Zagorin’s “How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West”

When the separationist position was ascendant in religion clause law, one would frequently see two sorts of reasons given for it: separation from religion and separation for religion.  The former was oriented toward protecting the state; the latter toward protecting religion.  And even today, when separationism is no longer the Court’s favored position in either free exercise or establishment cases, one continues to see the idea that government and religion need to be shielded from one another for their mutual benefit.

The history of these ideas is discussed in How the Idea of Religious Toleration Came to the West (PUP 2003), by the late Perez Zagorin, a first-rate European intellectual historian.  In explaining the origins of the idea of religious toleration, Zagorin’s study emphasizes the second component of the separationist stance.  And for those who are interested in a readable point of entry into these important issues, I think you will enjoy Zagorin’s accessible but deeply cultivated approach.  The publisher’s description follows.  — MOD

Religious intolerance, so terrible and deadly in its recent manifestations, is nothing new. In fact, until after the eighteenth century, Christianity was perhaps the most intolerant of all the great world religions. How Christian Europe and the West went from this extreme to their present universal belief in religious toleration is the momentous story fully told for the first time in this timely and important book by a leading historian of early modern Europe.

Perez Zagorin takes readers to a time when both the Catholic Church and the main new Protestant denominations embraced a policy of endorsing religious persecution, coercing unity, and, with the state’s help, mercilessly crushing dissent and heresy. This position had its roots in certain intellectual and religious traditions, which Zagorin traces before showing how out of the same traditions came the beginnings of pluralism in the West. Here we see how sixteenth- and seventeenth-century thinkers–writing from religious, theological, and philosophical perspectives–contributed far more than did political expediency or the growth of religious skepticism to advance the cause of toleration. Reading these thinkers–from Erasmus and Sir Thomas More to John Milton and John Locke, among others–Zagorin brings to light a common, if unexpected, thread: concern for the spiritual welfare of religion itself weighed more in the defense of toleration than did any secular or pragmatic arguments. His book–which ranges from England through the Netherlands, the post-1685 Huguenot Diaspora, and the American Colonies–also exposes a close connection between toleration and religious freedom.

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