Persecution and Toleration
The Long Road to Religious Freedom
- ISBN: 9781108441162
- Published By: Cambridge University Press
- Published: February 2019
As conflicts over religious freedom multiply, so have histories of its genesis. Where the most influential recent studies have centered on the disputed neutrality of political secularism, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama's Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom provides an economic history of religious liberty. Economic and bureaucratic expansion, rather than ideological revolution, appear here as the "precondition" of religious freedom by shaping rulers' "incentives" to promote liberal measures (3).
The broad historical sketch of the book is conventional: premodern Europe reflects a familiar pattern of conditional toleration and intermittent persecution, but this breaks down in the Reformation era, with liberal ideals and institutions emerging slowly over the next few centuries. Part 1 describes how the dependence of low-capacity states on religious identity for political legitimacy inhibited economic development and promoted persecution under conditions of duress, such as climactic shocks or the Black Death. Part 2 places the beginnings of religious freedom in the fracturing of this "condition toleration equilibrium" during the Reformation, and new ideas were only a small part of this transition, which "coincided with the advent of new technologies, the discovery of the Americas, and with the rise of more powerful states" (197). Where Spain's economy declined with its intolerance of religious minorities, England and France advanced in state capacity and toleration.
The treatment of Jews across Europe is held out as further evidence of this correlation between increased state-capacity, economic growth, and toleration. Part 3 takes up witchcraft trials, extends their case study of Jewish minorities, and attempts to demonstrate how the rise of nationalism facilitated the growth of powerful states by replacing religious identity as a source of legitimacy with general civic laws governing all citizens equally. The authors then turn to the Middle East, Asia, and the US and finally to extremist nationalist movements like Nazism to test the general applicability of their model, concluding with a summary of their argument and a survey of some other theories.
It is hard to deny that histories of religious freedom tend towards idealism, whether they wish to celebrate it as an achievement or expose it as an illusion; material realities are at best adjacent. So this book is a welcome and well-argued corrective. While the authors allow that the standard focus on ideas is "complementary" to their own, their methodological stance does bear a cost (298).
For religious freedom is, after all, an ideal, a value, to which political, legal, and economic arrangements "aspire" (10). The quantitative methods of economic history employed here treat that ideal far too abstractly, so that the authors fall back on a too-neat typological contrast between religious identity rules and general civic rules, and the latter are elided with liberal commitments to individual freedom and equality. Consequently, numerous historical contingencies are lost from view: the genesis of these ideas, their wider cultural moorings, the variety of modern regimes they produced, and the path of those ideals to success or failure within one or another regime. The result is a methodological chasm between the processes of economic change described here in great detail and the processes of ideal formation and socialization into values reduced here to typological shadows of historical realities.
The authors rightly appeal to nationalism as an ideological bridge between conditional toleration and religious freedom, identity rules and general rules, in that nationalism tends to generalize law to all citizens, regardless of other identities. However, the frequent claim that nationalism "replaces" religion as a source of legitimacy, though sometimes qualified, is far too tidy (248). It is telling that the authors draw almost exclusively on modernist theories of nationalism (Ernst Gellner, Benedict Anderson, Liah Greenfeld) that define it as essentially secular, rather than ethnosymbolist theories (Anthony D. Smith) that see national identities as transformations of older religious and ethnic ones.
Nationalisms then appear as modern civil religions, ethnically inflected. The "positive secularism" (Sarkozy) of French laïcité needs to be understood not only through an analysis of the competing principles of secular regimes—both organizational and moral—but also the oscillating revolutionary history of modern France, right back to the overt imagery of a new secular humanistic religion in the fervor of the Bloody Terror. England, by contrast, maintains religious freedom with a state church and without a constitutional principle of religious liberty, and its path from toleration to freedom of conscience is inseparable from the career of its national mythology of an imperial "civilizing mission." Least of all could one grasp the oddity of American religious freedom apart from its ambiguous blending of national and religious identity. In all of this, liberal, republican, and Christian ideas played a decisive role.
The US surely belongs to the orbit of European history, not with the Middle East and Asia. The authors would have done well not only to relocate the section on the US but also the chapter on power states and exclusionary forms of nationalism. Germany's road to Nazism was less a matter of ethnic nationalism prevailing over its civic alternative than of new cultural currents like Romanticism, which stretched well beyond Germany, seeking to answer the internal crises of Enlightenment liberal orders and yet succumbing to a catastrophic radicalization. The fact that political demagogues appealing to ethno-religious populism against cosmopolitan secular elites have reappeared not only across Europe but around the globe suggests that the dialectical tensions of modern western culture have been exported rather than resolved.
It is impossible to avoid postcolonial interrogations here. If the authors ask why the pattern of European culture has not been duplicated in the Middle East or Asia, that is not necessarily to repeat colonial chauvinism, but to assume that all cultures should naturally proceed along an occidental route to a vaguely liberal political economy comes perilously close. Max Weber’s comparative study of the economic work ethics of the world religions preserved the force of ideas and the ambivalence of capitalist development, even if his theory of rationalization must be freed from epistemic formalism and Eurocentrism. If this book could learn a great deal from Weber’s example, the authors have nonetheless proven that historians of religious freedom can no longer ignore economic history.
Sean Hayden is an associate professor of religion and philosophy at Tennessee Wesleyan University.Sean HaydenDate Of Review:May 22, 2023