If you happened to log onto Facebook around Thanksgiving, you might have seen these words, blinking in white against an emergency-red background: “URGENT: If you’re not freaking out right now about net neutrality you’re not paying attention.” The occasion was the FCC’s announcement that they would allow companies to charge for faster broadband speeds, and it was hard to deny the potentially catastrophic consequences. It was also hard to deny, as you tried to clear your mind for a rare holiday from news-fueled outrage (not that either turkey or football could any longer be enjoyed innocently), that you might not have any more mental broadband left for freaking out.
It had been a season filled with things to freak out about, from the future of the free internet to the tax code to the nuclear codes. But the reckoning that echoed most loudly was about a more ordinary menace: men. The first to fall were the celebrities, then came the journalists, then the politicians, and finally (some of us had been waiting) the academics. But that was only the beginning. The male hazard, it transpired, lurked in the kitchens of trendy restaurants, in venture-capital board rooms, at suburban malls, backstage at comedy clubs and opera houses. The daily dribble of revelations—Charlie Rose! Russell Simmons! Tariq Ramadan!—only reinforced the idea that the problem could not be isolated to any location, industry or demographic. It was borderless, ubiquitous, unexceptional: an “open secret” the whole world had been keeping from itself.
As the initial shock began to wear off, there ensued a debate about the best way to publicly channel disgust and disappointment—that is, about how to freak out as effectively as possible. Almost hourly, new advice was made available on how to express oneself in the right tone of voice, for the correct audience, and with the appropriate breadth of intent. It was imperative that outrage be bipartisan, intersectional, systemic, even gender-balanced. (Not only Leon Weiseltier but also Tina Brown; not only Ben Affleck but also Lena Dunham). Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, we should remember our own burden of responsibility. Some of us had been complicit in the cases of “individual villains,” as Rebecca Traister put it; the rest, in the “political and public power structures” that had produced and enabled them.
Many of these appeared to be good recommendations, although it was not clear what kind of actions should follow from them. The problem is not, or not merely, one of ignorance or ideology. Many of the most prominent perpetrators are educated men, artists, literary critics, academics, subjects of ambiguously favorable profiles in the New Yorker, contributors to the Hillary Clinton campaign. Most have shown they can speak and act appropriately when they know someone is paying attention. To be sure, their power and privileges—the on-call Mossad agents, the magic hidden buttons—must have abetted their presumption of immunity. Some are simply bullies. But given the breadth of the problem it is also worth acknowledging what used to be understood as the most common reason we do what we know to be wrong, which is that we lack the discipline, or the strength of will, or the self-understanding, to practice the values we profess.
Fortunately, in the history of religion, there is a term for occasions when what is called for is less the creation of new ideals than a recommitment to the ones we already are supposed to hold. A time when the tools of revolution look too crude and public, those of introspection too narrow and private. This is the time for reform—or, if the reform that is required is broad and sweeping enough, for reformation.
“When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ He called for the entire life of believers to be one of penitence.” This was the first of Martin Luther’s 95 theses, pinned to the door of a Wittenberg church in 1517—and the beginning of the movement that would ultimately fracture the church and alter the trajectory of the West.
On its quincentennial, journalists, biographers and scholars have taken the opportunity to reflect on the Reformation’s purpose, meaning and consequences. Did it create modernity or was it a symptom of it? Did it reduce war and violence in the long run, or did it clear the way for new and ever more barbarous forms of oppression? Was it the precondition for the flourishing of secular liberalism, or might a more unified church have helped contain secular liberalism’s worst excesses? Such exercises have been compelling enough, even as they testify to the historicizing tendency that is one of the hallmarks of our distance from Luther. Nothing is more natural today, for many of us, than to appraise the Reformation from the historical standpoint; and nothing would be more unnatural than to confront it as Luther’s audience in Wittenberg would have: as an appeal to moral and spiritual conscience.
What did Luther mean when he said the “entire life” of Christians should be one of penitence? The immediate target, as of the rest of the theses, was the greed and hypocrisy of the Catholic Church, symbolized most powerfully by its bartering of “indulgences” to believers in return for promises of salvation. But the first thesis also speaks to a theme threaded throughout Luther’s theology. Penitence was never over for the believer, Luther claimed, because the believer could never rest secure in their righteousness. The great crime of the unreformed church was its presumption that it could grant men and women a permanent respite from their guilt and sins, when Christ had taught there could be no such respite, at least not on earth. A human being was a sinner and would remain so regardless of whether they donated to church authorities, gave alms to the poor, or produced first-rate independent films. “Though you were nothing but good works from the soles of your feet to the crown of your head,” he wrote, “you would still not be righteous.” The love of God, which was the first commandment and the one authentic righteousness, was achievable “only by the faith of the heart.”
Ironically this anti-materialistic doctrine, known as sola fide, or “justification by faith alone,” has been held responsible for paving the road to secularization, relativism, authoritarianism, and many other apostasies. Max Weber famously argued that it was Luther’s Calvinist inheritors who encouraged Americans, in a roundabout dance, to decouple their secular pursuits from their search for salvation. Tell a believer that none of their earthly actions will have any influence on their eternal fate and they will either succumb to despair or find some way around what you are telling them. If the church did not provide nineteenth-century Americans with any signs of divine favor, they would discover them in their economic calling, the “pursuit of wealth.” This pursuit, Weber grimly prophesied, would one day detach itself from its spiritual foundations and become devoted to satisfying the “purely mundane passions,” resulting in an extravagantly wealthy society nonetheless delineated by a “mechanized petrification.”
It is common in our grim present to affirm that it has come to pass. Certainly today’s “indulgences”—pornography, plastic surgery, derivatives trading—are mundane in ways that Weber, not to mention Luther, would have had trouble even imagining. And the spirit of capitalism appears, judging from those blinking white letters about the end of net neutrality, to be continuing on its joyless quest to bend the known world to its will. At the same time, moral cloudbursts like #MeToo should make us pause to consider whether it is really the case that, as historian Brad Gregory argues in his book The Unintended Reformation, American culture is held together by nothing besides the amoral “symbiosis of capitalism and consumerism.” Consumerist we may be, but despite predictable holdouts—the president, the director of Manhattan—the vast majority who have spoken recently have condemned the proven harassers, and not on the grounds that they are bad for business.
Battles for political and social recognition, flawed or commercially compromised as they may sometimes be, are not merely decorative accompaniments to nihilism or neoliberalism. The speed with which the current conversation has turned from matters of individual punishment to those of broader norms and expectations is itself evidence of the ground they have already gained in the march toward a more equitable and fair society. “The modern movement for gender justice changes the picture, just by existing and commanding public assent,” commented Martha Nussbaum, “despite the fact that there is much more work to do.” Indeed #MeToo bears the markings of a distinctly American brand of reformation, one dedicated to closing the gap that has always existed between the country’s “self-evident” ideals and its actual condition. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men and women are created equal,” read the “Declaration of Sentiments and Resolutions” at the Seneca Falls women’s rights convention in 1848, offering an amendment to the founding documents in connection with demands aimed at “securing to woman an equal participation with men in the various trades, professions and commerce.”
Today’s discussion about sexual harassment does however raise the question, sometimes explicitly, of which tools are best suited to comprehend these particular crimes. If we acknowledge that the plague of the sex pests is bigger than any or all of the harassers, bigger than their direct enablers and co-conspirators, big enough that it includes and implicates every one of us, then we have to concede that tightening workplace regulations, or equalizing wage disparities, is insufficient to the task at hand. The phenomena we are dealing with are public and social, but also intimate, individual. We speak of rules and regulations, codes of conduct, what articles to read and which words to use, because that is how we have learned to address the things we take seriously. But the felt insufficiency of such strategies may alert us that we are in a territory marked not only by the demands of justice and equality, but also by such concepts as sin and repentance, fallenness and forgiveness, strength of heart and weakness of will.
The inward labor that was required to achieve what Luther called a “joyful conscience”—not a state of innocence or purity (which he considered impossible for a Christian) but a condition where “a person’s sins no longer bite him or make him uneasy”—was one reason he believed, despite the doctrine of sola fide, that the church as an institution remained necessary. Luther’s re-formed church, with its weekly rituals and austere sermons, would not tell believers what to say or do so much as it would fortify them for the arduous work of navigating their own way to God. In this sense, it would offer a type of moral education that has grown harder to find in our secular institutions—schools and universities above all—but which ought to take on a renewed relevance in the broadening debate about sexual mores. Aimed at increasing the perspicuity of what Aristotle called the “eye of the soul,” this is an education in how best to pursue our visions of virtue. Its pedagogy is focused less on purifying “problematic” thoughts than on helping us develop the habits and willpower to contend with ineliminable impulses: inconvenient desires, uncomfortable sympathies, the fear of embarrassment, failure and death.
Notwithstanding what remains of psychoanalysis, churches and religious schools are today the institutions that most consistently combine, at least in theory, an ideal of moral maturity with a training in the habits of character necessary to practice it. Those who came of age in the Bush-43 years, or in the preceding era of the Moral Majority—or for that matter during any part of the Catholic Church’s decades-long sex-abuse scandal—could be forgiven for thinking that today’s church has abandoned such purposes in favor of a blend of sanctimonious moralizing and political opportunism. Such a church exists, today as it did in Luther’s time. To Luther, it represented a corruption of the Christian ethic that matched the inward corruption of the complacent believer. One was unlikely to reform without the other.
Christopher Lasch, a sociologist and one of the last liberal critics to express appreciation for religion as a force for moral and political cohesion, argued that Weber had been wrong. The spirit of capitalism in America should not be traced to the Protestant ethic. Rather, Lasch wrote in his 1991 opus The True and Only Heaven, it “derived far more directly from the sense of unlimited power conferred by science—the intoxicating prospect of man’s conquest of the natural world.”
American Protestants have been among the intoxicated: some have twisted their theologies to accommodate doctrines justifying economic exploitation and worse. And Luther’s own emphasis on human depravity cannot be entirely disentangled from the incapacity, among certain groups of its followers, to tolerate even mild forms of deviance or difference. Still, Lasch thought that the ethic in its highest expression, inherited by such charismatic religious reformers as Jonathan Edwards and Reinhold Niebuhr, had provided one of the few effective counterweights not only to a scientific conception of history that culminated in a “society of supremely cultivated consumers,” but also to a Pollyannaish “progressive optimism,” which rested on the mistaken belief that human desire could be shorn of its troublesome tendencies. The ethic’s most famous recent standard-bearer was Luther’s namesake Martin Luther King, Jr., a Baptist minister who preached self-restraint and nonviolence in an appeal that conjoined the fight for social justice with a poor people’s campaign—revived this year by a black minister from North Carolina and a white theologian from Milwaukee. (Whereas Luther had sermonized on the “pagan servitude of the church,” King spoke out against the “pagan peace” in Montgomery, Alabama.)
We are not all churchgoers, and will not be. Luther’s emphasis on the necessity of penitence, and on the role of the church as ministerial to the moral determination of the churchgoer, may nevertheless remind us that although fairer power structures and more enlightened institutions can help us develop the discipline to choose our higher values over our lower urges, they will never cure us of the need for that discipline. Nor should we be so naïve as to think that our institutions will ever be better—less racist or sexist or materialistic, more equitable or loving or fair—than we are.
As per Luther’s 95th thesis, this need not be reason for despair: “And let them thus be more confident of entering heaven through many tribulations rather than through a false assurance of peace.” Reformation may be continuous, but so is hope.