Religious Traditions in Politics: Protestantism
- Evert van LeeuwenEvert van LeeuwenDepartment of Medical Sciences, Radboud University Nijmegen
Protestantism was labeled when German noblemen wished to retain control of their own country church. Martin Luther’s theology based on faith and the scripture became in this way a matter of political dispute. His rejection of the pope as the final authority in matters of religion brought the Lutheran country churches within the power and economy of the local noble rulers, liberating them from financial obligations to Rome. Luther’s actions were, in the first phase of Protestantism, followed by those of Anabaptists and cantons in Switzerland (Huldrych Zwingli) and cities in France (Martin Bucer in Strasbourg; John Calvin in Geneva). Calvin stood for a kind of theocratic regime based on his doctrine of predestination. His views spread over France and the Low Countries (Belgium, Netherlands) as a liberation from the feudal system.
In the second phase of Protestantism, the political dimension became less significant, and the focus became instead upon Protestant believers’ looking inward to find the Light, or God, in themselves. Political action then became the consequence of the intention to do well, by seeking justice and seeing that every human being is created in God’s image. Many groups were persecuted, as the earlier Anabaptists were, and left Europe for the New World. There they became activists for the abolition of slavery, equal rights for all human beings, and social justice.
The third phase of Protestantism is characterized by ideas of rebirth and regeneration. Sin and evil can be washed away and people can start a new life in the blessing of Jesus Christ, following his guidance as evangelicals. In matters of politics, personal norms and values become more important than social justice or reform, leading to bans on, for instance, abortion and homosexuality as sinful ways of life. In the early 21st century, a significant number of Protestant groups are active in right-wing politics, and their membership continues to grow in the Americas, Africa and Asia.