‘The Reformation was a process of both renewal and division among Christians in Europe,’ said the Archbishops of Canterbury and York in a ‘joint reflection’ statement marking 500 years of Protestantism. ‘In this Reformation anniversary year, many Christians will want to give thanks for the great blessings they have received to which the Reformation directly contributed.’
Many will want to? OK, but what about you? Why this timid slippage into the third person? Some journalists reported the statement as an apology. They were technically wrong, but tonally correct. It reminded me of the day after Brexit, when Boris and Gove were so nervous of seeming cocky that they forgot to seem glad. This statement was similarly careful to balance affirmation with hand-wringing.
To most of us, the Reformation is little more than a supplier of plot twists in Tudor costume dramas. If we’re devotees of art, we’ll shake our heads at ripped-out rood screens and whitewashed apocalypses in rural churches. If we’re religious, the whole business might mean something more. But, if we’re Anglican, we might not be sure whether to cheer or repent; we might echo the archbishops’ ambivalence.
Just a few decades ago, things were rather different. There was still a lingering assumption that Protestantism was at the heart of Britain’s identity. For most of the 20th century this assumption was very strong. Protestantism was felt to be a key ingredient in our core ideological tradition, which might be summed up as ‘liberty’.
You didn’t have to be religious to think so. Ever since Victorian times, atheists and agnostics had thought of themselves as honorary Protestants. John Stuart Mill, for example, recalled his atheist father urging him ‘to take the strongest interest in the Reformation, as the great and decisive contest against priestly tyranny for liberty of thought’. Later in the century Thomas Henry Huxley, inventor of ‘agnosticism’ and preacher of evolution, said his agenda was rooted in ‘that conviction of the supremacy of private judgment…which is the foundation of the Protestant Reformation.’
This link between Protestantism and individual liberty remained axiomatic for all sorts of 20th-century thinkers and politicians, on the left as well as the right. It was part of the empire creed of Churchill and Enoch Powell, and part of the Roundhead socialism of Michael Foot and Tony Benn.
Well, we’re free of such tired old prejudices now, aren’t we? For decades now, the idea that Protestantism brought us liberal progress has been dismissed and derided as hopelessly outdated ‘Whiggish history’. Countless historians have warned us against seeing Tudor reformers as the nearly–modern goodies, and Catholics as the reactionary baddies. It was all rather more complicated than that, more ‘finely balanced’. The old narrative was fuelled by anti-Catholic prejudice and crude nationalism, says the new orthodoxy. Good riddance to it.
I don’t think the old narrative deserves the fashionable contempt that intellectuals have heaped on it. I don’t think I am entirely motivated by anti-Catholicism and dated nationalism when I see a very strong link between Protestantism and the rise of liberal humanism. Rather, I suspect I am stating the unfashionable but bleeding obvious.
Admittedly, there wasn’t very much liberal or humanist about Luther or Calvin, not to mention Henry VIII. The link was formed in the next generation or two. It was in Protestant lands, especially England and Holland, that an intense new humanism emerged in the 17th century. Some of the pioneers were radically religious — such as the Puritans, who demanded liberty of religion and so launched the idea of the separation of church and state, ending the long reign of theocracy.
Others were rationalists, but their rationalism was intensely influenced by radical Protestant belief. The fact is that just about all of the major Enlightenment thinkers, from Spinoza and Locke to Voltaire and Jefferson, and Kant and Hegel, were either Protestants or were decisively influenced by Protestantism. The secular humanism that gradually emerged did not come from nowhere. The whole idea of universal human rights came from the rational version of Christianity developed chiefly by Protestants. The humanism that we (nearly) all vaguely affirm is not just the ideology that comes naturally to human beings. It is a moral tradition with deep roots in the Christian centuries — and it was Protestantism that enabled the transition from a religious to secular framework.
We’re not just talking about abstract ideas. The actual tradition of practical humanism was chiefly advanced by committed Protestants, from the Quakers who modelled egalitarianism (including for women) to the evangelicals who denounced slavery as a violation of the brotherhood of man, to all the campaigners for better treatment of the poor. And in recent times it was Protestantism that produced the foremost prophet of social justice, Martin Luther King.
This basic story, of Protestant Christianity giving rise to secular humanism, is almost entirely swept under the carpet. Even though it defines us to a huge extent, it is barely acknowledged. It is more likely to be dismissed as a relic from the intellectual past. Why? Because it is not in the interest of either secular thinkers or religious thinkers to acknowledge it. It embarrasses both camps. Agnostics and atheists are reluctant to admit their debt to the religion they enjoy looking down on. So they pretend that secular humanism is just natural, the default position of all rational people.
But what about Christians? Don’t they want to highlight the Christian basis of secular humanism? Surely this is a rather strong argument for Christianity? That it is at the root of the values we share? But no, Anglicans prefer not to highlight this issue. They fear seeming like the wet cheerleaders of secular humanism. They prefer posing as its tough opponents. For years, liberal Protestantism has been on the back foot, unsure how to affirm its affinity with secular humanism without selling out.
A new approach is called for. We Protestants should be proud that our tradition has given rise to secular humanism. This does not mean our tradition has been superseded. We should have the confidence to affirm this offshoot, just as a good parent has the confidence to affirm his or her child.
When the archbishops briefly and nervously speak of ‘the great blessings to which the Reformation directly contributed’, they stick to religious stuff: they mention the ‘clear proclamation of the gospel of grace, the availability of the Bible to all in their own language and the recognition of the calling of lay people to serve God in the world and in the church.’
How about also getting a little bit world-historical? They should point out to secular humanists that most of the freedoms they take for granted were hewn from the rock of history by the brave children of the Reform-ation. It was Protestants who battled theocracy and nurtured the frail shoots of liberty that now seem axiomatic, obvious, natural (if you’re lucky enough to live in the post-Protestant West).
On behalf of Protestantism, I’d just like to say this: you’re welcome.
Theo Hobson is the author of God Created Humanism: the Christian Basis of Secular Values.