Religious Toleration and Political Rights


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    In all ages of the world, priests have been enemies of liberty.
    David Hume, Essays: Moral and Political (1741-2), "The Sceptic"


    Political rights were as dangerous as religious liberty, and Christian sects tried hard to deny both. At a diet at Spier in 1529 the Roman Catholic majority demanded religious liberty for Roman Catholics in Lutheran territories while refusing it to Lutherans in Catholic ones.(Protestations of the Lutherans over this gave rise to the name Protestant) Pope Clement VIII attacked the Edict of Nantes in 1598 on the grounds that it gave rights of citizenship to all, irrespective of their religion. It was, he said, the worst thing in the world. Later, Pope Innocent X condemned the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 because it granted toleration to all citizens, whatever their religion. Papal protests were heard wherever such advances were made. For there part the Protestants were a mirror image, demanding rights and liberties for themselves in Catholic territories, while denying rights and liberties to Catholics in Protestant territories.

    The idea of toleration was inimical to the Churches. Its champions were invariably regarded by Christians as their enemies. In England the philosopher John Locke led the movement for toleration in his Letter on Toleration in 1666. In his Treatise on Government in 1689 he argued for human rights to life, liberty and property. In Europe the first ruler to espouse religious toleration was Frederick the Great (1712-1786) , a man who detested all denominations equally. In eighteenth century France the greatest champion of toleration was Voltaire. He spent much of his life fighting against religious intolerance, injustice and inhuman punishments. The Church also regarded other liberal thinkers as its enemies. In 1748 Montesquieu published L"Esprit des Lois (The Spirit of the Laws), which advocated fundamental human rights such as the freedom of thought and freedom of speech. It was placed on the Index.

    Thomas Paine had been obliged to flee England because of his libertarian views. In America he was instrumental in establishing the spirit of the new revolutionary government, and it was through Paine and other freethinkers that the government of the USA adopted a secular Constitution. Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, John Adams and James Madison were, like Paine, all deists. The American Constitution and the Bill of Rights were direct and palpable products of the Enlightenment: rejecting religious directives and embracing the principles of toleration. Locke's ideas that there should be rights to life, liberty and property were adapted and enshrined as rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The founding fathers resolved to separate Church and State, and carried out their intention in a Bill of Rights in the First Amendment to the Constitution, later strengthened by other amendments. Building upon the English common law, which provided a bulwark against canon law, they institutionalised the right to trial by jury and the due process of law, they prohibited cruel and unusual punishments, and they formalised freedoms like the freedom of speech and freedom of the press. All these were conscious protections against the excesses still commonplace under canon law in mainland Europe. The Fifth Amendment, granting an accused the right to remain silent, was a reaction to the use of torture by the Church. In Europe torture was still used to ensure that accused persons would condemn themselves by their own mouths — a requirement of canon law.

    Pius VI (pope 1775-1799) objected when the Emperor Joseph II ended religious persecution and passed an edict of toleration in the Austrian Empire. The Emperor allowed anyone to hold public office, or to practise as a physician or lawyer, abolished censorship, and made education both secular and compulsory. The Pope was outraged. He was even more outraged by the French Declaration of the Rights of Man in 1789, a product of anticlerical revolutionaries. Article 11 proclaimed freedom of thought, of communication and of printing. The Declaration was fiercely opposed by the Church, just as, centuries before, the same Church had opposed the English Magna Carta.

    Pope Gregory XVI, in his encyclical Mirari vos of 1832, denounced freedom of the press, freedom of speech, freedom of education, and freedom of conscience. God seems to have instructed him about these matters, for he was in no doubt about any of them. Liberal ideas were, he said, a filthy sewer full of heretical vomit. Gregory denounced the separation of Church and State, and attacked countries like Austria, France and Belgium that made moves towards democracy. Pius IX (pope 1846-1878) went so far as to declare Austrian laws illegal, and threatened spiritual penalties against those who had anything to do with them. One of the aspects that he found objectionable was that Protestants and Jews might be allowed to have their own schools.

    In 1864 Pius IX issued an encyclical, Quanta cura, with a sort of appendix, known as the Syllabus of Errors, listing propositions that he declared to be false. Among these supposed errors was that, guided by the light of reason, everyone is free to embrace and profess the religion they consider true (Error 15). Another was that Roman Catholicism should not be the sole permissible religion of the State (Error 77). In other words he was saying that the Roman Catholic religion should be the only religion permitted.

    The Roman Catholic Church has consistently used its power in countries where it has been religiously dominant to frustrate liberal policies and retard social betterment. It has striven to deny all manner of basic rights: the right to justice, the right to basic freedoms, the right to education, political rights — almost every aspect of life. Religious toleration was admitted only when secular forces had made it impossible to hold the traditional line. In Spain Protestantism was not tolerated until 1931, nor between 1939 and 1945, and through the Church's efforts toleration was limited yet again after 1947. In another Roman Catholic stronghold, Portugal, freedom of worship was granted only in 1951. The papacy finally espoused total liberty of conscience when Pope John XXIII published the encyclical Pacem in terri in 1963.

    Roman Catholics were not the only Christians routinely to deny basic rights. For centuries European countries denied rights to members of all but the State-approved denomination. Wherever one Christian sect gained ascendancy, it immediately tried to impose its views on others. Those who fled, pleading for mercy and liberty, generally denied the same mercy and liberty to others once they were themselves securely established. Throughout Christendom laws were implemented to ensure conformity. In England, the Acts of Uniformity of 1552 and 1559 required everyone to attend church on Sundays and holy days, thus forcing everyone into the Anglican community. Those who failed were liable to a range of penalties. Some were executed for failing to go to church.

    The Conventicle Act of 1664 made illegal all meetings of more than five people for worship, other than that prescribed by the Book of Common Prayer. Anyone who did not conform to mainstream belief was debarred from education and public life. Under the provisions of the Test Act of 1673, all who held office under the Crown were required to receive Communion administered by the Church of England, to take the Oaths of Supremacy and Allegiance to the sovereign, and to make a declaration against the doctrine of transubstantiation. This debarred from nearly all high offices Jews, atheists, and Roman Catholics, along with many dissenters. They could not become members of the government or the judiciary. Slight deviations from orthodoxy were sufficient to debar a man from the House of Commons*. It was not until the Toleration Act of 1689 that people were allowed to hold any belief other than that of the sect currently in favour. The 1689 Act legalised Protestant nonconformism (e.g. Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians and Quakers ). This religious pluralism was extended to Unitarians in 1813 and to Roman Catholics in 1829 when the Roman Catholic Relief Act repealed the Test Act. Pluralism was extended to Jews in 1846, and in time even non-believers would be tolerated.

    Christians who fled to the Americas to escape persecution by other Christians were soon persecuting other Christians themselves. Those who failed to conform were tortured, mutilated, imprisoned or killed. Later, locally dominant sects passed laws requiring religious conformity and denying civil rights to others. Thus, Congregationalists who fled from Europe to Massachusetts to find freedom were soon restricting the franchise to themselves (1631), and restricting the admittance of other sects to the colony (1650). Congregationalists were hanging Quakers in Massachusetts as late as 1661, and the practice was stopped only because of intervention by the British authorities. Women Quakers were still liable to be flogged, and men to have their ears cropped.

    Quakers being led to execution in Massachusetts

    As new states were created they adopted an established religion and persecuted anyone who did not accept it. American colonies generally compelled people to pay taxes to established Churches, and included religious qualifications in their oaths. The established Church in Connecticut and New Hampshire was, as in Massachusetts, Congregationalist. Most others were Anglican, although New York was originally Dutch Reformed. In New Jersey and the Carolinas only Protestants were granted civil rights. Failure to conform led to much the same consequences as in Europe. A seventeenth century legal code in Massachusetts prescribed the death penalty for idolatry and blasphemy. In New York and Virginia men were broken on the wheel.

    Everywhere Churches abused their power, even in the most liberal democracies. Until the Dissenters Act of 1951 religious registration was compulsory in Sweden. Judging by its record, there is virtually no limit to the extent that Christianity will interfere with human rights if it can. In much of Europe people were not permitted to name their children as they pleased. In France, for example, up until the 1990s only certain names were permissible, notably biblical names and saints" names. Similar rules existed until recently in other Roman Catholic countries. Elsewhere, anyone not baptised had no legal name and no civic status. They were non-people with no rights. This was the position in Orthodox Russia before 1918, as it was in other Orthodox countries until later in the twentieth century.

    We have already seen the broad outline of the traditional Christian view of political rights. Popes or kings were appointed by God to rule over the whole world. The Church provided the infrastructure: executives, civil servants, accountants, clerks, administrators, judges, diplomats, and so on. Parliaments, if they existed at all, required heavy representation from senior churchmen. The idea of universal suffrage was not considered. God appointed governors and it would have been blasphemous for ordinary men to have a say in who ruled over them. Churches always supported non-representative government: first the Empire, then feudalism, then absolute monarchies. When monarchies started disappearing from the Christian world, the Roman Church was obliged to find new friends. It generally favoured dictatorships, juntas and other totalitarian regimes, and frequently sided with fascist and other right-wing movements.

    Other denominations generally sided with whoever was most likely to favour their interests. Dissenters supported political reform when they could expect to benefit, but Churches were never keen to see a change in the balance of power if they themselves were likely to lose out. Democracy meant transferring power from bishops and others appointed by God to everyone else. This was not only absurd and impractical in their eyes, it was also blasphemous. In any case, they said, the poor could not govern themselves because they were illiterate and fickle. The idea that women might vote was not only blasphemous but also absurd. Devout Christians knew for a certain fact that women were "weaker vessels", incapable of learning or rational thought. In England the Anglican Church was opposed to the idea of any move towards democratic government. In 1831 the First Reform Bill was defeated in the House of Lords, the bishops voting 21 to 2 against it. When it passed into law the following year churchmen were horrified:

    Clergymen feared that a tide of Benthamite, and hence atheistic, reform would be unleashed; John Keble in his Oxford sermon declared a clerical resistance which could be founded on the apostolic traditions of the Church of England*.

    One of the most influential figures in the reform movement was J. S. Mill, the author of On Liberty (1859), and a colleague of the godless Utilitarian Jeremy Bentham. Later advocates of toleration were men like George Holyoake, a self taught atheist, who also advocated political reform, freedom of the press, votes for women, universal education and other human rights. Until their emasculation in the twentieth century the House of Lords obstructed every proposed political reform, and the opposition was almost invariably strongest from the bench of bishops — as we have already seen that it was in so many other areas of reform. Indeed, everywhere in Christendom, political reform was obstructed by the dominant religious sect, and championed by secular forces, supported by others opposed to the dominant sect.

    Death Bed Statement of Atheist is Barred
    March 25, 1931 The court of appeals ruled today that the death bed statement of an atheist is not admissible as testimony in the courts of Alabama where an oath is required. The decision reversed the judgment of a Jefferson County Circuit Court jury in finding Laura Wright, Negro, guilty of second degree murder for the slaying of her husband, Wilbur Wright. Judge W.H. Samford held the Jefferson County court erred in allowing Wright's dying statement accusing his wife of shooting him to be admitted as testimony, since undisputed testimony showed Wright to be an Atheist.


    The essentially secular concept of human rights emerged victorious in 1948, when the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, an indirect successor to Paine's Rights of Man, and a direct successor of the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. The Churches continued to fight small rearguard actions — often winning exemptions from laws that were intended to apply to all — tax laws, employment rights, discrimination legislation, and so on. As late as 1998 Christians in Britain, led by the Lords Spiritual, sought and won for themselves exemptions from a Human Rights Act*.


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    §. John Asgill for example was excluded c.1700 for his religious views. See John Redwood, Reason, Ridicule and Religion, p 23.

    §. Kenneth O. Morgan (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Britain, Oxford University Press (1984), "Revolution and the Rule of Law" by Christopher Harvie, p 449.

    §. "Religions Escape Human Rights Bill", The Independent, 21 st May 1998.

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