Introduction to Political Theory

(Marvins-Underground-K-12) #1


The settlement of the Wars of Religion is credited with making toleration a central
concept of political life, and in the process generating a body of political reflection
and writing that can be described as ‘liberal’. The term ‘toleration’ has, to twenty-
first-century ears, a slightly negative connotation. It suggests grudging acceptance
rather than respect. However, toleration remains an important concept for liberals
and it is important to be clear about its structure.
Toleration appears to require approving and disapproving of something at the
same time. For example, person A:

  1. believes that the salvation is mediated by the Church (of Rome), so that outside
    the Church there can be no salvation;

  2. accepts that person B has the right to express her religious (or other) beliefs –
    person B is justified in not seeking salvation through the Church (of Rome).

The apparent tension between 1 and 2 is resolved if we recognise they refer to
different actions: 2 is not direct approval of person B’s choices, because that would
contradict 1. The ‘approval’ in 2 might be of B’s capacity to make a choice (we say
‘might’ because other reasons are possible). Nonetheless, there is still a tension
between 1 and 2; what is required is a ‘bridge’ between them.
One bridge might be the acceptance of the sheer fact of religious difference. This
is the Augsburg modus vivendi argument applied to toleration of individuals: terrible
torture and other deprivations will not force (some) people to abandon their religious
beliefs and practices, so it is both useless and politically destabilising to oppress
them. Toleration grows out of recognition of this reality. But this is not really a
justification for toleration – it does not provide reasons for toleration. To go beyond
a modus vivendi person A would have to find something in his own religious beliefs
that enables him to accept B’s dissent from those beliefs. In the history of the
development of religious toleration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries a range
of such arguments were advanced. They included the following:

  • LatitudinarianismThe belief in a minimal set of Christian doctrines, and the
    acceptance of dissent beyond that minimum.

  • Catholicism(in the generic sense) The importance of Christian unity over

  • Christian choiceGod gives us a choice, and so we are not entitled to deny people

The list is far from exhaustive. What is striking, however, is that there is assumed
an underlying commitment to Christianity, however Christianity might be
understood. Insofar as there was toleration in the sixteenth and seventeenth
centuries it tended to be limited to Catholicism and the two major branches of the
magisterial Reformation – Lutheranism and Calvinism. It was rarely extended
to radical Reformers, Jews and atheists. Only in the Netherlands and Poland did
toleration go further. The explanation for this wider toleration in those two
countries is complex, but in the Dutch case it is clearly connected to the early rise
of capitalism, while in the Polish case it may have had its roots in a delicate religious

Chapter 8 Liberalism 177
Free download pdf