Toleration, for God’s Sake

Reviewed by Adam Wolfson

How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West
by Perez Zagorin
Princeton University Press, 2003, 371 pages.

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ntellectual history has long since fallen from favor, having been replaced within the academy by the new social history, cultural history, gendered history, and what have you. But there was a time when intellectual history reigned supreme. Its practitioners took for their study the most important and expansive of subjects—like the ideas of freedom, equality, or democracy. It is true that some of these “history of ideas” studies could seem, in the wrong hands, rather canned. But in the right hands, they were history at its very best, and we are fortunate that it is still practiced at its highest level by a master like Perez Zagorin.
An emeritus professor of history at the University of Rochester, Zagorin has authored well-received books on Francis Bacon, Thucydides, and Milton, as well as many other rich and thoughtful historical studies. More recently, Zagorin completed How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West. Appearing just a few years after the September 11 attacks—surely one of the most extreme cases of religious intolerance in modern times—Zagorin’s scholarly study gained an urgency it might otherwise not have had.
In writing an intellectual history of toleration, Zagorin is covering well-trodden ground. We already have W.K. Jordan’s The Development of Religious Toleration in England, Joseph Lecler’s Toleration and the Reformation, and Henry Kamen’s The Rise of Toleration, not to mention many more specialized studies of such thinkers as Spinoza, Locke, Bayle, and others who were central in the story of toleration’s rise and spread. But Zagorin’s book is undoubtedly the best general history to date. Where earlier studies tended to be overly detailed or oversimplified, Zagorin has found just the right balance between careful exegesis of key toleration texts and useful explanation of the historical context in which the debates took place.
A complete history of toleration must begin with its pre-history. For as Zagorin points out, the principle of toleration came to the West rather late, having to supplant what Lord Acton called “a system of Persecution”—or what James Madison called “that diabolical Hell-conceived principle of persecution.” Hell-conceived, yes, but as Zagorin makes clear, a lot of great Christian thinkers defended persecution, deeming it perfectly in accord with—even demanded by—the words of Jesus himself.
No less a Christian sage than Augustine offered elaborate justifications for the persecution of heretics—including killing them if necessary. It was in his theological struggles with three heresies—Manichaeanism, Pelagianism, and Donatism—that Augustine first came around to defending coercion in religion. By his own account, he was originally opposed to coercing religious belief, but when he discovered that it seemed to work, that Donatists could be successfully “converted to Catholic unity by the fear of imperial laws,” he had a change of mind. If physical pain could convert the wayward to the true faith, then one was only administering them a great mercy. Better for them to suffer a few lashings in this world than suffer eternally in hell. Thus did Augustine come to endorse what Zagorin aptly calls a “pedagogy of fear to effect a change of heart.”
Augustine also found justification for a coercive policy in Jesus’ “parable of the tares” in the Gospel of Matthew as well as in the “parable of the feast” in the Gospel of Luke. This latter parable, in particular, would become central to subsequent debates over toleration. The Gospel tells of a man who prepared a great feast, and then told his servants to “go out in the highways and hedges, and compel them to come in, that my house may be filled.” As Zagorin explains, Augustine took this as a clear scriptural mandate to compel people “to do right.”
From this point onward persecution became an accepted Christian principle and practice, one that would culminate in the Inquisition and the wars of religion between Protestants and Catholics. The penalty for heresy was death (frequently by fire), and in one especially bloody period thousands of heretics received this legally sanctioned penalty. Even that humane philosopher Thomas Aquinas gave his blessing to such practices, declaring that heretics “deserve not only to be separated from the Church by excommunication, but also to be shut off from the world by death.”
As Zagorin ruefully comments, a distinctive and powerful “Christian theory of persecution” emerged—concocted not by criminals or sadists but by some of Christianity’s greatest minds and most pious adherents. “Because this theory was embraced by men of high moral character,” he explains, “it is possible to describe the religious persecution of earlier centuries as persecution with a good conscience.” This would cause difficult problems for any possible reformation. If persecution were ever to be overcome, a genuine transvaluation of values would have to be effected.

Adam Wolfson is Consulting Editor of Commentary and a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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