The Reformation's politics and ours

Pope Francis' words and courtesies in the land of Swedish Lutheranism were exemplary. Had someone of similar irenic temperament been at the helm in Martin Luther's time, might he have defused the conflict and avoided the split? My reading in glorious hindsight would be that Francis exhibited the largeness of acceptance and personal warmth to calm Luther's fires but that he might not have had the native doggedness to untangle the twisted strands necessary to complete the job. The spirit would be there but the will to plow through, to break the eggs for the successful omelet, would be missing. There's also the question of how attached he is to the fine points of doctrine. So far, there isn't a sign that he is less attached than his immediate predecessors, including Pope Benedict XVI, who used traditional teaching to declare that non-Catholic churches weren't the real McCoy. Besides, Luther was a tough, irascible customer who wasn't exactly the essence of compromise.

The clash of the German monk and the Roman pontiff was high politics at its time. Now it's difficult to determine what if any role religion plays in politics. Various academics, journalists and pollsters try to measure its influence but usually end up at odds or confused. This year's primary focus has been on what to make of the evangelicals. The polls peg their support for Trump at around 75 percent, and that has driven people inside and outside churches to distraction. How could people who are ostensibly the bearers of strait-laced morality vote for a wheeler-dealer who seems to have his way with women, denigrates non-whites and cheats subcontractors out of their agreed-upon compensation, among other things?

Among the answers trotted out to help explain this apparent anomaly (I'm not so sure -- Nixon got lots of support, too) are that Trump plays to the superhero defense imaginings of many religious conservatives and that he'll stack the Supreme Court with judges who will abolish Roe v. Wade. Then there's the alleged businessman's toughness and a hazy promise to restore America to its comfortable small-town Protestant ways.

Important as those causes might be, another one emerged in my research: Evangelicals simply don't read the Bible nearly as much as they used to. Therefore, they are much less likely to derive their concept of Christian character from the actual Bible. A pragmatic profile of "success" within the so-called "American Dream" has increasingly become the standard. Trump is nothing if not flexible and practical as a deal maker and tycoon. Without as much of the biblical example to draw upon, Trump more often gets a pass, even rewarded for his guile under pressure.

Bible reading and study has fallen off dramatically among every segment of the population, of course, as reading in general has dropped in nearly every category. As Americans we're not into much depth. We like fast-paced entertainment, how-to materials, self-help books, mysteries and distracting fiction, but not much that requires a whole lot of thought or challenge. By those standards, the Bible is avoided as too demanding and too questioning of one's chosen lifestyle.

Meanwhile, on my block, the only outward pitch for votes is the appeal on the Catholic church across the street. "Be a Voice for the Voiceless: Vote Pro-Life." The veil over the Trump endorsement seems pretty thin, even nonexistent, to me. Somehow I don't think the pastor, whom I like and respect, would have done it on his own. Among other reasons is that such directives seem to have lost their effect. It wouldn't surprise me if such signs overall weaken the cause more than strengthen it. As in the time of Luther, time and goodwill might have steered Christians away from simple formulas and glaring inconsistencies. Reformation begins in the theater of human nature.

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