The Good of Nationalism, Pt. II: The Reformation and the Quest for National Freedom

*Editor’s note: this article is the second in a series of three. See Part I and Part III.

The Ghost of Empire in Christian Europe

In the famous preamble to the 1533 Act in Restraint of Appeals, England’s original declaration of independence, Thomas Cromwell declared, on behalf of his royal master Henry VIII, that “by divers sundry old authentic histories and chronicles it is manifestly declared and expressed that this realm of England is an empire.” There was a self-conscious irony here. What, after all, could it mean to speak of “an empire”—with the indefinite article? Everyone in Europe knew, after all, that there was but one empire, but one dominus totius mundi, “lord of all the world,” and that was Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor. His only rival for such lordship was the Holy Roman Pontiff, who had declared that “it was absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject” to him.

Despite the rich biblical vision of independent nations each bringing their glory into the kingdom of God, the road to nationalism in the Christian era was not a straight one. Indeed, it was not until the Protestant Reformation that the seed idea of the covenantal nation, planted in the soil of ancient Israel, began to take root and flourish.

In ancient times, nations were a comparative rarity as political entities. Nations required a common code of law and consistent administration of justice across a substantial territory, something rendered difficult by primitive modes of transportation and communication. Most people lived in small city-states, or loose confederations of neighboring cities, which were constantly prone to war with one another and vulnerable to the ambitions of powerful neighbors. These neighbors sometimes established sprawling empires, like Egypt and Assyria, but such empires were not so much stable political units, but rather military juggernauts that would intermittently extract tribute and promises of obedience from the far-flung city-states they defeated in battle. It was not till the rise of Rome that an empire arose which proved capable of durably dominating and effectively ruling a vast territory.

In the midst of this empire, the Christian church took shape, proclaiming the sole kingship of Christ, not Caesar. Initially, however, this proclamation was not seen as a repudiation of empire. Quite the contrary. During their centuries of dominion, the Roman emperors had imagined themselves to be the lords of the earth—much of it de facto, the rest of it de jure—tasked by the gods with enforcing peace and order among all peoples. When Constantine bowed the knee to Jesus as King of Kings, it was natural for Christian leaders to merge the universal vocation of Rome with the universal mission of the Christian church. After all, Christ’s rule was one and universal, with every tribe and nation called to do homage before him in submission to one gospel and one church. In every age, Christians have been tempted to “immanentize the eschaton,” translating the expectations of the eschatological kingdom of God into the midst of history. So it was for early Christians, dazed and delighted by the conversion of Constantine and the end of persecution: perhaps Christian Rome was to be the earthly political manifestation of the worldwide kingdom of Christ.

Such dreams were cruelly dashed by the waves of barbarians who spilled over the borders of the over-strained and bankrupt empire, sacking Rome itself in 410 AD. But the old dream died hard. The imperial institutions withered and the emperors took flight to Constantinople, but the ghost of the Roman Empire continued to haunt the now-darkened forests of feudal Europe, ultimately taking up residence in two emergent institutions of Christian empire: the Papacy and the Holy Roman Empire.

For many centuries, however, even as the official ideology of Christian Europe remained imperial, the reality on the ground was tribal, the landscape dotted with hundreds of small kingdoms held together by warrior bands loyal to charismatic chiefs. In time, this raw tribalism coalesced into what we now call feudalism, a structure of decentralized and overlapping political bonds resting on oaths of personal loyalty and promises of protection. But like all tribal orders, feudalism remained violent and unstable, and civilizational progress was slow, although the overarching unity of the Christian church worked to broker a certain degree of peace.

The church’s civilizing work, however, was inseparable from a dangerous hubris. Whereas pagan Rome had blithely tolerated a dizzying array of cultures, cults, and religions throughout its vast domain, Christian Rome, in the steadily-ascendant person of the Pope, sought ever-greater homogenization. The universality of the Gospel, and the divine law of Scripture, demanded, it was felt, some corresponding political universalism. This can be seen even in the earliest years of the Church in England, when the Venerable Bede chronicled the fierce determination of Roman-trained prelates to enforce on the formerly independent Irish-trained clergy the church calendar and rituals practiced at Rome. In time, the claims of Rome extended increasingly from what we would call ritual to what we would call politics. The Crusades, for instance, were conceived by Pope Urban II as a way both to distract warring feudal lords from their conflicts, and to bolster his own authority as the representative of a united Europe. Subsequent popes and leading churchmen began to insert themselves more directly into the internal affairs of Christian kingdoms. In England, for instance, Thomas a Becket demanded the autonomy and immunity of all clergy from the laws of England, and Pope Innocent III later claimed lordship over England and placed the entire kingdom under excommunication after a dispute with King John. Before long, popes were preaching crusades not merely against infidels in Muslim lands, but against Christian kingdoms that failed to acknowledge their supremacy as representatives of Christ’s global rule.  

At the same time, however, the first rumblings of nationalism were beginning to make themselves felt, above all in England. Powerful reforming kings such as Henry II (1152-90) and Edward I (1272-1307) recognized the value of law as an instrument for knitting together their great island kingdom and preventing the feudal barons from reducing it to the near-anarchy that prevailed through much of Europe at that time. By promoting the development of a trained legal profession in London tasked with administering impartial justice to lord and commoner alike, they established for the first time in post-Roman Europe a “common law” that would steadily diminish the autonomy of the barons. At the same time, by summoning Parliament as a representative assembly of the whole nation, they began to foster in Englishmen the sense of membership in a common national project that transcended their counties and shires. Although England temporarily lapsed back into feudalism during the devastating Wars of the Roses, the powerful Tudor monarchs resumed the process of nation-building, first strengthening the Crown and Parliament against the internal threats of factious feudal barons, and then against the meddlesome authority of the Pope.

The Reformation as an Independence Movement

Although we rarely think of it this way anymore, the Reformation was as much a movement of national independence as one of religious independence. Indeed, the two were inextricable, since it was precisely by way of his theological claims as vicar of Christ that the Pope claimed a political dominion over the whole of Europe. Much like the modern EU, the papal church had become a bloated transnational bureaucracy that demanded tribute, promulgated laws from on high, and established courts that could override local administration of justice. When Pope Leo X demanded that Frederick the Wise of Saxony deliver up his miscreant monk, Martin Luther, Frederick refused, not on grounds of theology (he was himself still a devout worshipper of saints and collector of relics) but on grounds of sovereignty: if Luther had done anything wrong, he should be tried in Germany, not Rome. 

Luther articulated the nascent nationalist spirit in his Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, calling on German princes to stop taking marching orders from the Pope and assert their authority to reform their own churches and laws. After a prolonged struggle with the Emperor Charles V, this principle was embodied in the phrase: cuius regio, eius religio: “whose the kingdom was, his was the religion.” This phrase summed up the epochal settlement of the 1555 Peace of Augsburg, which ended the Papacy’s dream of an undivided church under the see of St. Peter. It became the blueprint for the early modern vision of national churches and national religious establishments throughout Europe. Although to us this sounds like a recipe for statism rather than religious liberty, to early modern Protestants, it was a victory for local or national self-determination. The alternative, after all, was not freedom of individual conscience, but rather subordination to the papacy. Either the papal church could determine all questions of orthodoxy and demand the universal submission of every Christian conscience, or else different princes could be left free to follow their own consciences in legislating for their principalities.

The Peace of Augsburg also put an end to Emperor Charles V’s dream of a universal Catholic Empire. Indeed, the Reformation’s groundswell of nationalism had come none too soon. For centuries, the “Holy Roman Empire” had been more an idea than reality—neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, in Voltaire’s quip. But the young Charles V, at age 19 crowned Emperor of Germany, King of Spain and Naples, Duke of Burgundy, and Lord of the Indies, aimed to change that. For the first time in history, one man could make a plausible claim to being “lord of all the world” (at least if you left Asia out of it for the time being), and for Charles, this lordship was inseparable from his vocation as a Catholic monarch to establish the one true faith throughout all his dominions. Although cheated in his aims by the stubbornness of Protestant resistance, his son Philip II of Spain soon took up the mantle, administering his vast empire with a fanatic zeal for Catholic orthodoxy, a zeal shared by his wife, Queen Mary of England.

Few today realize how close England—having just declared independence from the Papacy under Henry VIII—came to being absorbed not only back into the Catholic Church, but also into the great Habsburg dominions of Charles and Philip during the reign of “Bloody Mary.” Her early death in 1558, however, brought the Protestant Queen Elizabeth to the throne, ensuring that England would for the next two centuries become not merely Europe’s leading champion of Protestantism, but also, increasingly, of nationalism. When Pope Pius V rashly excommunicated Elizabeth in 1570 and called on Catholic powers to invade her island, he succeeded only in rallying English patriotic sentiment around her. And when in 1588 the mighty Spanish Armada descended on England to try and make good the threat in Pius V’s excommunication, Elizabeth powerfully rallied the national and religious feelings of her people in one of history’s great David vs. Goliath showdowns.

England as the Protestant Nation

By the start of the seventeenth century, then, a clear sense of English national vocation had taken hold: they were a small but independent people, making no claims to wide dominions but with a powerful navy that could hold their own on the seven seas; they took pride in their representative Parliament, their chartered liberties, and their rights of conscience; they were Protestant, not papist, and would succor, as opportunity allowed, their embattled Protestant brethren on the Continent. Against them was ranged, as they saw it, a coordinated, global threat: an arbitrary, tyrannical pope who lorded over kings and consciences; absolutist Catholic rulers who trampled underfoot chartered liberties and representative assemblies; and a powerful Spanish monarchy that claimed to have inherited global hegemony from the Roman Empire and the pope’s explicit authorization, and that backed up such claims with mounds of New World gold. England’s settlements in Virginia were conceived as part of her Protestant, anti-imperial mission: to puncture Spain’s inflated claims to lordship of the world and roll back her tide of Catholic missionary work.

Although Spain’s power crumbled in the decades that followed, her mantle was soon assumed by the France of Louis XIV, the “Most Christian King,” who saw himself as a new Charlemagne, tasked with restoring the purity of the Roman Catholic faith and the glory of the old Roman Empire throughout Europe. Louis aspired to a “universal monarchy” over Europe and the New World, and set himself to snuff out the emerging independent nations on his borders, beginning with the Protestant Dutch Republic, which had developed a rich national culture and representative political institutions during the century since it had thrown off the dominion of Spain. And when the Catholic James II took the throne of England in 1685, nothing seemed to stand any longer in the way of Louis’s imperialism. Only the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which the Dutch prince William of Orange took the throne of England and coordinated a pan-European alliance against the overweening power of France, restored a balance of power and set the stage for the flourishing of nationalism throughout Europe.

So great was England’s success as Europe’s first nation-state and a beacon of political liberty that thinkers across Continental Europe began to adjust their formerly imperialist political theories. The greatest of these was Montesquieu, who castigated France’s futile aspirations to universal monarchy, lampooned the Catholic Church, and praised England’s constitution of liberty. In his Spirit of the Laws, the most influential political work of the eighteenth century, he argued for the essential goodness of national diversity, insisting that good government is adapted to the spirit of each people, and that any attempt to establish uniform rule over different peoples and cultures degenerates into tyranny. Shortly afterward, a Swiss Reformed political theorist, Emer de Vattel, penned his masterpiece The Law of Nations, articulating a comprehensive theory of national sovereignty, treaty obligations, and the balance of power, and again holding up England as the model nation. Critiquing the erstwhile projects of popes and Catholic emperors, Vattel declared, “A nation ought not to suffer foreigners to dictate laws to her, to interfere in her concerns, or deprive her of her natural advantages.”

A quarter century later, the American Founders, discovering that free Protestant England had swollen into a “popish” empire, governing no longer by bonds of loyalty but by force, turned to Montesquieu and Vattel in calling for America “to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them.” In so doing, they gave voice to an equation of political liberty and national independence rooted in the biblical vision and the experience of the Protestant Reformation.

Protestantism and Nationalism

What then, is the connection between Protestantism and nationalism? Well, even today, liberty is seen largely in terms of self-rule, and tyranny in terms of unaccountability. These concerns framed the Protestant critique of popery and empire as well. By the sheer geographical breadth of its claims, the Papacy stunted the liberty of the various realms of Christendom to direct each its own national life; by the spiritual depth of his claims, the pope claimed lordship even over the inner sanctum of conscience, allowing no space whatsoever in which the individual could stand alone before his Maker. By his claims to supremacy over all other church authorities, laws, and councils, the pope was the most absolute of rulers, unaccountable to any human authority. Protestants thus protested both the universal scope and despotic form of the Roman church. Moreover, they became increasingly convinced that as Rome had hardened its claims, it had drawn temporal rulers into the same mold: seeking to rule over other peoples, body and soul, governing autocratically, without accountability, and without regard for their subjects’ liberties.

Against such religious or secular imperialism, early Protestant writers argued for a clear distinction between the singular kingdom of Christ and the pluriform kingdoms of this world. They sought to de-immanentize the eschaton. While there was one faith and one baptism, such unity of confession did not imply the need for one set of rituals in every church or one set of laws in every kingdom; while Christ was king of all kings, this dominion did not need to be represented in any earthly vicegerent. Drinking deeply from the well of the Old Testament, first English and Dutch Protestants, and then others throughout Europe, began to discern in the experience of the nation of Israel a model for their own experiences as particular nations, forged from many tribes in response to common enemies and in obedience to common laws, and covenanted before God to pursue justice and righteousness.

Although this vision may have inspired our American forebears, what relevance does it still have today? Can America, with her vast territory of 330 million and her global responsibilities, still plausibly claim to be a nation, rather than an empire? And even if so, what might a re-assertion of the good of nationalism look like in the context of today’s resurgent tribalisms and globalist ideologies? To these questions we will turn in Part III.

*Image Credit: Pixabay

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Bradford Littlejohn

Bradford Littlejohn Bradford Littlejohn is a Fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center and President of the Davenant Institute. He has published extensively on Protestant political theology, Christian ethics, and the Anglo-American conservative tradition. He lives in Landrum, SC with his wife Rachel and four children.