September 21, 2003


Bible Track: a review of Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700 by Diarmid MacCulloch (George Rosie, 9/21/03, Sunday Herald)

In his latest book, [Oxford historian, Diarmaid MacCulloch] argues that the Reformation of the 16th century created a split that still lies under the surface of Western life.

“It is impossible to understand modern Europe without understanding these 16th century upheavals in Latin Christianity,” he writes. “They represented the greatest fault-line to appear in Christian culture since the Latin and Greek halves of the Roman Empire went their separate ways a thousand years before: they produced a house divided. The fault-line is the business of this book.” And fault lines beget fissures. Within 100 years of the renegade monk Martin Luther pinning his 95 “theses” to the door of the church at Wittemberg in 1517 Protestantism began to fracture. In late 17th century Scotland, for instance, Anglicans were hunting down and killing Presbyterians. By the year 1700, the Protestant world had splintered into many pieces: Lutherans, Calvinists, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Quakers, Baptists, Anabaptists, Methodists, Congregationalists and dozens of minor denominations and sects. It’s a process that goes on. In Scotland there are five varieties of Presbyterianism.

As MacCulloch explains it, US presidents such as Ronald Reagan and George Bush owe their mind-sets to the Reformation. “In the USA, Protestantism, stemming from England and Scotland, set the original patterns of identity,” he writes. “American life is fired by a continuing energy of Protestant religious practice derived from the 16th century. So the Reformation … has created the ideology dominant in the world’s remaining superpower …”

And that ideology runs deep. Only one Roman Catholic has ever made it to the White House, and he was assassinated 40 years ago.

It is not clear from the context or the phrasing that Mr. Rosie realizes that JFK was not killed for his religious beliefs.

Posted by Orrin Judd at September 21, 2003 11:57 PM

It's no mystery why the world's greatest nation, (at least in economic or military terms), is a Protestant nation.
Protestants believe, in general, that Christ's sacrifice allowed every person to communicate freely and directly with God, and ended the need for an intermediary, or priest.
Those beliefs dovetail neatly with the individualistic philosophies of capitalism and a democratic political system.
Nations that are strongly Catholic tend to be drawn to socialistic economies and dictators.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 22, 2003 3:02 AM

The flip side of your assessment Michael is that
one path of Protestantism leads to the
enlightenment and then to moral relativism
and possible nihilism (see "mainline protestantism"). Whereas the radical
evangelical movement has led to a fractious
and personality driven scattering of micro-denominations (hardly the unified body of Christ).

Posted by: J.H. at September 22, 2003 8:58 AM

According to Michael's theory of economic development, the Medicis and other Italian Catholic bankers of the Renaissance weren't essential in the development of capitalism.

Neither were German Catholic bankers like the Fuggers.

Likewise, had the Pope granted Henry VIII a divorce, Great Britain would not have economically developed.

In addition we should just ignore that the leading examples of European socialism is in Protestant Scandinavia.

And for that matter that the leading economic and pro-capitalist Laender in Germany is Catholic Bavaria...

...while German socialism is due to Protestant Bismarck who fought a culture war against Catholicism.

I apologize for the sarcasm, but I have heard this theory several times and find it complete bunk. The evidence does not support it.

Posted by: Chris Durnell at September 22, 2003 12:46 PM


Michael Novak is especially good at devastating it.

Posted by: oj at September 22, 2003 12:56 PM


Yes, the individualistic nature of Protestant theology tends to lead to splinter movements. However, Christ himself doesn't demand that all Christians be in lockstep, as evidenced by the decision to allow free will among humans.


OK, leave off the last statement. Do you dispute that capitalism and democracy, along with Protestantism, are individualistic ?

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at September 22, 2003 1:00 PM

Michael: I do. Not one of them works very well if practiced by one man at a time. Both rely on concerts of individuals.

Posted by: Chris at September 22, 2003 2:24 PM

The key to all this is the factionalism of late Christianity, which allowed those indifferent to religion to evade it (by seeking refuge in Haarlem, Venice or Potsdam) and get on with the business of business.

The Italian bankers were very capitalistic but not especially productive.

The wealth is not a function of Protestantism but of the scientific, rational inquiry into how to get things done. That probably would not have survived had not Protestantism cracked the obscurantism of Catholicism, then turned its energies to fighting itself instead of the secularists.

Europe is not rich because of religion but because of secularism.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at September 22, 2003 10:25 PM


As the so-called religious impulse fades in Europe so does it's freedom and prosperity. The basic social institutions are being weakened as the state grows stronger. I think we all know where that leads.

Posted by: Tom C., Stamford,Ct. at September 23, 2003 10:58 AM