The Conscience and Political Agency in Martin Luther and Hannah Arendt

Michael Laffin* (Corresponding Author)

*Corresponding author for this work

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Martin Luther’s pastoral practice of instructing consciences proves illuminating for thinking through the relationship between the conscience and political action. Specifically, Luther saw a clear and assured conscience as enabling free political action, while political tyranny operates, in part, by oppressing the conscience. As such, Luther’s understanding of the political efficacy of the clear conscience is remarkably close to Hannah Arendt’s insight in her early work that totalitarian terror aims to make the conscience doubtful and equivocal in order to foreclose the possibility of genuinely new action. However, Arendt’s later writings demonstrate a view of the conscience as subjectivist, and therefore unpolitical. Luther, in contrast, reads the conscience in a more intersubjective manner dependent upon instruction in the Word of God, thus narrowing the gap between politics and the conscience and revealing a practice of pastoral care that is at the same time an empowering of political agency.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)705-722
Number of pages19
JournalPolitical Theology
Issue number8
Early online date19 Sept 2020
Publication statusPublished - Sept 2020


  • Martin Luther
  • Hannah Arendt
  • conscience
  • civil disobedience
  • resistance
  • totalitarianism
  • preaching


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