I just finished reading Walter Russell Mead’s splendid new book God and Gold: Britain, America, and the Making of the Modern World, and I recommend it. Too often in the past, the case that Anglo-Protestantism was central to the great achievements of the Anglosphere was weakened by a hint of racial condescension and (often unconscious) anti-Catholic bigotry. Mead, on the other hand, is entirely persuasive: In his account, the breakup of the mediaeval order by competing new sources of religious authority created a new dynamism not just in religion, but in economics and culture as well. We have reached a cultural compromise in which tolerance and piety can happily coexist:
Others have thought that without a basis in absolute religion, no social order can stand. We still hear these worries today from conservative intellectuals who worry that without some kind of absolute, detailed, and unchanging moral code we are slouching toward Gomorrah. This fear has deep roots in human nature, but does the historical record bear it out? The English reformers may have lost their assurance that they possessed absolute truth, but they had no doubts about the need to maintain order.
So if it’s about “order,” but not one based on “absolute religion,” what prevents this new system from degenerating into a stasis, the irrational and unprincipled love of order-for-order’s-sake? The hurlyburly of competing spheres: Fundamentalists, mainline Protestants, Anglicans, Catholics, secularists, proponents of “traditional order,” etc. all participate–and, as a result, none dominates. The upshot is a Madisonian pluralism where special interests offset each other, while enjoying remarkable freedom within their own spheres.
Mead cautions against facile optimism about the need for an “Islamic Reformation,” pointing out that some of the most violent groups within Islam today are similar to radical Reformation groups of the 16th century. But the broad English-Reformation paradigm remains available. He points out that “there is as yet no good historical argument to back the belief that as its encounter with dynamic society proceeds, Islam will ultimately prove to be less dynamic and less adaptable than Christianity has been.” And he remains hopeful that a healthy pluralism can eventually take hold within the Muslim world.