In rereading a wonderful piece by Professor Michael McConnell about Edmund Burke’s view of the relationship between an established religion and a regime of toleration of religion, I came across this deeply insightful discussion of the close connection of a separationist idea of religion and government (as envisioned by Thomas Jefferson, for example) and the idea that government itself had very limited functions in the first place:
There is a close, but generally unrecognized, connection between the idea of the “Wall of Separation” and the idea of a radically limited government. Once government shakes off its limited role and concerns itself with the general welfare of the people, including their cultural and intellectual lives, it has leapt the “Wall” and entered the traditional sphere of religion. In contrast to many of our Founders, Burke had a more modern conception of the jurisdiction of the state, which did not permit him the easy answer of a “Wall of Separation.” If the government is “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection,” then it necessarily will be conveying a collective teaching on science, art, virtue, and perfection (whether we label the teaching a “religion” or not). It follows not that an establishment is desirable, but that it is inescapable. Some sort of opinions will necessarily guide the state in its “superintending control over…the publicly propagated doctrines of men.” If the Jeffersonian-Madisonian ideal of the limited state is abandoned as naive or outmoded, then the serious questions become how to protect against arbitrary or tyrannical use of this power and how to respect the legitimate rights of those who disagree with the official orthodoxy.
Michael W. McConnell, Establishment and Toleration in Edmund Burke’s ‘Constitution of Freedom,’ 1995 Supreme Court Review 393, 444-45 (with citations to Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and his Speech on the Petition of the Unitarians).
This month, Cambridge University Press will publish Toleration in Conflict: Past and Present (2013) by Rainer Forst (Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt). The publisher’s description follows.
The concept of toleration plays a central role in pluralistic societies. It designates a stance which permits conflicts over beliefs and practices to persist while at the same time defusing them, because it is based on reasons for coexistence in conflict – that is, in continuing dissension. A critical examination of the concept makes clear, however, that its content and evaluation are profoundly contested matters and thus that the concept itself stands in conflict. For some, toleration was and is an expression of mutual respect in spite of far-reaching differences, for others, a condescending, potentially repressive attitude and practice. Rainer Forst analyses these conflicts by reconstructing the philosophical and political discourse of toleration since antiquity. He demonstrates the diversity of the justifications and practices of toleration from the Stoics and early Christians to the present day and develops a systematic theory which he tests in discussions of contemporary conflicts over toleration.
Speaking of the use of religious convictions in the construction of political arguments, here is a very interesting book in the history of ideas involving the concept of toleration in the era of James II before the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the Act of Toleration of 1689 — Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution, by Scott Sowerby (Northwestern), available in early 2013 from Harvard University Press. The publisher’s description follows.
In the reign of James II, minority groups from across the religious spectrum, led by the Quaker William Penn, rallied together under the Catholic King James in an effort to bring religious toleration to England. Known as repealers, these reformers aimed to convince Parliament to repeal laws that penalized worshippers who failed to conform to the doctrines of the Church of England. Although the movement was destroyed by the Glorious Revolution, it profoundly influenced the post-revolutionary settlement, helping to develop the ideals of tolerance that would define the European Enlightenment.
Based on a rich array of newly discovered archival sources, Scott Sowerby’s groundbreaking history rescues the repealers from undeserved obscurity, telling the forgotten story of men and women who stood up for their beliefs at a formative moment in British history. By restoring the repealer movement to its rightful prominence, Making Toleration also overturns traditional interpretations of King James II’s reign and the origins of the Glorious Revolution. Though often depicted as a despot who sought to impose his own Catholic faith on a Protestant people, James is revealed as a man ahead of his time, a king who pressed for religious toleration at the expense of his throne. The Glorious Revolution, Sowerby finds, was not primarily a crisis provoked by political repression. It was, in fact, a conservative counter-revolution against the movement for enlightened reform that James himself encouraged and sustained.
Marlies Galenkamp (Erasmus University Rotterdam) has posted Locke and Bayle on Religious Toleration. The abstract follows.
In Western-European societies, two questions are currently at the centre of political debate. What is the scope and what are the limits of religious toleration? What is the proper role of the state with regard to religious issues? By addressing these two topics, Dutch constitutional law scholars commonly start from two presumptions. First of all, the presumption in favour of liberty (leading to a quite absolute interpretation of fundamental rights) and secondly, the doctrine of interpretative restraint by civil authorities with regard to religious matters. These presumptions are generally considered as uncontested axioms. It seems to me that both presumptions may be qualified, however. This will be done by elaborating on the views of two 17th-century scholars on religious toleration, the Englishman John Locke and the Frenchman Pierre Bayle. Interestingly, both formulated their insights during their exile in the Dutch Republic. It will turn out that the dominant interpretation of the presumptions rests on a too superficial reading of Locke and on a disregard of Bayle’s insights, respectively.