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Luther and Trump: a tale of two populists

13 April 2017

Peter Stanford detects some intriguing similarities between the Reformer and the current occupant of the White House

WHAT would Martin Luther have done if he had had access to Twitter? If it sounds like one of those pointless what-if questions that turn historical figures into Doctor Who-style time-travellers, indulge me a moment.

Luther was certainly adept at using the social media of his day — notably the newfangled presses that had come with his compatriot Johannes Gutenberg’s introduction of mechanical, movable printing in the 1440s. Almost as soon as he issued the 95 Theses 500 years ago in Wittenberg, in protest at the papal blessing for the sale of indulgences (effectively free passes into heaven), Luther handed his text over to printers.

With a lightning speed that caught Renaissance Rome napping, they circulated crude, abbreviated, and often illustrated versions of Luther’s defiant challenge to Roman Catholicism: first round Saxony; then the Holy Roman Empire; and, finally, all of Europe — and all within a month.

Pope Leo X initially dismissed Luther as “just another drunken German”, but had hugely under-estimated this Roman Catholic dissident who used “alternative” channels to make his protest go viral — and so whipped up a populist storm against the church Establishment which eventually broke Rome’s stranglehold over late-medieval Europe.

Another feature of this flawed but remarkable Augustinian friar to consider in this context is how quickly he got angry when challenged. “I have”, Luther once admitted, “no better medicine than anger. If I want to write, pray, preach well, I must be angry. It energises my entire system. . . all doubts melt away.”

That sounds remarkably like the modus operandi for Twitter: no pause for thought; no walk to the postbox to reconsider whether a letter is worth sending. Rather, react immediately, in the intemperate shorthand that the 140-character limit imposes, and click “Send”.


SO, WHEN in 1520 Pope Leo X issued the bull Exsurge Domine, which threatened him with excommunication, Luther did not pause to examine his conscience or consult his confessor, but struck back within hours, handing over to his printer pals a tract, Against the Execrable Bull of Antichrist. “You impious and insensate papists,” he lambasted his accusers, “write soberly if you want to write.” No time either, it seems, for practising what you preach.

Luther’s provocative words on that occasion flashed through my mind recently, on the morning after the Golden Globe awards, when President Trump responded to a broadside at the ceremony from Meryl Streep by tweeting that she was “one of the most overrated actresses in Hollywood”.

”The Donald”, it suddenly struck me, is another who responds rapidly in anger, and without enough thought, when challenged. His use of Twitter, moreover, has overtones of Luther’s knee-jerk recourse to printers.

Once I had started, the similarities began to multiply. Both men are populists. President Trump bypasses the usual outlets to target those who feel overlooked; Luther animated a similar audience.

Where the bishops, abbots, cardinals, theologians, and popes airily dismissed him as an obscure friar from an obscure university in a small provincial town in the backwoods of Germany, unlikely to cause more than a minor hiccup, Luther’s message that the Church’s power had grown abusive, exploitative, and costly for the poor — especially as they struggled to adjust to the rise of the money economy — was a godsend to those who read his words in pamphlets, or (for the 95 per cent who were illiterate) heard about him from others clutching one of his sheets of paper.


AND there are other Lutherish aspects to President Trump. Where he harvested votes with his determination to “drain the Washington swamp”, Luther captured the popular mood throughout Germany with his promise to clean up a corrupt and bloated Rome. In the 50th of the 95 Theses, he wrote: “Christians are to be taught that, if the Pope knew the exactions of the indulgence preachers, he would rather that the Basilica of St Peter were burned to ashes than built up with the skin, flesh, and bones of his sheep.”

At the core of Luther’s reformation, moreover, was a rejection of “experts”, a seam in the popular psyche which President Trump has mined profitably (as Michael Gove and the Brexiteers did). Luther’s principal targets were those priests and prelates who stood on their dignity in the pulpit as the sole conduit of God’s word, and told the people in the nave what to think, and how they could achieve/buy salvation.

But each and every believer, Luther insisted, should be studying the scriptures for themselves, and making up their own minds. That is why he issued his pamphlets in German, not Church Latin, and why he translated first the New Testament and then the entire Bible into German.

My opening question, then, is perhaps not such an idle what-if. Yes, you can push it too far (Luther had a decent haircut). But, this Easter, as the settled way of doing things in the Western world is facing an unprecedented populist backlash, led by figures whom the erstwhile elite fatally underestimate, there is surely, in this 500th-anniversary year of the 95 Theses, something just as contemporary and relevant in Luther’s legacy as the latest Twitter outburst.


Peter Stanford’s book Martin Luther: Catholic dissident is published by Hodder & Stoughton (£20 (Church Times Bookshop £16)).

Listen to an interview with Peter Stanford on the Church Times Podcast: www.churchtimes.co.uk/about-us/the-church-times-podcast.

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