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The freedom on which all others depend

How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West; Perez Zagorin; Princeton University Press: 372 pp., $29.95

November 23, 2003|James Q. Wilson | James Q. Wilson, a professor of public policy at Pepperdine University, is the author of "The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families."

When I once gave a lecture in England on religious freedom in the West, a Muslim scholar asked why anyone should care. The answer, I thought, was that the material and cultural progress of a nation depends on the creation and maintenance of human freedom, and that in turn depends on religious freedom. If you think the state should enforce on others your views about God and his demands, it is most unlikely that you will allow the state to recognize freedom of speech or the press or an unfettered right to scientific inquiry.

The primacy of religious freedom is made evident by the fact that in the West, the struggle over religious freedom predated by about three centuries any discussion of free speech or a free press. Until the first issue was settled, the second would have little meaning. How can people argue over who is to rule if they must first grant the right to rule to people of a chosen faith?

In much of the Muslim world, religious freedom has not emerged, or the tumult caused by the rivalry between sects -- for example, Shiites and Sunnis -- has paved the way for totalitarian regimes to grab power. Any of these outcomes, whether it is religious intolerance, state-linked religious struggle or military dictatorship, holds back human and scientific development.

In the West, religious freedom did not arise until more than 1,500 years after Christ's death. Christianity in the New Testament makes scarcely any claims for enforced religious orthodoxy, but once the religion had been embraced in the 4th century by the Emperor Constantine, its leaders and their political allies began to demand it. Some people were converted to the faith by the sword, and alleged heretics were burned at the stake. To achieve religious freedom without abandoning religious belief became in time the most difficult task the West faced.

Perez Zagorin, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Rochester in New York, has provided an explanation for this change in his new book, "How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West." Freedom came, he says, because thoughtful and brave writers argued for it. He discusses many names familiar to Americans, such as Erasmus, John Milton, John Locke and James Madison, but he also brings to our attention 16th and 17th century religious thinkers about whom most people have never heard, such as Sebastian Castellio, Pierre Bayle and Dirck Volckertszoon Coornhert.

At this point, you may decide not to read a book devoted to intellectual history, especially if it discusses writers hardly anyone has encountered. That would be a mistake, because this book is never dull and often exciting. It offers a gripping account of the struggle over religious freedom between Frenchmen John Calvin and Castellio. Calvin, a minister, became the founder of the Reformed Church theocracy that ran Geneva; Castellio, a teacher in Basel, publicly attacked Calvin for authorizing the execution of a supposed heretic. Calvin called Castellio a man who "vomits venom." Castiello wrote, "To kill a man is not to defend a doctrine, it is to kill a man."

Their arguments are deeply important, but there is a rival explanation for religious freedom that Zagorin dismisses out of hand. It was best stated by British historian Herbert Butterfield, who said that toleration was "the last policy that remained when it had proved impossible to go on fighting any longer." One faith might attempt to dominate another, but if the nation was torn apart by this struggle, wise statesmen would in time realize that the only way to end the struggle was for toleration (and, in time, true freedom) to be embraced.

The best evidence that political judgment played an important role in the rise of religious freedom is where it first emerged. All Europe was mired in religious strife, but only in certain places, England and to an extent the Netherlands, did toleration first gain a foothold.

Religious differences caused the English civil war in the 17th century, as Puritans, led by Oliver Cromwell, unseated, then executed an Anglican king. Though Cromwell was a stern believer in his own faith, he was wise enough to see that faith alone could not run the country, so he urged Parliament to grant religious liberty to "all who fear God," provided only that they did not disturb the peace, and he began to readmit exiled Jews.

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