by Ed West
Monday, 2
August 2021
Debate
15:30

It’s the Reformation all over again

Today's culture wars pit factions of post-1968 progressives against each other
by Ed West
Transgender protesters: the old culture wars in a new form?

Back in the olden days of football, Celtic manager Jock Stein said that, if he was offered the choice of two players, one Protestant and one Catholic, he would sign the Protestant “because I know Rangers would never sign the Catholic.” The city’s Protestant club held faster to the tradition of refusing to sign Catholic players, not broken until 1989 with Mo Johnstone.

We call such thinking bigotry today, from the Norman French bigot, an excessively religious person, but during the great religious divide that split Europe for centuries people would have viewed rival interpretations of the faith as genuinely dangerous. If we allowed their faith to proliferate, if we allowed it to be normalised, it would cause genuine harm; we must stop the hate it causes. But in some cases, as with Scotland and Ireland, one side was clearly more fired up by the evils of the other.

Fast forward to the 21st century where, no longer held back by religious superstition, political debate is theoretically made up of pure distilled reason and iron logic.

Except, this time with the internet rather than the printing press, Europe is going through a second Reformation, with daily clashes between followers of the old faith and new. Politics is the new faith — never mind that most people aren’t culture warriors, and just want to be left alone, the same was probably true of most people during the first Reformation.

At the start of Elizabeth I’s reign, and well into it, Catholics and their sympathisers formed a majority of the English population, the new Protestant faith mainly concentrated among a highly-educated elite in the cities. By the end of the reign, the country was almost defined by its opposition to Catholicism. Some believe Shakespeare to be a Catholic or Catholic sympathiser, but most likely he was just the median 16th century floating voter who was reasonably happy as things were before but went along with the new order to get along.

An entirely new moral order had been built, new rules established, with Catholics gradually socially ostracised. They were “cancelled”, in a really serious way. Yet the need for purity meant that many weren’t satisfied by mere reform; the culture wars of that era moved on from Catholics to pitting different Protestant groups against each other, such as the English Civil War with the old believers reluctantly supporting whichever side was less extreme.

A similar transformation of cultural values has occurred during the reign of the second Elizabeth: the country from season one of The Crown is almost unrecognisable today. Indeed it has moved on so much that most “culture war” debate today is between different groups of post-1968 progressives.

The dispute over transgenderism is in some ways the defining debate of our time, and it’s one in which conservatives are almost completely absent, most of the heavy lifting (so to speak) done by feminist writers and activists. After 11 years of a Tory in Downing Street, among the only pushback we’ve seen on social issues, the Government’s distancing from Stonewall,  has been largely thanks to activism by radical feminists.

Many of these radical feminists now appear in conservative publications on this issue, as Suzanne Moore explains today, whereas much fewer conservative writers can be found in Left-wing publications. Perhaps, like the previous culture wars, one side just takes its faith more seriously.

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Galeti Tavas
Galeti Tavas
1 year ago

“no longer held back by religious superstition,”

WTF? You were talking about a couple decades ago, Religious Superstition? I think the false Liberalism/Religion debate has addled your brain.

Christian religion is not some superstitious claptrap. It has the most massive intellectualism behind it. 2000 years of devoted intellectual thinking. 100 of the worlds top philosophers were Christian, the Medieval monks in their tens of thousands hand copied books so the ‘university educated, multi-lingual, priests could educate the leaders, it has extremely sophisticated Theology – universities were all Church in origin, science its self came from the Church – without it you would be out in the rain digging turnips with a digging stick and trying to snare a rabbit for your family, awaiting the next plundering hoard. The Church has laws, philosophy, creed and cultus, leadership and hierarchy, and all is based on tens of thousands of books and highly trained Priests. A million have served it, and died for it, that your ilk may live in civilization.

Liberalism has no BOOK, no structured philosophy, no law, no organized education, no hierarchy – it is mere anarchy of hatred of the system which created it and provided for it. Liberalism is a disorganized cult, it is mere superstition and fallacies, bigotry, foolishness, self harming policy, self loathing, and is a pathology on the world. It is where superstition lays. CRT? 1619? BLM? are those your structures of intellectualism, creeds, laws, and theology? Within 50 years Liberalism will have destroyed the Global Economy and your offspring will be out with their digging sticks grubbing turnips in the rain again.

Last Jacobin
Last Jacobin
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Christianity, in its more benign manifestations, is a branch of liberalism.

Stephen Morris
Stephen Morris
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

Wrong way round. Liberalism, in its proper sense, is a fruit of Christianity; ‘liberalism’ in its modern sense (when used as the antonym of ‘conservatism’) is a Christian heresy. Neither would exist in any form at all if Christianity hadn’t come first.

chris sullivan
chris sullivan
1 year ago
Reply to  Stephen Morris

True-an important point not to be lost sight of !

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Stephen Morris

That’s true, but it doesn’t make Christianity itself true, or indeed tolerant of other belief systems.

Judy Johnson
Judy Johnson
1 year ago
Reply to  Last Jacobin

. . . and Biblical Christianity? That is not liberal but it is the source.

Matt Hindman
Matt Hindman
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Christianity gave us classical liberalism with representation, individual liberty, restrictions on government powers, and the idea of the nation state. Neoliberalism despises Christianity, believes in rule by the elites and connected, equity (some people are more equal than others), no restrictions on government power, and a complete rejection of the nation state.

Last edited 1 year ago by Matt Hindman
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Matt Hindman

That is not ‘neoliberalism’ .

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

Liberalism has no book!! So the truth or value of a philosophical or spiritual approach to life depends on whether some people wrote some rather incoherent and contradictory accounts over a period of some hundreds of years a few thousand years ago?! In the case of the Gospels, decades after the events they purport to describe.

I’m not sure many liberals, however defined, have intentionally destroyed other civilisations, burned books, tortured and burned heretics etc etc. Christianity was far less accepting of any rival faith than any other, including Islam, for the vast majority of its history, or indeed any variation from a prescribed orthodoxy within Christianity. Which one of these churches do you think of these speaks the truth by the way? And even now, with ‘faith’ supposedly battling against secularism, the ecumenical movement can’t make any progress at all against the narrow sectional, worldly power dynamics of the various and manifold churches. So much for their concern for our immortal souls…..

Of course I am persuaded by Tom Holland and others’ argument that Enlightenment values and western individualism developed out of (western) Christianity, because of inter alia the deep division between church and state etc, but you can’t credit the church fathers for something they never intended that was to happen hundreds of years in the future.

Another rather strange and uncommented on phenomenon is the almost total absence of mention of Hell by modern Western churches. The medieval church spoke about little else, at least to its peasant ‘flock’.

Last edited 1 year ago by Andrew Fisher
Jonathan Nicholson
Jonathan Nicholson
1 year ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

As regards Liberalism having no book you could go to Isiah Berlin, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, the US founding fathers, JJ Rousseau and John Locke (possibly even Hobbes, too).

Jonathan Nicholson
Jonathan Nicholson
1 year ago
Reply to  Galeti Tavas

As regards Liberalism having no book you could go to Isiah Berlin, John Stuart Mill, Adam Smith, the US founding fathers, JJ Rousseau and John Locke (possibly even Hobbes, too).

aaron david
aaron david
1 year ago

“…and it’s one in which conservatives are almost completely absent, most of the heavy lifting (so to speak) done by feminist writers and activists.”
I can’t speak for England, but conservatives are not absent so much as having been denied the battlefield here in the US. Which doesn’t make them any less of a fighter in the cultural wars, but more like guerrilla fighters. And that is the main problem. It isn’t so much a fight between various factions of progressivism, but the attempted removal of half of the population from the world of ideas simply because the other half doesn’t like those ideas in the slightest. To say nothing of the reasons that those ideas exist and are followed by millions.
But of those guerrilla fighters, Unherd is definitely one of them, along with any group or publication that is willing to hold counter-ideas, to push at the bounds of what has been declared by fiat to be acceptable.

Natasha Felicia
Natasha Felicia
11 months ago
Reply to  aaron david

A creative minority of those guerrilla fighters are quietly raising large families, who are going on to raise large families giving all their off spring a steller education.
In the meantime the mainstream hystericals are apparently doing everything in their power to avoid permanent relationships and children.
Future armies are amassing and the social conservatives are generally a lot more psychologically, physically and socially healthy.

Simon Denis
Simon Denis
1 year ago

This is all very well, Mr West – and accurate as far as it goes. Yes, as in the Reformation we’re dealing with ideology, not interests. That very fact, incidentally, delivers a further blow to Marxism which holds ideas to be distinctly secondary – but Marxism is such a shabby, shattered, vacuous old scarecrow by now that it scarcely matters – for something which even classical Liberals thought impossible has come to pass. Not only do ideas count; bad ideas count, because far from appealing to one’s interests, they appeal to human moral vanity – hence “virtue signalling”. This explains the continuing appeal of many religions, which serve emotional needs at the cost of intellectual humiliation. However, there’s a further twist and one which you don’t address. No matter how frenzied the storms of Reformation, they took place within the confines of particular ethno-cultural units – large provinces of old France; small realms such as England or Scotland; city states, like Geneva. The current storm involves the presence and influence of large, newly established communities and will influence the degree to which they can be assimilated in future – this makes it much more dangerous. Second, whilst Protestantism did a lot of damage, it nevertheless sustained the state and fostered sustainable forms of social cohesion. This cannot be said of “Woke” which is an expression of purely self-destructive pathologies on the part of its European, and of destructive chauvinism on the part of its non-European supporters. It gives no place to the Shakespeares, the “church papists”, the “floating vote” beyond one of shame and servitude. This degree of suicidal radicalism is an entirely morbid symptom and portends less a new “Reformation” than a new “Decline and Fall”.

Stephen Rose
Stephen Rose
1 year ago

Woke has one commonality with the reformation, the inquisition.
So far in the UK we have had a lot of Liberal sophistry in the media. The US and Canada understand the Woke catechism of hate, all too well and the need to oppose it, where they can.
The exultation of the subjective and the deification of victimhood is hell bent on unpicking the objective rationality of the modern world.
Diversity, inclusion and equity is their trinity, with the commandment to shut up!

Jonathan Nicholson
Jonathan Nicholson
1 year ago
Reply to  Stephen Rose

The Inquisition was instituted by the Vatican.
Woke is, perhaps, the extreme logical conclusion of the Protestant faith system. However, I regard this is a superficial analysis of both.

Peter Francis
Peter Francis
1 year ago

Labour politicians make fools of themselves pandering to the woke activist lobby by, e.g. criticising JK Rowling as “transphobic”, thereby further alienating the working class and ethnic minorities. So right-of-centre politicians may well feel that keeping shtum on this topic is their least worst option.
Our first-past-the-post electoral system has many advantages, but one drawback is that marginal constituencies can fall as a consequence of quite small social groups feeling alienated from the sitting party. So don’t expect any pronouncements on transgender issues that would come under Sir Humphry’s definition of “brave”.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
1 year ago

I hope that this is allowed. The present cultural wars are the latest attack on the Christian religion, and involve a concerted effort to replace it. I am writing a series on the subject, starting with:
https://storybookreview.wordpress.com/2020/12/16/the-year-of-covid-19-political-religion-and-the-culture-wars/
https://storybookreview.wordpress.com/2021/02/26/the-year-of-covid-19-political-religion-and-the-culture-wars-part-2-1-europes-legacy-the-first-fifteen-hundred-years-to-ad-410/
https://storybookreview.wordpress.com/2021/06/30/the-year-of-covid-19-political-religion-and-the-culture-wars-part-2-2-the-eus-legacy-from-the-middle-ages/
I am presently working on the period of the Reformation to the French Revolution. The cultural wars are primarily a north Atlantic phenomenon. A prime platform is the EU, and its “constitution”, where the ideologues who concocted it could not get round to mentioning Christianity in the text, even though there is no objection to the hammer and sickle being on dispolay in the European Parliament building.

Jonathan Nicholson
Jonathan Nicholson
1 year ago
Reply to  Jonathan Story

I agree that wokism is attempting to destroy Christianity. I haven’t read your links, but they are saved for when I’m not tired.

Jonathan Nicholson
Jonathan Nicholson
1 year ago

It’s pretty superficial to compare the Reformation in England to ‘Wokism’. If you want a modern echo to the Reformation, Brexit is much closer – the motivations and themes are almost exactly the same. Like with Tom Holland, I accept some of the echoes, but this and his analysis seem more like veiled attack on Christianity as well as an explicit attack on Wokism.