James Simpson


On his book Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism

Cover Interview of October 16, 2019

The wide angle

In my reading, the Reformation is less a religious movement than a movement of illiberal revolutionary modernity. Every aspect of Reformation practice is taken up and recycled by later, political revolutionary movements that claim to usher in modernity by repudiating the obscurantist past. The following features of the Lutheran and Calvinist Reformation set the template for many future revolutions in both West and East: historical determinism; revolutionary purity and integrity of self; iconoclasm of “idols”; targeting of “superstition”; literalism; and anti-democratic claims to be introducing “liberty.”

So, modernity has two, deeply inter-related stories: a highly centralized, authoritarian version, and a decentralized, liberal version. The early Reformation expresses the authoritarian version of modernity. The end of the Reformation period expresses modernity’s liberal version.

Once we describe the Reformation as part of the story of modernization, then we understand the continuing magnetism of evangelical religion, in both the West and elsewhere: evangelical religion is a key expression of modernity, a non-reformist, non-conservative revolutionary form of modernization in every respect. As long as liberals do not understand this, they remain utterly bewildered by evangelical culture, dismissing it, with 180-degree inaccuracy, as “conservative.” It is unquestionably, and objectionably, illiberal and regressive, but it is also by far the most powerful expression of early European revolutionary modernity, which is one of the reasons it remains powerful in the United States and globally.

I came to this thesis as a cultural historian of the later Middle Ages. Enter the Reformation through, as it were, the back door of the late Middle Ages, and you are in for a shock. You discover that many cultural forms routinely characterized by liberal culture as specifically “medieval” (e.g. iconoclasm, slavery, persecution of “witches,” judicial torture in England, Biblical fundamentalism, political absolutism) were either revived by, or specific to the early modern period. Above all, you discover a massive upshot in religious persecution and violence after 1547. Suddenly, late medievalists understand, that is, that liberal modernity throws its embarrassments over the cultural back fence into premodernity (aka, here, pre-Reformation Catholic later Middle Ages).