The Protestant Reformation, Catholicism, and Liberalism
Historically, Protestantism is like classical liberalism (individual liberties and rights), and Catholicism is like social liberalism (state enforced social justice). There are many parallels between the four identities worth exploring from a historical perspective, despite the fact that we can find elements of both political ideologies in both religious identities.
TIP: In the 2016 election Catholics tended to favor the Democratic party, the more socially liberal party, and Protestants tended to favor the Republicans, the more classically liberal party. Thus, not only can we provide historical evidence for our claim below, we can use modern data like the Pew poll data illustrated in the image below to show this is true today. For instance, we have only to compare the White Evangelical Protestants, who favored Trump, to the White Catholics, who favored Clinton.
TIP: See Catholic history from the Reformation period on, Protestant history from the Reformation period on, and the birth of liberalism. We can hardly discuss everything here, but when we look at key historical debates like the one over usury, we can see a pattern between liberal individualist Protestantism and more conservative collectivist Catholicism.
NOTE: This isn’t a discussion of right or wrong, or one -ism being better than another, it is just about exploring the European history and belief systems as they relate to the fundamental dualities present in the human condition.
How are the Forms of Christianity and Liberal Politics Related?
While both types of Christianity can be considered liberal and socially minded at their root, if we consider Protestantism from the 16th century forward and compare it to Catholicism in the same era we can see how these religions reflect the two types of liberalism which begin in and around the same time.
Arguably, the main difference between Catholicism and Protestantism historically, like social liberalism and classical liberalism, is that Catholicism denotes a more collectivist approach focused on charity, and thus more authority and state control are required. Meanwhile, Protestantism classically denotes a push toward individualism, which is more in line with classical liberalism (and today’s “small government” sentiment). We explore this odd relationship more in-depth below.
Catholics V Protestants.
TIP: Aspects of both religions can be seen as conservative, and certainly aspects of the four identities don’t completely align. However, the ones that do, and their combined general importance in history, is worth examination. To quote a Catholic online publication, there is added complexity and confusion in making this argument, as, “the two [political] sides trade positions without telling anyone or explaining the move. Free speech used to be liberal; now it’s conservative. Staying out of other countries’ business used to be conservative, now it’s liberal—except when it’s not.” See the history of platform switching in the American political parties for this discussion. Here we are comparing classical liberalism (which is focused on individual liberty and is favored in many ways by modern Republicans) and social liberalism (which is focused on the collective and is favored in many ways by modern Democrats).
Classical Liberal vs Social Liberal. Social liberalism takes off after the Gilded Age, but its roots are with Rousseau and even earlier figures like Jesus (who was a bit of a social liberal). The video above uses a still shot that shows social liberalism, which we today call liberal.
TIP: Social liberalism is informed by socialism, but it is not socialism, and certainly not Communism. Learn more about the types of liberalism.
The Strange Similarities between the Types of Christianity and Political left-right Philosophies
We can see the similarities between these types of Christianity and political left-right philosophies clearly by looking at the history of Europe from the Middle Ages to the birth of liberalism and the Age of Enlightenment.
It is told in the story of the birth of banking, the birth of the printing press, the myth of Spanish Inquisition, and the general struggle between charity and state control and philanthropy and individual liberty.
Martin Luther’s 1517 work The Ninety-Five Theses, or 95 reasons as to “why Protestantism and not Catholicism” set off a tide of criticism. The first printed piece, PROTEST, played a similar role to Paine’s Common Sense. It came off the newly developed printing press and propelled the Protestant Reformation forward. The war between the two types of liberal Christianity came to a head, as did the Thirty Years’ War, by 1618.
The Thirty Years War.
Luther and the Protestant Reformation: Crash Course World History #218.
This questioning nature is also evident in the free thought and press of the 15th-century scientific revolution, the free-trade of the Age of Exploration in the 15th to 17th centuries, the free banking practices of the Italian cities between the 12th – 16th century and similar struggles between princes, popes, and free republics. It was over these struggles that Machiavelli wrote his masterwork. This questioning spirit is also evident in the general free-thought of the 17th and 18th century Enlightenment, which led the father of Liberalism, John Locke, to declare in protest to the King that “all men are equal and have the right to consent to be governed and to speak freely.” This was years after Cromwell’s Civil War, a slightly earlier and bloodier revolution in which the Independent Puritan took a tolerant view towards the many Protestant sects of his time.
All this to say:
- Classical Liberalism and Protestantism: Stand for individual freedoms and liberties.
- Social Liberalism and Catholicism: Stand for collective rights, which limits freedoms and liberties, for virtue and social justice.
- See consequences of the Protestant Reformation, collectivism vs. individualism, liberalism vs. conservatism, human rights, and the grand solution freedom of and from religion.
Below are some videos to help you further understand the relation between politics and Christianity. This subject is emotional by nature, but the professor in the videos below approaches the subject with respect and offers rather balanced historical insight.
Liberalism and the Church. Ryan M. Reeves (Ph.D. Cambridge) is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. A look at the Rise of Liberalism and Christianity.
Catholic America. Ryan M. Reeves (Ph.D. Cambridge) is Assistant Professor of Historical Theology at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. A look at Catholicism in America.