This month marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, sparked by Martin Luther’s 95 theses nailed, so his successors claimed, to the door of the church in Wittenberg, on October 31, 1517. His original protest reached a tipping point four years later at the Diet of Worms, where the Augustinian monk famously declared, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
The legacy of Luther’s conscience cannot be understated—it is the impetus for all manner of religious and philosophical developments that have defined the modern world. It also had political and cultural effects, ones relevant to our current American distemper, much of it driven by one particular element of that Saxon monk’s conscience: its scrupulosity. From the tearing down of monuments, to dietary fads, to foreign interventions, America owes much to Luther’s scrupulous conscience.
After entering the Augustinian order, Luther devoted himself to fasting, arduous hours of prayer, pilgrimage, and constant confession to another priest. By his own admission, his was a tortured soul, wracked by feelings of guilt and unworthiness before a righteous God. One imagines a Luther who confesses his sins, receives absolution, and within minutes of leaving the confessional is overwrought with self-hatred over some perceived personal failure. Luther himself characterized these years as ones of profound spiritual despair, later observing, “I lost touch with Christ the Savior and Comforter, and made of him the jailer and hangman of my poor soul.”
Luther’s confessor and superior, Johann von Staupitz, urged Luther to direct his gaze not to his own sin, but to the merits of Christ. He exhorted the monk to remember that true repentance comes not from outward signs of piety, but primarily and fundamentally from the heart:
For thou hast no delight in sacrifice;
were I to give a burnt offering, thou wouldst not be pleased.
The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit;
a broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise. (Psalm 51:16-17)
This ultimately was insufficient for Luther. His conscience continued to ravage him. Confessors refer to this as scrupulosity, or the tendency to disproportionately over-value the weight of one’s sins. Luther for example was reported to believe that omitting a single word from his Eucharistic prayer as a priest was comparable in severity to divorce or murdering one’s parent. Hence his ultimate theological escape: man is saved for eternity by “faith alone,” faith in the work of Christ, rather than any action on his part. No matter the offense, a Christian by virtue solely of his faith is forgiven and reconciled to God—past, present, and future.
Five hundred years later in America, ours is a culture increasingly secular, and progressively less knowledgeable of our indebtedness to Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Even so, contemporary American political culture owes much to Luther and his scrupulous conscience.
Take for example our recent cultural infatuation with collective guilt and/or outrage over any statues or memorials honoring Confederates, racists, or anyone who does not subscribe to the liberal progressivist agenda. We are shocked, shocked, and ashamed that such people are given any recognition in our public consciousness. Even Americans who hadn’t a clue where the Confederate memorials in their hometowns were located are now stricken with unbearable guilt that such monuments exist. Tear them down, lest our consciences ravage us with the guilt of racism!
Or consider the obsession of one strata of American society with the ethics of food. Is it organic? Grass-fed? Free-trade? Single-origin? Artisanal? We can always find something to feel guilty about, regardless of what food or drink we’re consuming. The protagonist of Lucinda Rosenfeld’s new novel Class  recognizes the inherent snobbery of this culinary scrupulosity when her daughter derides her classmate’s very normal lunch choices as “disgusting.” This reaches the absurd and hilarious when the mother’s favorite urban-farming-friendly restaurant features “pan-seared locally sourced pigeon” on its menu.
Yet another example is our ever-present collective guilt over the latest international squabble that we just must do something about. Every single crisis on the world stage, from the Rohingya of Burma , to the food crisis in East Africa , to the Boko Haram kidnapping of schoolgirls , elicits op-eds demanding our nation’s government take action. An admirable quality, no doubt, but the unrelenting barrage of crises to resolve goes far beyond America’s capacity or strategic interests. It is that same conscience that seeks through capitalism, marketing, and various health initiatives, to make the world in our image.
Luther’s conscience has had a long shelf life. It crossed the English Channel and seeped its way deep into the English Protestant Reformation. It traversed the Atlantic Ocean, buried deep in the hearts of those first Pilgrims who arrived in Massachusetts in 1620 to found the Plymouth Colony. And it has remained an ever-present, if very fungible, attribute of America’s civic consciousness. Sometimes it has been a force for great good: is not Luther’s conscience in some respects responsible for America’s desire to overcome its racist past? Indeed, our nation’s greatest civil rights leader was named Martin Luther King Jr.
Yet in a culture devoid of faith in God or unified around any semblance of a classical, tradition-based morality, that conscience now swerves out of control, lacking any kind of objective moral compass to guide it. We obsesses over monuments and the names of public buildings because of their association with racism or sexism, while neglecting the kinds of efforts required to address those injustices. We engross ourselves in culinary justice, while ignoring the fact that one in seven Americans do not get enough to eat . And we weep, wail, and mourn over the plights of millions of people the world over, while disregarding the needs of our neighbor next door, if we even know his or her name.
Luther, of course, could not have predicted this legacy of his scrupulous conscience. It would be unfair to place the blame solely on him, especially given that he would likely be distraught over the gross secularity of the modern world he unknowingly helped create. Indeed, he would likely agree with another great reformer, Pope John Paul II, who argued in his encyclical Veritatis Splendor—whose 25th anniversary we also honor this year—that “conscience is not an independent and exclusive capacity to decide what is good and what is evil,” but must exist in reference to objective truth and the universal law. As we commemorate the Protestant Reformation and its many effects, we would do well to consider what forces form our own consciences.
Casey Chalk is a writer living in Thailand.