Building the Confessional State

A 1989 article by Wolfgang Reinhard on the relationships among the Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and early modern state-building is an excellent brief summary of the relationship between Reformation and post-Reformation “confessionalization” and the formation of modern states and national identities.

The Reformers’ turn to the state was in the first instance a matter of necessity. They needed to educate and discipline people in newly formed churches and they didn’t have the resources for it: “The new churches . . . had to start without any institutional infrastructure, except in those countries like England where they took over the old church institutions. Often secular authorities in cities and states stepped in instead, a kind of substitution favoured by Luther’s notorious indifference to institutions.” Thus, “because of the shortage of institutions and personnel, all churches had to rely to a lesser or greater extent on the support of secular powers, a fact of far-reaching consequences, even if solutions greatly differ from case to case according to local conditions.”

Confessionalization “made an important contribution to the growth of the modern state in Europe. Not that the churches intended to do so; more often than not it was quite the opposite. However, they all needed secular authorities, a help which was granted willingly, but not free of charge. The churches had to pay for it in some cases in the literal sense of the word. Early modern state-builders, on the other hand, knew very well that joining the process of ‘Confessionalization’ would provide them with three decisive competitive advantages: enforcement of political identity, extension of a monopoly of power, and disciplining of their subjects.”

Reinhard asks what the “concrete relationship” was between religion and political identity. Society was not divided into spheres as it now is, and under these conditions religion and politics were intertwined. As a result, “the development of the early modern state could not take place without regard to ‘Confession,’ but only based upon ‘fundamental consent on religion, church, and culture, shared by authorities and subject’” (quoting Heinz Schilling). Catholicism “came to constitute the national political identity of Portugal, Spain, and after some time even of France, exactly as Protestantism did for England.”

Germany was in a different situation. There, territorial states “lacked a ‘national’ culture to legitimise political independence.” Different lines of royal and noble families preferred different confessions, and “even princes of the same religion carefully separated their respective territorial churches from each other.” Religion reinforced other mechanisms for establishing national and ethnic identity: “Closed borders, limited mobility, and intermarriage to prevent religious contamination also served to enforce political group identity. Religious obedience to authorities outside the state was considered treacherous.”

None of this, Reinhard insists, amounts to a cynical Machiavellian manipulation of religion for purposes of state. Rather, the political leaders still believed in the faith they enforced, and believed that it was necessary to establish true faith to protect the common weal.

Confessionalization “meant grants of power for the State, because the Church became part of the State in their as well as in practice. And if not in theory, as in the Catholic case, then at least in practice.” Hobbes’s description of the church as “nothing but a part of political sovereignty,” with the implication that the pope had no power outside the Vatican, wasn’t “an aggressive anticipation of a future state of things, but a simple description of seventh-century reality.”

(Reinhard, “Reformation, Counter-Reformation, and the Early Modern State a Reassessment,” The Catholic Historical Review 75:3 [1989]: 383–404.)

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