Beyond the Reformation of Politics

Beyond the Reformation of Politics
AP Photo/Jens Meyer

When we celebrate historical anniversaries, we are usually telling stories about ourselves more than about the past. This year is the quincentenary of Martin Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, which sparked the Protestant Reformation: an epoch-making historical event that has always been much too important to be left to the historians. The centenary celebrations in 1617 were about bolstering Germany's Protestant identity in the face of imminent war. The quatercentenary celebrations in 1917 were a grim affair in which imperial Germany held up Luther as an icon of its struggle.

But 2017 is stranger than that. We can't avoid the Reformation's importance in shaping the modern world, but over the past hundred years the historically Protestant countries of North America and Europe have secularized pell-mell. How does a secular society celebrate a religious revolution? Chiefly by transposing “religion” into a secular key and asking what our secular world owes to it. And given what obsesses our secular world right now, that means politics.

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