I have tried to have my writing remain mostly apolitical; I don’t generally discuss current government policies, nor do I support specific candidates. There is no point in discussing politics in conjunction with archaeology and history unless there is a specific case where the two overlap. The following is a case where they overlap; however, I will confine my remarks to the question of historiography and historical ignorance. The political positions of the candidate in question are beyond my scope.
Presidential candidate and current congresswoman Michelle Bachmann (R-Minn.) praised a controversial Christian scholar in an interview, implying that she supports his denunciation of the Renaissance for ending the Middle Ages and instigating the decline of human culture from godly perfection. You know, the Middle Ages, when nine out of ten Europeans were legally bound to their master’s land, it was illegal not to be Catholic, virtually no one (including priests) was literate enough to know what the Bible said, and the Church could turn you over to the secular authorities to be executed on a whim. Perfection.
According to the New Yorker and the Los Angeles Times, the crux of Bachmann’s problem with the Renaissance (which she does not explicitly denounce) derives from the work of Francis Schaeffer, a Presbyterian pastor who died in 1984 and who believed that the Renaissance took a dangerous step in placing humans, rather than God, at the center of culture. For Schaeffer, this manifests in the “sinful” art of Michelangelo and Leonardo. Michelangelo, especially, is to blame because his “David” showed male nudity on a colossal scale, begging the viewer to stare at David’s penis, thus emphasizing his humanity, as opposed to God’s grace. Never mind that proportionally David’s penis is actually too small. Leonardo’s “Vitruvian Man” is bad, too, because it shows a human being instead of God at the center of the composition. Of course, showing God would be bad because that’s idolatry. So, to be safe, let’s just stick with geometric shapes. No, wait, that’s cubism and that’s a sin against God, too…
Schaeffer “was a tremendous philosopher,” Bachmann told the New Yorker. “He wrote marvellous books and was very inspirational.” (More after the jump.)
But here’s the bigger problem: Schaeffer’s (and, Bachmann implies, by extension her own) view of the Renaissance is self-negating and deeply anti-American. Schaeffer wrote:
“As the medieval period merged into the Renaissance (beginning roughly in the 1300s), a drumbeat began to sound for the complete emancipation of reason from revelation -- a crescendo that burst into full force in the Enlightenment (beginning in the 1700s).”
Let’s unpack this. Schaeffer was a Protestant minister, so surely Schaeffer must have understood that the Renaissance elevation of the individual is what allowed Protestantism to emerge in the 1500s. Without the Renaissance’s insistence that the individual had rights and power outside of the collective, there could be no Reformation. Prior to the Reformation, non-clergy (like, say, Michelle Bachmann) were not allowed to read the Bible, and no one except the Catholic hierarchy could interpret the word of God. Under the influence of German Renaissance humanism, Martin Luther boldly proclaimed that the Bible belonged to all, and all were allowed to study and read the word of God. But he did so in the context of the Renaissance, where it became possible for the first time since the Roman Empire to argue that individuals should be free to believe as they wish. It was Renaissance scholarship that made possible the previously blasphemous idea of translating the Bible into English and other vernacular tongues so non-clergy could read it.
William Tyndale was inspired by the Renaissance humanist Erasmus (someone Schaeffer considered part of the “evil” emerging from the Renaissance) to translate the Bible into English so lay readers could experience God’s word. Tyndale was tried for heresy, found guilty, and burned at the stake in 1535 for doing so, for violating God’s commandment, as interpreted by the Catholic Church, that the Bible should exist only in Latin and only for priests.
Which side of the trial would Schaeffer have supported? Or Bachmann? The medieval mindset of the Holy Church, or the Renaissance humanism of Tyndale? One cannot both reject the Renaissance while embracing the Protestantism that grew out of it.
Without the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, there would be no America. America embodies the values of the Enlightenment, nowhere more so than in the Declaration of Independence. The idea that all men are created equal, that they have inalienable rights, and that government derives from the consent of the governed and not from God are all secular, humanist, Enlightenment values. Remember, it was the European monarchs—not the American colonists—who claimed to derive their authority from God and to wield power as God’s representatives. America was to be different, to have a government that, yes, derived from the will of the people, not what authorities told the masses was the will of God. That’s why the Constitution begins “We the People” and not “By the Grace of God.”
To wish away the Renaissance is to wish away America—the real America, not the imaginary one that sprang, like Athena from the head of Zeus, fully formed from minds of Biblical literalists.
Any presidential candidate who believes (or supports those who believe) that the values that gave birth to the United States are sinful and wicked, who wishes away the very moment of America’s creation, does not deserve the honor of governing the United States.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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