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The Protestant Reformation was 500 years ago. What needs reform in American religion today?

Washington Post illustration; images from the Metropolitan Museum of Art and iStock

This month marks a half-millennium since Martin Luther launched a challenge to the Catholic Church known as the Protestant Reformation, which remade Christianity in the West. To mark the anniversary, The Washington Post asked faith leaders, as well as Post readers: “What do you think needs reforming in the practice of religion in the United States today?”

Pastor Thabiti Anyabwile, pastor of the Anacostia River Church in Washington, author and member of the Gospel Coalition, a group of leading American evangelical pastors

Evangelicalism, to be viable in a world of increasing conflict, will need to overhaul its understanding and practice of biblical justice.

The movement needs a reformation in its commitment to the poor, vulnerable, marginalized and oppressed. It needs to admit and repent any complicity in and indifference to oppression. God does not accept the “worship” of His people when they participate in oppression and injustice. Any religious movement that oppresses or mocks the poor insults its Maker.

Evangelicalism has been ethically compromised since George Whitefield, considered a founder of the movement in the 1700s, decided he could acceptably run an orphanage while using slaves. Evangelicalism has been theologically compromised since Jonathan Edwards, another major 1700s evangelical figure, decided to defend the revivals but not defend the release of Africans.

From its inception, in the example of its greatest figures, conservative Protestant Christianity has suffered a catastrophic inconsistency that comes from its willingness to divide the gospel message from the gospel life, to divide body and soul, indeed, to exploit the bodies of some while claiming to care for their souls. That sawing asunder of doctrine and duty continues to this day. We have yet to see evangelicalism “bear fruits in keeping with repentance” and “to practice the weightier matters of the law: mercy and justice and faithfulness.”

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The movement still needs to learn that our Lord “desires mercy rather than sacrifice.” Until we see continued reform around biblical justice among professing evangelicals, the struggle continues.

Mary Ingalls Woodell, 63, Carrboro, N.C.

Return religion to its proper place, which is in the privacy of the individual mind and heart. Stop imposing religious beliefs on those who do not share them, whether by proselytizing or political action — I do not want to pay for megachurches with my tax dollars or expose my grandchildren to creationist junk science. I do not want to see my gay brother refused service or employment because of anyone’s personal beliefs, or my daughter forced to abide by any religion’s ideas of what’s right for her reproductive health. And I should not have to.


Bishop Michael B. Curry, presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church

The Reformation was a part of a titanic change in the spiritual world of Europe 500 years ago. Interestingly, the advent of the Reformation and the development of the Gutenberg printing press were intertwined. In fact, the Reformation probably could not have occurred without the printing press. It brought writing in general, and sacred writings in particular, to the local people.

Knowledge and information of all kinds became accessible to more people. And that was a game changer. The world changed.

Five hundred years later, the computer chip and the online world have done much the same thing for us. We have access to information, news and other people from all over the world, often in real time. The reality of globalization and the cyber revolution is likely occasioning another reformation of Christianity.

One of the great contributions of the Protestant Reformation was the recovery of the truth that the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ are the key to authentic Christian living and witness.

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That is indeed still true. But in this age, where we all now live with great ethnic diversity and religious plurality, I wonder if the way of love that Jesus of Nazareth taught may rise as a key for faithful living. The Internet revolution and the globalization of our lives in virtually every respect now demand that we must find the way to human community and community with the creation itself.


Sally Heilstedt, 32, Renton, Wa.

The restoration we need is no longer found in buildings and formal gatherings. Those lost their authenticity long ago. But, if [religious people] can find it again, if they can love people more than ideas … they can offer just what the world needs: the radical, difficult love that demands us to be our best and truly and deeply values us when we are not.


Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, best-selling author and chief rabbi of the United Kingdom and Commonwealth from 1991-2013

The Reformation coincided with a revolution in information technology, Gutenberg’s invention of printing. Martin Luther’s ideas had already been anticipated by John Wycliffe in Oxford almost two centuries earlier. But printing was still unknown in the West, so Wycliffe’s influence remained local, while Luther’s spread throughout Europe and transformed it.

In fact, all the great spiritual leaps have gone hand-in-hand with revolutions in information technology. Writing led to the birth of civilization. The alphabet lead to monotheism. The widespread use of the Codex, as opposed to the scroll, coincided with the birth of Christianity.

That is a measure of the challenge before us. Thus far, the most effective users of the Internet and the social media have been the radical Jihadists, who despise Western civilization and all its works, while in the West it has been used to spread paranoia, hatred and “fake news,” threatening the very fabric of the good society.

The reformation the West now needs is to use our technology to spread a love of liberty and the nonnegotiable dignity of the individual, created in God’s image.

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We can do this by using words, images and music to communicate a mood of spirituality through brief videos for YouTube and Facebook. We can use the new media to make the study of sacred texts globally accessible. We can use interactive platforms like Facebook Live to allow a potential two billion people to be in dialogue with religious leaders of all kinds. We must use the Web to communicate religion at its best and not as it has been used by ISIS to communicate religion at its most brutal and barbarous.

This is the spiritual task before us, to use the new social media technologies to speak to the better angels of our nature. If we don’t, we will have failed to use this great gift God has given us as a source of blessing to the future.


Bob Downing, 72, Beverly, Mass.

Could we (all of us, without regard to a particular religion) please focus on belief systems based on loving our fellow human beings, offering forgiveness for transgressions instead of immediately applying sanctions and penalties?  Could we start there?


Sharon Salzberg, a Buddhist meditation teacher, author and co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society, one of the Western world’s oldest and largest meditation retreat centers

My first meditation teacher, SN Goenka, began my introduction to Buddhism in 1971 by saying, “The Buddha did not teach Buddhism. He taught a way of life.” He consciously separated what he taught from the need to call oneself a “Buddhist,” or to adopt an ideology or belief system.

Another early teacher, Anagarika Munindra, said: “The Buddha’s enlightenment solved the Buddha’s problem. Now you solve yours.” I was quite inspired! It felt like the first time someone looked at me as though to say, “You can solve your problem, you can do it.”

Buddhism has devotional aspects to it, and certainly respect toward figures including the Buddha, but the whole point is actualizing our own capacity for freedom — not following a rule system that is aspirational.

This struggle against abstractions and systems continues.

In modern-day America, I have more conversations about “what’s the minimum amount of time I need to meditate each day and still change my brain” (8 minutes, for the record) than about how to live a meaningful life, or the interplay between non-attachment and compassion, or what to do the entire rest of the day.

Right now in America, while we are busy looking for methods that will get us the most gray matter for the least effort, we are increasingly missing the importance of community, the essential power of compassion and the way that how we speak to one another affects our peace of mind as we sit in meditation.

I suspect there is likely a natural rhythm to reforms, and hope that the next reform to happen in America will be a return to a more holistic, less rules-based vision of the path, which was the original teaching of the Buddha.


Pastor Paula White, an adviser to President Trump, chair of his Evangelical Advisory Board and the first female member of the clergy to offer the invocation at a presidential inauguration

In the gospels, the public ministry of Jesus is bookended by two phrases. First, Jesus said, “repent for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand” and at the end he prayed, “father may they be one as you and I are one.” Five hundred years after a return to the simple theology of Christianity, we are desperately in need of a reformation in the heart of faith.

Jesus’ first words and his last words both require course corrections. The first requires a scalpel to one’s heart and the second requires one lay down their sword. Neither is easy, but both are required.

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A world in conflict needs a church united, and a world in confusion requires a church without division. Times of uncertainty require a church of hope and unity. This is not the job of politicians or the responsibility of government. It is the call of the church, and when the church is purified and unified then the kingdom of man succumbs to the kingdom of God.

Peace then will become ever present, and the authorities of this Earth will have fewer problems to solve, fewer evils to secure, and more hope than they can handle.

Christians must return to the first words and to the last words of Jesus’ public ministry. Repentance requires a change of mind; we must return to the place we departed from. Unity requires a change of attitude which calls us to work to bring the world together.

We must return to the simple, profound and convicting words of Jesus, beginning in the church.


Omar W. Brown Jr., 27, Kingston, Jamaica

To “love your neighbor as your self” is known as the second greatest commandment in the Christian scriptures. Yet the first thing that we do is to vilify our neighbors. We feed into pre-defined political narratives without looking for nuance and complexity. I find that even before loving our neighbors, there needs to be a reformation in finding out who our neighbor actually is.


Cardinal Blase Cupich, Catholic archbishop of Chicago

Last October, during an ecumenical service marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, Pope Francis zeroed in on a key aspect of the rancor that once characterized Catholic-Protestant relations.

“There was a sincere will on the part of both sides to profess and uphold the true faith,” the pope explained. “But at the same time we realize that we closed in on ourselves out of fear or bias with regard to the faith which others profess with a different accent and language.”

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Francis has sounded this theme since his papacy began: Authentic Christianity never closes in on itself. It always leaves its comfort zone to listen to others, especially those shunted to the margins of society. Of course, Jesus and his disciples were people on the move. They preached the good news — when necessary, using words. They accompanied the excluded. They healed the sick.

This is why the pope refers to the church as a field hospital. It sets up shop where the need is greatest. It meets people on their fields of battle.

How many fields of need we have today, whether in the harrowing journey of the migrant, in the search for a decent job, or in the alienation one feels from one’s own family, society or faith community. This impulse to attend to those in pain is at the heart of any religious reform. When Christianity becomes stagnant, its lungs fill with stale air.

In 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, one of the greatest reforming events in the history of the church. It reformed the church’s approach to worship, other religions, even the world itself. He wanted to open the windows of the church to let the Spirit blow in. Now Pope Francis is inviting us to open doors and go out to serve a world in need. “Ecclesia semper reformanda est.” The church must always be reformed.


Elizabeth Stork, 59, Pittsburgh

The presumption that all of us are Christian or understand and support Christian beliefs and traditions; that this is a Christian country.


Bill Alexander, 61, Blue Ridge, Ga.

I’m from Reddest Redneckistan … and [think we need to change] the way a sort of White Identity Politics has subsumed Christianity, and made it tribal: instead of paying attention to the plain words of Jesus.


Imam Omar Suleiman, founder and president of the Yaqeen Institute for Islamic Research, and Islamic Studies professor at Southern Methodist University

The Protestant Reformation revolved around Christians challenging papal authority and demanding their own direct access to religious texts. For that reason the event, and the word “reformation,” are seen through modern eyes as success — liberation from an oppressive religious institution.

This is not how “reformation” is seen in the Muslim world.

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Historically, rather than keeping power and knowledge to themselves, Islamic scholars shared both with the masses — facilitating education and the promotion of independent thinking, known in Islam as ijtihad. And while Islamic scholars have generally been strict regarding essential principles of the faith (such as belief in God, Mohammad as his messenger), peripheral issues (such as how economic transactions work) have always been considered matters of debate and discussion.

It’s only in the past century that this has this changed dramatically, as the Muslim institutions that oversaw such decisions were violently dismantled by colonial powers prior to the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1918. That led, eventually, to groups like ISIS.

Today, for Muslims in America (and elsewhere), the term “reform” conjures not enlightenment but chaos and destruction by groups like ISIS who claim they are “reforming” Islam through their horrific actions.

In Islam, the reform we want is more of a revival of our faith’s traditional fundamental principles — equity, harmony, compassion — in the face of a modern aberration. Then the Muslim community can serve humanity according to the Prophetic example.


Olivia Elder, 21, Houston

The “Religious Right” as a movement didn’t have a strong political platform until the 1980 presidential election. Yet somehow, my identity as a religious, liberal, young person seems out of place today. … According to the Pew Research Center, 84 percent of Democrats believe in God, and 72 percent believe religion is at least somewhat important in one’s life. We cannot act like these identities are diametrically opposed. The faithful left desperately needs reform — we need to stop making divides and start making coalitions.


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