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Why the Culture Wars Are Nothing New

Koninklijke Bibliotheek

John Zmirak - published on 07/11/14

Meet one medieval woman of faith who faced down church, state, and neighbor in defense of religious freedom.

The very phrase “culture wars” brings us back to the 1990s, and seems as dated as the big hair and shoulder pads we smile at in reruns of Seinfeld. But disputes over what marriage means, when life begins, and which moral vision ought to guide government policy are not a distracting sideshow from the “real” business of drawing up federal budgets or determining marginal tax rates. In fact, the “social issues” have deep implications for the future of capitalism, if it will have one — and not merely for the cynical reason that pro-business candidates need blue-collar Christian votes.

The architect of the post-war German economic “miracle,” Wilhelm Röpke, used to warn his old friends Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich Hayek that a free economy and society could only survive the convulsive changes wrought by the market’s creative destruction if the non-state sector — families, churches, and the rest of what Tocqueville called “civil society” — was strong and solid. The “spontaneous order” that makes freedom possible can break down, and as social chaos worsens, the populace will look to big government for shelter and protection. Hence fragmented families and their dysfunctions fuel the demand for social programs, and the fading of faith drives people to seek the civil religion of socialism, as Catholic historian Michael Burleigh documents in Earthly Powers.  

In her new book, Skirting Heresy, FOX Business reporter Elizabeth MacDonald has shown us that this dynamic is nothing new. In fact, MacDonald offers a vivid portrait of a time whose conflicts recall our own: The old economy is breaking apart more quickly than the new one can take its place, destroying traditional livelihoods while opening up untold opportunities — and fueling deep resentment among the “have-nots.” Marriage is changing, as women gain new opportunities to participate in the economy, and hence a higher status than ever before. Religious differences drive citizens to fight for the levers of power, each faction hopeful that it can use the state to promote its most deeply held convictions. 

Skirting Heresy is set in the early 15th century, against the backdrop of the Black Death, the Hundred Years War, and the great papal schism — in the decade before Joan of Arc would take to the battlefield, when proto-Protestant followers of John Wycliffe were battling old-guard Catholics for the ear of the English king, Henry V. While the orthodox had tradition and authority on their side, the Wycliffites could rely on a dawning English nationalism, and promise a monarch the chance to seize the lands and wealth possessed by the Church — in other words, to grab economic power from civil society and hand it to the state.

But this book is not a panoramic view of that turbulent period; it’s the intimate story of a real historical figure. Margery Kempe was a controversial mystic whose tales of visions and refusal to follow the “script” for married women won her some admirers — and many powerful enemies. Desperate to stop the spread of unorthodox ideas, local bishops and inquisitorial friars objected to Margery’s highly public displays of piety: She would weep uncontrollably in church, confess her sins two or three times a day, and reprimand her neighbors for slight infractions, like using swear-words. Her defiant insistence that she was inspired by visions of Jesus himself would on several occasions bring her close to getting burned at the stake as a heretic — by the very same bishops and courtiers who would later execute Joan of Arc.

How do we know all this? Because while Kempe never learned to read or write, she did dictate her life story and visions, in a book that became the first autobiography ever written in English. Her Book of Margery Kempe (no false modesty there) was lost shortly after her death, and only rediscovered in 1934. It has largely been left unread, and Elizabeth MacDonald has done us a genuine service in recovering and translating into a modern, page-turning narrative this very unusual story of a world which was rent by conflicts very like those we face today — seen through the eyes of a determined woman of faith who faced down church, state, and neighbor in defense of her own religious freedom.

The ways in which she practiced that freedom made those around her deeply uncomfortable. But isn’t that why freedom matters in the first place?

John Zmirakis co-author of the upcoming book, The Race to Save Our Century.

Religious Freedom
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