If you are to believe J. R. R. Tolkien, men are weak, always vulnerable to their lust for power and money. It is that lust that ultimately corrupts and weakens even the greatest of institutions. You don’t have to read Gibbon to know that the decline and fall of the Roman Empire reflected the internal corruption of its empire more than any growing strength of the “barbarians”. Or consider the case of the Catholic Church in the 1500s, as reviewed by Ingrid D. Rowland in The New York Review of Books in “Martin Luther’s Burning Questions.”
This All Hallow’s Eve, it will be five hundred years since Martin Luther posted his ninety-five propositions on the door of a church in Saxony, Germany, questioning the practices and theology of the Catholic Church and sparking the Protestant revolution. The time was ripe in a Catholic Church that had been internally weakened by greed and power. At the heart of the corruption was the sale of indulgences, a practice by which the papacy sold the remission of sins, exchanging Papal scripts of paper for gold, silver, and coin. Intended as an avenue to grant sinners salvation in exchange for good works, indulgences ultimately devolved into a massive revenue scheme lining the pockets of the powerful
As Rowland notes, “By the late fifteenth century, …, remission from sins could simply be purchased from a papal agent, for oneself or for another person, whether alive or deceased. The sale of indulgences became an industry only in Luther’s own lifetime and in his own lands, put into place by the “warrior Pope” Julius II and the Augsburg banker Jakob Fugger. “
By Luther’s day, the corruption had become so evident that Luther and others rebelled. Surely salvation came through one’s faith, as a gift of God. Rowland again: “Luther’s message swiftly found followers, especially in the German states: on the spiritual level with his doctrine of justification by faith, and on the practical level with his attack on the alliance between religion and capitalism that had turned remission of sins into a commercial enterprise.”
I’d like you to consider the state of the Catholic Church in Luther’s time as analogous to the American political system today. The essence is the same, a great and noble institution, grounded in ideals, turned on its head for the benefit of the rich and powerful. There can be no debate that political offices in Congress are to a large degree sold to the highest bidder. Particularly since Citizens United, a seat in the House of Representatives costs approximately one million seven hundred thousand dollars; the cost for winning Senate seats averages over ten million dollars. Politics has become a rich man’s game where the incentive of those who run for office is inevitably to solicit contributions from the rich with the unspoken understanding of a quid pro quo. In short, the US Congress at heart is an auction house where policy is sold to the highest bidder. It is no coincidence that US policies are now in thrall to a modern generation of oligarchs, Kochs, Mercers, Bradleys, and others less conspicuous but nonetheless demanding return on their dollar.
The time has come to post a broadsheet on their door. It doesn’t have to be this way. Most modern democracies strictly limit the ability of the rich to buy elections. We should too. After five hundred years, a new reformation is in order.