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Putting the Left-Right divide into historical context


The clash between Left and Right in America has been likened to our Civil War, with its north-south gradient hinged on the issue of slavery. Although the issues this time are different in detail and geography, this comparison is natural enough, since the internecine war of 1861-1865 remains a linchpin of our national (and emotional) history.

But a more apt analogy might be the collision of the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation that marked the late 16th and 17th centuries. The Reformation, you’ll recall, supposedly began when Martin Luther nailed his famous “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenburg (Germany) church in 1517. Protestantism quickly spread after that, as popular dissatisfaction with the Roman Catholic Church sparked northern European countries, including Scandanavia but especially Germany, to bolt from the authority of Rome.

Rome, the world capital of Catholicism, and the Pope who headed the church were not about to sit back and allow their “universal, holy, Catholic and apostolic” church to be destroyed in their own backyard. The Church retaliated, launching the Counter-Reformation; a series of wars ensued that never wholly resolved affairs.

Both sides, as the historian Lonnie Johnson tells us, fought with “an apocalyptic sense of urgency” that “led them to see the world as a battlefield for the agents of God and the devil.” This was “a spiritual battle for souls, a psychological battle for hearts, and an intellectual battle for minds.” In the event, the two sides exhausted themselves into a stalemate: Northern Europe became primarily Protestant (with the exception of Poland) while Mediterranean-southern Europe remained Catholic. (Southeastern Europe, which had long been dominated by the Turks, also saw sizable numbers of Moslems.)

Religious wars tend to be the bloodiest. People imagine they are fighting for celestial ideals, not for mere booty. (The American Civil War was not specifically a religious struggle due to our tradition of the separation of church and state, but the passions on both sides were “religious” in the fury of their convictions.) In the Protestant-Catholic confrontations of the 16th and 17th centuries, both sides committed egregiously extreme acts of violence: German Protestants burned witches while Catholic Inquisitionists torched and tortured heretics. But one side has come to be viewed by historians as far worse than the other. “The doctrinal and organizational centralization of the Roman church,” says Johnson, “made the excesses of its crusaders qualitatively different from Protestant ones.” The Roman church was better organized, by far: it was unified (“Universal”), while numerous Protestant factions vied among themselves, at local levels, for leadership, an historical phenomenon known as “particularism.” Possibly for this reason, the unified Catholics were more brutal.

Viewed from this perspective—and taking into account that, in the long run, nobody “won” the Catholic-Protestant standoff—the current dispute between Left and Right in America can be analogized with some precision. The Reformation is the Left (Democrats), while the Counter-Reformation is the Right (Republicans). The Left became the Reformation because, since the heyday of Franklin Roosevelt, it stood for overturning the corporate-autocratic, conservative, artistocratic domination of American politics and culture, in favor of a popular reformation which took inherited rights away from the wealthy few and redistributed them among the people at large. A part of this revolution—not its central goal, but a consequence—was a diminution of the role of religion, and of evangelical Protestant religion in particular, in favor of what has been called “secular humanism.”

The Right became the Counter-Reformation. Just as the Roman Catholics of southern Europe were not about to permit their church—which was really everything they believed in, their entire way of life–to be assaulted, so too the reactionary Republicans who saw their power ebb away under Democratic “liberal” government decided to fight back. Their various professed motives (an end to abortion, “family values” and a definition of marriage as between man and woman, religious instruction in public schools, anti-“elitism”) were sincere, but in a larger sense, the Right was fighting for a “way of life” that encompassed all these themes, but was larger than all of them together.

If religious wars are bloody, so too are they confusing. Both sides always lay claim to the “truth,” and it can be difficult, even for historians, to discern whose “truth” is “truthier” than the other side’s. In the case of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation struggle, it’s safe to say that historical judgment, as least in the West, has tended to side with the Protestants. For all their many faults, they did stand for Western-style multiplicity, for tearing down the aristocracy (including an addled priesthood), doing away with the fossilized rituals of the Roman church, and handing self-determination and self-realization over to the people at large, while the Catholics seemed to stand for little more than an anti-democratic insistence on clerical (and often irrational) theocracy.

Likewise in our time, the view of history—of reason and common sense—is that the Left is more in keeping with “the moral arc of the universe” than the Right. The Left is humanistic, inclusive, encompassing, rational, and progressive, in the sense that history does seem to have a direction, and that is towards greater freedom. The Right, like the Catholic church of the 16th century, is intolerant and authoritarian, and its self-professed values (such as “family values”) are hypocritical (consider the sexual depravity of so many of their ministers, caught with their hands in the cookie jar of adultery and illicit fornication. Consider, also, the moral dereliction of the Republican president).

I reject the Right because I am American. We fought a War of Independence to free ourselves from the shackles of an outmoded, unfair, uncaring and insane religious authority. The Right now wishes to re-impose a theocracy on our country. This should be reason enough for Americans to rise up and resist it.

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