Reformation and theocracy

Interesting bit of historical speculation by Brian Micklethwait at Samizdata, positing a similarity between the Reformation and Islamic fundamentalism:  both placed their faith in the perfect truth of a holy book.

This has a couple of implications.  As Micklethwait observes, the ideals promoted by Luther and the other reformers were not nearly as benign, from a liberal democratic perspective, as is often assumed by Protestant thinkers.  They broke with the Renaissance church and opened a world of new possibilities, but their social and political prescriptions bordered on the theocratic.  Because, in the end, Europe found its way to religious toleration, Micklethwait holds out the hope that the same kind of change can take place in the Islamic world.

What, by our current liberally Whig standards, the Islamic world really needs is what followed our Reformation and all the religious and political turbulence it gave rise to: toleration. And, just as many of the voices speaking out for toleration during our Reformation were traditional and Catholic rather than modern and Protestant, . . . so now, many of the most eloquent arguers for toleration within Islam are those very exponents of traditional Islamic ideas whom the Islamic Fundamentalists now denounce for their laxity and lack of zeal.

Maybe so.  For Europe, the religious crisis precipitated by the Reformation ended in political catastrophe, in war and the death of millions.  A case can be made that “toleration,” in that environment, meant “exhaustion” or even “indifference.”

In liberal democracies, toleration has been maintained by privatizing faith – the denial that the most fundamental beliefs and highest values held by an individual should apply to his public life.  That’s a practical outlook but not in any sense a logical or even a natural one, and surely one devoid of appeal to a fundamentalist.

The Reformation began as a matter of conscience but soon became a struggle among princes.  However theocratic Luther and Calvin may have been in intent, their ideals, by weakening the universal church, increased tremendously the power of the secular authorities, whether Protestant like Henry VIII in England or Catholic like Charles V of Spain.

This power of government over religion, when transferred to the people, made it possible to keep the peace between contending visions of the path to heaven.  Whether a parallel secularization of power exists in the Islamic tradition – and if it does, whether it will lead, necessarily, to toleration – are questions to which I have no answer.


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