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Welcome to the 21st Century Reformation

Where did the current cultural upheaval begin exactly? And will the social schism it has created end in unity – or a more deeply divided nation?

A statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee gets a makeover in Richmond, Virginia. Photo: Eze Amos/Getty.

Sometimes a single moment is remembered for centuries. One such moment took place in small-town Germany on October 31, 1517, when the monk Martin Luther marched up to the door of Wittenberg’s church and nailed to it 95 theses he had written opposing the ministrations of the Catholic Church.

That’s the simple version of the story, at least. Although the truth is much messier, Luther’s act is credited with radically reshaping the world. His open defiance of Catholic corruption, including the sale of ‘indulgences’ to absolve sin, is considered the birth of Protestantism – a movement that shattered existing, seemingly immovable power structures and altered the fate of nations for centuries to come. We know it as The Reformation.

Other reformations throughout history have come in all shapes and sizes. There is little doubt that historians of the future will examine our own current experience of cultural upheaval and confer upon it a lasting significance.

But what will they consider to be our Martin Luther moment?

Protesters throw the statue of Edward Colston into Bristol harbour during a Black Lives Matter protest rally. Photo: Ben Birchall/PA Wire/PA Images.

Could it be the toppling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol last year? The 2017 Women’s March on Washington? The conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell? Or could it be Piers Corbyn marching down a train carriage chanting “wearing a mask is like trying to keep a fart in your trousers”? Ok, probably not the last example.

For those of us who came of age after the end of the Cold War, it is easy to have a misguided sense of history and even of “progress”. Change, for a long time, felt like something that happened as a matter of consensus. For a time, incremental progress felt like something of a given. There might be bits of opposition here and there, but generally speaking, history seemed to be tending in one direction.

On social issues, this certainly seemed to be the case. A gay man in his 30s, for example, would in the UK have been born under Section 28 – forbidding any same-sex education in schools – and an unequal age of consent.

Today, not only have those iniquities been addressed, but there are employment protections, hate crimes enshrined in law, and even marriage, arrived at via an interim settlement of civil unions.

Is discrimination based on sexual orientation a thing of the past? Absolutely not – but progress came extraordinarily fast and, for a time, seemingly without much in the way of a counter-movement.

Similar advancements were made in many countries, and on many other issues – the world saw incremental progress on gender discrimination, racism, and more. Democracy spread to more nations, countries got richer, there was a sense that progress might even be a one-way street.

Few, if any of us, would today feel confident this trend toward positive social reform is anything like inevitable.

In the UK, Brexit was seen as a manifestation of the frustrations of the left-behind, taken up by opportunistic politicians as a mandate for curbing immigration, multiculturalism, and all manner of other things.

An anti-Brexit march.

Across Europe, waves of populist far-right movements have advanced and been beaten back, even if only for the moment. And the US remains bitterly polarised after the Trumpification of first the Republican Party and then a nation.

Further proof, if any were needed, of how deep the divisions across our societies have become came with the pandemic. Not even this disaster of global proportions – a once-in-a-century plague – has been enough to bring us back together. Everything has become part of fractious culture wars: masking, lockdowns, vaccination, travel bans, socialising indoors or not. If meeting the common challenge Coronavirus presents to each and every one of us can’t bring us back together, it’s hard to imagine what could. Part of the problem is that many different factions claim to be the ones fighting an outdated social order – everyone thinks they’re the Protestants, no-one thinks of themselves as Catholics of Luther’s day.

One faction argues that a global elite have had their way with the world for the last few decades, resisting public opinion with a forced cultural monotone – politically correct, multicultural, with open borders and open capital. That elite has eroded tradition, made “family values” a dirty phrase, and undermined workers’ solidarity, and with it, wages.

Another would argue that the elites of most of the Western world are still intrinsically racist, still patriarchal, and still celebrate the legacy of empire and colonialism. The elites, to this school of thought, are the ones still projecting a 1950s fantasy of family, gender roles and even genders themselves.

To some, even the idea of nations itself is intrinsically capitalist or colonial. Another outdated construct waiting its time to collapse.

To imagine two neat factions would be as false now as it was in the reformation proper – Lutherism is not Calvinism is not Puritanism.

The appetite for radical change may be broad, but there is no shortage of divisions across our current cultural conflicts: a Marxist can fight as easily with a socialist, social democrat or liberal as they can with anyone else. Socially conservative and far-right groups can just as happily fight with one another forever.

The absence of clear battle lines does not mean there is an absence of a battle. Rebuilding the world after this pandemic, with democracies under pressure, and climate change requiring a radical overhaul of our society – of the fundamentals of how we heat, how we eat, and how we travel – means profound change is inevitable. That will mean a fight, whether literal or metaphorical.

The ideological disputes of the Reformation were many: they concerned the practice of indulgences, which could be bought from the church by the wealthy to reduce their time in purgatory (almost literally buying a seat in heaven), the belief in transubstantiation, in mediated prayer via priests and saint, and all manner of other things.

Our modern disputes similarly have many fronts: on how we address history, on the modern realities of racism, on trans rights and how they co-exist with women’s rights, on the roles of a man in society, on what is taught in schools, and more. These issues may be more secular and more urgent – at least to us – than those of the Reformation, but they are also used as symbols and calls to action.

A protest for Trans rights.

Most readers of this newspaper, I presume, would be inclined towards the liberal side of each cause (though may not agree on which the “liberal” side is for all of them).

But for at least some of them, there is a ‘steel man’ version of the counter-argument – a viewpoint that talks to the spirit of the debate, but proposes a different solution. On the pulling down of statues, for example, an honest person could argue that keeping them in place – but with better visible education – can serve as an in-place reminder of how Britain became a world power, and at what cost the industrial revolution came.

Whether we agree with that argument or not, it isn’t one that intrinsically rejects the premise of the protestors who tore the statue down, or which excuses the crimes of slavery. But we generally choose not to engage with that constructive and thoughtful version of our political opponents – instead, we tend to focus on the most extreme arguments, the kind that exist on every side of every cultural issue.

The issues that have become the lodestones of the West’s culture wars have done so because they attract exactly those sorts of arguments that lend themselves to outrage and ridicule. Each drives a wedge further between people who may otherwise get along and find a progressive solution. When the European church set down that path in the 16th Century, it led to wars between nations, and Christians burning one another at the stake – followed by centuries of mutual prejudice and civil conflicts that extended well into the 20th Century. What was begun by Luther did indeed lead to a new social order – perhaps not one he would appreciate – but its other consequences were beyond the powers of prediction.

With that historical parallel in mind, we can ask ourselves a question: at what price a new social settlement? Are we beyond reconciliation, like Luther and the Pope? Do we need to prepare for a new divide across society and perhaps across nations? Or do we want to work towards a compromise? Which is the least bad position?

Those who cannot learn from history are condemned to repeat it, of course, but it is an open question as to whether any of us can truly learn from history. We are products of our circumstances.

Reappraisal feels necessary for renewal – iconoclasm should be no sin. But if we are to nail something to the church door of the 21st century what exactly is it that we want to be on the list? What price are we willing to pay to get what we want? These are the questions that will surely play out in the decade to come.

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