November 29: Religious Toleration

Louis XVI Recognizes Protestants (1787):
Religious Toleration

Louis XVI

It was on this date, November 29, 1787, that King Louis XVI (1754-1793) promulgated an edict of tolerance, granting civil status to Protestants under French law. French Protestants, then called Huguenots, had gained toleration a century before for their religious beliefs (and respite from the Wars of Religion) with the Edict of Nantes, issued on 13 April 1598 under Henry IV. But 87 years later, Louis XIV, under the influence of his Catholic confessors, revoked the Edict. So it had taken 102 years for French Protestants — those who had chosen to remain in France after Nantes was revoked — to regain toleration.

What is religious toleration, anyway? At its most basic, toleration stands somewhere between endurance and acceptance of disagreement. The Web site religioustolerance.org puts toleration at the bottom of a continuum: without actually changing your own beliefs, you can tolerate other beliefs, or progress to acknowledgement, examination, respect, learning, valuing, or, finally, celebration of religious diversity. Catholics not only consider religious toleration a “magnanimous indulgence which one shows towards a religion other than his own” but as a “patient forbearance in the presence of an evil which one is unable or unwilling to prevent.” This last would explain why the minority of Catholics in colonial Maryland tolerated the presence of Protestants, but also explains why Catholics equate religious diversity with heresy. The Catholic Encyclopedia says:

[R]epression of heresy proceeds upon the assumption that heretics are in wilful revolt against lawful authority … who by their own culpable act have renounced the true faith … [I]t must not be forgotten that all these medieval heresies… struck at the foundations of social order. … This at least was the case with the Cathari, the Waldenses, and the Albigenses, with the Lollards and the Hussites, and it was still the case with the immediate followers of Luther, of Calvin, of Knox, and of the other early Reformers.

The idea sprang from that medieval oracle, Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), who said:

It is much graver to corrupt the soul than to corrupt the coinage, which serves only to meet the needs of the body. Hence if coining and other crimes are justly punished by death by secular princes, how much more ground there is not only to excommunicate heretics but to put them to death.

On no account should the church allow infidels to have power over the faithful or to be set above them in any way. … The church is above the state … kings must be subject to priests.

And that idea springs from the arrogant assumption that any one church holds not only the truth, but all of the truth, forever and unchanging, and that no other religion contains any truth.*

Religious toleration seems to have been merely an occasional problem in the ancient world, due to the plurality of deities and cults. Only when one religion tried to exercise dominance — as the priests of Aten in Egypt under Amenophis IV, the Taoist priests in China and the priests of Persia on occasion, and the Jewish priests after the invention of the cult of Jahveh — was there intolerance of differing religions. Of course, Atheism was never tolerated in any age until our own, and then only just barely: the first President Bush said as recently as 1987, “I don’t know that atheists should be considered as citizens, nor should they be considered patriots. This is one nation under God.”**

This should come as no surprise: Christianity has a much longer and darker history of intolerance of other religions, and of no religion, than any other religion in the history of the world. It is significant that King Louis went only halfway in his nod to freedom of religion in 1787. There is no true freedom of religion until there is freedom from religion — and in the 300-some years since that edict of tolerance, although no one dies for disagreeing anymore, humanity has taken only small steps toward discarding the assumption that loyal citizens must serve the most popular God.

* This was stated more eloquently by John Stuart Mill. ** George H.W. Bush to Robert I. Sherman, during 1988 presidential campaign, at a news conference in Chicago on 27 August 1987. You can find the full exchange at this link.

Originally published November 2003.

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Posted in History, Politics, Religion

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John Mill

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