Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Tea Party and the Reformation

Federal employees whose compensation averages more than $126,000 and the nation’s greatest concentration of lawyers helped Washington edge out San Jose as the wealthiest U.S. metropolitan area, government data show.  Bloomberg News

History doesn’t repeat and because certain things are constant it is probably a mistake to draw historical parallels.  Still in reading Jacque Barzun’s From Dawn to Decadence, 1500 to the Present it is tempting to note the similarities between the emergence of the Tea Party movement and the reformation. 

In our day the government is the dominant institution, in the 1500’s it was the Catholic Church.  Luther posting his 95 theses was prompted in part by the practice of selling indulgences.  As Barzun explains the belief was that buying an indulgence enabled the holder to finesse penance and shorten his or her time in Purgatory.  Today we have, to cite just a couple of examples, a Secretary of the Treasury who was allowed to correct “mistakes” in his tax filings, and numerous firms who have been granted the privilege of opting out of Obamacare.  What is crony capitalism but a variation on the practice of selling indulgences.

The Reformation’s response to the perceived corruption and decadence of the Catholic Church was a call to return to the basics; “for the early church the gospels had been enough and so it should be still.”  Another simplifying idea “was that every man was a ‘priest’, he does not need the Roman hierarchy as middleman, that top heavy apparatus, a burden throughout the West, is useless.”  Here again the echoes are evident.  The Tea Party is a call to return to the basics of limited government, it is focused on the constitution and the founding documents, and it is individualist—every man a “sovereign”.

Then as now changing technology played a key role in disseminating the idea.  Luther’s critique was able to spread where others hadn’t because of the advent of movable type.  Today the internet, social media, and the proliferation of cable news channels allows the Tea Party movement to gain traction that would’ve been impossible in the earlier mass media controlled era.

Finally, consider the following descriptions of the Reformation and its causes from Barzun and see if you don’t see the parallels to our times and the Tea Party movement:

Of the church hierarchy: “it had done nothing to reform the Church, which many agreed must be rid of abuses, but everyone stood firm—yes, but not my privileges.”

Of the impetus towards revolt “when people feel that accretions and complications have buried the original purpose of an institution, when all arguments for reform have been heard and failed, the most thoughtful and active decide they want to be ‘cured of civilization’.”

On the source of the complaint: “moral turpitude concealed a deeper trouble: the meaning of the roles had been lost.  The priest instead of being a teacher was ignorant; the monk, instead of helping to save the world by his piety was an idle profiteer; the bishop instead of supervising the care of souls in his diocese was a politician and businessman.”

And more concretely of the changes brought and source of complaint: “It threw off Everyman’s shoulders a set of duties that had become intolerable burdens.  The ‘works’ denounced by the Evangelicals took a daily expenditure of cash, time, and trouble.  The service of the Mass had been free, but celebrating the other milestones of life—a child’s christening and first communion, a couples marriage, and the final rites at bedside and gravesite—cost money.  The good Christian must give alms regularly and pay for votive candles or special masses for the sick and the dead.  Then would come the ‘Gatherer of Peter’s Pence’ to help the pope rebuild St. Peters in Rome; and next, the begging friar knocking at the door….It was galling too, to see one’s tithes (the 10 percent church tax on land) going not to the poor parish priest but to the prosperous monks nearby, who did little or nothing toward saving the souls of the taxpayers.”

The new era that Barzun chronicles begins with Luther and the Reformation and takes readers to present times which he argues is in a similar state of exhaustion and decadence.  There is no one comparable to Luther in the Tea Party which to date seems leaderless, but the complaints or motivating force behind it strikes me as very similar.  In particular the feeling quoted above “that accretions and complications have buried the original purpose of an institution, which in this case is government.  We are living I’m afraid at the change over from one era to another.

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