press, 2002).

27 Evan Haefeli, New Netherland and the Dutch Origins of American Religious Liberty (Philadelphia: Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, 2012).

28 This paragraph is based on Mark Valeri, Heavenly Merchandize: How Religion Shaped Commerce in Puritan New England (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 2009).

29 For an example, see John T. Noonan Jr., The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1998).

30 James Madison, “Notes on Debate over Religious Assessment,” December 23–24, 1784, in Jefferson and Madison on Separation of Church and State: Writings on Religion and Secularism, ed. Lenni Brenner (Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, 2004), 62.

31 James Madison, “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” June 20, 1785, in Jefferson and Madison, ed. Brenner, 68.

32 Thomas Jefferson, “Notes on the State of Virginia,” 1781–1782, in Jefferson and Madison, ed. Brenner, 54.

33 Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven, CT: Yale Univ. Press, 1989).

34 Mark A. Noll, The Work We Have to Do: A History of Protestantism in America (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2002), 57, 53; Hatch, Democratization, 220.

35 David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).

36 Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence (New York: Perennial Classics, 2000), 295.

37 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 290.

38 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 292.

39 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 290–91.

40 Jefferson, “State of Virginia,” in Jefferson and Madison, ed. Brenner, 24.

41 Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, in Paine, Political Writings, ed. Bruce Kuklick (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2000), 268. I am grateful to Mark Noll for discussion about Paine’s religious views.

42 Jan de Vries, The Industrious Revolution: Consumer Behavior and the Household Economy, 1650 to the Present (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008).

43 See Albert O. Hirschman, The Passions and the Interests: Political Arguments for Capitalism before Its Triumph (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1977).

44 Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, ed. Edwin Cannan, with introduction by Robert Reich (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 581.

45 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 291.

46 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 530, 534.

47 Jonathan Mayhew Wainwright, Inequality of Individual Wealth an Ordinance of Providence, and Essential to Civilization (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1835), 20.

48 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 532.

49 Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 2006).

50 Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 290.

51 Sehat, Myth of American Religious Freedom; Philip Hamburger, Separation of Church and State (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 2002).

52 For the next two paragraphs, see Gregory, Unintended Reformation, 177–78.

53 J. David Hacker, “Has the Demographic Impact of Civil War Deaths Been Exaggerated?” Civil War History 60, no. 4 (2014): 453–58.

54 Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994).

55 Victoria de Grazia, Irresistible Empire: America’s Advance through Twentieth-Century Europe (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard Univ. Press, 2005).




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