Beneke on Religious Violence, Anti-Catholicism, and Rights of Conscience in Early America

Chris Beneke (Bentley University) has posted “Not by Force or Violence”: Religious Violence, Anti-Catholicism and Rights of Conscience in the Early National United States. The abstract follows. – ARH

This essay maintains that the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century wars of religion, as well as the periodic hanging, burning, and disemboweling of heretics, did indeed provide a lush and useful ideological backdrop during the Revolutionary era.  As state and federal constitutions were framed, religious violence was vividly recalled, but it was also safely ensconced in the distant past.  Late eighteenth-century partisans of religious rights generally treated religious violence as the defining characteristic of a regrettable age that all reasonable and sympathetic people would want to avoid reliving, rather than an imminent threat.

This approach to a sanguinary and increasingly remote history was integral to a new legal and cultural framework in which anti-Catholicism slackened and less corporal understandings of religious faith took hold.  It was also integral to the justification of a more expansive conception of rights. Toleration’s protections were limited to preserving dissenters from violence and severe, intrusive forms of persecution.  By contrast, “religious liberty” (a close, late eighteenth-century synonym for “free exercise of religion”), protected them from the more mundane operations of religious oppression, such as restrictions on movement, marriage, and office holding, exclusive incorporation laws, and inequitable taxation, thus clearing the way for full participation in civil life.  To those who conceived and defended religious liberty in the new nation, violence was of course deplorable.  It was just not directly relevant.

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