Have you ever considered why separation of church and state evolved, why we are more religiously tolerant today than in the past?
At one time, church and state intertwined and tolerance was a minority opinion. Even prior to establishment of a Constitutional Republic in the United States, there was quite a bit of church-state entanglement. The results were often bloody and always nasty. Even when only Protestant Christians had their rights respected, they frequently and repeatedly turned on one another even to the point of killing people for being the wrong kind of Protestant Christian. There was never a Judeo-Christian heritage, because the colonies routinely excluded Jews and Catholics from having legal rights and some colonies refused to allow either to settle there.
Bloody persecution of Christians, by Christians, in the colonies, was mild in comparison to the centuries of bloodshed in Europe over which form of Christianity should be imposed on everyone. Martin Luther explained: “In a country there must be one preaching only allowed.” Other forms of preaching were considered rebellion and Luther spoke of how to deal with such matters: “Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab, secretly and openly, remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful or devilish than a rebel.” While the bloody history of Catholicism is well known, mainly due to publishing efforts of Protestants, the genocidal impulse in Protestantism has not been so duly noted.
Luther is a good example of Protestant intolerance. In 1525 he said Catholic mass should be forcibly suppressed as blasphemy. In 1530, he said Anabaptists should be put to death. In 1536, he said Jews should be forced out of the country. His view was that the State should enforce Christian teaching, more particularly Luther’s teachings, by force. “The public authority is bound to repress blasphemy, false doctrine and heresy, and to inflict corporal punishment on those that support such things.”
Many people today have no idea that Europe was plunged into a series of wars, over a period of about 150 years, all between competing sects of Christians intent on wiping out other forms of Christianity. The last such major war was the Thirty Years’ War, from 1618-1648. Direct and indirect casualties in the war amounted to between 15% and 30% of all Germans. In Czech areas, population declined by about one-third as a result of the war and as a result of diseases spread because of the conflict. It is thought that Swedish armies destroyed as many as one-third of all towns in Germany. Estimates are that this period of Christian conflict resulted in the deaths of 7 million people. R.J. Rummel estimates the death toll higher, at 11.5 million. An objective look at the history of Christian conflicts caused Prof. Perez Zagorin to conclude: “Of all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant.” Even Aquinas, held up as an advocate of reason, said that if the state executed forgers it could “with much more justice” take heretics and “immediately upon conviction, be not only excommunicate but also put to death.” Zagorin says: “None of the Protestant churches—neither the Lutheran Evangelical, The Zwinglian, the Calvinist Reformed nor the Anglican—were tolerant or acknowledged any freedom to dissent.” [How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, Princeton University Press, 2003.]
Just during the short reign of England’s Catholic Queen Mary I (1554-1558) some 300 Protestants were burned at the stake for heresy. And in 1572 Catholics in France went on the rampage over a period of several weeks, rounding up and massacring Protestants. Death tolls are uncertain, but believed to range from 5,000 to 30,000. Of course, in the name of Jesus, neither women nor children were spared the sword.
So, what were some reasons that traditional intolerance and violence amongst Christians ended? There are several. One is that bloodshed had become intolerable and Christians grew weary of constantly slaughtering one another. While that played a role in the matter, it was not the prime reason.
Other explanations exist as well and each played a role. One is that the Enlightenment took place and there was a burst of rationality on the continent. This rationality not only lead to a rise in scientific progress, but it also meant that more and more Europeans had become skeptical of Christianity. Orthodox Christianity was being undermined from the inside, leading to a diminution of its influence. Within Catholicism, the Scholastic revolution of Aquinas had already revived an interest in reason.
Protestantism, however, was a very different thing. Much of the impetus of the Reformation was to attack these worrisome influences of human reasoning. Luther and Calvin both opposed the use of reason to draw conclusions about truth. Contrary to imaginations of Protestant apologists, the Reformation was the enemy of reason, not an ally. Prof. Frederick Beisner, in his important history, The Sovereignty of Reason [Princeton University Press, 1996], writes:
…The early theology of the Reformation cannot be regarded as the forerunner, still less as the foundation, of modern rationalism. Rather, it is its antithesis, indeed its nemesis, an attempt to revive the spirit and outlook of medieval Augustinianism. Luther’s and Calvin’s aim was to restore this Augustinian tradition—its teachings concerning faith, grace, sin, and predestination—by purging it of all its pagan and scholastic [Thomistic] accretions.
Beisner’s important book shows how the Reformation religions of the Protestants were themselves later reformed. Thomas Hooker, in his work Of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie , revived an interest in reason among Protestants. His defense of reason was the “revival of the scholastic, natural law tradition, and in particular that of Aquinas and Suarez, which had been cast overboard by Luther and Calvin.” Hooker influenced one of the great liberals of the Enlightenment, John Locke.
Later the circle of scholars and theologians who had gathered together, under the sponsorship of Lord Falkland, known as the Tew Circle, emphasized reason as well. While orthodox Protestants, they held reason as the only means of understanding religion. In fact, reason was allowed to judge religion and draw conclusions. These men became an influence on the more radical skeptics in the free thought movement later. They argued that faith could only come through reason, not from grace. They opposed the predestination theory of Calvin and Luther, believing salvation was obtained by good works, not by grace, and they believed in toleration of others.
They were followed by the Cambridge Platonists, a group of scholars at Cambridge, who “went several strides beyond Hook and Great Tew in the direction of a greater rationalism. To begin with, they were the first thinkers in the English Protestant tradition to develop a systematic natural theology.” Beisner writes that they “affirmed the principle of the sovereignty of reason. They saw reason as the final rule of faith, a standard higher than Scripture, inspiration, or tradition.” In other words, while the original Reformation was actually a step-backwards for modernity, the Reformation was later reformed by a series of thinkers who reintroduced the hated Aristotelian forms of thinking.
The forefathers of modern libertarianism, the classical liberals, first campaigned for freedom of conscience. They wanted to limit the power of the state because the state was the instrument by which intolerant church policies were imposed on the public. The church, preferring to not have blood on its hands directly, left the killing to the state. So the state imposed theological order at the point of the gun—or more accurately at the time, at the point of the sword. Transgressors would be identified and executed, often at the stake. But what the state was doing was entirely at the behest of the church. The church is pretty much a toothless dog when it doesn’t have access to state power: It can bark, but it can’t bite.
As liberalism reduced state power, it directly reduced the ability of the church to impose theological conformity. What we saw, with the unleashing of human reason, was growth in skepticism, a desire for natural, scientific explanations for reality, limitation of the state, and the rise of a depoliticized, or capitalist, market system. As Sir Samuel Brittan put it: "The breakdown of theological authority, the rise of scientific spirit and the growth of capitalism were inter-related phenomena."
More and more, individuals began to think for themselves regarding religion. And the result was a splintering of the church. Instead of one “holy mother church” sitting astride Europe, numerous sects began to evolve. At first this splintering meant a bloodbath, as each sect tried to jockey for monopoly privileges and access to the swords of the state. This is precisely why the series of religious wars were fought, as an attempt to destroy diversity of thought and impose conformity.
This splintering reduced the power of the church as a whole by spreading it among various sects. No one sect was guaranteed enough power to successful grab control of the state. If it tried, it would face opposition from the other sects, not because they favored freedom of thought, but because they feared repression for themselves. Voltaire [Lettres philosophiques, 1734] noted: “If one religion only were allowed in England, the Government would very possibly become arbitrary; if there were but two, the people would cut one another’s throats; but as there are such a multitude, they all live happy and in peace.”
We found that in the history of the United States. Prior to the formation of the constitutional union, each state was independent and free. And the states tended to be dominated by one sect or another. Using that dominance, the church would then use state power to oppress other, minority sects. Jews, Catholics, Quakers and Baptists were favored targets of the state sanctioned church.
Yet when the Constitution was written the First Amendment explicitly rejected a church-state alliance. This was not because the majority of founders had seen the light about the evils of a church dominating a state, but rather because none could be sure that their church would be the one that would dominate. No one sect dominated the nation as a whole. While Anglicans dominated Virginia they had no power in Massachusetts. The Congregationalists, who controlled Massachusetts, had no influence in Pennsylvania.
Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked to end state sanctioned religion in Virginia, but only succeeded when other faiths had immigrated to the state in sufficient numbers to undermine Anglican dominance. Freedom of religion came about, not because the various sects had adopted liberal values, but because each of them was unsure they could control the state when it came time to name the sanctioned church.
Capitalism is not just the result of more freedom; it is also the cause of new freedoms. Capitalism undermines the ability of the state to impose conformity. Technology encourages diversity of thought, which challenges any theological claim to monopolize what is true, or good for man.
There is a marvelous section in Victor Hugo’s Notre Dame de Paris , where he depicts a printing press. Through the window we see the cathedral. Inside a man is standing. He points first at the press, and then to the cathedral, saying: “this will destroy that. The Book will destroy the Edifice.” Hugo wrote further:
To our mind, this thought has two aspects. In the first place it was a view pertaining to the priest—it was the terror of the ecclesiastic before a new force—printing. It was the servant of the dim sanctuary scared and dazzled by the light that streamed from Gutenberg’s press.
Free speech encourages diversity of opinion and directly leads to the splintering of sects and creeds. Capitalism encourages this process. Prof. Nicholas Wolfson noticed this:
It is no accident that capitalism and free speech are so frequently present together. The free flow of information, ideas and technology is essential in the modern age. We live in an age of information. The computer, the microchip, the fax, television, and cinema have created a universe in which the barriers to information and new ideas fail everywhere. Efforts to restrain free speech limit not only intellectual freedom, but result in a stultified and failed economic system. It is no accident that communism collapsed as this age came to fruition. Communist systems were unable to compete in the new technology and the new economies based upon the computer. The explosive mix of free speech, fax machines, and computers has created a universal knowledge and appreciation of the achievement of democracy and capitalism. (The Theory of Truly Free Speech, Nicholas Wolfson, 60 University of Cincinnati Law Review 1, 1991.)
Capitalism also rewarded tolerance. This is important. Merchants found that the most beneficial trade they could make was often with someone of a different faith or creed. Refusal to trade with them meant lost opportunities and foregone profits. Again, Voltaire noticed this as well:
Take a view of the Royal Exchange in London, a place more venerable than many courts of justice, where the representatives of all nations meet for the benefit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan [Muslim], and the Christian transact together, as though they all professed the same religion, and give the name of infidel to none but bankrupts. There the Presbyterian confides in the Anabaptist, and the Churchman depends on the Quaker's word. At the breaking up of this pacific and free assembly, some withdraw to the synagogue, and others to take a glass. This man goes and is baptized in a great tub, in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost: that man has his son's foreskin cut off, whilst a set of Hebrew words (quite unintelligible to him) are mumbled over his child. Others retire to their churches, and there wait for the inspiration of heaven with their hats on, and all are satisfied.
Commerce rewards tolerance by increasing the number of trading possibilities. Trade undermines prejudice in all areas: be it religious, ethnic, racial or sexual. Bigotry flourishes when the bigot can pass the cost of such practices on to the entire society, but when he must bear the direct costs of his prejudice he is more reluctant to do so. Some may still prefer to engage in traditional, prejudicial practices, but they are at a competitive disadvantage to competitors who fail to do so. Brittan said, “Capitalist civilization is above all rationalist.” The entrepreneur, as a profit maximizer is forced to ignore the “traditional, mystical or ceremonial justification of existing practices.” This rejection of the traditional, means depoliticized markets are inherently anti-conservative. The gay marriage debate is a good example. Private businesses have largely adopted measures to recognize gay relationships among their employees. It is the political sphere that is behind the times. The state rarely forces change. Most of the time it is an impediment to social changes and only plays catch-up once the cultural revolution is over.
Businessmen, who rely on voluntary exchange, have long been leaders of movements that undermine traditional prejudices. People who trade want more trading options, not less, and prejudicial policies limit the number of options. Henry Kamen, in The Rise of Toleration [McGraw Hill, 1967], wrote:
The expansion of commercial capitalism, particularly in Europe’s two principal maritime powers, Holland and England, was a powerful factor in the destruction of religious restrictions. Trade was usually a stronger argument than religion. Catholic Venice in the sixteenth century was reluctant to close its ports to the ships of the Lutheran Hanseatic traders. The English wool interest spent the first half of the seventeenth century in energetic opposition to the anti-Spanish policy of the government. By the Restoration in 1660 it was widely held that trade knows no religious barriers; the important corollary that followed from this was that the abolition of religious barriers would promote trade.
In his Political Arithmetic, written in 1670 but only published twenty years later, Sir William Petty said “for the advancement of trade… indulgence must be granted in matters of opinion.” Even opponents of trade recognized this true, and said it was one reason to oppose trade. Samuel Parker’s A Discourse on Ecclesiastical Politie , said “tis notorious that there is not any sort of people so inclinable to seditious practices as the trading part of a nation.” The chaplain to the Earl of Berkeley warned, “that the great outcry for liberty of trade is near of kin to that of liberty of conscience.”