Religious polemics migrate to cyberspace

By Adam Darlage
9 May 2008

New technology has always played a part in religious polemics and in the sense of identity generated through the heated exchange of opinion - such as we see in cyberspace today.

The invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century has been credited by Reformation scholars as an important factor behind the success of sixteenth-century Church reformers. The impact of the new technology was nowhere more apparent than in the career of Martin Luther.

In the aftermath of the indulgence controversy of 1517 that ultimately led to his rejection of Roman authority, Luther published numerous tracts that flew across the Holy Roman Empire during his lifetime and beyond (pamphlets, or Flugschriften, were literally "flying writings").

Surpassed only by publications of the Bible, prints and reprints of Luther's writings dominated book markets throughout the sixteenth century. Mark Edwards has noted that Luther's followers were the first to stage a "media campaign" in support of their position through the new technology of printing.

As the sixteenth century progressed and emerging confessional divisions between Protestants and Catholics became more polarized, the markets swelled with polemics and propaganda from all sides. Luther was a favorite target of Catholic controversialists who alleged that besides holding heretical beliefs, he was immoral and rebellious.

For starters, he broke his monastic vows, deflowered a nun, and promoted polygamy. This literature was characterized by personal attacks as well as scapegoating and harsh satire. Many Catholic controversialists quoted conflicting statements of Luther on doctrinal or moral matters, or took some of his more famous sound-bites out of context to demonstrate the danger he posed to the Church. "Sin boldly!" was a favorite choice.

Controversial literature still swirls around Luther and his followers, despite the rise of a more objective study of the Reformation in the academy. The internet has made it easier (and cheaper) than ever to respond to current events in a matter of minutes, often with sensational claims and assaults.

Reporter Richard Owen, in an article in the 6 March 2008 London Times newspaper, claimed that Pope Benedict XVI will issue a statement in September that Martin Luther was not a heretic – in other words, "rehabilitate" him.

Despite statements from Vatican insiders that such rumors were groundless, the article immediately provoked a firestorm of online controversy among Lutheran and Catholic bloggers who believe that such a move would minimize or trivialize what they believe are important differences between their churches.

Even the most basic theological questions at issue between the two groups since the sixteenth century are still hotly debated online, despite the 1999 signing of the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification by members of the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation (or perhaps because of it: among both Catholics and Lutherans, some lament this document even as others praise the ecumenical intentions of its drafters).

While many argue these questions with respect, decorum, and a good working knowledge of the issues at stake, others fall back on the more hostile strategies used by their sixteenth-century predecessors. They abandon reasoned debate for the same attack and counter-attack format followed by the polemicists of the Reformation era, as though centuries of more civil relations between Catholics and Lutherans had not intervened.

Members of the different Reformation churches used the printing press to spread polemics and propaganda as part of a process of identity-formation among people looking for certainty in a suddenly uncertain world. The proliferation of such literature on the internet today may serve a similar purpose for people looking for meaning in an increasingly global and pluralistic society.

Indeed, for all the ugliness of polemics and propaganda, this kind of controversial literature was an effective means to bind religious communities together against perceived enemies and outsiders during the Reformation era. As in the sixteenth century, the goal of this literature today is not primarily the conversion of the reader (although this is often a desired result), but rather affirmation of the views shared between authors and their religious communities.

Like the controversial literature of the past, the titles of these blogs and websites are a good indication that they are directed at readers of like mind. The Lutheran Knot of Doubt and Seven-headed Luther are titles of works from the sixteenth century, but could just as easily headline some of the more controversial websites floating around in cyberspace today.

To be sure, the deployment of print, radio, and television in the service of religious agendas reminds us that religious controversialists work through a number of different media. But as more and more people get their information online instead of in printed sources, the proliferation of religious polemic and propaganda on the internet is worth watching carefully.

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(c) Adam Darlage is a doctoral candidate in the History of Christianity at the University of Chicago Divinity School, and a Martin Marty Center Junior Fellow.

**With grateful acknowledgements to Sightings, and the Martin Marty Center at the University of Chicago Divinity School, Illinois, USA.**

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