Korey D. Maas: On Religious Liberty, We’re All Protestants Now

Five hundred and one years ago today, Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle Church. The act – a simple one, designed to spark theological discussion and ecclesiastical renewal – dramatically altered the course of Western history and unleashed changes that Luther himself could not have foreseen, and many of which he would doubtless have looked on with disfavor at worst and confusion at best.

One of these changes is that, in our current American political moment, Catholics are often looked on as the standard-bearers for religious liberty.

In the wake of the contraceptive mandate, the Obergefell decision, and recent Title IX interpretations, this perception is certainly not without warrant. The manner in which the fast-changing legal landscape has affected Catholic charities has been regularly noted. Catholic intellectuals such as Robert George and Ryan Anderson have been especially prominent in articulating the necessity of religious liberty in such an environment. Even the U.S. Council of Catholic Bishops has publicly weighed in on behalf of America’s “first, most cherished liberty” And, of course, proponents of religious freedom could not have hoped for better optics than those of elderly nuns beleaguered by the coercive power of Leviathan.

It nonetheless remains a little puzzling that evangelical ProtestantsMormons, and even Lutherans themselves have so readily taken to proclaiming that “We are all Catholic now.” This is the case not simply because, Little Sisters of the Poor notwithstanding, many of the most publicized First Amendment cases in recent years have actually involved Protestant individuals and institutions. Nor is it because the robust defense of religious liberty is, to put it politely, a rather recent development in Roman Catholicism. And it is certainly not because Protestants themselves can claim a record of consistent support for the free exercise of religion; they cannot.

Rather, it is because, for those concerned about religious freedom to say “We are all Protestants now” would at least come a bit closer to being literally true. Why? Because the very word “Protestant” was born of a struggle for religious liberty.

Contrary to popular belief, the term was not intended to identify those who protested specific doctrines of medieval Catholicism. Nor, in contrast to its modern usage, did it originally serve as a generic label encompassing all non-Catholic western Christians; it was instead applied to a very particular subset of the same. And unlike now more narrow terms such as Lutheran, Calvinist, or Puritan, the origins of the Protestant designation—though also pejorative—can be precisely dated. The time and place are the Diet, or congress, of the Holy Roman Empire held in the German city of Speyer in the year 1529.

Eight years earlier, in the fallout from his 95 Theses, Martin Luther had been excommunicated by Pope Leo X. In keeping with a millennium-long understanding of church-state relations, he was therefore also declared an outlaw, subject to immediate arrest and execution, by Emperor Charles V. The Edict of Worms, by which this declaration was made, also criminalized any who would harbor or defend Luther, his publications, or his ideas.

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Source: Christian Post