Getting That Old-Time Religion

Lincoln E. Steed July/August 2014

Two weeks on a bus! It could be characterized as a schoolboy’s penance or just too much of a good thing—or as a deeply moving pilgrimage! How so, and enough with the riddles. I’m just back from two weeks on a bus tour in company with two dozen religious liberty leaders. Our “magical mystery tour” took us from Rome to Geneva to Paris and a goodly number of points in between as we retraced some of the great events in the struggle for religious freedom.

Much of the tour reminded us of the Reformation which ostensibly began with Martin Luther in 1517 when he nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg church in Germany. Most of our tour picked up with events that flowed from Luther’s questions. The Reformation they precipitated can be variously described, but I’ll go with a capsule summary from the Catholic Encyclopedia: “The usual term for the religious movement which made its appearance in Western Europe in the sixteenth century, and which, while ostensibly aiming at an internal renewal of the church, really led to a great revolt against it, and an abandonment of the principal Christian beliefs.”

That is exactly how the established church at the time saw the broad-based call for a return to the truth of the Bible and a questioning of a whole array of practices that had no basis in Scripture. What many forget today is that the Reformation produced a vigorous response from “the church,” known as the Counter-Reformation. That involved church councils like Trent that reaffirmed the very things the reformers questioned as erroneous and inveighed against the heretics. It involved direct church actions—see Inquisition—and a number of state proxies, which sought to extirpate the growing revolt. And it was a revolt against what many saw as a Christian body grown corrupt through political power and amalgamation with pagan concepts. The Counter-Reformation also saw the emergence of the Jesuit order—a new order founded by the mystic soldier Ignatius Loyola. The Jesuits used direct force when necessary, but usually focused on education and intellectual rephrasing of the Biblical models of prophecy, which Protestants identified with a corrupt church.

Our tour bumped hard up against the history of persecution and conflict that marked the decades—no, centuries—after the Reformation began. We visited Geneva, not just home to the reformer John Calvin, but a refuge from the avenging armies, which would have destroyed it for its religious autonomy. In Geneva we found the Reformation Wall; a 100 meter long memorial to the heroes of the Reformation. It was erected in 1909 on the 400th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth, so it of course features the great man. But there are more. There is William of Orange, the main leader of the Dutch revolt against Spain, which led directly to the Thirty Years War, one of several conflicts with a religious cast which followed the Reformation. Most importantly, William said that he could not agree that monarchs should rule over the souls of their subjects and take from them the freedom of faith and belief. At the time this was a revolutionary concept.

Also on the wall is England’s Oliver Cromwell who, after a bloody civil war which devolved into a matter of faith and the religious power of the king, presided over the king’s execution and ruled as Lord Protector. Hated by many, Cromwell was a powerful protector of Protestantism; at one point even threatening to lead a relief force to save the Waldenses from extermination.

On the Wall, too, is Roger Williams, the new world pioneer for religious freedom. He was directly connected to the Puritan thought of Cromwell’s day and an early proponent of the right to believe according to conscience, not the dictates of prelate or king.

In Northern Italy we travelled up into the green valleys that were long the defense of the Waldensians, a people who insisted on their right to read the Bible and to distribute it to others. They also insisted on holding their own church services in defiance of the state. They were persecuted implacably and were often forced to hide in the hills and worship in caves. We crawled into one of those caves and marveled at how men, women and children persisted in this secret worship. But of course they were impelled by conscience!

In southern France we retraced the history of the Huguenots, or French Protestants. Much like the Waldenses they were at times religious outlaws who risked all for their faith. We visited the Tower of Constance where a certain Marie Durand was held captive for 38 years. Her brother was wanted for his challenge to the Catholic faith demanded by the state. It was at first thought he would turn himself in for his sister’s release. Eventually he was caught and executed but Marie was kept in prison because of her obdurate faith. While in prison those long years in a single room with many others, she etched a word into the stone floor that you can read today:”Resist.” That is the type of commitment to religious self-determination that characterized those days.

I could go on, because Western Europe is littered with the debris from religious conflict and the bones of many a martyr lie barely hidden beneath the façade of a new European Union.

While we were still on the tour news broke of Pope Francis’ visit to Israel. I do hope he can lend whatever goodwill he can muster to the hitherto intractable problems of that area. However, I cannot help but wonder if we are toying again with a dynamic that worked so badly in the past in Europe. Do we really expect or want a priest to be the arbiter of power between states? That was the role of the church then and probably its wish again. And I might even find that amenable but for the fact of a church that claims to be a state and one willing to use the power of a state to project its faith view.

And also while on tour came news of a young Sudanese woman under death sentence for leaving the faith of her birth. Do they still do such things in our world today? Well yes, and the old justification is the same. Killing in the name of faith is not a thing of the past. And incitement to murder for offence of the faith might seem particularly the province of narrow-minded mullahs in some retrograde corner of the yet to be enlightened world—but my gut and my view of history tells me that whenever we give the power to control the faith of one over to another we will relive the horrors of the past religious wars.

The Encyclopedia description of the Reformation I quoted earlier nicely chose to ignore the wars of religion that ensued. Wars precipitated by one party (and not always the Catholic one, mind you) not allowing the other to think and worship differently. And so what if there was “an abandonment of principal Christian beliefs”! Protestants did not see it that way. Religious liberty is not about truth or orthodoxy, curious as some may find that statement. Religious liberty is about providing the freedom for the individual to choose his or her own truth, without coercion, without fear of violence.

“Resist” is not a bad catch cry to use in opposing the craziness of Boko Haram, and the murderous orthodoxy of families that will kill children for marrying outside of the faith. Deeds of love and mercy are not only religious at root, they are also in the best interest of the civil society. We should challenge any effort to insert religious compulsion into the matter of statecraft. Those thousands who resisted even to the point of death, in the centuries long past for their right to choose a faith direction, testify to the value of the principle.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."