Thursday, February 11, 2016

Orthodoxy and Progress: The Protestant Reformation, the 2016 Election, and Maybe We're Not So Bad Off Today

#FeeltheReformation might have been his hashtag

For my upcoming class on Christian History in my final semester of Seminary, I’m studying Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, and how the Catholic Church’s loss of power and absolute influence changed the balance of political power between German states and among the larger ruling classes of Europe.  Luther became more a symbol of a desire on the part of Christians in Europe for less strict rules for their faith practice rather than a singular deified carrier of a Holy message of reform, and his flaws as a human being and political figure would prevent deeper reforms.
Throughout days of working as a Chaplain Intern at Johns Hopkins Hospital, I provide pastoral presence and care to those whose religious lives reflect the schism in Christianity cracked wide by Luther and many other reformers of the faith.   I applied ashes to the foreheads of believers in many Christian traditions on the recent Ash Wednesday at Hopkins, while many hospital employees and staff declined.  In many Christian denominations, no meaning is held for the application of ashes.   I wonder what Martin Luther would say about the varied traditions and rituals among those whom he saw as worthy of worshipping a unified faith tradition.
Then there’s our current politics.  The battle within the Democratic Party for control of the party machinery and the message of hope and a brighter tomorrow that comes with it.  That seeming perfect symmetry in this contest between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.  In many ways, Hillary reminds voters of the established orthodoxy of mainstream progressive thinking in the U.S., with incremental progress and hewing to traditional means of changing government functions and allocation of resources for the betterment of the common good.  Bernie Sanders appeals to a similar pent-up desire for deep change into which Martin Luther tapped with his 95 Theses
With the rise of Donald Trump, Ted Cruz and other demagogues in the Republican party, with a nascent rebellion against acceptance of further social progress, many in the corporate and polarized media are convincing people that the “sides” are “further apart than ever”, and that what we need is a “moderate” like former New York mayor and billionaire media mogul Michael Bloomberg, to “unite” the country.   The organized left, which I personally hold as the harbinger of true change and progress, the side most willing to embrace and welcome more and more marginalized groups into the mainstream of society as a mechanism for social justice, has developed a clear fault line this political season.  As I stumble into the work of social change and as one who tries to keep my own eyes open to the reality of injustice of the world, I wonder how much of the deep struggle in the wide Christian faith parallels the current political climate in U.S. and elsewhere.  Maybe our society is not more divided than ever.  Maybe we're just playing the parts people play in changing times.  There have to be reactionaries to progress; otherwise, the stories that lead to progress could not hold the potency that spawns religions.
Which holds more inherent capacity to change the world for the better, the Bernie camp or the Hillary camp?  As the organized Left incrementally begins to resolve that question over the next few months in the American opiate of political theater, I wonder for the first time in 20 years of involvement in political campaigns if our politics aren’t just echoes of the same ideological schisms that drew Martin Luther, and Jan Hus and Desiderius Erasmus and so many other reformers in Christian thought, to risk their lives and acceptance in the societies they lived.  As a humanist and political junkie, politics has been part of my religious life for so long that I cannot remember a time prior.  With the increasing percentage of Americans who feel comfortable admitting their allegiance to no faith (the patronizing term “Nones”), I see the possibility of greater synergy between American political and religious discourse.
Maybe that’s the reason this week marked the first time a Jewish man won a major political party Primary election in American history.   Can it be that as we’re slowly becoming increasingly secular and rational in our public discourse that we’re also similarly embracing Jesus’ ideals of breaking the grip of banks’ power in society, of ensuring our fellow citizens have their basic needs met?
The Perfect Fusion Ticket for Rationalists in 2016?
Conversely, should we be disappointed if the establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton, succeeds in earning the party nomination?  Do those of the Catholic faith, the establishment Christian tradition in the 1500s when Martin Luther sought radical change, feel as though they missed out on the revolution?  I see value in establishment faiths, be they religious or political.  I seek a world where orthdoxy is appreciated if not allowed to forever control the flow of the discourse.
I see potential for a synergistic dialogue about faith and politics in the 2016 campaign.  I feel hope for the potential for the country, and global society, to begin its much-needed leap past political and religious fundamentalism and toward Heaven on Earth.
In 270 days, we will know the result of this sliver of the push forward of human consciousness.  Like Martin Luther in his day, we can't know what will come of our aspiration actions today.  But we can look to his example and keep on going.


  1. I look forward reading your Lenten explorations daily. Thank you for sharing your thoughts, the first two posts alone have given me much to think about.


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  3. I feel hope for the potential for the country, and global society, to begin its much-needed leap past political and religious fundamentalism and toward Heaven on Earth."

    Amen! May we make it so.

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