In many places in the world today, blasphemy is a serious crime against the state. Of course, contemporary democratic regimes with constitutions like the American one, with First Amendment rights and guarantees from government regulation over beliefs and speech acts, usually allow a great degree of freedom in these matters for their citizens. But around the world, blasphemy laws prohibiting any outward manifestation of religious plurality are quite common. In many jurisdictions, such as Iran, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan, blasphemy charges can even be prosecuted as a capital offense. The application of these laws is often against vulnerable religious minorities, similar to how the sixteenth-century versions were enforced. Al-Qaida and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) have committed many infamous public executions of “blasphemers” in recent years where these jihadist-fascist movements have taken root.
Persecution for blasphemy is not, however, something that only Muslims do. I ask the students in my great books of Western Civilization course what they think about this line from John Calvin’s The Institutes of the Christian Religion: “its [civil government’s] objects also are that idolatry, sacrileges against the name of God, blasphemies against his truth, and other offenses against religion may not openly appear and be disseminated among the people” (47). Modern liberals (like my students and myself) can quickly jump to the conclusion that any who questions inviolable liberal freedoms—like Calvin—is, at the very least, an intolerable prude. But I don’t ask the question simply to point out that Calvin condemned blasphemy; he, of course, had a sound biblical basis for such a policy. Instead, the purpose of the question is to highlight that Calvin considered it the responsibility of government, not the church, to police blasphemy.
A large gulf opens up between our age and Calvin’s; between our time and his lies the rise of early-modern nation-states, the English Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, and the Enlightenment. The freedom to blaspheme has had a long complicated political, social, and religious history from the Reformation to now. Today, in the democratic parts of the world, it seems bizarre, even absurd, that government would be in the business of policing blasphemy. What good could possibly come out of it? Perhaps a divine good if—and that is a big if—the government’s theology was sound? Perhaps government could help save souls by curbing blasphemies against the Savior? But Calvin’s argument certainly did not include such a works-righteousness model of salvation. Instead, he assigned the enforcement against blasphemy to government for the sake of the very worldly ends of preserving peace and public order.
In this position on blasphemy, Calvin was not alone: virtually the entirety of Reformation thought, Protestant and Catholic alike, came to the very same conclusion. While in some places prosecutions and persecutions against blasphemers were still led by church authorities, increasingly, across the confessions and political jurisdictions of Europe, it became an exclusive secular and civil matter. In the Reformation context, the war against blasphemy helped harden church confessions from within—i.e. the settlement of Catholic, Lutheran, and Reformed doctrines and membership—and also helped form states with stable borders, streamlined laws, and effective apparatuses of power. One might even argue that the modern democratic state, at least in its nascent, incipient forms in early-modern Europe, was in part built by the duty to prosecute blasphemers. Thus, the policing of blasphemy in the Reformation had a deeply ambivalent political influence. It was both a contributing force in forming responsible government and citizenship and a driving force of violent and appalling persecutions of minorities. This ambivalence is perhaps no more evident than in the thought of Martin Luther.
Like Calvin, Luther also considered blasphemy a secular crime punishable by the temporal authorities. Whenever he wrote about the topic, there was never any hint of controversy about it being under temporal authority’s jurisdiction. Luther assumed that blasphemy was a serious transgression of what he called the “outer” nature of humanity, and thus subject to political powers that governed it. In fact, Luther’s instruction in his Large Catechism of 1529, concerning the second commandment’s prohibition on taking the name of God in vain, designated blasphemy as the greatest of all outward sins.
Luther had famously argued that there were zwei Reiche, or “two kingdoms” with which God ruled over the world: a spiritual one and a temporal one. Luther argued that these were to be strictly separated. At first glance, it might appear that the policing of blasphemy by government was a clear violation of this separation, but that would be a misunderstanding of what Luther meant by separating them. Rather than an Enlightenment-era separation of “religion” from political matters, Luther’s separation distinguished the saving Word from the many means by which God otherwise brought order to the world. For Luther, blasphemy had nothing to do with salvation; rather, it was concerned with outward conduct and hence subject to temporal laws.
Blasphemy was not only an offense against God. Luther argued—again like so many of his age—that blasphemy threatened the temporal kingdom and harmed neighbors. Luther considered it a pernicious vice that the government had to suppress for the sake of public order and peace. In his explosive treatise To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate (1520), Luther counted blasphemy among the most harmful evils of his day, similar to the rampant alcohol abuse in German culture, and clearly one that had to be strictly policed by temporal authorities.
But Luther viewed blasphemy as much worse than alcohol-fueled debauchery; he saw it as the very denial of God’s power to bring order to the world and to save mankind. Blasphemy was an assault on the “two kingdoms.” In his Commentary on Psalm 82 (1530), he likened it to slander, except that it was far worse because it was an attempt to defame the name of God and to rob one’s neighbor of God’s honor. Therefore, Luther believed that any toleration of “outer” blasphemy would have disastrous effects on the public order. To be precise, blasphemy could be thought without government prosecution: that was an “inner” or spiritual matter, and subject only to the spiritual kingdom. But once uttered or taught, it crossed into the temporal jurisdiction and had to be met with the full force of temporal power.
For Luther, suppressing blasphemy helped keep the peace, uphold oaths, honor authority, and form effective government. Yet there was a dark side to its benefits. The prosecution of blasphemy led Luther straight to the most notoriously horrific opinions of his life and career: his advocacy for government sanctioned violence against the Jews. The spiritual kingdom was the realm of the Word, yet Luther counseled that any public and outward denial of that Word—for example, the publicly advocated denial of salvation through Jesus—would be subject to the laws and punishments of the temporal government. Put aside whether Jews in his day ever publicly spoke blasphemous words against Jesus, and ignore the hideously false but persistent accusations of “blood libel” against them. These are no matter, for under Luther’s treatment of blasphemy, Jews by their mere existence could be considered a threat to the temporal order. Luther’s position on the duty to suppress blasphemy put the Jews who wished to continue to be Jews in an impossible position, since they were utterly denied the freedom to outwardly manifest their Jewishness. Indeed, Luther did consider Jews, merely as Jews, to pose a grave public threat, and he advocated for, at least in his late polemic On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), a litany of horrifying measures, including pogroms and the burning of synagogues. For Luther, temporal governments were to adopt these measures in order to protect the lives and property of their subjects.
Luther’s treatment of the Jews has been a matter of significant scholarly controversy, particularly in the aftermath of National Socialist tyranny and the infamous systematic mass murder of millions of Jews in the Holocaust. For his violent polemics against the Jews and his political views, Luther has at times been considered as a forefather of both the Holocaust and German totalitarianism. Since Luther’s own anti-Semitism is evident throughout his career—and not only in the late, angry polemic On the Jews and Their Lies as some have supposed—the relation of his Jew-hatred to his overarching ideas (such as sola fides) has been a hot topic for a considerable number of scholars.1
Thus, in the government’s fight against blasphemy amongst its subjects, the Jews were an extreme example in a broad collection of problematic peoples whose public expression of beliefs threatened good government. For Luther, “papists” as well as radicals like Thomas Müntzer and Andreas Karlstadt, were subject to temporal government for the same reasons: they disturbed the temporal order by the outward declarations of their beliefs.
Luther’s treatment of blasphemy shows in several ways how far removed our contemporary political assumptions are from Luther’s (or much of the Reformation period). First, his separation of the two kingdoms is far from being a simple and direct antecedent of the “separation of church and state” or the relegation of “religious” matters from the public concern to private life. Luther’s two kingdoms worked in tandem for the common end of Godly rule over body and soul. That Jews and “papists” were theological transgressors did not mean that temporal government had no jurisdiction over them: on the contrary, Jews and “papists” were subject to temporal punishment the moment their ideas were taught and promulgated, since this made them outward acts. For Luther, the two kingdoms were distinct types of God’s sovereign rule over all life. Strict separation was crucial for each kingdom to function in its divine mandate. Hence, the temporal kingdom, not the spiritual, had to suppress the plurality of outward declarations of inward belief.
Second, Luther’s treatment of blasphemy assumed that societies with religious pluralism were dangerous and ungovernable and that temporal authorities were wise to curtail plurality of belief as much as possible. Luther was by no means alone in his era; Calvin and many other sixteenth-century political thinkers and actors, especially those in the conflicting confessional territories that led to the Thirty Years’ War, considered this assumption to be obviously true. Recent historical evidence suggests that the assumption was beginning to be seriously challenged by the mid-sixteenth century, especially in confessionally mixed cities (at least for a time) such as Augsburg, and in nation states like France where the Reformed Huguenots became a powerful social and political force. But it was only in the seventeenth century, in the Peace of Westphalia (1648), that the basic rights of dissenting subjects—if then only limited to Reformed, Lutheran, and Catholic confessions—were beginning to be guaranteed in laws and treaties. At the very least, Luther’s views on the policing of subjects, grounded in his “two kingdoms,” demonstrate how far he (and much of the sixteenth century) was from modern liberal pluralism or even a modest political toleration of nonconforming minorities.
This is not to say that ISIL’s worldview has anything to do with Luther’s “two-kingdoms” idea; there is no deep connection between Luther’s political thought and those of this self-proclaimed “caliphate.” One can easily imagine the relentless, acerbic, and biting criticisms (and certainly many scatological polemics) he would have leveled against their bloodlust and social destruction. But ISIL’s infamous beheadings of “blasphemers” have sometimes been popularly referred to as “medieval,” as if there is something kindred between Luther’s age and contemporary Islamic jihadist movements. In general, there is only one point of view that they do hold in common: the Reformation believed, like ISIL, that blasphemers are destructive of the public order.
In the Lent 2016 issue of The Cresset, Thomas Albert Howard reviewed Rabbi Jonathan Sacks’s recent book Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence (Schocken, 2015). Though overall a very positive review, Howard critically noted how Sacks, like many others today, calls in his book for a sixteenth-century-style Reformation in the Muslim world. Howard rightly argued that such a call misunderstands the Reformation’s complexity. Indeed, sixteenth-century reformers, Catholic and Protestant alike, all advocated for a strict persecution of blasphemers; thus, a contemporary “Muslim Reformation”—if it is anything like the original—might take far longer to produce the kinds of outcomes that Sacks and others expect from it. After all, merely the right to publicly worship for Reformed Christians—to say nothing of for radicals, freethinkers, and Jews—was not guaranteed in Reformation lands until over a century after Luther’s death. To question the prevailing assumption that blasphemers threatened public peace and good government, it took the sixteenth century more time than it had to offer. There should be no illusions of how long and complex the development of rights-based government was, and how tumultuous and dangerous it was for many people, like the Jews, who endured so many persecutions along the way.
Jarrett Carty is Associate Professor in the Liberal Arts College of Concordia University, Montreal.
Barth, Hans-Martin. The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2013.
Calvin, John. “Dedication to Francis I” and “On Civil Government.” In On God and Political Duty, John T. McNeill, ed. New York: MacMillan, 1985.
Gritcsh, Eric W. Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.
Howard, Thomas Albert. “Altruistic Evil.” The Cresset, Vol. 79, No. 3 (Lent 2016): 54–58.
Schramm, Brooks and Kirsi I. Stjerna, eds. Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People: A Reader. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.
1. The literature is wide-ranging on the subject of Luther and the Jews. There are several recent notable additions to the scholarship. The best book for navigating the primary sources is the anthology edited by Brooks Schramm and Kirsi I. Stjerna, Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People: A Reader (Fortress Press, 2012); it collects a wide variety of Luther’s thoughts on the Jews, as well as his obvious anti-Semitic comments, into one convenient volume. For a succinct criticism of the scholarly attempts to bracket Luther’s anti-Semitism from overall considerations of his theology, see Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment (Fortress Press, 2013), 29–39. Eric W. Gritcsh’s Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment (Eerdmans, 2012) argues that Luther’s anti-Semitism is inconsistent with the core of his theology and reading of Paul.