Protestant Political Thought

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Protestant Political Thought

Lutheran political thought

Sectarian political thought

Calvinist political thought

Contemporary Protestant political thought


Protestantism emerged in sixteenth-century Europe as a movement within the Christian church, seeking chiefly to depoliticize religious thought rather than to establish a new religious influence in the public order. The aim of Martin Luther’s attempt to reform Catholicism was not to deny the responsibilities of Christians in politics but to free the gospel, the “good news” of the Scriptures about Jesus Christ, from the proprietorship of either the church or the state. The Lutheran reformation brought into existence a great number of sects— Baptist, Congregational, etc.—whose concern was chiefly to develop a voluntary community of believers whose passionate witness to the purity of the gospel’s commandments would change the hopes of men in the political order. The Calvinist movement, seeking to overcome the excessive preoccupation of Lutheranism with the gospel and of sectarianism with the development of a free Christian community, directed its attention to the problem of reconstructing the political order.

The historical development of the three major types of Protestant political thought—Lutheranism, sectarianism, and Calvinism—was shaped by the fact that they emerged out of the criticism of a system of medieval Catholic thought which affirmed that religious and political life are closely interdependent, that regnum and sacerdotium form complementary jurisdictions within the res publica Christiana. From the Reformation to the twentieth century, Protestant political thought has focused on the question of the differentiation of gospel, church, and public order and on their free and responsible interaction.

Lutheran political thought

The nature of the first great Protestant reformer’s political thought can be sensed at once from Luther’s statement addressed to Emperor Charles v in 1521 in response to an attempt to force in public court Luther’s recognition of the supremacy of the pope on religious matters. Luther said, “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason… I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted” ([1521] 1958, p. 112). The ground of Christian faith was the possession of neither church nor state. “The word of God,” Luther noted, “which teaches full freedom, should not and must not be fettered” ([1520a] 1952, p. 345). Luther concluded that the righteousness talked about by St. Paul as the mark of the Christian is a relationship of God and man which is freely given to all men entirely at the initiative of God. The Christian responds to it with personal trust and gratitude. A man’s sense of righteousness cannot be mediated or assumed as a responsibility by any priest or politician. Hence the Reformation slogan Solo fide.

Luther’s search for the “real” in religious experience drove him to oppose, at first, not the political order but the highly organized power structure of the Catholic church and the over-elaborated medieval theology and morality. In his attack on ecclesiasticism and scholasticism Luther hoped to recover what were for him simple and precious realities: the love of God for man and the world, revealed in Christ, and the freedom of the Christian man in obedience to the will of God. In Luther’s words: “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none; a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to everyone” ([1520b] 1928, p. 6). Venturesome acts that substituted justice and mercy for force and threat in human relations were to be the grateful response of Christians to what God had done in Christ and continued to do through the Holy Spirit. [See the biography ofLuther.]

From these religious convictions, Luther elaborated ideas of considerable political significance. These ideas had to do with the limits of personal responsibility and freedom in public actions and with the inadmissibility of attempts by ecclesiastical or political authorities to use coercion to compel assent. For Luther, agreement so obtained is stripped of all spiritual value; only free adherence qualifies as faith and morality. Of even broader cultural significance has been the Lutheran conviction that the personal dimensions of conscience and commitment, of guilt and forgiveness, of family and kin affections, are a more basic or primary reality than political structures of office, status, and power.

These convictions deeply influenced Luther’s view of the church. When the church relies too heavily upon an elaborate system of laws, good works, and indulgences, it becomes like the political realm, relying upon controls and restraints rather than upon the persuasive power of the Word and the loving, spontaneous ministering to the needs of others. For Luther, the unity of the church was made possible by a religious reality—the spirit of Christ and the faith of believers; the unity of the political order rested on a natural or secular concept—the uses of reason for the achievement of order and peace. The Lutheran church was to be then, at least in its founder’s hopes, a unique and simple fellowship of those people who believed they were called to do the will of God; it was not a rationally constituted society such as the town or nation. In such a fellowship all believers were priests in service to one another. The offices of the church were formed to meet specific human needs and, hence, were subject to periodic revision. The holder of such office had no authority but to preach the word and administer the sacraments in ways which make plain how God intervenes in the lives of men, transforming them by his creative power.

This concept of the church as a historical community of persons known as Christians directed thought about human institutions toward the feelings, hopes, and commitments that people shared in them. But the elements of coercion, discipline, and rationality, which Luther eliminated from the church, reappeared in his conception of political order. The general conclusion of scholars viewing the historical development of Lutheran thought and organization (Wolin 1960, p. 148) is that Luther’s tendencies to minimize the spiritual significance of political power and institutional policy encouraged in the Lutheran church support for a monopoly of all kinds of temporal power by the emerging national states and an uncritical acceptance of political authority in its more negative and repressive forms. Luther was a revolutionary spirit; his thought reflects the paradoxes and discontinuities of his own age. Because he saw the chief source of spiritual oppression in Roman ecclesiasticism, he sought to build up the powers of the princes against the emperor and the papacy. In this battle he began to evolve a theory of the two realms —political and religious, the former to be characterized by an official, secular, rational ethic of the state and the latter to be guided by the authentic Christian ethic of the Sermon on the Mount. Luther’s more pietist and conservative followers found that in practice the gulf between duty and faith was difficult to bridge; opposition to injustice and tyranny was, therefore, postponed until such time as the state interfered with private and churchly matters of the spirit.

Lutheran thought has generally been an integrating and conserving force for the established institutions of family, commerce, religion, and government. These are, in the Lutheran heritage, divinely ordained; they war constantly against the demonic powers in the world. Because they are divinely ordained, the Christian is to be obedient to them. Also, obedience to political rulers, in matters over which they properly have jurisdiction, is within the divine ordering of human affairs. Yet Luther did not assume that the established institutions should be the exclusive instruments for the accomplishment of God’s will—what he was trying to guard against effectively was any effort to bring the natural institutions of life entirely under the judgment and control of the spiritual enterprise. In this respect he is to be distinguished from both ecclesiastical Christendom of medieval Catholic theory and the experiments in the holy commonwealth that were to spring up in the “free church” and Calvinist heritages. Although scholars have been able to find a place for a positive view of the state’s welfare function within Luther’s thought, it is clear he held no hope for the eventual triumph of Christian forces to the point where the government represented a pure Christendom. Neither the institutions of the church nor politics can, in the Lutheran tradition, become substitutes for the gospel, nor can they be entirely changed to fit the requirements of the gospel. This is the Protestant principle which, perhaps more than any other, has characterized the movement’s political thought.

Sectarian political thought

The reformation which Luther began stimulated the formation of an enormous number of small groups of earnest Christians who developed what Ernst Troeltsch ([1912] 1931, p. 691) termed the sectarian ideas, implicit in the thought of the great reformers. To this heritage belong all the Baptist and Anabaptist, Congregational, and “free church” revolts against Protestant orthodoxy. This second type of Protestant political thought was termed “sectarian” because it was representative of groups that cut themselves off from the established religious institutions to give witness to doctrines interpreted in extreme terms. Some of the earliest sects (Baptist, Anabaptist, millenarian) retreated from attempts to reform or redeem the world and the churches, viewing them as incorrigibly corrupt and sinful. They therefore formed small voluntary communities committed to fulfilling the Sermon on the Mount and other scriptural imperatives. The extreme sects of the sixteenth century did not hope for the reconstruction of the political world but for its dissolution. Their members refused to use the courts in civil disputes, to serve in the army, or to associate in any way with the political order. In a few instances the sects turned to violence— for example, the followers of Thomas Münzer joined briefly with the German peasants in violent revolt against the princes, arguing that the liberty of the Christian faith bore with it truly equal rights for all in the political order.

Most of the sects which flowered in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries (Congregationalists, Levellers, Methodists) were formed in the hope that voluntary communities of believers might influence the political order by an appeal to all men to discipline their self-interests, to be reasonable in public debate, and to cherish freedom once they experienced it in religion. For sectarian liberalism the possibility of regeneration and renewal of individual men through the power of the gospel and the fellowship of believers became the focus of concern, rather than the scope of self-interest and the persistence of national and institutional loyalties, which preoccupied the Lutherans. Nonetheless, the sects considered themselves as part of the Reformation and appealed to its principles of the priesthood of all believers, the freedom of Christian conscience, openness to the fresh blessings of the Holy Spirit, and the possibilities of brotherhood in the political order.

Many scholars (Nichols 1951, p. 3; Bennett 1958, p. 147) have viewed this sectarian heritage as the seedbed of liberal, democratic politics, while noting that sectarian ideas of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are not to be equated with Lockean politics or the individualism of nineteenth-century American Protestantism. The principle of human equality was implied in the sectarian emphasis that all believers are priests capable of contributing to the interpretation of God’s will and response to it. But this did not mean that all men are alike in standards and values. It meant that all men are alike in being children of God, that each has something incomparable and unique about him, a particular purpose to his work and life which God will make known.

Democratic principles of government by consent and of constitutional safeguard for freedom of expression were formulated by Protestants out of their experiences in self-governing, autonomous congregations of Independents, Levellers, Quakers, etc., in the seventeenth century. These congregations developed and put into practice concepts which had been implicit in the Church’s teachings from the beginning, such as the duty to follow one’s conscience or inner light and to have one’s acts open to critical discussion by the community. In these congregations the Scriptures were not left to private interpretation of each member or to the authority of the clergy. The will of God for society had to commend itself to the whole fellowship of believers. To discern God’s will demanded a diversity of gifts and the liberty of men to agree and disagree without resort to violence. Thus, the freely negotiated contract was, in economic and political life, the characteristic institution of the liberal society.

The liberal sectarian faith reached its greatest influence in American Protestantism of the nineteenth century. The optimistic belief of the movement that the rule of God could be established in society by voluntary action became pronounced in a nation which had a sense of new beginnings in a frontier land. The Methodist church, founded by John Wesley, with its stress upon change of heart and conversion of the individual as the key to social salvation, was the fastest growing denomination in nineteenth-century United States. In American Protestantism the underlying assumption of both religion and culture is that the religious convictions of individuals freely gathered in churches and acting in voluntary associations will permeate the cultural–political order by persuasion and example.

Calvinist political thought

The political problems which Luther and the sects of the Reformation bequeathed to John Calvin centered on a developing crisis in the concept of order and in the Western traditions of civility. Lutheran and sectarian criticism of Roman Catholic Christianity had focused upon a demand to free the individual believer from a mass of institutional controls and traditional restraints. This liberation had encouraged the development of a conception of the religious community as a fellowship bound together by ties of faith, love, and the worshiped presence of Christ, but it had invited avoidance, indifference, even antagonism toward the harsher political realities. In this crisis of order, Calvin put forward a system of ideas which stemmed the flight from civility. Calvin provided Protestantism with a fully developed doctrinal and political system as an alternative to Roman Catholic thought and organization. While Luther spoke in anguish of the great dilemmas of faith—freedom and authority, anxiety and justification—Calvin belonged to the second generation of Protestants, concerned with systematic innovation in moral conduct and social organization.

In his “Dedication” to the Institutes, Calvin made clear that he belonged to the Reformation, reflecting Luther’s statement of the primary principle of Protestantism: “While we make use of their [the Church Fathers’] writings, we always remember that ‘all things are ours’; to serve us, not to have dominion over us, and that ‘we are Christ’s alone,’ and owe him universal obedience. He who neglects this distinction [from the papal tradition] will have nothing decided in religion.” But the whole thrust of Calvin’s thought is that Christianity constitutes far more a faith of discipline and obedience than of justification. “And doubtless this is the priesthood of the Christian pastor, that is, to sacrifice men, as it were, to God, by bringing them to obey the gospel, and not, as the Papists have hitherto haughtily vaunted, by offering up Christ to reconcile men to God” ([1540] 1948, p. 527).

In Calvinism and the reformed-church tradition in Protestantism, Christianity was neither a priestly communion with God nor a voluntary fellowship of love and freedom, but rather a social religion. Calvin’s theory of the church was an elaboration of the principle that the Christian faith would be incomplete without an institutional structure to express religious convictions effectively in the society, possessing the power and control needed to insure the solidarity of the group. The Calvinists viewed the Lutheran church as too vulnerable to political interference and the sects too split by the internal disorders and confusions of egalitarian democracy. The Calvinist church polity aimed at self-sufficiency without divorce from political life, at active membership and strong leadership without papal and clerical domination. Ecclesiastical and civil government were to be more analogous than antithetical, different in objectives and spirit but not in the necessities of law, authority, and power. Calvin often spoke of the church as a commonwealth, a counterpolity to the state, which cohered fundamentally by virtue of a transcendent spirit working through the “saints,” who had joined Christ to form a corpus mysticum, activated and disciplined enough to “take the earthly kingdom and transform it.” [See the biography of Calvin.]

The greatest innovations in sixteenth-century politics (e.g., the English revolution led by Oliver Cromwell) stemmed from this theory of the church. The principal political idea of the revolution of the saints, as one historian of Puritanism has noted (Walzer 1965, p. 1), was that “specially designated and organized bands of men might play a creative part in the political world, destroying the established order and reconstructing society according to the Word of God or the plans of their fellows—this idea did not enter at all into the thought of Machiavelli, Luther or Bodin.” The activism of the Calvinist saints—Genevan, Huguenot, Dutch, Scottish, Puritan—marked the transformation of politics into a calling or work that could over a lifetime express one’s deepest religious and moral convictions.

The Calvinists changed the emphasis of political thought from the king and prince, governing a traditional society of nonparticipating, inactive men, to a band of saints, seeking through independent political action to transform and construct a new, better world. The Calvinist theory provided the emerging bourgeois, public officials, and intellectuals with a view of the world in which their concern, efficiency, and ideas would be respectable and responsible. The medieval-feudal society, against which the saints revolted, could be reformed only from above, by changes in the hierarchy of popes and monarchs, or from outside, by monkish enthusiasts. Lesser men—magistrates, students, parish priests, merchants, etc.—were thought to be members of an organic, natural society with established patterns of hierarchy and deference. Not until the Calvinists did a political and theological system of thought develop which suggested that laity should express their deepest personal, moral, and religious convictions in free, methodical, rational association and work in the political order. What Calvinists said of the saint, other men would in time say of the citizen and his civic virtue.

This kind of political organization and personality would have been impossible if Calvinism had not broken from both the Lutheran teaching that government was chiefly a mighty instrument of repression and from sectarian insistence that the political order must either conform to the law of love in Biblical Christianity or be forsaken. Calvin’s thought was based on a realistic conception of the wickedness of men and their eternal need for restraint and expressed hopefulness in the possibilities of dedicated men bringing something of the divine command for a holy commonwealth into the political order. Calvinism had a conception of “the common grace” that enabled men to live together in civil society and that made it cautious of judging non-Christian secular governments as unworthy of the saints’ loyalty and concern. Calvinist speculations were rooted in acknowledgment of the independent value of the political world; believer and nonbeliever alike needed civil order encouraging peace as well as piety, moderation as well as passionate commitment. But the civil order also needed, in the eyes of the saints, men who took as their standard the compassion and justice of the holy commonwealth, who sought to fashion a corporate community neither religious nor secular but a complex compound of both.

Contemporary Protestant political thought

Each type of Protestant political thought—Lutheran, sectarian, and Calvinist—has maintained a dynamic and vitality of its own to the present time, although some scholars dispute the persistence and strength of these types in the midst of pervasive processes of secularization and urbanization in the larger society and of movements toward ecumenical theology and professionalization of the ministry. Some (e.g., Herberg 1955) have seen strong tendencies in the American scene toward the integration of Protestantism into a cultural national religion in the liberal sectarian tradition. Other, empirical studies (Glock & Stark 1965, p. 86) reveal significant differences between denominations originating in the three great traditions. Historians and theologians engaged in restudy of these traditions have not only evidenced a concern with understanding the distinctive insights of each phase of the Protestant movement but have also been engaged in a process of reinterpretation which reflects a heightened consciousness of the useful insights in all of these traditions for clarifying the Protestant identity and action in the contemporary scene and for seeing aspects of a given religious tradition previously ignored (H. R. Niebuhr 1951). Intensive studies of social and religious interaction in political crises involving all the churches indicate that the varied traditions are not without influence in contemporary communities and are increasingly viewed by influential clergy and laity as possessing complementary or mutually significant values in the work of the whole church and in the formation of public policies (Underwood 1957).

The emphasis of the Lutheran Reformation upon extricating the church from the world is seen now as a continuing need to free the gospel from the proprietorship of either church or state and to probe the heights and depths of personal faith and conscience in culture. The chief impact of neoReformation theologians such as Karl Barth has been to help Protestants view Christianity not simply as a human cultural phenomenon called religion but as the faithful response of men to Christ, revealed in the Scriptures as the living God, a being who acts in the totality of history and in a fashion transcending the wisdom of all his interpreters and the social forms of all his churches.

In the fragmentary writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the pastor executed in Germany for his participation in a plot to assassinate Hitler, are to be found perhaps the most radical formulations of the implications for Christians of Barth’s fidelity to Christ as the final revelation of the word of God and as the paradigm by which men may try to shape their lives. Bonhoeffer saw himself as reflecting a historical movement, beginning about the thirteenth century, “towards the autonomy of man [which] has in our time reached a certain completion. Man has learned to cope with all questions of importance without recourse to God as a working hypothesis” ([1951] 1953, p. 145). Bonhoeffer was unhappy with all current “metaphysical and inward” formulations which theologians use as an explanation of what is happening in science, the arts, politics, and religion. Bonhoeffer particularly rejected those concepts which focused Christian hope upon salvation from “sin and death into a better world beyond the grave” (ibid., p. 154) and upon Christian acts as being “religious in a particular way, to cultivate some particular form of asceticism (as a sinner, a penitent or a saint).” To be Christian, for Bonhoefer, was “to be a man. It is not some religious act which makes a Christian what he is, but participation in the suffering of God in the life of the world” (ibid., p. 166). What such participation meant for political thought and action is not very clearly developed. Traditional Lutheran terms such as “orders” of religion and politics were rejected as implying too rigid and abstract a view of where the commandments of God were present. Bonhoeffer preferred the term “mandate” as a “concrete divine commission.” The mandate could come to a man in an institution or office if these concepts were purged of their conservative overtones of rational-legal authority and if they made it possible for committed men to act as each new situation required.

The contemporary restatements of the liberal sectarian tradition have noted the way in which voluntaristic, individualistic ideas of nineteenthcentury Protestantism were exaggerated and formalized in ideological rejection of the use of the state to balance economic interest for the sake of justice, to meet new welfare needs of people in urban industrial societies, and to provide basic liberties to neglected racial and ethnic minorities. The studies and assemblies of the World Council of Churches and other ecumenical bodies and interpretation of these studies by ethicists and theologians (e.g. Bennett 1958) have related the universal concerns of the historical liberal tradition to other traditions of a Protestantism no longer characterized by sects but by denominations representing members of a changing spectrum of social and religious backgrounds. The basic concern retained from tradition has been the acute awareness of the insufficiency of outward forms of order and justice as political goals. This tradition has kept alive the intuition that people may experience estrangement and personal disorganization in the midst of economic abundance and civil liberty; that the public resources are ultimately for the nourishment of communities of faith, vision, and love; and that law serves not as retribution for its own sake, but as a prologue to those redeeming acts of vicarious responsibility for public acts antecedent to the violation of law (Harding 1956, p. 67).

Since the 1930s the major figure in the contemporary reformulation of Protestant political thought has been Reinhold Niebuhr. He criticizes conservative, pietistic theology as too pessimistic about the human situation to see the possibilities of justice and compassion in civil society. Those who express such pessimism are so afraid of disorder that they will permit public authorities to stifle all minority dissent for fear of anarchy. On the other hand, Niebuhr criticizes Utopian, liberal-democratic theory for its incapacity to see that the profound collective self-regard persists, even in the moral ideals advocated by economic, national, or religious groups; American illusions of omnipotence and moral concern for other nations have as much possibility, in his judgment, of shattering nuclear peace as the illusions of closed, dogmatic societies. Niebuhr’s own Calvinistic realism is epitomized in his observation that “man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary” (1944, p. xi).

Scholars who have attempted to foresee future developments in Protestant thought (Meyer 1960; West 1958; Williamson 1964) have sensed the limits of the ability of political realism to affect the wellsprings of personal and cultural renewal or to touch the sources of faith and conversion. The search is for images and facts which reveal alternatives of concrete political action rather than for abstract, idealistic theological formulations. What do the historical principles of the faith mean to men who have the power and organization to create economic growth in new nations, to discover areas for mutual cooperation between nations with strong ideological differences, to use space and technology in cities, with aesthetic and moral purpose?

Protestantism is not likely to be able to view itself in any nation in the future as the religious expression of the common aspirations of a culture. Efforts of Protestants to envision and realize new political possibilities and to encourage careers of public service may well reflect something of older Calvinist hopes, but these efforts must now commend themselves to non-Protestants as well as to heirs of a particular history. In this situation, Protestant thought is likely to pay greater attention to conditions of religious liberty and social creativity not dependent upon a people’s being Christian or religious but rather upon their being human and politically responsible. Protestants can be expected to extend their study of the relations of non-Western religions to public life and to the ecumenical movements within the Christian church.

Kenneth W. Underwood

[See alsoChristianityand the biographies ofBodin; Calvin; andLuther. A guide to other relevant material may be found underReligion.]


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