2002 November 08 Friday
John Jay Ray On Religions and Political Decentralization

In a blog essay entitled "Historic German Origins Of Conservatism" blogger and FrontPage Magazine writer John Jay Ray argues that Protestantism has been a decentralizing force in politics as it was born out of distrust of central religious authority:

Nonetheless, even in a weakened form, the Catholic church offers a model of “top down” social organization that must make it easier for Catholics to accept political arrangements of a “top down” sort. If you look up to the Pope as an essential part of your salvation in the spiritual sphere, to look up to the government as an essential agency in securing your material wellbeing is surely only a small step. So the fact that the vast majority of Europeans are still Catholic (even if the Catholicism is much watered down from what it was) should make Europeans more accepting of all-pervasive government than Anglo-Saxons would ever be. And so, of course, it has come to pass. In Bismarck, Hitler, Mussolini, Franco, Salazar and Papadopoulos Europe has had authoritarianism in government on a scale unknown in the English-speaking world.

Of course, Papadopoulos, being Greek, was raised in the Greek Orthodox culture. But the Orthodox are similar to the Catholics in terms of having a hierarchically structured church with high priests who are the interpreters and authorities on spiritual matters. So the argument can be extended to state that Catholic and Orthodox Europe have a longer tradition of top-down authoritarian religious rule than does Protestant Europe. But the real interesting twist to Ray's argument is not that Protestantism encouraged political decentralization (though perhaps it did). Its that the areas that went Protestant had existing cultures that were more decentralized in their social and political structures even before the Protestant Reformation. Now is this true? I don't know enough Middle Ages cultural history to say. But it reminds me of something John Derbyshire has written about the feudal era and the men who went off on the Crusades:.

That is what they were like, these men of Western Europe. Brutish, coarse, ignorant, often insanely cruel — yes: but peer into their inner lives, their thoughts, their talk among themselves, so far as it is possible to do so, and what do we find? What were their notions, their obsessions? Faith, of course, and honor, and then: vassalage, homage, fealty, allegiance, duties and obligations, genealogies and inheritances, councils and "parlements," rights and liberties. The feudal order is easy to underestimate. In part this is because feudal society was so at odds with many modern ideals — the ideal of human equality, for example. In part, also, I believe, because the sheer complexity of it, and of its laws and customs, deters study and sometimes confounds analysis. (Define and differentiate the following: champerty, maintenance, embracery.) A certain dogged application is required to get to grips with feudal society, and few who are not professional historians are up to the task, Karl Marx being one honorable exception. Yet it is in this knotty tangle of heartfelt abstractions spelled out in Old French that can be found, in embryo, so much of what we cherish in our own civilization today.

If John Jay Ray's argument is correct then in the writings from the Middle Ages one would expect to find more talk of rights and a different slant on obligations and duties among those who were living in areas that later became Protestant. One might also expect to find different rules for property ownership (perhaps less tilted toward elites and with wider access to property law courts) in the areas that became Protestant. Anyone know enough history to comment on this?

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2002 November 08 02:38 PM  Religion Secular Ideologies

razib said at November 8, 2002 10:23 PM:

a few comments....

eastern orthodoxy has a loose autocephalus church structure compared to catholicism, in some ways more similar to the state supported protestant churches.

also-i don't think that the germanic social system was the cause of protestantism-the printing press was. dissenters have existed within the medieval church before (wycliff, huss, the albigensians), but they couldn't spread their message fast enough to establish critical mass.

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