Hunter Wallace, musing over Southern civilization, says “we see ourselves as moral reformers like Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli.” I hate to burst his bubble but I’m afraid these guys are the root of the whole problem. To Protestant Americans, the Reformation theologians are the very foundation of human freedom. Moldbug has followed the root of this noxious weed to its deepest source, but just as David Ricardo summed up the 2000 pages of Das Kapital in one paragraph (actually about 50 years before Marx) I’ll give you the Cliff Notes version. But more than that, I think I can give you the why, not just the how. Moldbug is an atheist Jew; he’s quite sophisticated in having a skeptical view of Protestantism, which Jews don’t usually subject to much examination. But he doesn’t know Christianity from the inside.
Christianity has changed in various ways over the millenia. It started out as a communal religion. Being a Christian meant joining a group, and adopting that group’s norms. Your behavior was open to criticism by other group members. If you didn’t respond to this criticism you could be asked to leave. It wasn’t that big of a deal, as Christians were only a small portion of the population and you could just go back to being a pagan.
Then it became so widespread that everybody was a Christian. You became a Christian shortly after birth. You maintained your membership throughout your life, barring the really extraordinary event of excommunication. This was of course a horrible punishment. The excommunicated was outside the moral community of humanity and cursed by God. The frequency of its use and the power that the clergy has is exaggerated by Protestants, but it is precisely this matter of membership in the moral community that bedevils us to this very day.
Catholicism, while it has much pomp and ceremony, and a very formal, public hierarchy, is a very private religion. The believer communicates directly with God through the Mass and the Eucharist. He must seek the forgiveness of one person, but only one person, through Penance, or confession. This forgiveness isn’t hard to get. Catholic parishes aren’t very social. Most members don’t know each other well, if at all, and don’t participate in social activities as church group members. They don’t need, or seek the approval of other lay people. As I explained in “Programs!” this is the polar opposite of Protestant churches, which are highly social. The Catholic experiences God alone, though he may be in a packed church, through the ceremony and the visual artwork surrounding him. The Protestant experiences God as a member of a group, by his participation in it, and by its acknowledgement of him as a worthy member.
Protestants hated and feared the power that the clergy had over the believer’s status as a person forgiven by and accepted by God. To what extent this power was abused I won’t debate; far less that Protestants seem to learn in Sunday school though.
Theoretically and I must say that again, theoretically the Reformation completely eliminated the priest- or any other human being- as an intermediary between man and God, and set man completely free, within the limits of his conscience. In reality no such elimination occurred. Protestants liked what they saw as the purity of the early church. And honestly, a human authority in the question of moral approval can’t be eliminated altogether.
What happened was the place of moral approval ceased to be a private one, the confessional, and became public- the congregation of the church, particularly the elders, and the community in general. People sometimes puzzle why Calvinists, who believe in predestination, would worry at all about their behavior. But people always believe- or are made to believe- that they need the approval of others. The Calvinist needs to be assured of his salvation, and his status in the community provides that for him.
The power of excommunication still exists. As Moldbug likes to say, power is conserved. But instead of being invested in the Pope, it’s invested those who can manage to present themselves as moral exemplars of the community. The modern equivalent of the elders- the educational and legal establishment- decides what’s right and wrong and who’s good and bad. The rather clumsy term “political correctness” was picked up to describe this form of control. It comes from Marxist analysis and isn’t really appropriate to describe the process of shaming and shunning applied to people who violate modern liberal taboos. But it’s what we use. Being politically incorrect is a serious matter. You will be treated like a leper. You may lose your job, and if you are in any kind of public or supervisory position you will definitely lose your job.
If the religious establishment actually gets unchecked political power, you have Cromwell’s Britain or Calvin’s Geneva. These didn’t last, for various reasons. When religious influence came back in a significant way in the Victorian era, it was always presented as educating, enlightening, and improving the lives of people. Not wanting to be educated, enlightened, and improved is of course pretty suspicious. Not wanting to be part of this program clearly makes you a bad person.
Wallace would object that his Protestant belief system isn’t like that, and he’s right. I don’t know Southern Christianity from a cultural level, but it’s not the Whig Christianity of the North. Maybe it really is more about personal conscience and freedom. But it is not the belief system that is running things, which goes right back to Luther and Calvin.