With the nation’s news dominated by reports of political corruption (most recently, the Clintons’ apparent use of “pay to play” schemes during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as U.S. secretary of state), sexual harassment scandals pandemic among the nation’s elites, extreme vulgarization of political speech and the common culture, riots against freedom of speech on the nation’s college campuses, paralyzing partisanship in Congress, death threats and open assassination attempts against government leaders and police officers, and the rest of the dismaying parade of moral shortcomings on display among the nation’s leaders in all walks of life, it appears that we are in the midst of a war not just between political and cultural factions, but over the very definition of our civilization.
The primacy of individual liberty versus rule by elites is at the heart of this conflict, but with a twist: The undermining of personal responsibility is creating a backlash against liberty as people rampantly abuse their freedoms. A half-millennium ago, the German monk and theologian Martin Luther set the foundations for the modern world by redefining the relationship between people and their institutions, shattering the legal structures that insulated elites from the consequences of their misdeeds.
Writing in the Wall Street Journal on the eve of the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, King’s College history professor Joseph Loconte insightfully traces the sources of Martin Luther’s ideas about freedom of the individual will and the world-changing effect those thoughts would have over the subsequent half-millennium.
Although Luther was committed to the spiritual authority of the Catholic Church, his religious views about spiritual elitism would eventually affect political attitudes throughout the West, introducing “a radical egalitarianism that helped lay the foundation for modern democracy and human rights.” Loconte writes,
Luther came to despise every form of spiritual elitism. He sought to replace rigid church hierarchies with “the priesthood of all believers,” the proposition that there are no qualitative differences between clergy and laity. “Just because we are all priests of equal standing,” he wrote in “An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility” (1520), “no one must push himself forward and, without the consent and choice of the rest, presume to do that which we all have equal authority.”
Luther’s “message of freedom” has not lost its power after five centuries, Loconte notes, providing a useful example for those who today oppose the many leaders of modern U.S. institutions who abuse their offices for personal gain:
Luther took an ax to the legal culture that shielded priests and bishops from criminal prosecution simply because they held church offices. “It is intolerable that in canon law, the freedom, person, and goods of the clergy should be given this exemption, as if the laymen were not exactly as spiritual, and as good Christians, as they, or did not equally belong to the church.”
Loconte observes that Luther’s concept of liberty included a deep awareness of the responsibilities that accompany freedom:
“A Christian has no need of any work or law in order to be saved,” [Luther] insisted, “since through faith he is free from every law and does everything out of pure liberty and freely.” Christian liberty of this kind provided no excuse for libertinism. Just the opposite: “I will therefore give myself as a Christ to my neighbor, just as Christ offered himself to me.”
Our nation’s founders universally acknowledged this view, evident in observations such as this from Benjamin Franklin: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”
Similarly, the rise and proliferation of such masters undermines virtue, both by making choice impossible (one cannot earn moral credit for actions done under compulsion) and by creating moral hazard, artificial reduction of the risks associated with making choices. Thus, the enormous growth of government in the United States over the past 125 years both reflects and generates the loss of the idea of liberty, which has made national greatness possible.
We are seeing the results in economic stagnation, the takeover of the nation’s institutions by thieves and tyrants, the decline of U.S. power in the world, and the dizzying array of stories of personal corruption among the nation’s leaders in all walks of life.
The fall of today’s political and cultural icons cannot arrive too soon.