Must a good politician be morally bad? In the context of the Reformation, this question revolves around how Christians would define what is "morally bad" had become suddenly and seriously complicated by competing definitions of what constitutes "morally good" behavior. The rhetoric very often yielded more heat than light: Luther's and Muntzer's apparently sincere eschatological belief that the Vatican was to be identified with the Whore of Babylon in the Book of Revelations made the question of cooperation with wicked temporal powers more than a purely academic one. Yet it is arguably the religious situation of Roman Catholicism in the first place that leads to the ethical differences in the political philosophies of Machiavelli, Luther and Muntzer. Indeed, the religious distinction that Luther upheld against the Vatican -- insisting on salvation sola fide, by faith alone, rather than by deeds -- indicates that in response to Machiavelli's secularism, Luther must invent a religious concept of sincerity. But as practitioners of Realpolitik from Talleyrand to Kissinger can attest, sincerity is a positive hindrance if politics is to be judged by its pragmatic results, and surely not even Martin Luther believed that the princes like Philip of Hesse who gave him material support were uninterested in worldly matters when they decided whether to follow Luther's break with Rome. The irony of this, as we can see in the dispute between Luther and Muntzer, is that the Reformation's break with Catholic theology made the issue of one's reputation all important in politics: as a result, the definition of what is "morally good" through sincerity quickly degenerates into the same reliance on surface appearances as Machiavelli's recommended hypocrisy.
In the context of the time period, Machiavelli's radicalism consists in having allowed himself to be the beneficiary of the rediscovery and dissemination of classical literature during the Renaissance, without interpreting Greek and Roman authors through a Christianizing lens. Indeed, besides The Prince Machiavelli's own most important philosophical writings consist in a commentary on the Roman political history of Livy. As a result, Machiavelli's philosophy (as his biographer Sebastian de Grazia notes) regards man more as the Aristotelian "politikon zoon" -- an animal whose political behavior is predictable -- rather than in the context of official Catholic doctrine concerning statecraft. As a result, Machiavelli's treatment of religion sidesteps all those doctrinal concerns which would occupy Luther (and to a lesser degree Muntzer) and concentrates upon the outward appearance. The discussion in Chapter 18 of The Prince crystallizes Machiavelli's position nicely: having offered five necessary qualities for a prince (of which the last is "religion") Machiavelli offers his view of religion's importance:
For this reason a prince ought to take care that he never lets anything slip from his lips that is not replete with the above-named five qualities, that he may appear to him who sees and hears him altogether merciful, faithful, humane, upright, and religious. There is nothing more necessary to appear to have than this last quality, inasmuch as men judge generally more by the eye than by the hand, because it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you. Every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are, and those few dare not oppose themselves to the opinion of the many, who have the majesty of the state to defend them; and in the actions of all men, and especially of princes, which it is not prudent to challenge, one judges by the result. (Chapter 18).
Machiavelli in other words recommends religion not as a guide to behavior, but to give the appearance of right and proper conduct. The prince here is only going to be judged superficially, after all: "it belongs to everybody to see you, to few to come in touch with you" indicates that outward show is more important than substance. And in a Catholic theology where all can be forgiven by confession or indulgence, Machiavelli can recommend that his prince "know how to do wrong" (Chapter 15). In Machiavelli's defense, he does not claim to be treating religious subjects here -- this is a manual of statecraft, after all. But in imitation of classical reflections on statecraft, in any of the numerous classical topoi and tag-lines referenced throughout the text of The Prince, ranging from Cicero in the Republic to Vergil in the Empire, suggests that what is most threatening to religion in Machiavelli is a willingness to consider ethics from a purely pagan standpoint, so to speak.
Yet we may usefully place the passage from Machiavelli quoted above in contradistinction to Martin Luther's political thought generally. As Luther's political thought really must be considered an extension of his theology, it is worth noting one element from Machiavelli that gets to the heart of Lutheran theology: that is Machiavelli's maxim that "every one sees what you appear to be, few really know what you are." It seems like something must have been in the air in the fifteen-teens which made the question of hypocrisy suddenly seem paramount, but questions of hypocrisy and sincerity come to the fore in Luther's view of Christian salvation. In contrast to the Vatican, which held that "good works" were necessary for salvation, Luther argued for salvation sola fide, by faith alone. This radically interiorizes the very conception of what a Christian should be judged by, in this life and in the next -- not the quality or quantity of community-related charitable acts, but the sincerity of his religious conviction. As a result, Luther thinks that devoid of religion, politics (pure and simple) lead to hypocrisy, reflected in his 1523 remarks on "Temporal Authority: The Extent it Should Be Obeyed." Arguing in favor of maintaining temporal authorities, Luther writes
No one can become righteous in the sight of God by means of the temporal government, without Christ's spiritual government. Christ's government does not extend over all men; rather, Christians are always a minority in the midst of non-Christians. Now where temporal government or law alone prevails, there sheer hypocrisy is inevitable, even though the commandments be God's own. For without the Holy Spirit in the heart no one becomes truly righteous, no matter how fine the work he does. On the other hand where the spiritual government alone prevails over land and people, there wickedness is given free rein and the door is open for all manner of rascality, for the world as a whole cannot receive or comprehend it. ("Temporal Authority" 103)
It is worth noting here that Luther assumes temporal authority to already be subject to Machiavelli's level of corruption, and indeed it was issues of corrupt worldliness that led to Luther's break with Rome in the first place. After all, the degree to which Machiavelli's controversial book attracted religious censorship from the Vatican (which would place The Prince on its Index Librorum Prohibitorum) is the degree to which it reflects accurately what latitude of behavior is permissible under the Roman Catholic church's Thomist and legalistic approach to salvation and the remission of sins. But Luther ultimately was a Biblical literalist: he rejected Copernican heliocentrism on the grounds that it conflicted with the Biblical account of Joshua stopping the sun as it rotated around the earth, and he likewise could not sidestep Christ's injunctions to obey temporal authorities. But it is worth noting that Luther's endorsement of Christ's "render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and render unto God that which is God's" assumes that, of course, any worldly ruler is as susceptible to corruption as Caesar without the guidance of God.
Of course any Reformation-minded theologian was obliged to rely heavily on scripture to make his moral arguments: both Luther and Muntzer have this in common, relying on the Gospels rather than Machiavelli's Vergil and Cicero. But in considering Muntzer's dispute with Luther, we may see the irony of Luther's attempts to reform the organizational structures of Christianity: his emphasis on salvation by faith alone, intended to challenge the level of hypocrisy permitted under the Catholic system of sacraments, leads instead to a new sort of conformism. Within Protestantism, having broken with the clerical hierarchy of Rome was radically unsettling -- indeed Muntzer charges against Luther in the "Prague Protest" of 1521 that "no one is certain of his soul's salvation" meant that a person's outward appearance and reputation became more important than their status within the larger Roman Catholic concept of Christendom, which insisted on membership in a community, "good works" and acts of charity. To some extent this emphasis on personal reputation has a sound scriptural basis (cf Proverbs 22:1) but in practice, of course, it means that political and religious argument are conducted within elaborate prosopographical structures in which the writer must demonstrate his sincerity through textual description responding to his opponent's calumnies. Muntzer's replies to Luther are therefore full of this kind of wild invective -- the 1524 "Provoked Defense" (perhaps to insist upon the title's implicit claim that any rhetorical violence here…