The Protestant Reformation looms large in our cultural imagination. In the standard telling, it’s the moment the world went modern. Casting off the shackles and superstitions of medieval Catholicism, reformers translated the Bible into the vernacular and democratized religion. In this story, it’s no wonder that Protestantism should give birth to liberalism.
But this story is wrong, or so argues James Simpson in Permanent Revolution: The Reformation and the Illiberal Roots of Liberalism
(Harvard University Press, 2019). In Simpson’s account, liberalism did not flow neatly from Protestant triumph. Liberalism and Protestantism are indeed intertwined, but in a much more violent, anguished way than we’re familiar with. The logic of revolution meant that Protestants increasingly turned against themselves and their own traditions. It was from the embers of this self-destructive conflagration that liberalism actually took shape. Vaulting lyrically from Shakespeare to Milton, from hypocrisy to magic, biblical literalism, and liberty, Simpson challenges the stories we tell ourselves. The result is a much more dynamic narrative of a world, like our own, in a state of flux.