FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Republicans, Martin Luther, and Machiavelli

“Here I stand!” Martin Luther risked his life to defy a church establishment that wanted no challenge to papal authority. Five centuries later, Republicans in Congress  abandoned all principle to bolster their own party establishment and their personal interests. Voting for the tax bill in December, Senator Bob Corker and his colleagues followed the advice of Luther’s contemporary, Niccolò Machiavelli, to a Prince: remember that the end justifies the means.  A Prince should avoid dreams of justice, mercy, and temperance and instead use tools of violence, deception, and fear to maximize his power.

Initially Luther sought to save the Catholic church—not destroy it.   Starting with his Ninety-five Theses in 1517 in Wittenberg, the young monk (age 24) warned that the papacy was abandoning God’s word in Holy Scripture by selling indulgences to finance the art and architecture of Rome.  Indulgences, boasted the preacher-salesman Johannes,Tetzel, opened the gates of heaven for the deceased (with half the loot secretly pledged to the local archbishop).

Contrary to Luther’s expectations, recently invented printing presses quickly spread his writings–mostly in Latin–in German and other vernaculars. A reformation if not a revolution was brewing.   Summoned to Augsburg in 1518, a twelve-day hike from Wittenberg, the road- weary monk met there the pope’s representative, Cardinal Cajetan, who demanded that Luther recant. The monk agreed–provided someone could point to the biblical text justifying the church’s selling of indulgences. Mindful that the Council of Constance in 1415 had burned  at the stake another would-be reformer, Jan Hus, Luther stood up to Cajetan but finally escaped back to Wittenberg.  Three years later, in 1521, Luther was summoned to the Imperial Diet in Worms–three hundred miles from Wittenberg (this time traveling  in a  cart with friends). Luther twice met Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who demanded Luther retract his teachings.  But Luther saw no proof against his views to make him recant:

“Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason, I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything.  It is neither right nor safe to go against conscience. Here I stand.”

Luther departed Worms just before Charles issued a sort of fatwa authorizing anyone to kill the heretic Luther without fear of prosecution.  Highly placed friends helped Luther find refuge for ten months at Wartburg Castle, where he began rendering the Bible into contemporary German.  Luther lived another twenty-five years, having married an ex-nun, praised married copulation, fathered six children, and split the Christian world asunder.

Surely Senators Crocker, Susan Collins and other Republicans know that the tax bill whose passage they assured will lower the living standards of many Americans, destabilize the health insurance system, enrich the top one percent, and harm a still pristine part of Alaska.  They disdain warnings that the bill will add $1.5 trillion to the national debt, using sheer sophistry to claim that reduced taxes will be offset by faster economic growth.

Why did they vote for a bill that will harm most Americans and weaken the country’s economy? Two factors surely played a large role: Threats from donors to stop contributing to Republican campaigns along with pressure to give Donald J.  Trump at least one legislative “victory.” In short, they put political interests above patriotism and concern for the country’s standing in the world.

What happened to courage? Luther risked his life to honor what he believed God’s truth.        Susan Collins and some other senators risked nothing more ominous than defeat in the next election if they spurned the party bandwagon. Crocker risks not even that, because he plans to retire. Voting for the bill, he safeguarded amity with other Republicans and–with at least thirteen other senators, the president, Ivanka and Jared—acted to save on real estate taxes.

Unlike Republicans in Congress, Luther stood up to the whole power structure of Europe. As Thomas Cahill wrote in Heretics and Heroes, Luther’s courage to say “no” became a central factor in Western civilization. It inspired another Lutheran prelate, Dietrich   Bonhoeffer to oppose the Nazification of the Lutheran church in the 1930s.  Fearing the impending Holocaust, Bonhoeffer implored Christians not only to bandage wounds of the injured but to jam the wheels of oppression.  He disdained “cheap grace”—the moral laxity of many German Christians–in favor of the “costly grace” that links Christian belief to social consequences. Hitler’s agents arrested Bonhoeffer in 1943 and hanged him in 1945.

 The Reformation also opened the way for three revolutions that shape our world—demands for mass literacy (to read the Bible), free thought (to interpret it), and respect for individual dignity before God.  Implementing these three demands has put Western countries at the top of the UN Human Development Index (along with Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and Israel).  Whatever their other assets, states that missed the second and third revolutions (such as Russia, China, and most Arab petrostates) rank very low on the HDI. The United States, now tenth on the index, will probably sink still lower thanks to the tax bill and other Republican efforts to tear down the system.

Despite the pious incantations of many Republicans, most follow Machiavelli rather than Luther. “Here we stand!” could be their motto.  “We are determined to please our donors, our own pocketbooks, and our easily manipulated base.  Our courage is manifest in our willingness to endure calumny by so-called experts in the mainstream media.”

More articles by:

Walter Clemens is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Boston University and Associate, Harvard University Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies. He wrote Complexity Science and World Affairs (SUNY Press, 2013).

December 11, 2018
Eric Draitser
AFRICOM: A Neocolonial Occupation Force?
Sheldon Richman
War Over Ukraine?
Louis Proyect
Why World War II, Not the New Deal, Ended the Great Depression
Howard Lisnoff
Police Violence and Mass Policing in the U.S.
Mark Ashwill
A “Patriotic” Education Study Abroad Program in Viet Nam: God Bless America, Right or Wrong!
Laura Flanders
HUD Official to Move into Public Housing?
Nino Pagliccia
Resistance is Not Terrorism
Matthew Johnson
See No Evil, See No Good: The Truth Is Not Black and White
Maria Paez Victor
How Reuters Slandered Venezuela’s Social Benefits Card
December 10, 2018
Jacques R. Pauwels
Foreign Interventions in Revolutionary Russia
Richard Klin
The Disasters of War
Katie Fite
Rebranding Bundy
Gary Olson
A Few Thoughts on Politics and Personal Identity
Patrick Cockburn
Brexit Britain’s Crisis of Self-Confidence Will Only End in Tears and Rising Nationalism
Andrew Moss
Undocumented Citizen
Dean Baker
Trump and China: Going With Patent Holders Against Workers
Lawrence Wittner
Reviving the Nuclear Disarmament Movement: a Practical Proposal
Dan Siegel
Thoughts on the 2018 Elections and Beyond
Thomas Knapp
Election 2020: I Can Smell the Dumpster Fires Already
Weekend Edition
December 07, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Steve Hendricks
What If We Just Buy Off Big Fossil Fuel? A Novel Plan to Mitigate the Climate Calamity
Jeffrey St. Clair
Cancer as Weapon: Poppy Bush’s Radioactive War on Iraq
Paul Street
The McCain and Bush Death Tours: Establishment Rituals in How to be a Proper Ruler
Jason Hirthler
Laws of the Jungle: The Free Market and the Continuity of Change
Ajamu Baraka
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: Time to De-Colonize Human Rights!
Andrew Levine
Thoughts on Strategy for a Left Opposition
Jennifer Matsui
Dead of Night Redux: A Zombie Rises, A Spook Falls
Rob Urie
Degrowth: Toward a Green Revolution
Binoy Kampmark
The Bomb that Did Not Detonate: Julian Assange, Manafort and The Guardian
Robert Hunziker
The Deathly Insect Dilemma
Robert Fisk
Spare Me the American Tears for the Murder of Jamal Khashoggi
Joseph Natoli
Tribal Justice
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Macdonald Stainsby
Unist’ot’en Camp is Under Threat in Northern Canada
Senator Tom Harkin
Questions for Vice-President Bush on Posada Carriles
W. T. Whitney
Two Years and Colombia’s Peace Agreement is in Shreds
Ron Jacobs
Getting Pushed Off the Capitalist Cliff
Ramzy Baroud
The Conspiracy Against Refugees
David Rosen
The Swamp Stinks: Trump & Washington’s Rot
Raouf Halaby
Wall-to-Wall Whitewashing
Daniel Falcone
Noam Chomsky Turns 90
Dean Baker
An Inverted Bond Yield Curve: Is a Recession Coming?
Nick Pemberton
The Case For Chuck Mertz (Not Noam Chomsky) as America’s Leading Intellectual
Ralph Nader
New Book about Ethics and Whistleblowing for Engineers Affects Us All!
Dan Kovalik
The Return of the Nicaraguan Contras, and the Rise of the Pro-Contra Left
Jeremy Kuzmarov
Exposing the Crimes of the CIAs Fair-Haired Boy, Paul Kagame, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail