Rebecca Lowe Coulson was Parliamentary Candidate for the City of Durham at the 2015 General Election.
What are you doing to celebrate Montana becoming the 41st state today in 1889? How are you paying homage to the Greek victory over Mussolini, on 8 November 1940, in the Battle of Elaia-Kalamas? Maybe you’re busy commemorating the 1605 death of Guy Fawkes’ boss Robert Catesby, or the start of the 1520 Stockholm Bloodbath?
Whether it’s another peg for another comment piece, or content for the Google Doodle, historical references seem inevitable at the moment. But is that the only deterministic feature of this trend? What can we ascertain about our lives from awareness of the endless jubilees, counterfactual explorations, and comparative exclamations typified by (historical figure, himself) David Miliband, in last weekend’s Sunday Times, calling Brexit “the biggest threat to the unity and prosperity of the UK since the Second World War”. Some examples are cleverer than others; many provide historical insight. But what about application value?
As Paul Mason contentiously reminded us, yesterday was the centenary of the October Revolution. Arguably the biggest anniversary occurred on Hallowe’en, however: 31 October marked half a millennium since the Reformation. Well, sort of. Allegedly, that’s when former monk and all-round renegade Martin Luther nailed 95 theses to the door of a Wittenberg church, in an attempt to counter Catholic over-indulgence.
Whether the nailing took place is debated. And, here in England, it wasn’t until a decade later that Henry VIII first petitioned the Pope for an annulment to his marriage to Catherine of Aragon; the first Act of Supremacy, which made Henry head of the English church, wasn’t passed until 1534. The sacking of the monasteries, various translations of the Bible, several differently religiously-inclined monarchs, much bloodshed, and the Act of Settlement later, Britain was a Protestant nation. Meanwhile, Europe was undergoing its own struggles.
Even if we amalgamated the various reformations, however, what relevance would the 1517 anniversary have for us in Britain today? After all, the percentage of Britons who consider themselves Christian – and particularly Anglican – continues to decline. NatCen’s British Social Attitudes survey tells us those identifying as Church of England have steadily decreased from 40 per cent in 1983 to 15 per cent in 2016; Roman Catholics have stayed more static, moving from ten to nine per cent.
Religious affiliation among adults in Great Britain, NatCen BSA, 1983-2016
This decline seems unlikely to reverse, not least because, when you consider allegiance by age-group, it’s clear that — again, particularly regarding the C of E — the younger you are, the less likely you are to be a Christian.
Religious affiliation by age, NatCen BSA, GB, 2016
Nonetheless, Britain’s Christian history remains important. Not because we might identify with it – that most modern and currently all-consuming of reasonings – but because of historical interest, itself. Aside from lessons we might learn, awareness of what happened then tells us something about now: about the development of our nation, and our politics, laws, customs, and more. Christianity – and particularly the Protestantism that developed immediately before, during, and after the Reformation period – helped shape the society in which we live.
Sure, accounts of this are sometimes overdone: Martin Luther made Britain free! Martin Luther was the enlightenment! Well, for a start, not all reformers were liberals; some were pretty authoritarian. Luther himself fought with Erasmus over issues of personal freedom, and we should make distinctions between the early British reformers, the radical non-conformists – such as the Levellers – and, of course, Henry VIII’s brand of personal expediency.
The British tradition of religious tolerance no doubt came about much the same as the political freedoms of the Glorious Revolution: people were sick of fighting. (Ditto the Peace of Augsburg, when the Holy Roman Emperor pronounced tolerance towards Lutherans.) But – in a whistle-stop tour – also came British constitutional conventions, the Peace of Westphalia and the rise of the nation state, the Scottish enlightenment heroes’ economic liberalism, and more. How much was determined by the Reformation? It’s fake news to conflate events and ‘prove’ causality, but it’s all central to our country’s story.
It’s often argued that what happened back then in Britain divides it from mainland Europe – most notably, recently, by historian Linda Colley in Britons, a central premise of which is that British Protestantism made for British exceptionalism within mostly-Catholic Europe. That takes us, like most roads, to Brexit. At least half of what’s been written this year celebrating Luther’s quincentenary seems to have claimed he had some not-so-invisible hand in Britain’s decision to leave the EU. This is where our history obsession goes wrong.
We want to know why things happen. We want to pick losers we can blame for our society’s problems, and pick reasons for people’s behaviour. We want to know that city-dwellers voted x, and those in the countryside voted y; that the smart voted x, and those who aren’t voted y; and that Protestants – or those coming from areas that traditionally were – voted x, and that Catholics voted y. Sure, 2016 LSE research suggested Anglicans were ‘significantly more likely to support Leave’, and analysis from Cardiff University led to the same conclusion. And here’s a breakdown of Christian allegiances by region (also from NatCen BSA data), which you can apply to the Brexit vote, if you want – but none of this will really tell you what you want to know.
Religious affiliation by region, NatCen BSA, GB, 2015
When it came to the EU referendum, there were often as many differences within groups as between. People voted differently from their spouses and family members, never mind classmates and co-religionists. A decision like Brexit, involving millions of people, had billions of causes: our own views and understandings of the events, customs, and more, which helped make each of us who we are, and make the decisions we do. Some of those were set in motion by happenings – like the Reformation – centuries ago, but none pre-determine what happens today.
Easy answers to big questions based on simplicities like group identity are not only insufficient, they can also be divisively dangerous. In Identity and Violence, Amartya Sen argues that
“A person’s citizenship, residence, geographic origin, gender, class, politics, profession, employment, food habits, sports interests, taste in music, social commitments, etc., make us members of a variety of groups. Each of these collectivities, to all of which this person simultaneously belongs, gives her a particular identity. None of them can be taken to be the person’s only identity or singular membership category”.
Sen contends that ignoring this is risky – that ‘the illusion of unique identity is much more divisive than the universe of plural and diverse classifications that characterize the world in which we actually live’ – and that relying primarily on religious affiliation is a particularly bad idea. The segregation and bloodshed of the Reformation emphasises this.
Its effects were long-lasting, but there is no simple way to explain human behaviour, because, as many of the reformers recognised, we are capable of great feats of deliberation: we can interpret the Bible for ourselves; and we can make our own political choices, separate even from those closest to us. Intentionally or not, Martin Luther kick-started a period of great change. We are in another today, and, while history teaches us much, it is fixed in place, and we are not.