Religious Freedom as an Enlightenment Problem


It’s usual to besmirch the Middle Ages as a time of superstition and intolerance. That charge has some merit, so long as we remember that the witch-burning craze and a host of other nasty phenomena–the Spanish Inquisition, New World slavery, the full development of a concept of race based on blood/genealogy/genetics rather than climate–all begin or at least find their feet in the Early Modern Period, which, depending on what we’re measuring, generally is thought to begin in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth centuries.

Religious war, likewise, can be called “medieval,” so long as we remember that, despite the crusades, religion was far from a primary cause of war in the Middle Ages. That, again, is an early modern phenomenon. Here’s Dr Cleveland, with a summary:

The 16th and 17th centuries were periods of ferocious religious warfare, complete with terrorism, persecution, assassination, torture, inquisitions, and massacres of civilians. I use none of those terms figuratively. Kings were stabbed to death by religious fanatics. Religious leaders were burned alive in the public square. Conspirators plotted to blow up government buildings, to overthrow regimes. Women and children were beaten to death by mobs of their own neighbors. All of this was done by Christians to other Christians, and no denomination’s hands were clean. If you look back at this history hoping to find that your own church behaved like the good guys, you will be sorely disappointed. Every existing Christian group played both the villain and the victim, more than once.

The hundred years or so before the Constitutional Convention saw the European religious conflicts modulate somewhat, so that religion became one volatile and dangerous wild card in larger games of international conflict and domestic factionalism. But religious intolerance and aggression did not go away. The settlement of the Thirteen Colonies was partly driven by the need to escape various forms of sectarian prosecution. And while the wars of religion were no longer the main show, they were certainly not gone. The last armed revolt aimed at putting a Roman Catholic on the English throne was in 1745. Benjamin Franklin was 39 years old at the time.

Of course, we might blame this widescale war on the increase in Europe’s wealth during its great period of growth as a colonial power; but we also might blame the same keen early modern thought that led to the flourishing of experimental science and, eventually, atheism. This thought, too, applied itself to religious matters, and, in so doing, would have found new, independent truths. Being religious truths, they were worth killing for. As Dr Cleveland writes, “The greatest danger to Christians’ religious freedom is always other Christians.”

With that in mind, a secular state’s specific protection of religion above other kinds of belief is a response not to a medieval but to a specifically modern problem of war between the sects. There’s war like this prior to the moderns: I think of Gregory of Tours‘ sixth-century enthusiasm for war against Arian Christians. Still, by comparison to Europe between the sixteenth and eighteenth century, medieval war of this sort is very rare.

The American constitution’s protection of religious beliefs above other beliefs therefore strikes me as an Enlightenment problem, designed not to deal with the “medieval” problem of belief, but rather the Enlightenment problem of the independent search for truth. The problem of religious protection and religious conflict between nonprofessionals (i.e., not theologians) in a secular or at least nominally religiously pluralistic nation is internal to the Enlightenment, not, by any means, a problem that can be blamed on its “medieval” outside.

So can it with the self-satisfied “medieval” smear. My period has plenty of things wrong with it, but this Hobby Lobby problem: that’s on you moderns.

For more on the problems of modernity and religion, see my review of James Simpson’s Burning to Read. Kathleen Davis and Kathy Biddick are key critics of the use of the label “medieval.”

And for all this, I’m sure I’m not the first one to say it; nor am I a medieval historian. Throw me some cites, and I’ll update the blog post accordingly, with appropriate credit.

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