The Radical Reformation and the Makings of the Modern World: II. Be Careful What You Wish For, 1790-present (Menno Simons Lectures 2022)

Issue 2023, vol. 77

[Editor’s note: This is the second of two presentations in the 2022 Menno Simons Lectures delivered at Bethel College Oct. 16-17, 2022.]

As I said at the outset of my first talk, it is a genuine honor it is to have been invited to give the Menno Simons Lectures in their 70th year. By way of brief recapitulation, the theme of my two lectures taken together is “The Radical Reformation and the Makings of the Modern World.” The first lecture was entitled “In Pursuit of Christian Freedom, 1520-1790,” which I hope instilled some confidence, among those of you who heard it, that it is indeed possible to lecture coherently if very selectively about 270 years of history in less than an hour – so tonight’s lecture should be a breeze, as I need to cover only about 230 years!

In my first lecture I argued that the usual conceptualization of the “magisterial Reformation” and the Radical Reformation should be reversed. Despite the latter having had many fewer adherents and much less influence in the 16th and 17th centuries, the wide range of different radical Protestant claims and groups reflect better than magisterial Protestants the historical, empirical result of the Reformation’s animating principle, sola scriptura (supplemented as always by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in some form or other). Lutheranism, Reformed Protestantism, and the Church of England are the great exceptions among all the different interpretations, claims, movements, churches, and traditions that took their point of departure from a commitment to God’s Word as the sole foundation for Christian faith and life – because only Lutheranism, Reformed Protestantism, and the Church of England received sustained political support and therefore had a widespread, enduring influence on entire countries and peoples. Most non-Catholic claims about Christian truth were not politically protected – these commitments were the ones held by radical Protestants of some sort or another, whether in one of the many Anabaptist groups or by spiritualists, revolutionaries, or rationalists of various kinds. I also argued in my first lecture that in intellectual terms radical Protestants, whether as writers themselves or as an inspiration for other theorists, played a key part in the emergent advocacy for individual freedom of religious belief and practice, and in institutional terms for the separation of church and state. I ended the lecture with the American war of independence from Britain and the years right around the American Constitution, up through 1791, which is when we see enshrined for the first time, by any nation, what would become a widespread modern prototype for the management of religious pluralism. This was something new. In the words of my former colleague at Notre Dame, Mark Noll, the great historian of American and world Christianity, this was “an untried type of religious existence” for any time or place in the Western world since the high Middle Ages, and arguably even earlier: “Christianity without formal Christendom.”[1]

Now, most histories of “the rise of toleration” or “the birth of modern religious freedom” essentially end the story here, as a triumph, as if there were nothing much more to report. In the grim past of unenlightened oppression, the unholy alliance of churches and states persecuted nonconformist “heretics”; with the enlightened, institutionalized protection of religious freedom, we see the inspiring culmination of the righteous struggle for individual liberty of conscience and find powerful evidence of modern progress. It’s a success story often with tinges of happily-ever-after, a story that, for example, the distinguished historian and federal judge John Noonan called “the lustre of our country” in his book on American religious freedom.[2] The solution to the tensions and conflicts created by religious coexistence is the state’s protection of everyone’s individual right to believe and worship as they please, in exchange for obedience to the state’s laws and the elimination of any formal, legally enforced, confessional stipulation of religion in public life. And in a fundamental way, insofar as the Radical Reformation is the essence of the Reformation, it’s a success story about the Radical Reformation over the long term, between the early 16th century and the end of the 18th: now, for the first time anywhere in the Western world, at least in principle, all politically compliant views about God’s Word would be politically protected.  In the 16th century, Dutch Mennonites had sung in one of their hymns that magistrates might “let God’s good children live in your lands.”[3] Now, in principle, at least, it had come true in the United States, not just for them but for everyone. And all those who preferred political protection to persecution – in other words, essentially everyone – obviously thought that it was a good thing.

In no way do I intend to question the positive achievements of modern religious freedom and toleration. Without a doubt they provided an important, influential way of managing the unintended problems of religious coexistence in relation to society and politics that followed in the wake of the Reformation. And without a doubt what was worked out was infinitely preferable to, say, further rounds of religio-political conflict characteristic of the French Wars of Religion or the Thirty Years War in the Reformation era. What I do want to suggest, though, is that the story of the political protection of individual religious freedom, and the correlative process whereby prescribed religion was cordoned off from politics and public life, did not end in the late eighteenth century. Moreover – and this is my main point in this lecture – what genuinely was an important solution to difficulties inherited from the Reformation era has also, unintentionally, provided the foundation and framework for many widely acknowledged problems in the United States today. Not just religiously, in terms of an open-ended pluralism of religious and secular beliefs; but also, because of the ways in which religion’s influence on the rest of life was deliberately restricted, through the ways in which the solution ended up providing the default basis for the situation in which we find ourselves today politically, culturally, economically, and environmentally.

As I said in my first lecture, the present is the product of the past. This evening’s lecture picks up from where we left those aspects of the past related to the Radical Reformation, religious freedom, and the separation of church and state, in the years around the American founding, and brings the story up to the present. Luther’s sola scriptura broke the logjam that had long obstructed any major reforms in the medieval Church, but it also led to countless claims about the meaning and application of the Bible that Luther did not intend and of which he did not approve. We see something analogous with religious freedom and the restriction of religion’s influence in the public sphere in the late 18th century: what facilitated peaceful religious coexistence has contributed to all sorts of unforeseen outcomes that extend far beyond religion, churches, and persons of faith considered as such. Needless to say, I can only touch on a few major points in the time I have. But by the end of this lecture it should be clear why I have entitled it “Be Careful What You Wish For.”

A remarkable feature of the founding documents of the United States – the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, including the Bill of Rights – is how substantively empty they are. This is by design. It is related to the individual freedoms that they enshrine, including religious freedom – thus, for example, the insistent assertion on “certain inalienable rights” including “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but nothing whatsoever in any of the founding documents about how to live, how to exercise one’s freedom, or in what happiness or its pursuit consists. The whole point was to leave the content and the answers up to individuals’ preferences, choices, and decisions. It would seem that in religious terms, the founders who were present at the Second Continental Congress and who signed the Declaration of Independence implicitly thought that despite their religious differences, they and their fellow Americans shared enough in common, in terms of that content, to hold public life together in the absence of any established religion or state church (or they were at least willing to give the experiment a try). After all, the signers of the Declaration included Anglicans, Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists, Lutherans, Quakers, Methodists, Dutch Reformed, deists, and even a Catholic (John Carroll of Maryland).[4] And in principle we can indeed see how that might have worked: if in fact individuals exercised their religious freedom in ways with a substance that was largely shared, there presumably would have been a coherent, collective influence on the wider society and culture without having to prescribe or enforce it. The circle of religious disagreement and conflict would be squared by observing how, as a social fact, individual believers’ differences were much outweighed by how much they shared in common – about worldview, values, families, morality, priorities – and how, as a social fact, those commonalities would organically, positively influence the society at large without any state church in sight.

Something like this is what the great French political theorist, Alexis de Tocqueville, described when he visited the United States in 1831. Coming from a country that at the time was deeply, bitterly divided between anti-Catholic, secularist heirs of the French Revolution and monarchist, restorationist Catholics, he was astounded by the way in which freedom of religion aided peaceable coexistence among persons from so many different Christian groups in the United States. Essentially, this novel experiment in Noll’s “untried type of Christian existence” was achieving without coercion one of the main objectives of Reformation-era confessional states and that still, depending on where one lived in Europe, was imposed, and infractions of which were punished: religion in America was functioning as the much-desired moral and cultural glue that prevented society from breaking down. Tocqueville was amazed “that by diminishing the apparent power of religion one increased its real strength” and sought to understand how that was achieved. “There is an innumerable multitude of sects in the United States,” he observed in Democracy in America, the first volume of which appeared in 1835.[5] “They are all different in the worship they offer to the Creator, but all agree concerning the duties of men to one another.  Each sect worships God in its own fashion, but all preach the same morality in the name of God. . . . Moreover, all the sects in the United States belong to the great unity of Christendom, and Christian morality is everywhere the same.” In other words, because the members of different churches agreed on so much in moral terms despite their differences in doctrines or worship, the effects on the wider society, in the public sphere, were visible, constructive, and desirable. This is what led Tocqueville to his famous observation about the indirect and unofficial, yet undeniable and substantive influence of religion on American life at large: “Religion, which never intervenes directly in the government of American society, should therefore be considered as the first of their political institutions, for although it did not give them the taste for liberty, it singularly facilitates their use thereof.”[6] We see here also an echo of that parallel between the drive for political emancipation from Britain in the 1770s and the advocacy for religious freedom that some writers were already arguing for in the 16th century.

Other processes contributing to the cohesion observed by Tocqueville included the so-called “Second Great Awakening,” a powerful revivalist movement of conversion-focused, deeply emotive evangelical Protestantism that got underway in the 1790s and ran throughout the first few decades of the 19th century. It was integral to what Nathan Hatch analyzed as “the democratization of American Christianity.”[7] That said, it would be a mistake to take Tocqueville, astute observer of American affairs though he was, as having offered an entirely accurate description about the character of religion and society in the United States. David Sehat has shown in compelling detail the extent to which, in fact, the supposedly common shared moral vision that ostensibly emerged uncoerced from across the spectrum of Americans freely worshipping in their churches was actually the product of a distinctly and mostly anglophone, legally enforced and coercive “Protestant moral establishment.”[8] It operated especially at the level of state laws and courts. State institutions policed and punished infractions against blasphemy, for example, and enforced the reading of the King James Bible in public schools. In addition, by 1837 evangelicals had created at least 159 associations for the reform of public morals, many of which were at work across large geographical areas.[9] Excluded from the practice of their religion on the same terms as, say, Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Baptists, and Methodists were Catholics, Jews, and Mormons, as well as other sorts of religious dissenters and what in the 19th century were often called “freethinkers.” None of the persons in these groups were free, without punishment or penalty or discrimination, to refuse to comply with prescriptions of the de facto but largely unacknowledged, “nonsectarian” Protestant moral establishment. Tocqueville, then, who after all moved around a lot during his visit to the United States, which lasted just nine months, seems to have been so taken with the dramatic contrast between the situation in his native France and what he observed in America that he overestimated the extent to which all Americans were equally free to practice their religion.[10] As the 19th century wore on and more Catholics and Jews, especially, came as immigrants to the United States, frictions and conflicts became more visible and frequent. The disconnect was exposed between a genuine freedom of individual belief and religious practice and the de facto Protestant establishment.

As it happens, even before the American theorization of individual religious freedom by James Madison in the late 18th century, it could have been predicted that the political protection of any such conception was unlikely to produce a shared conviction about Christian truth that could inform public life in a coherent way. The history of the previous centuries had shown as much; past was prologue. Consider what I discussed in my first lecture: the wide range of claims made about God’s Word in the absence of political control during the early German Reformation of the 1520s, the Dutch Golden Age in the seventeenth century, the English Revolution during the 1640s, or indeed the American Christian pluralism with which Madison himself grappled in those meetings in late 1784 about whether Virginia ought to retain an established church. Genuinely permitting each individual person to believe as they pleased and worship as they wished wasn’t any more likely to produce a different outcome in the early 19th century than the absence of the political control of religion had produced such an outcome in the 16th, 17th, or 18th. Hence the insistence on the necessity of instilling, maintaining, and strengthening public morality through anglophone Protestantism by early architects of the American Protestant moral establishment such as the Congregationalist minister Lyman Beecher (1775-1863) – a strong advocate in the early 19th century for his state of Connecticut financially to keep supporting select churches.[11]

One can understand his and others’ anxiety. The efficacy of the nation’s founding documents, so empty of prescriptive content, needed properly to be filled if they were to have effects like those attributed by Tocqueville. But how was that supposed to happen? Already in 1794, Thomas Paine recognized the implications of individual freedom when he stated that “My own mind is my own church.”[12] Years before him, Thomas Jefferson, along with Madison an important theorist of American religious freedom and the separation of church and state, quipped, “It does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.”[13] Or as we might render it: “Whatever.” Jefferson seems to imply that it didn’t matter at all what citizens believed, so long as public order was observed and crimes were not committed. This included the option of not believing in God at all (Jefferson himself wasn’t an atheist, but rather probably a deist). And although it might not have been foreseen or intended by most of the American founders, it is clear that the political and legal protection of freedom of conscience and of religious belief was simultaneously and implicitly a protection of unbelief – and of the freethinking that horrified and worried 19th-century Protestant ministers such as Beecher. In other words, freedom of religion was simultaneously and in principle a backdoor opening to irreligion and atheism, and paradoxically a legal and political facilitator of secularization. It allowed you to believe whatever you wanted.

Meanwhile, divisions over religion continued in the 19th century. However persuasive Tocqueville’s observations might have seemed in the 1830s, they were given the lie in subsequent decades. It became evident that Americans definitely did not “all preach the same morality in the name of God.” Religious differences and divergent biblical interpretations, despite American religious freedom, retained their power to divide and to provoke hostility, thus functioning as a societal force for division rather than integration. No dispute was more consequential than that over slavery, in which Christians cited Scripture vehemently to advance the abolitionist cause and to defend slavery as an institution (which is casually assumed in the Old and New Testaments as the taken-for-granted reality it was in the ancient Near East). In fact, the Civil War itself has been interpreted as a “theological crisis.”[14] A second example of religion’s divisiveness derived from Catholic immigrants, whose numbers increased substantially in the wake of the Irish potato famine of the later 1840s. In New York, Boston, Philadelphia, and other cities, many recently arrived Catholics objected to the requirement that they be forced to read the King James Bible, recite its version of the Ten Commandments, and sing Protestant hymns in public schools. After notorious episodes such as the Eliot School Rebellion in Boston (1859) and the “Cincinnati Bible Wars” a decade later, American Catholic bishops went all-in for parochial schools. Within two generations they had created the largest system of private schooling anywhere in the world.[15] A third major cleavage, one that like the first two remains important today, opened in the wake of Darwin’s theory of evolution and the challenges it posed, along with modern historical-critical approaches to the Bible, to widespread Christian understandings of creation, especially the first of the two accounts in Genesis (the one to which most Christians paid most attention). This was especially apparent for those evangelical Protestants for whom faith was fundamentally a matter of feeling, the heart and not the head, a sensibility that had been encouraged by the revivalism of the Second Great Awakening. The later decades of the 19th century were thus the seedbed in the United States for the origins of modern Protestant biblical literalism and fundamentalism.[16] Literalist and fundamentalist approaches to scripture were and have remained deeply at odds with those of non-fundamentalist churches and biblical scholars. As one final example, the history of U.S. constitutional law and jurisprudence has made clear that demarcating the difference between the free exercise of religion and the demands of law and politics has proven to be anything but simple, intuitive, or obvious. Indeed, so confused and inconsistent are the rationales and underlying assumptions involved in First-Amendment judicial decisions involving the free exercise of religion that one scholar has described “the quest for a constitutional principle of religious freedom” as “foreordained failure,” while another entitled her book “the impossibility of religious freedom.”[17]

That Americans today no longer “all preach the same morality in the name of God” and do not “all agree on the duties of men toward one another,” as Tocqueville stated, has never been more obvious than in recent decades, indeed especially in the last few years right up to the present moment. I’ll return to this near the end of my lecture. With all the fissures and frictions still evident despite American religious freedom throughout the country’s history, much of the exercise of which, until well into the 20th century, was powerfully controlled by the Protestant moral establishment, what else besides laws and their enforcement served to hold the country together? Here too Tocqueville can help us, especially if we think back to what was discovered to facilitate the relatively peaceful coexistence of Christians despite their differences in early modern Europe, in the midst of the continent’s wars of more-than-religion and conflicts among confessional regimes. I refer to the pursuit of material prosperity in the 17th-century Dutch Republic, the prioritization of acquisition, comfort, and enjoyment above matters of religious doctrine or worship, and thus an emphasis on the money and shopping that were the means to procure more and better stuff to make your life better. The Dutch pioneered it; the British, as in so much else, learned from the Dutch and upscaled it; and British colonists brought the early modern consumer revolution with them across the Atlantic. This acquisitiveness, having already penetrated even the backcountry of colonial Virginia, for example, decades before the American Revolution, didn’t suddenly wane with the establishment of the new nation.[18] On the contrary. The individual freedoms protected in the United States included the freedom to buy as much as you wanted of whatever you wanted – provided, of course, you had the financial means or the credit to do so. And here is where it makes sense to invoke Tocqueville again, this time in ways that subsequent historical scholarship has confirmed in spades rather than qualified or refuted.

One of the things that most struck Tocqueville during his visit was the way in which Americans so comfortably combined their religiosity with the pursuit of wealth and enjoyment of material possessions. This was part of the reason why Americans wanted to influence politics and public life through their religious commitments and love for freedom: as Tocqueville put it, “they think it their most important concern to secure a government which will allow them to get the good things they want and which will not stop their enjoying those they have in peace.”[19] With respect to “preachers in America,” he wrote, “it is often difficult to be sure when listening to them whether the main object in religion is to procure eternal felicity in the next world or prosperity in this.”[20] Similarly and more broadly, he noted of Americans as such that these “people want to do as well as possible in this world without giving up their chances in the next.”[21] Indeed, “Love of comfort has become the dominant national taste. The main current of human passions running in that direction sweeps everything along with it.”[22] The actions of Americans suggested that they either ignored or remained unaffected by the many New Testament passages that ran so obviously in the opposite direction – an irony, to say the least, in a nation whose white citizens in the 1830s were overwhelmingly Protestants, the historical origins of whose churches lay in the Reformation, with its foundational principle of sola scriptura. It’s as if American Christians were implicitly asserting that they knew better than Jesus about the relationship between God and wealth. “You cannot serve both to God and Mammon” (Mt 6:24). Yes we can. Just watch us – we can go to church and get richer. Then again, what did Jesus know? He was just a village carpenter, not a sophisticated political economist, and so he had no idea about all the good that wealth could do once the traditional “deadly sin” of avarice was rebranded as benevolent “self-interest,” part of an ostensibly universal human nature that was supposedly natural, normal, and in any case unavoidable.[23] We can hear the Mennonite martyrologist van Braght rolling in his grave – along with everyone else throughout the history of Christianity who self-consciously has practiced ascetic self-denial in deliberate imitation of Christ, including, in their respective ways, the members of North American Hutterite and Amish farming communities.

But self-denial is decidedly not the American Way. Indeed, where would the American Dream be if Christians in this country had actually done what Jesus said to do with respect to acquisitiveness, possessions, wealth, and the pursuit of gain? How would the country have become so rich and powerful? The dream would have remained but a fantasy, never got off the ground, been stillborn. Instead, through a symbiosis of burgeoning cotton production based on slavery in the South and booming industrial production that made use of that cotton in textile mills, along with many other industries, in the North, American consumption increased right along with the Second Great Awakening up through the disruptions of the Civil War, after which industrial production and acquisitive consumption picked up again, stronger than ever. Once more, Tocqueville: “most wealthy men in democracies are dreaming of ways to increase their riches, and naturally their eyes turn to trade and industry, for these seem the quickest and best means of getting rich.”[24] Most 19th-century ministers made their peace with rising industrialization and consumption, and only a tiny handful of industrialists, such as Stephen Colwell of Philadelphia, became critics of the brutal, dangerous conditions endured by woefully underpaid industrial workers on factory floors and in coal mines.[25] These mines, joined by oil wells starting in the 1860s, fueled the railroads and industries sweeping the country to ever greater levels of production as those eager for prosperity moved further and further west, through a self-proclaimed “manifest destiny”; treaty after treaty with Indian tribes were broken, the bison herds on which they depended were decimated, and Indians who weren’t killed for resisting were themselves herded onto reservations so that white settlers could seize and control more and more land for themselves.[26] Indispensable to the exercise of freedom by white Americans in the Protestant moral establishment, and the pursuit of the material prosperity with which they were so comfortable, was the displacement of indigenous peoples and the exploitation of the rich natural resources that God, so it seemed, had providentially supplied for the nation and its people on whom he smiled so generously. (Incidentally, the Spanish had thought the same thing about their empire in the 16th century, the British about theirs in the 18th.) Thus it was, for example, that 85 percent of the ten million previously unlogged acres of Appalachian forest were clear-cut between 1870 and 1910.[27]

Needless to say, the patterns of increasing consumption that were solidified during the 19th century not only persisted but substantially increased during the 20th, once Americans got through the hardships of the Depression and rebounded with an extraordinary turnaround through the catapult of industrial production during World War II.[28] Over the course of the 20th century, average U.S. per capita income grew eight times in real terms (in 1999 dollars, it went from $4,200 in 1900 to $33,700 in 1999), while church affiliation during the 1950s grew even faster than the rapidly growing population.[29] For decades after the precipitous decline in church attendance in many Western European countries and Canada beginning in the 1960s, the United States remained anomalous among industrialized countries for its high levels of religious belief and practice (that has started to change noticeably, however, in our country during the first two decades of the 21st century).[30]

The American Dream worked as a strong factor contributing to cohesion among white Americans so long as there were widespread opportunities to realize it – that is, so long as there was real reason to believe that upward social mobility was within your power if you put your mind to it and worked hard. Over the last 40 or so years, however, that prospect has eroded. In a dramatic reversal of the realities that made America the “land of opportunity” for millions of immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the United States now has much diminished prospects for upward social mobility compared to most other countries in the industrialized world, as well as the highest income inequality among the G7 nations.[31] When decent jobs disappear, reasons to remain in small towns disappear, too, and those raised in them leave – as Billy Joel sang in his song “Allentown,” “And it’s getting very hard to stay.” The social fabric frays as local institutions struggle; nationally, millions of people today whose parents and grandparents led prosperous lives no longer can, now that well-paying manufacturing jobs with strong benefits have been supplanted by poorly paid service jobs, often with few benefits and sometimes without any health insurance. Frustration, depression, escapism, resentment, anger, and rage are among the understandable consequences.[32] These consequences can be politically leveraged, as we have seen so dramatically in our country in recent years.

But wait – haven’t I strayed far from the Radical Reformation, or as I argued in my first lecture, far away from the Reformation as such? Why am I now talking about contemporary American social, economic, and political problems when I started my last lecture by talking about the early German Reformation of the 1520s? I haven’t strayed at all – I’ve just continued the historical analysis beyond the Reformation era and the early United States up to the present. Remember my basic point at the outset of my talk last night: the present is the product of the past. We haven’t strayed at all from the Radical Reformation if we think about the long-term changes pertaining to the scope and meaning of religion; we haven’t strayed at all if we understand the different, often unintended, consequences of religious freedom and the separation of church and state that derived from the conflicting claims and recurrent conflicts of the Reformation era. For seeking to keep religion separate from politics, the economy, and society at large as far as possible has meant that those respective, connected domains of human life have also been insulated from religion. Hence they have developed and continue to develop according to their own logics and animating forces. Religion has come to be regarded as something individual, personal, and private; the dynamics of political power and consumerist capitalism are seen as collective, impersonal, and public. Restricting the scope of religion is what made modern freedom of religion possible in the first place. Secularization is an outcome of the success of institutionalizing religious freedom combined with success in restricting religion to its modern, narrow scope: what you believe, how and with whom you worship, and whatever individual forms of religious devotion you practice. Meanwhile, the way of the world proceeds apace.  What else should have been expected?

Secularization and the decline of religion’s influence in shared, public life is one major, long-term, unintended outcome of modern religious freedom coupled with a narrow view of religion.  But combination has facilitated more than simply secularization per se. The expressions of individual citizens exercising their freedom in recent years have gone about as far from Tocqueville’s shared morality and sense of duty as one can possibly imagine. I hardly need belabor the obviousness, depth, or extent of the political, moral, and cultural divisions in the United States (and in various expressions in other countries as well) of which we are reminded on a daily basis. Not many professional philosophers, I suspect, would have guessed ten years ago that epistemology would be at the heart of the country’s problems today, as has been the case since at least early 2017. What do we know and how do we know it? Indeed, who’s your “we”? What’s “your truth”? We’re free, so very free, free to believe whatever suits our fancy and reinforces our suspicions on the Internet, free to follow the YouTube and TikTok and Instagram and Facebook algorithms that direct us to more links we’re liable to like for as many hours as we want to spend, without interruption, no matter how unsupported by evidence or unchallenged by any countervailing views. We’re free to dismiss and denigrate anyone who says anything we don’t like or don’t agree with, regardless of whether what they say is cogent, supported by evidence, and indeed is true or not. They have their truth and we have ours – how much freer could we get? We are experiencing now in real time, day after day, how much a viable national politics and political culture depended on many things so long taken for granted, such as what counts as evidence, what sound methods and legitimate expertise and knowledge are, as well as the education across society at large that awareness of all of these matters presupposes. On the other hand, freedom as an expression of believing whatever we want, based on whatever we want or on nothing but invention or hearsay or fantasy? In those terms, we’ve never been so free as we are in America right now.

Meanwhile, it’s become clear that another major, long-term expression of freedom I’ve discussed in my two lectures, which played a key role in leading the Western world out of the destructive conflicts of the Reformation era, is having some deeply concerning, unintended, environmental effects. I mean the freedom of politically protected individuals to consume as much as they want of whatever they want and to pursue as much material prosperity as their credit limits permit, without regard for anyone else, if that’s what they choose to do. In the words of the historian Keith Thomas, “In the modern liberal West as well as in many other parts of the world, it is axiomatic that all human beings are entitled to fulfil themselves in the way they choose and that, as far as possible, society should be ordered in such a way as to enable them to do so.”[33] However much this might contribute to individual satisfactions, when pursued at scale in conjunction with increasing global population, its profoundly damaging impact on the planet has become as much a part of the daily news cycle as are the constant reminders of our deeply divided political culture.

Consumption presupposes production. Since the Industrial Revolution in the last decades of the  18th century, the fossil-fueled production of stuff that consumers want to buy, and starting in the late 19th century the fossil-fueled generation of electricity that has become indispensable to modern life, plus petroleum powered vehicles, industrialized agriculture, and more have had some rather nasty, cumulative environmental effects on the planet. It would be tedious to rehearse matters about which I am sure you are already aware: the steeply rising greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels that are the primary driver of climate change, the accelerating melt of Arctic, Antarctic, Greenlandic, and glacial ice that contributes to rising sea levels, massive garbage landfills and microplastics from the peak of Mount Everest to the Mariana Trench at the deepest point of the Pacific Ocean, ocean acidification and deoxygenation, severely depleted wetlands, rampant deforestation, declining biodiversity, and more.  Regardless of economists’ modeling, every market “negative externality” from those in the most distant human past in the Paleolithic right up to the present has been internal to the planet’s natural systems.

Indeed, the collective impact of human beings on the Earth’s natural systems has been so extensive that it has ended one geological epoch – the Holocene, in which all human history since the last Ice Age occurred – and inaugurated another, the Anthropocene, starting around the end of World War II.[34] Human beings have “become a global geophysical force” that is profoundly, measurably, and negatively affecting the planet’s interconnected energy, water, and biogeochemical cycles.[35] This has not, of course, been a phenomenon for which Americans alone are responsible, although the American contribution to it has been disproportionately large: the United States is responsible for approximately 25 percent of all the CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere since the mid-18th century, more than nine times as much as all of the countries of the African continent combined.[36] Tragically, any and all international efforts made to “lift people out of poverty” through the building of infrastructure, industrialization, and an increase in per-capita GDP – the core of Western models of international development since the 1950s – have simultaneously been increasing the “Great Acceleration” of our global environmental degradation and associated problems since World War II.[37] Suffice it to say that here is another unintended, unwelcome manifestation of the exercise of modern human freedom, manifest on a global scale, yet the most influential historical roots of which derive from the Western European path that was taken to escape from the religio-political conflicts of the Reformation era. In effect, having imported the early modern consumer revolution to North America, expanded and industrialized it and grown comfortable with believing in God while getting as rich as Americans have been pleased to get throughout the country’s history, the globalization of the American Dream is turning out to be a global environmental nightmare.

And so I near the end of my second lecture. Lest you think that I am now going to conclude by explaining “how we fix it,” I’m sorry to disappoint you. It has struck me over the years how often historians are expected not only to explain the past, but to provide blueprints for the future that will solve the present problems we have inherited and to which, in recent years, we have in our respective ways contributed. First of all, that’s not what historians are supposed to do; it’s not our job and we’re not trained for it. But second, in the case of our current, chasmic divisions in American society, and especially in the case of what’s been called the “super wicked problem” of the Anthropocene, I’ve not seen anyone who has plausible ideas about how we resolve the difficulties. Freedom has succeeded all too well. Of course, in our respective ways, as individuals, I hope we all agree that we should promote civil exchange and that we should strive to model it ourselves. I wish that we all agreed on the importance of demonstrating genuine care for others in need, regardless of their political views or the color of their skin. And it is simply sensible to endeavor in every way we can individually to reduce our environmental impact, and politically to vote for environmentally minded candidates and policies.  But you hardly needed a historian to tell you that. What I hope I’ve provided is something different: something for you to think about, an increase in your understanding and awareness, with respect to how the world we’re living in today came to be as it is – and the unexpected, twisting, complicated ways in which the Reformation era contributed to bringing it about.



[1] Mark A. Noll, In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), p. 290.

[2] John T. Noonan, Jr., The Lustre of Our Country: The American Experience of Religious Freedom (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

[3] See stanza 12 of “Hoort vrienden al / hier in dit aertsche dal,” in Een Lietboecxken, tracterende van den Offer des Heeren . . .  [Franeker: Press of Jan Hendricks van Schoonrewoerd, 1570], in Bibliotheca Reformatoria Neerlandica, vol. 2, ed. Samuel Cramer (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1904), p. 591.

[4] On the religious diversity of the representatives at the Continental Congress, see Steven Waldman, Founding Faith: Providence, Politics, and the Birth of Religious Freedom (New York: Random House, 2008), pp. 90-91.

[5] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. J. P. Mayer, trans. George Lawrence, vol. 1 [1835] (1966; New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 2.9, p. 296.

[6] Ibid., pp. 290-291, 292 (my emphases).

[7] Nathan O. Hatch, The Democratization of American Christianity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989).

[8] David Sehat, The Myth of American Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[9] Sehat, Myth, p. 58.

[10] On Tocqueville’s American visit and route, see the magisterial, classic work by George Wilson Pierson, Tocqueville in America (1938; Baltimore and London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996).

[11] Sehat, Myth, pp. 55-57.

[12] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason [1794], in Paine, Political Writings, ed. Bruce Kuklick (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 268.

[13] Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia [1781], ed. William Peden (1954; Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1982), p. 159.

[14] Mark A. Noll, The Civil War as a Theological Crisis (Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 2006).

[15] See John T. McGreevy, Catholicism and American Freedom: A History (New York: W. W. Norton, 2003), pp. 7-11, 37-42; Sehat, Myth, pp. 155-168; Timothy Walch, Parish School: A History of American Parochial Education from Colonial Times to the Present, rev. ed. (Arlington, Va.: National Catholic Education Association, 2016).

[16] See e.g. the classic work by George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, 3rd ed. (1980; New York: Oxford University Press, 2022).

[17] Steven D. Smith, Foreordained Failure: The Quest for a Constitutional Principle of Religious Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, 2nd ed. with new preface (2005; Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2018).

[18] See Ann Smart Martin, Buying into the World of Goods: Early Consumers in Backcountry Virginia (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008).

[19] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, ed. Mayer, trans. Lawrence, vol. 2 [1840] (1966; New York: HarperCollins, 2000), 2.14, p. 541.

[20] Tocqueville, Democracy, ed. Mayer, trans. Lawrence, vol. 2, 2.9, p. 530.

[21] Ibid., 2.11, p. 534.

[22] Ibid., 2.10, p. 532.

[23] On this transition see Rudi Verburg, “The Rise of Greed in Early Modern Economic Thought: From Deadly Sin to Social Benefit,” Journal of the History of Economic Thought 34, no. 4 (2012): 515-539.

[24] Tocqueville, Democracy, ed. Mayer, trans. Lawrence, vol. 2, 2.19, p. 552.

[25] See Stewart Davenport, Friends of the Unrighteous Mammon: Northern Christians and Market Capitalism, 1815-1860 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), with discussion of Colwell esp. at pp. 110-121, 155-160.

[26] On the ways in which oil was understood in providential terms by American Christians from the time of its discovery in the 1860s to the present, see Darren Dochuk, Anointed with Oil: How Christianity and Crude Made Modern America (New York: Basic Books, 2019); on the decimation of the vast North American bison herds as a deliberate, official strategy by the federal government for defeating and subjugating the Indian tribes of the Great Plains, see Andrew C. Isenberg, The Destruction of the Bison: An Environmental History, 1750-1920, rev. ed. (2000; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020).

[27] Steven Stoll, Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia (New York: Hill and Wang, 2017), p. 169.

[28] See David Kennedy, Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999).

[29] Donald M. Fisk, “American Labor in the 20th Century,” Compensation and Working Conditions (Fall 2001), Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor, citing U. S. Council of Economic Advisors, 2000, Economic Report to the President, 2000 (Washington, D.C.: U. S. Government Printing Office, 2000), p. 279.  On the church affiliation, see Carol Tucker, “The 1950s—Powerful Years for Religion,” in USC News, a discussion of Robert Ellwood, The Fifties Spiritual Marketplace: American Religion in a Decade of Conflict (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1997),, accessed 11 October 2022.  “On a typical Sunday morning in the period from 1955-58, almost half of all Americans were attending church—the highest percentage in U.S. history.  During the 1950s, nationwide church membership grew at a faster rate than the population, from 57 percent of the U.S. population in 1950 to 63.3 percent in 1960.”  Ibid.

[30] On secularization in Britain and Europe between the 1960s and 2000, see e.g. Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), and eadem, Religion in Modern Europe: A Memory Mutates (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000); specifically on Britain see Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain (London and New York: Routledge, 2001); on the decline in church membership since 2000 in the US, see e.g. Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for First Time,” Gallup, 29 March 2021,, accessed 11 October 2022.

[31] See e.g. Katherine Schaeffer, “6 Facts About Income Inequality in the U.S.,” Pew Research Center, 7 February 2020,, accessed 11 October 2022.

[32] On this phenomenon see e.g. Robert Wuthnow, The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2018); Arlie Russell Hochschild, Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right (New York: The New Press, 2016); Anne Case and Angus Deaton, Deaths of Despair and the Future of Capitalism (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2020).

[33] Keith Thomas, The Ends of Life: The Roads to Fulfilment in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 9.

[34] For an introductory orientation, see Julia Adeney Thomas, Mark Williams, and Jan Zalasiewicz, The Anthropocene: A \Multidisciplinary Approach (Cambridge, and Medford, Mass.: Polity Press, 2020).

[35] Will Steffen, Paul J. Crutzen, and John R. McNeill, “The Anthropocene: Are Humans Now Overwhelming the Great Forces of Nature?,” Ambio 36 (2007): 614–621 at p. 614.

[36] See the entries for “Per Capita CO2 Emissions” and “Cumulative CO2 Emissions” in Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “CO2 and Greenhouse Gas Emissions,” Our World in Data, rev. August 2020, accessed 22 January 2022,

[37] On the Great Acceleration, see e.g. J. R. McNeill and Peter Engelke, The Great Acceleration: An Environmental History of the Anthropocene since 1945 (Cambridge, Mass. and London: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014); strong graphic evidence for the designation of the years just after World War II as the beginning of the Anthropocene was first presented by Will Steffen and his colleagues in 2004 and has subsequently been updated.  See Will Steffen et al., Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet under Pressure (Executive Summary) (Stockholm: IGBP Secretariat, 2004), pp. 15, 17; Will Steffen et al., “The Trajectory of the Anthropocene: The Great Acceleration,” The Anthropocene Review 2, no. 1 (April 2015): 81-98 at pp. 83-88, which updates the same graphs to 2010.