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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.”

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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).

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