Martin Luther, Mitt Romney, and the “Wise Turk”

Martin Luther is eminently quotable. He had a way with words and could wield them with force and power. I was very disappointed, therefore, to learn a couple of years ago that my favorite Luther quote didn’t actually derive from Luther. Ever since then, I have been skeptical about Luther quotes. Whenever I hear one, I verify it.

I bring this up because all the talk about Mitt Romney’s Mormonism in the news is bound to summon forth another famous line that has been falsely attributed to Luther. Here’s the quote:

“I’d rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a foolish Christian.”

The attribution of this quote to Luther has been widespread. It even made it into a Nicholas Kristof column in The New York Times a few years ago. The only problem is that this line appears to be another one from the apocryphal Luther as opposed to the historical one. Richard John Neuhaus put this one to rest several years ago in First Things. He writes:

I’ve been trying to put it to rest for years, but this cat has nine times nine lives. She appears again in another incarnation in an interview that Jeff Greenfield did with Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition. Greenfield asks whether one can derive from Christian faith a set of public policy specifics. Reed: “I guess my argument on that would be what Martin Luther said, which is: I would rather be operated on by a Turkish surgeon than a Christian butcher.” The usual form of it is, “I would rather be ruled by a wise Turk than by a stupid Christian.” I had used it for years in speeches and writing until I was challenged. My curiosity piqued, I launched an inquiry that ended up involving scholars and librarians both here and in Europe, only to discover that Luther never said it. It fits Luther’s “twofold kingdom” approach to civil governance, and he said much of the same purport, but please take this as yet another effort to put it to rest.

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