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Protestant Political Thought

  Protestant political thought emerged in the late 15th and early 16th centuries as a protestatio against perceived abuses of both temporal and spiritual authority by the Roman Catholic Church (see Catholic political thought). Protestantism, whether Lutheranism, Calvinism or Zwinglianism, emphasized the Bible as the ultimate source of both spiritual and political authority, rather than the Church, and rejected hierarchism in favour of the idea of the ‘universal priesthood of all believers’. In these respects, together with its iconoclasm, there is a great deal in common between Protestantism and Islam (see Islamic political thought): they are revealed scriptural religions which stress the equality of the community of true believers.

The most influential Protestant thinker of the early Reformation was Luther who argued in favour of the principle of ‘Christian liberty’ under which all but the most basic temporal matters should be governed by individual conscience. However, to consolidate the Reformation in areas where Catholic influence on secular institutions was strong, and despite the objections of Luther, evangelical authorities encouraged compulsory compliance with the ‘true’ religion, and in so doing precipitated massive upheaval and violence within the ‘Holy Roman Empire’—roughly the area of modern Germany and Austria.

Jean Calvin\'s political reflections went further than Luther\'s, envisaging the ideal government as one composed equally of spiritual and civil institutions, but with the spiritual taking precedence over the civil. In short, Calvin\'s thought was theocratic. The relationship of the individual to the secular authority was to be governed by ‘godly discipline’ rather than Luther\'s voluntarist Christian liberty: all citizens had a duty to participate in civil society to achieve religious and moral perfection.

Many important modern historical and political developments can be partially attributed to Protestant political thought. The sociologist Max Weber argued that the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and the Protestant ethic were decisive in the development of capitalism in western Europe and North America. While this theory has been criticized as overly deterministic, and empirically inaccurate, specific versions of Protestant political thought did exert a strong influence upon bourgeois and liberal political thought, and in the formation of some liberal democratic institutions, most notably the principle of the separation of church and state (pioneered by American revolutionaries on the grounds that to establish any particular church at the federal level of government would provoke a civil war). Libertarian notions of the virtues of limited government also have their roots in political Protestantism. It may be fairly said that Protestantism as a set of theological doctrines gave a decisive boost to certain forms of political thinking, especially individualism and egalitarianism, although that said Protestants have never been noted for treating Catholics and heathens as individuals or equals.

In our times, Protestantism as a direct basis for a political or party party organization is diminishing. The ‘moral majority’ in the US—in fact a minority—is a major exception to this trend, and evidence of the continuing vitality of evangelical or fundamentalist or genuine Protestantism in North America. In Scandinavia the Christian People\'s Parties exist as fringe parties which protest against lax moral standards. In the Far East and Latin America Protestant evangelicalism is making some headway but it is uncertain whether their actions will have long-term political repercussions. BO\'L

See also Christian democracy; Christian socialism.Further reading Q. Skinner, The Foundations of Modern Political Thought vol. 2: The Age of Reformation; , C. Welch, Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century (2 vols.).



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