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Issue Date:  February 10, 2006

By Perez Zagorin
Princeton University Press,
371 pages, $19.95
The rocky path to Christian tolerance


Religious toleration is “a matter of such importance in the time in which we live [that] almost nothing else is spoken of today,” Swiss exile Jean Le Clerc wrote in Amsterdam in 1687. The comment was remarkable in showing how far the subject had progressed in the West, where churches and governments had employed theories of intolerance for centuries.

Perez Zagorin, a scholar who specializes in the history of ideas, traces the checkered progress of permitting diversity of belief in his book How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West, originally published in 2003 and recently reissued in trade paperback. (Unfortunately, the title not only reads more like a subtitle but is somewhat misleading in implying that the concept was imported from another part of the world, whereas the book shows how it developed in the West.)

Dr. Zagorin begins by declaring that “of all the great world religions past and present, Christianity has been by far the most intolerant,” but he also demonstrates how tolerance was promoted by Christian thinkers. Ironically, proponents of both sides of the issue saw themselves as upholding the honor of God. This paradox led Voltaire to write in 1763, “Of all religions, the Christian is undoubtedly that which should instill the greatest toleration, although so far the Christians have been the most intolerant of all men.” Church fathers such as Augustine and Aquinas interpreted the parable of the tares in Matthew 13:24-30 as justifying the stamping out of false beliefs. According to Augustine, the tares were left to grow because the master feared that uprooting them would harm the grain. However, he said, when the good seed is evident and when a belief is so wrong as to be indefensible, action against it is justified.

One of the first thinkers to advocate a different interpretation of the parable was Sebastian Castellio (1515-63), to whom Dr. Zagorin devotes a 52-page chapter as “the first champion of religious toleration.” Castellio was a native of France who taught languages in Geneva and Basel and translated the Bible into Latin and French. His outrage at the burning of Michael Servetus for heresy in 1553 and his growing disagreements with John Calvin, who had been his mentor, led him to write several tracts against the persecution of heretics. In one, a 1554 response to Calvin’s “Defense of the Christian Faith,” Castellio declared, “If Christ himself came to Geneva, he would be crucified. For Geneva is not a place of Christian liberty. It is ruled by a new pope, but one who burns men alive, while the pope at Rome at least strangles them first.”

According to Castellio, the parable of the tares means that the people who will be condemned at the Last Judgment are those who sin against the Holy Spirit -- obstinately opposing the truth although they know it. Heretics, in contrast, are not guilty of this sin because they speak the truth as they know it.

Although Castellio advocated tolerance for both Protestants and Catholics, other proponents of tolerance, including John Milton, would extend it only to Protestants, declaring that Catholicism should be outlawed because it wanted to do away with all other religious beliefs. The irony of this position resembles the Red Scare in the United States in the 1940s and 1950s, in which some politicians and writers advocated the persecution of communists on the grounds that communists exterminated dissent when they came to power.

Dr. Zagorin methodically traces the development of the concept of religious tolerance through the Enlightenment and takes a rapid review of its course in the last three centuries. Two major 20th-century landmarks he highlights are the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948 and the “Declaration on Religious Freedom” by the Second Vatican Council in 1965. The acknowledgment in the latter that the Roman Catholic church had acted in ways that were “less in accord with the Gospel and even opposed to it” would probably have astonished both Calvin and Castellio and many of the other champions of religious tolerance whom Dr. Zagorin presents.

At the end of the book, Dr. Zagorin expresses the hope that religious freedom may extend to the parts of the Islamic world and the remaining communist countries where it doesn’t exist today. It’s questionable whether the intellectual history he traces will have much of an impact on Islamic thought, as Dr. Zagorin’s heroes were operating from a Western Christian framework. However, there may be some significance in the fact that, as he briefly notes, non-Orthodox Jews gave up many of their traditional beliefs and practices when they were assimilated into European and American societies. Perhaps as Muslims become more assimilated in Western societies and Islamic countries have more contacts with non-Islamic nations, religious toleration may gain as much acceptance among the followers of Muhammad as it has among the followers of Christ.

Darrell Turner writes the religion section for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year.

National Catholic Reporter, February 10, 2006

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