Sowerby, “Making Toleration: The Repealers and the Glorious Revolution”

Speaking of the use of religious convictions in the construction of political Making Tolerationarguments, 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.

If the Answer is “More Religious Freedom,” What Is the Question?

This was, I thought, an illuminating column by Frank Bruni.  Bruni uses the regrettable episode of the U.S. Military Academy cadet who was allegedly harassed because of his atheism (discussed here by Mark) as the occasion for offering some larger reflections about the nature of “religious freedom” (his phrase) in America.  Bruni observes that “We Americans” are not “careful” about drawing a “line” between church and state.  After all, “[r]eligious faith shapes policy debates.  It fuels claims of American exceptionalism.”  “We have God on our dollars,” Bruni continues, “God in our pledge of allegiance, God in our Congress,” “God in our public schools,” and, of course, God in our national motto.  “Last year, the House took the time to vote, 396 to 9, in favor of a resolution affirming “In God We Trust” as our national motto. How utterly needless, unless I missed some insurrectionist initiative to have that motto changed to ‘Buck Up, Beelzebub’ or ‘Surrender Dorothy.'”  Add to this that “there’s too little acknowledgment that God isn’t just a potent engine of altruism, mercy and solace, but also, in instances, a divisive, repressive instrument[.]”

Bruni concludes with the view that all of this — this composite of inclusion of religion in public life (more precisely, of God in public life), most of which is, he believes, unhealthy for the country — “doesn’t sound like religious freedom at all.”

That’s the particular point that I find both problematic and illuminating.  The problem is that describing what sits at the root of Bruni’s complaints as an absence of “religious freedom” doesn’t really work.  For one might have thought that permitting people to voice religious reasons for their public policy and political beliefs was part of religious freedom.  One might even believe that retaining God as a part of the public life of the country — manifested in some of the ways that displease Bruni — is also a feature of religious freedom.  Bruni is absolutely right that “We Americans” have not drawn hard lines between religion and government.  That is certainly true historically.  Part of the reason may be that we have not been sufficiently attentive to religious freedom; but another fairly substantial part of the reason not to draw such lines is precisely to protect religious freedom.

So talk of religious freedom and its absence is not really the issue.  What Bruni really means is that (1) he disagrees with the policy positions staked out by those who tend to use religious arguments in public contexts, including in the gay marriage context that he raises, and that (2) he dislikes the invocation of God — whose evil works are, “in instances,”  as copious as His good ones — in public life generally and wishes that it would end.   That’s not an uncommon view.  But it would be more straightforward — and much simpler — if Bruni  just said as much, without the confusing rhetoric about the demands of “religious freedom.”  Even in the separationist era of the mid-20th century, religious freedom, at least as practiced in this country and as constitutionally protected, has not generally been about drawing the kinds of lines that Bruni favors.

The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time

There are many reasons why America seems to be moving inexorably toward legalizing same-sex marriage. The Sexual Revolution that has swept American society since the 1960s is probably the main explanation. There’s plenty of evidence that Americans, especially Americans below a certain age, accept the Sexual Revolution’s basic premise that sex is a harmless pleasure without much moral content, at least when it does not involve coercion or, sometimes, adultery. Divorce, once seen as a traumatic, though perhaps necessary, last resort for very troubled marriages is no longer regarded as an exceptional event. People speak without irony of “starter marriages;” fewer and fewer people marry at all. And these cultural changes are not limited to the Secular Left. An Evangelical pundit got in trouble recently because, he said, he didn’t realize that being engaged to one woman while simultaneously being married to another was frowned upon in Christian circles.

Given their views about sexuality and marriage, SSM seems to many Americans a non-issue. But there is something else at work, too. Much of the success of the campaign for SSM has to do with supporters’ adoption of the language of civil rights. In our national discourse, the phrase “civil rights issue of our time” immediately suggests SSM; last week’s NYT editorial is a good example. As a rhetorical device – and I don’t mean to suggest that SSM advocates are being insincere – this is a brilliant strategy. In American politics, a group that can successfully appropriate the language of civil rights is bound to win.

That’s why I was struck recently when I saw that Rick Warren, perhaps the most influential Evangelical pastor in America today, has adopted this language on behalf of conservative Christians. In an interview about the ACA’s Contraception Mandate, Warren called religious liberty “the civil rights issue of the next decade.” He was echoing, among others, the Conference of Catholic Bishops, which has also emphasized the civil rights aspect of resistance to the mandate. This is a very shrewd rhetorical move – and, again, I don’t mean to suggest anyone is being insincere. If religious conservatives are going to prevail on issues like the Contraception Mandate, they can’t hope to persuade people on the merits of traditional sexual morality, much of which the American public now finds incomprehensible. They will have to persuade people that they represent the advance of civil rights.