An act of conscience, 500 years in the making

An act of conscience, 500 years in the making
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Five centuries ago this month, a German theology professor celebrated the Catholic Church’s holiest feast day by nailing a single sheet of paper to the main cathedral door in Wittenberg.  

Martin Luther wielded his pen as an act of personal conscience, to save his church from corrupt papal leaders lining their treasuries with the proceeds from selling salvation to the highest bidder and return that church to the faithful clergy worshipping in the pews. Equally importantly, Luther’s “Ninety-five Theses” were a public invitation to a robust debate regarding Christianity’s fundamental principles, because Luther recognized that it would require Catholics uniting together to restore the church. 

Luther paid dearly for his words, excommunicated by his beloved church and only saved from death by a set of local princes who believed in his cause. However, Luther’s act of defiance long outlived him — a defining event for Christendom.


Even with all of our stumbles and missteps, our nation has served for more than two centuries as a temple for democracy representing the will of the people and a sacred trust upholding the fundamental principles of liberty, justice and union. The bright light of freedom has radiated from that temple like a beacon to the world, safeguarding our rights to fairness and opportunity in exchange for our committed service as responsible citizens.


Our elected leaders have sworn an oath to protect our democratic institutions for all Americans in a spirit of fairness, mutual respect, and without regard for partisanship. Though flickering dimly at times, that light has endured a civil war, great depressions, financial panics, and global confrontations to emerge on the other side with a brighter glow.

However, Americans now find themselves in an oddly similar predicament to the one that Luther found himself in 1517, as our nation continues to buckle under the weight of the corrosive impact from cynicism, pessimism and desire for power.  

Just as corrupt Church officials peddled false promises in God’s name for personal enrichment, many elected leaders today shamelessly preach the gospels of demagoguery, rancor and fear to tear at the fabric of national unity by pitting neighbor against neighbor.

Rather than protect our cherished temple of democracy, these politicians undermine the institutions that provide its foundation for a just society and position themselves as the primary source of authority. They have weaponized the bully pulpit of social media, propagating false narratives and branding public debate as heresy in order to restrict liberty of thought and robustness of discourse. 

These efforts desecrate our sacred trust by subverting the legitimate source of democratic power — the will of the people.

We are being called today to become the 21st century heirs to Luther, wielding our virtual pens as forces for reclaiming our nation’s sacred trust from these false idols of the soundbite and returning it to all who choose to follow the guiding principles of democracy.

Similar to Luther’s invitation with his “Ninety-five Theses,” restoring that trust will require opening our republic’s door to vigorous debate about our core values and then uniting together as Americans to uphold them. Our alternative is to remain silent, together complicit in extinguishing the light of freedom that our predecessors have so carefully nurtured over the last two centuries and passed along to us. 

Though engaging in this act of conscience may be politically risky for some of us, the repercussions pale in comparison to the judgment of history should we fail to act — as Luther noted during his excommunication proceedings at the Diet of Worms, “acting against our conscience is neither safe nor open to us.”

Jim Kolbe is a senior transatlantic fellow at the German Marshall Fund and served as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1985-2007. Jason Schmitt is an executive at Amazon and was recognized by the Bush Center and Clinton Foundation as a presidential leadership scholar in 2016. These views are theirs alone and not those of any organizations with which they are associated.