Reflections on the Protestant Revolution

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According to one sage observation: he who gets to name names, wins. Why do we talk about the Protestant Reformation and not the Protestant Revolution, for example? After all, Martin Luther commenced his journey as a reformer, repulsed righteously, as most of us would be, by the corruption and decadence of the Rome of his day. He wanted to fix the problem. Then he changed his mind; he resolved that nothing short of the destruction of the Catholic Church would do. Annihilation is no reformation. Thus, he turned into a revolutionary.

Similarly, Henry VIII started out as a staunch defender of the Catholic Church against Luther and his ilk. Then he resolved to solve his marital problems by divorcing his wife and enhance his power through confiscation of Church properties. In the process of “reforming” the Catholic Church in England, he destroyed her, and erected a new one in her stead. The new entity was grounded in the Cesaropapist ideal of the Byzantine Empire and, later, Muscovy. The king was now the head of the church with all that it entailed. Thus, the monarch carried out a revolution, not a reformation.

Rich Lowry of National Review traces nationalism and anti-monarchism to the Lollards and their radical endeavor, and from them to the Puritans and other revolutionaries. He clearly ties revolution to Protestantism. So, too, does the great reactionary Joseph de Maistre—although, in the latter’s book, it is not a compliment, but a condemnation. It continues in Solange Hertz’s A Star-Spangled Heresy: Americanism and Charles A. Coloumbe’s Puritan’s Empire: A Catholic Perspective on American History.

When we speak of reformers, then, we really mean the likes of Erasmus of Rotterdam or Saint Thomas More. Because of them, we should have no problem understanding their work as that of a Catholic reformation. They knew that Rome screamed for reforms, and they understood the depth of her corruption. At the same time, they realized that the Vatican’s fifteen hundred years of existence testified to the fact that it was an opus Dei. Nothing short of a miracle keeps saving an institution that human beings repeatedly have tried to subvert and destroy from within and without. This simple fact is as valid now as it has been in ages past.

 

So, why do we persist in calling the events of the 16th and 17th century the Protestant Reformation? It was a revolution, plain and simple. Referring to this cataclysmic event of Christian disunity as a “Reformation,” however, is part habit, part reflex, and part propaganda. Let’s look at such mechanisms.

Edmund Burke, the father of modern conservatism, referred to a “revolution in France” rather than a “French Revolution.” The latter is standard nomenclature for liberals and leftists, starting with Thomas Paine. Thomas Jefferson himself swore he’d eat his hat if anything bad came out of “the French Revolution.” Marxists and other likeminded revolutionaries gush about “The Great French Revolution,” while the monarchists anathematize the catastrophe as “The Great Anti-French Revolution.”

Yet Burke knew better. Prudence prompted him not only to moderation but also to exactitude. (Both tend to be conservative virtues.) He acknowledged that a revolution took place in France, but he did not see anything “French” about it, since France had rested on an alliance between Throne and Altar. Its monarchism was fused with its Catholicism. The revolution destroyed them both, or at least endeavored to do so. Instead, it created a new France—one predicated on a kind of proto-ethnonationalism, as Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn has aptly pointed out, referring to a line from the refrain of the revolutionary anthem, “La Marseillaise”: Qu’un sang impur/Abreuve nos sillons! (May the impure blood [of the enemies of “the people”] water our furrows.”)

The new France was thus a centralized entity devoid of local rights and particularisms, including the “little platoons” so beloved by Burke. It rejected the old concept of variegated territorial loyalties in favor of “blood and soil” egalitarian nationalism. Thus, Burke refused to dignify the radical phenomenon of sanguine innovation with anything but a clinical description—the revolution in France. It is still the best way to describe it.

Often, we embrace a construct reflexively. This is usually the case when, virtually at birth, we inherit, or assimilate, a name for a phenomenon. We simply tend to repeat it without questioning its deeper meaning. We are thus imprinted with a ready concept, for instance, the ubiquitous “Protestant Reformation.” Indoctrination through propaganda, sometimes very brutal, like the Maoist “struggle” sessions, can have a similar impact on us. We may have once known a different name for a common concept but we forgot it because it was drummed out of our heads. Think of the Orwellian “War is Peace” slogan. It is all too real.

At the beginning of the 1990s, I returned to Poland to do research for my doctorate. I also helped out in a variety of projects. At one point, I helped a Second World War veteran, Marian Bobolewski, to obtain a “rehabilitation” from a post-Communist court. I told him it was the court that had sentenced him in the 1940s that needed a “rehabilitation.” The veteran needed a nullification of his sentence. In 1943, he had fled from a Nazi forced labor camp and joined a pro-Western guerrilla outfit. He was seventeen. He fought both the Nazis and the Communists. In 1944, he was captured by the Soviet secret police. Bobolewski was tortured horribly.

He told me, “After the liberation, the NKVD interrogator kicked me in my face and I lost my eye.” I responded with a sad plea: “Sir, please consider what you have just said: ‘after the liberation’ you were tortured and sent to jail and your only crime was fighting for freedom. ‘After the liberation’? But liberation means bringing freedom. Stalin did anything but! He enslaved you!” Bobolewski looked at me and burst out crying: “Do you see what the Communists did to me? They brainwashed me!”

And that is called a false consciousness. The victim never fell in love with the Big Brother but, over time, he acquired its nomenclature to explain his captive world. This served both as a defense mechanism and an accommodation device. The Communist regime failed to break him, yet, by manipulating words, it domesticated him to an extent. Freedom came in 1989. Through a historic shock therapy, recovered memories, rediscovered war buddies, and other factors, Marian Bobolewski managed the arduous way back to being a fully self-conscious individual. I believe he passed away a few years ago.

Of course, there was no Protestant secret police, but in the 19th century, when the study of history became professionalized, it was mostly Protestant scholars in Germany who led the way. They got to name names, including “Protestant Reformation.” The British picked it up automatically, and so did the Americans. Now it is applied universally.

And it makes sense to many. The Catholic Church is allegedly retrograde, reactionary, and incapable of change. It is only fit to launch a Counter-Reformation. Really? What of the Cluniac Reform? If we agree about the truth of this Catholic reformation, on the one hand, and the Protestant revolution on the other, we will be mentally equipped to acknowledge that what we were dealing with was not a “Catholic Counter-Reformation” but, rather, a Catholic counter-revolution. Let’s get it straight.

This is an uphill battle, but someone’s got to do it.

Image: The Sack of Lyon by the Huguenots by Antoine Carot

Marek Jan Chodakiewicz

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Marek Jan Chodakiewicz is Professor of History and holds the Kościuszko Chair in Polish Studies at the Institute of World Politics in Washington, DC.

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