January 28, 2006

Is the Anglosphere "Really" About Protestantism?

When talking about this Anglosphere business, one occasionally gets asked whether discussions of Anglosphere culture and values are not " really all about Protestantism?"

The short answer is "no".

The somewhat more elaborate answer goes about as follows:

As a matter of demonstrable historical fact English exceptionalism preceded Protestantism by at least one thousand years. Furthermore, Anglosphere exceptionalism continues now, when most of the Anglosphere is not Protestant. Protestantism is therefore an episode in the Anglosphere, one part of its history. It is an important and influential episode, but it is only a portion of the whole story, and it is not the defining element in the story.

The fundamental origins of Anglospheric liberty are some combination of Teutonic folkways and medieval constitutionalism, which led to the development of representative government, common law, government power being subject to law, strong notions of private property, a strong civil society, etc. Note this is not a matter of mistaking origins for essence, as some commenter once said. Rather, it is a matter of seeing and understanding the existence of an unbroken line of development which, again, is a matter of demonstrable fact.

These cultural and institutional developments in England were strongly in place prior to the Reformation. To wax counterfactual, none of those need necessarily have gone away if the Reformation played out differently in England. A Catholic England would still have been a Catholic ENGLAND. Thomas More's world (as depicted so vividly by Peter Ackroyd) is recognizably the active, decentralized, voluntarist, outward looking, mercantile, law-abiding, enterprising civil society we see in other ages of English History -- and it is Catholic top to bottom. The world Ackroyd shows us is not a monolithic Catholicism, but a varied and dynamic Catholicism, with many different groups and orders and local parishes all doing their own thing within an overall religious commonality -- again, a very Anglospheric-looking Catholicism. And, of course, the Reformation era was marked by many setbacks for Anglospheric liberty, such as the use of the Star Chamber court. So, the influence of the Reformation era on Anglospheric developments is multifaceted, and not all positive. On the other end of the timeline, America was once almost entirely Protestant. But, of course, today it is a highly diverse place religiously -- and irreligiously. And we see that Anglospheric institutions and cultural values have been successfully adopted and adapted by various non-Protestant individuals and groups.

To the extent English or American conservatives see themselves as preserving a specifically Protestant -- or even Christian -- national identity, a larger conception of the Anglosphere may present a hardship for them. Many good-hearted men and women of a conservative disposition, in particular in England -- the erstwhile "Protestant Island" -- would like to define their national identity this way. Many want to "restore" a national identity along the line of religious identity. Curiously enough, this is so even, or especially, when they personally rarely set foot in a Church. While I often agree with such people on much else, this part of the program won't work.

In short, Protestantism and Protestant cultural values have had a strong and important and in many ways affirmative influence on the Anglosphere. But Protestantism and Protestant cultural values do not define the Anglosphere.

(On a personal note, as a Catholic American I grow rather weary of being granted the status of an "honorary white man", like Gunga Din, on the theory that all Americans have all really turned into Protestants now. The subtext is that we benighted Papists will eventually give up on our priest craft and idolatry and eventually become true and complete Americans. For now we are free to use the front door anyway as a gesture of tolerance from our betters. Thanks anyway, but we'll just kick the front door down with our boots and sit wherever we damn well want. Ha. I am a well-balanced Irishman. I have a chip on each shoulder. I have not yet read Samuel Huntington's book Who Are We? I understand it has more than a touch of this. But Huntington is a solid thinker, and I will get to him, and let him speak for himself.)

Cross-posted on ChicagoBoyz.

Posted by Lexington Green at January 28, 2006 09:56 PM

Interesting observation. Have you read Huizignia,s The decline of the Middle ages? One could argue that continential Europe during the Middle ages was similar to England but events conspired to reduce or destroy the continent's medieval constitutionalism
Also, how did the fight for survival against Islam, and later, Protstantism derail the continent's constitutionalism? Davis Hanson in Culture and carnage reminds his readers that Spain and the southern Catholics faced an existential threat with Moslems that Germany (and England by extension) didn't face


Posted by: xavier at January 29, 2006 01:18 PM

Xavier, I have not yet read Huizinga, but I agree absolutely that "that continental Europe during the Middle ages was similar to England but events conspired to reduce or destroy the continent's medieval constitutionalism". This is exactly right. I am currently reading A.R. Myers, Parliaments and Estates in Europe to 1789, which is adding detail to the picture.

The big change was the reception of Roman law in the late middle ages on the Continent. Maitland is very clear on this. This amounted to a revival of Roman legal notions. This was favored by power-hungry monarchs, who used it as a means to eliminate checks on their power. As this Wiki article notes, only England resisted this trend. As I mentioned in response to an earlier comment of yours, F.W. Maitland put this very well, saying that the common law tradition was "too tough a weed" to uproot. This process, more than the struggle against Islam, or the upheavals of the Reformation, did away with medieval constitutionalism on the Continent.

The Reformation had a mixed impact, according to J.N. Figgis, whose Studies of political thought from Gerson to Grotius, 1414-1625 I am also currently reading. Figgis says that whichever religious group found itself in the minority found itself arguing for limitations on government power, out of a desire for self-preservation. So, Catholics and Protestants were on both sides of this issue depending on where they were. Or so Figgis says. I am only now getting into the factual details of the era, and it is complicated both due to genuinely complex facts and by highly partisan accounts from all sides. Anyway, assuming Figgis is right, it supports Lord Acton's comment that true friends of liberty are scarce, liberty is usually defended by people who have some other interest at stake. However, the initial impact in England was clearly the creation of very powerful and virtually lawless monarch. Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were able to rule almost at will. To the credit either of their character or their cunning, they used the existing forms to do their business, e.g. Henry went through the motion of Parliamentary enactments of all his major actions, though in fact Parliament was acting under death threat and could not oppose him in any realistic way. But he kept the forms alive, and that is something. The reassertion of traditional liberties, or new liberties in traditional garb, occurred only after the Tudor "near death experience" for English liberty. That is yet another reason I find it hard to fathom the overly simplistic equation many make between the appearance of Protestantism in England and the rise of liberty. At first, at least, it cut the other way.

Posted by: Lex at January 29, 2006 02:20 PM

It may be that Henry and Elizabeth were able to get away with strong personal rule because they had the buy-in of a substantial part of the population in regard to what they were doing, and precisely because they still observed the forms. My feeling is that these episodes created the template for strong executive action in time of crisis for the Anglosphere, for both good and ill. We see the foretaste of Lincoln holding the Maryland legislature under the guns of Ben Butler and exiling the Copperheads, Wilson jailing Debs, Churchill interning Oswald and Diana (his cousin) Mosley in the wretched hole of Holloway prison, the Nisei internments, and more contemporary events which are being debated in the blogosphere as we speak. After each of these past episodes, the substance as well as the forms of Anglosphere justice were restored.

The English reformation was a mixed bag, but there was a very substantial core of hard support for it, and the great bulk of the population supported the English-nationalist parts in particular. I get the impression that most English men and women were happy keeping the saints days and liturgies as they were, except that the English Bible and Prayer Book were widely welcomed. In general, there was a lot of support for the Act of Supremacy, because England still lived under the shadow of the War of the Roses, and guaranteeing the succession was a highly sensitive subject. I suspect many thought that Henry's case for an anullment was highly reasonable for reasons of state and domestic peace, and that granting it was the sort of accomodation that the Pope would never have refused the Spanish or French crown had it been needed. Thus the Act of Supremacy was seen as essential to avoiding another ruinous civil war.

I agree entirely with Lex's main point about the red-herring of the Protestant-triumphalist explanation for Anglosphere exceptionalism. It was in full flower long before the Reformation, and the Anglican church would have continued to be almost as distinctive (and troublesome) in communion with Rome as it was outside off it. I suspect the more pragmatic of the bureaucrats in the Vatican gave a little private sigh of relief once it was gone.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 29, 2006 09:02 PM

Lex - I would identify two religious foundations for what became European and then modern English freedom. The first was the separation of faith and society in Western Christian Europe, which was fundamental to everything that followed. The second was the modern (Lockean) liberal idea of toleration, which didn't fully come until the 19th century but is now the Western norm. But Western notions of truth may originate in ideas that began in religious form and not in ideas of how to limit religion. Quigley is very good on this. There are some senses in which we are all Protestant but by the same token there are also ways in which we are all still Catholic.

Posted by: David Billington at January 29, 2006 11:32 PM

Thanks. I disagree with the view about Roman law and power hungry monarchs. Sure the kings definately wanted to expand their power at the expense of the aristocrats but as I keep harping the latter abused their position and privileges. The ordinary people were deeply fed up at the aristocrats and sided with the king as a means to moderate the aristocrats's depradations. Roman law was one instrument and it did help to stem the abuses. Also there was a lot of frustration about the different legal standards from town to town so there was also a push to equality before the law which is also found in Roman law.
Unfortunately given the near continuous wars the kings and the parlaments were headed to a collision course over financing. The kings eventually won but at a very high cost. Happily we're seeing a reevaluation of medieval constitutionalism as a check to moderate the central state's depradations. Mind you it,s not easy as the reform of the Catalan estatut clearly illustrates. However I'm convinced that the current EU evolution will spur countries and regions to head back to the archives and see how the medievals dealt with constitutional abuses,
Sounds like Myers' book is definately one to read.
Thanks for the pointer :)

Posted by: xavier at January 30, 2006 06:19 AM

David "separation of faith and society in Western Christian Europe" is putting it wrong. The separation was between the institutional Church and the government. The Church had its own land, buildings, courts, rights, personnel, finance. It was autonomous. On the other hand, everyone recognized that the civil power had its own autonomy and that priests did not run the civil courts, fight the wars, etc. However faith and society were totally interwoven. It may be hard for us to imagine now, but people in those days actually believed in their religion.

Xavier, you are talking past me. Saying that the reception of Roman law had some positive effects is unassailable. After all, it happened because some people felt it resolved problems they faced. The only point I am making, and I am merely repeating what many others more competent than I am (e.g. Maitland) have concluded, is pretty narrow. Political freedom survived in only one part of Europe, in England. It survived there because of the continuing development of medieval institutions. Only there was the Roman law not adopted. So, whatever positive reforms came along with the reception of Roman law, the long-term effect was to choke off the further development of medieval constitutionalism. Only in England was the political freedom which was fundamental to many later developments even possible. Macfarlane's Making of the Modern World has a good discussion of all this.

Jim, the more pragmatic bureaucrats may have thought that. The ones who cared about the immortal souls of a whole country probably thought the whole thing could have been handled better. Poor decision-making on all sides had long-lasting consequences. I also think Henry would have broken with Rome even if he'd gotten his annulment, since he saw an opportunity to loot the wealth of the monasteries. His daughter Bess had to enact a country-wide Poor Law for the first time since the private poor relief the monasteries had provided for many centuries was no longer around. So, in that sense Henry is the remote founder of the Anglosphere welfare state. Your point about emergency measures is one I need to mull over more, but I do think you have scored a point.

Posted by: Lex at January 30, 2006 07:41 AM

His daughter Bess had to enact a country-wide Poor Law for the first time since the private poor relief the monasteries had provided for many centuries was no longer around.

Since the Church was supported by mandatory tithes, it wasn't exactly "private". In modern terms it was somewhere between the BBC, which is supported by a mandatory television license fee, and the American PBS, which is supported by a combination of government funding, private donations, and legacies and bequests. (Hmmm -- both modern institutions believe that it's their duty to instruct lesser mortals in what to think, for their own goo. Maybe the resemblance extends to more than funding structures.)

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 30, 2006 09:28 AM

Hmmm. Not sure the monasteries were supported by tithes. Don't think so. They had huge endowments, since people gave big gifts in exchange for prayers after their deaths. The regular diocesan church, sure, tithes. Anyway, yet another thing to look into.

Posted by: Lex at January 30, 2006 09:33 AM

Lex I deliberately used the terms faith and society to permit comparison with non-Christian cultures. No other civilization except Europe had such a thing as church, or civil authority in the original meaning of the term. These two things were separated as a matter of faith: Jesus distinguished between what was Caesar's and what wasn't, and western Christian Europe followed St. Augustine's idea of two spheres, the body of the faithful and the body of society.

People in medieval times believed in religion to a degree that many no longer do, but they did so by living in two realms at the same time, the religious and the secular. Faith brought the church into existence as a separate entity and largely sustained it afterwards.

On monasteries, I don't think they collected tithes but they did collect rents from working estates that were bequeathed to them. The confiscation of monastic land was popular mainly with townspeople and other landowners who could afford to buy the land from the Crown. In the poorer north, monks had provided assistance to the needy and there was a brief rebellion in 1536-37 against any further confiscations or changes in the Church.

Posted by: David Billington at January 30, 2006 01:29 PM

Yes, the monastic foundations were in essence self-supporting corporations, but poor relief and other social services were also partly supported by tithes, I believe. So the church as a whole was a combination of state-backed support and essentially private sources, and the reduction of the sphere of the church at Reformation shifted the provvision of social services from a partly-privately-fundeed institution to a wholly tax-supported one (to address the original point). And of course the suppression of non-established churches was in effect an enforced monopoly of sale of spiritual services (sponsored prayers, indulgences, etc.)

It's not clear that Henry could have managed to sieze the monasteries without the succession issue to generate popular support for the Act of Supremacy. Fear of another miserable civil war was a very strong motivator. The fiscal and administrative apparatus of the State was so weak in those days that it's not clear that somebody like Henry could have ruled entirely against popular will.

People sometimes think that because the State used cruel methods in medieval times, it was all-powerful. But in some ways that was a measure of its weakness -- since certainty of apprehension and/or punishment was much less then, the State had to up the ante of the consequences (by using very cruel and barbaric punishments) in order to have any deterrent effect.

Posted by: Jim Bennett at January 30, 2006 03:09 PM

Jim - Yes, parishes afforded some relief. But the Elizabethan poor law did not so much replace church relief as strengthen it to deal with the problems of a less rooted society. The new taxes were still collected and dispensed by parishes.

Incidently, the Crown also provided alms. This is still commemorated every year on Maundy Thursday when the Queen gives specially minted coins to recipients chosen to receive the honor.

Posted by: David Billington at January 30, 2006 07:17 PM

I'm sure I'm right about this poor laws business. I had a friend who is an econ professor and historian who is doing research in the English archives over to the house last summer. He knows all this stuff cold. He told me all about how the destruction of the monasteries led to a huge burden being shifted to the State, including Elizabeth's enactment of the first nation-wide poor laws. It wasn't about a less rooted society, it is about the traditional places people went when they were down on their luck had been destroyed by Henry. I'll see if I can get something to link to about this. For now, you can take my word for it to the extent you want.

Henry did not rule entirely against popular will. He bought political support by cutting his cronies into their shares of his ill-gotten gains despoiling the monasteries. He distributed the swag pretty widely.

Posted by: Lex at January 30, 2006 08:13 PM

Lex - By "less rooted" I meant the significant increase in vagrancy in late sixteenth century England that was the major reason for the Elizabethan poor law of 1601.

There was no state in the modern sense to which the burden of poor relief could have been transferred. But I would certainly be open to looking at any scholarship that your contact has published on this to see what he means.

Posted by: David Billington at January 31, 2006 09:50 AM

Anglosphere = Protestantism - It strikes me as very odd to describe Anglicanism as Protestant, and not only because my Anglican and American experience of (American) Protestantism is that the two cultures are fundamentally different.

In the US it sesm to me that there are maybe four strains of Protestantism. There is Anglicanism, which has had a founder effect on government primarily. There is Lutheranism which applies only in the Danelaw states of Minnesota, Washington and so on, English Calvinisim, which has given rise to the Christian Left, and then Scottish Calvinism, which has left the reservation and spread across all white groups in the Sunbelt. They all have varying cultural efects with follow on political effects. They differ so much, theologically, ecclesialogically, whatever, that it is a stretch to lump them under the term "Christian", let alone "Protestant". I bet the situation is pretty analogous, with some inversions and adjustments, in the other A-shere countries.

In other words, equating any sphere with Protestantism is really saying nothing

Posted by: Jim at January 31, 2006 05:06 PM

You may be interested to add this book to your TBR list.

Posted by: Richard A. Heddleson at February 3, 2006 10:46 AM

Richard, I read this recently. I hope to have something about it on the blog at some point. I think it is a very solid book.

Posted by: Lex at February 3, 2006 11:52 AM
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