Boston and Wittenberg


There are aspects of the Tea Party movement that have some resemblance to the Protestant Reformation.  Obviously, the reformation is a turning point in human history, whereas the Tea Party movement may turn out to be a historical blip, but I think the comparison is illuminating.

First there is the wish to return to founding principles.  The founders of the reformation — Huss, Luther, Zvengli, Calvin, etc. wanted a return to the original simplicity of the Christian communities in the first centuries of the Christian era.  They wanted to sweep away the complex intermediation and bureaucracy that they saw in the Roman Church.  Moreover, they saw the Bible as the sole source of religious truth.  The accumulated religious wisdom of the Church fathers and great theologians; the elaborate church ceremonies and sacraments; and church art were all to be put aside or destroyed by the reformed church.  Only the Bible counted.

The Tea Party movement is similar.  They want a return to the early republic and only the constitution counts for them.  Just as Luther and Calvin were highly selective about which parts of the Bible are most important, so it is with the Tea Party and the US Constitution.  The reformation wanted a Christendom in which their was no great centralising force, but instead the faithful in their own congregations before God.  The Tea Party wants a modern America in which the central government is a third the size that it is today.  They want an America of States and local communities, with a small central government, just as the early republic was.

There is also something essentially early Protestant about the way that the Tea Party views the role of transfer payments from the rich to the poor through taxation and social welfare.  Luther, and especially Calvin, believed that only the grace of God could lead to salvation.  Good works alone could not achieve salvation.   The great founder of sociology, Max Weber, writing at the beginning of the 20th Century, pointed out that the advent of the reformation saw a turning point in how ‘the poor’ were perceived in Western Europe.  Before the reformation to be poor was a sign of godliness — a detachment from material and temporal things.  After the reformation to be rich was a sign of God’s grace and favour.  The poor were poor because they were indolent and far from God’s grace.

The Tea Party and the reformation founders also share clarity in what they are opposed to — Washington and Rome respectively.  Some of the Protestant desire to split from Rome came from German nationalism rather than religious conviction.  This a controversial subject, and I am not trying to be controversial.  But it is obvious that German nationalism played a significant role in the reformation — to this day the Protestant parts of Europe map closely to the areas in which Germanic languages are spoken.  Nationalism of a kind is significant in the Tea Party movement as well.  The Wikipedia page for the Tea Party Caucus in Congress shows a map of the constituencies of the members of the caucus.  They are almost exclusively from the South and the West.  That is, they are from parts of America that have always been hostile to Washington.

The Tea Party also shares with the reformation movements their reforming zeal, singleness of purpose, and utter conviction that they right.  I suppose all revolutionary movements are like that.  In a sense there is nothing surprising about a connection of contemporary American politics to the reformation.  In general we should expect to hear echos of the reformation at all times in America because the reformation and the enlightenment were the great impulses that launched the American project.  But it does mean that the Tea Party may be touching something deeper in the American collective psyche than many people realise.


5 Responses to "Boston and Wittenberg"
  1. Sam,

    I think you are on to something significant here. I also think that both movements are partly inspired by a sense that the centralizing force is corrupt. One big issue the tea party is going to have to deal with, is the tension between populist nationalism and liberalism. If the state is here merely to protect individual, negative rights that predated the government, then how can non-citizens have less rights? Aren’t open borders the only legitimate response to the existence of negative rights? It is also amazing how they have pushed US foreign policy in a non-interventionalist direction.


  2. Ravi
    I agree that both the early reformation movement and the Tea Party movement see their opponents as corrupt, venal and illegitimate. That certainty of the rightness of their cause give them a sort of crusading conviction.

    Your comment about how the Tea Party views the nationalism v liberalism is very interesting. The citizens of the early US republic identified far more closely with their states (former colonies) than with the new United States. I don’t see a return to that. The emergence of Amercian Exceptionalism in the Jacksonian period and then after the Civil War created a powerful sense of American destiny that the Tea Party members seem to share. But, as you point out, they should favour the open borders that the US had before 1900 over the highly restrictive immigration of the post 9/11 era. I think many of the libertarian section of Tea Party, such as Rand Paul, do favour more open immigration.

    • Sam,

      Thanks for your informative response. I agree with you, but I think that while most Tea-Partiers share a strong sense of nationalism, many of the intellectuals leading the movement do not. Rand Paul and many libertarians don’t view the US as being culturally exceptional at all.


  3. I’ve never come across this similarity, but definitely is an interesting idea – I really like historical analogies. You explain the similarity in want, but what do you think is the common driver? I don’t know much about protestant culture.

  4. I love making historical analogies such as this, despite my doubts to how useful they are – I once made an extended parallel between the Red Guards and the Tea Party (anti-urban, anti-intellectual, veneration of unread texts and most importantly being immensely privileged elites pretending to be anti-elitist).

    To extend yours, is the immense truthiness of the Tea Party beliefs analogous to Luther’s notions about conscience? Namely, just as the Catholics must have been deliberately ignoring their conscience that would have led them to Luther’s reading of scripture and the Jews must have been ignoring their’s that would have lead them to realise Jesus was the messiah, liberals and moderate Republicans MUST be ignoring the inner truth that there is a Kenyan atheist muslim socialist in the white house who has manipulated the BRS to pretend inflation is low and government employment is falling.

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