The Conjuring of America: 1517–1789

“The entire man is…to be seen in the cradle of the child. The growth of nations presents something analogous to this; they all bear some marks of their origin. If we were able to go back…we should discover…the primal cause of the prejudices, the habits, the ruling passions, and, in short, all that constitutes what is called the national character.”

—ALEXIS DE TOCQUEVILLE, Democracy in America (1835)


I Believe, Therefore I Am Right: The Protestants

IN THE BEGINNING, IT DIDN’T even have a real name: the New World was a placeholder, like the generic proxy NewCo that corporate lawyers nowadays temporarily assign to businesses their clients are creating. To its prospective white residents, the New World was practically an imaginary place. For them, America began as a fever dream, a myth, a happy delusion, a fantasy. In fact, it began as multiple fantasies, each embraced around 1600 by people so convinced of their thrilling, wishful fictions that most of them abandoned everything—friends, families, jobs, good sense, England, the known world—to enact their dreams or die trying. A lot of them died trying.

Ours was the first country ever designed and created from nothing, the first country authored, like an epic tale—at the very moment, as it happened, that Shakespeare and Cervantes were inventing modern fiction. The first English people in the New World imagined themselves as heroic can-do characters in exciting adventures. They were self-fictionalizing extremists who abandoned everything familiar because of their blazing beliefs, their long-shot hopes and dreams, their please-be-true fantasies.

But to extend Tocqueville’s metaphor, if the first English undertakings in the New World constituted newborn America, the cradle of the nation, then let’s go back a bit further and try to see how this singular infant came to be conceived.

A DEVOUT, KNOW-IT-ALL young theology professor at a new provincial university south of Berlin disagrees with Christian doctrine and practice in some important ways. He’s especially upset that the regional archbishop, in order to cover the costs of celebrating his elevation to cardinal, has encouraged local Christians to pay money to be forgiven their sins (and the sins of deceased loved ones), thereby reducing or eliminating the posthumous wait in purgatory. In addition to paying, the buyers of forgiveness were required to troop through the local church on All Saints’ Day to admire its thousands of holy relics, most if not all of them fake. These included a piece of straw from baby Jesus’s manger, threads from His swaddling clothes, a bit of Mary’s breast milk, a hair from adult Jesus’s beard, a piece of bread from the Last Supper, and a thorn from His crucifixion crown. The young theologian, appalled by the church’s merchandising, writes an impassioned three-thousand-word critique in proto-PowerPoint form, nails it to the door of the church on All Saints’ Eve, Halloween, and for good measure sends a copy of his screed to the archbishop himself.

If all this had happened in 1447, say, the episode might now be an obscure historical footnote. But because this young preacher, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, went public in 1517, a good half-century into the age of mechanical printing, his manifesto changed everything. The Ninety-five Theses were immediately printed, translated from Latin into local languages, distributed throughout Europe, and reprinted ad infinitum. Protestantism had been launched, an organized alternative to the Christian religious monopoly, Roman Catholicism.

After the launch of this new Christianity, the new printing enabled its spread. Luther’s main complaint had been about the church’s sale of phony VIP passes to Heaven. “There is no divine authority,” one of his theses pointed out, “for preaching that the soul flies out of the purgatory immediately [when] the money clinks in the bottom of the chest.” Within a few decades that was moot anyhow, because the Vatican ended the practice of selling salvation. However, Luther had two bigger ideas, revolutionary ideas, that became foundational both to his religion and to America.

He insisted that clergymen have no special access to God or Jesus or truth. Everything a Christian needed to know was in the Bible. So every individual Christian believer could and should read and interpret Scripture for him- or herself. Every believer, Protestants said, was now a priest.

This would have been a doomed, quixotic dream any earlier. According to the Vatican’s long-standing regulation, only priests were permitted to own Bibles, particularly Bibles translated from Latin into modern languages. It was a rule easy to enforce, because Bibles were extremely rare and expensive. In the 1450s, when Johannes Gutenberg printed the first book—a Latin Bible—there were only thirty thousand books of any kind in all of Europe, about one for every twenty-five hundred people. But by the time Luther launched the Reformation in 1517, sixty years later, twenty million books had been printed—and more of them were Bibles than anything else.

Print it, and they will come. During the century after printed English Bibles appeared, the literacy rate among English people tripled. Now millions of Christians were able to make good on Luther’s DIY Christianity. The Catholic Church and its priestly elite were disintermediated. Disruptive innovation? No new technology, during the thousand years between gunpowder and the steam engine, was as disruptive as the printing press, and Protestantism was its first viral cultural phenomenon.

Apart from devolving religious power to ordinary people—that is, critically expanding individual liberty—Luther’s other big idea was that belief in the Bible’s supernatural stories, especially those concerning Jesus, was the only prerequisite for being a good Christian. You couldn’t earn your way into Heaven by performing virtuous deeds. Having a particular set of beliefs was all that mattered. (And in strict early Protestantism, even those didn’t guarantee you entry.)

The original Protestant grievance seems like a strike on behalf of reason—that paying money or staring at (fake) relics couldn’t expedite souls into Heaven. But it’s only more fair and logical, not really more rational. It’s like arguing whether the miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin, if she had mispronounced the dwarf’s name, would have been set free. The disagreements dividing Protestants from Catholics were about the internal consistency of the magical rules within their common fantasy scheme.

However, out of the new Protestant religion, a new proto-American attitude emerged during the 1500s. Millions of ordinary people decided that they, each of them, had the right to decide what was true or untrue, regardless of what fancy experts said. And furthermore, they believed, passionate fantastical belief was the key to everything. The footings for Fantasyland had been cast.

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