Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Toleration: A Natural Development in England and Western Civilization?

Charles de Gaulle once said (about Jean-Paul Sartre and his firebrand politics), "We do not imprison our Voltaires."  He appeared to have forgotten that Voltaire was indeed imprisoned for a satire on the French government.  But "we" in the past were always more tolerant and more independent-minded in our own memories than the facts warrant.  Perhaps that is why journalist Christopher Caldwell claims Lockean tolerance for the entire culture of early modern Europe.  Writing in the Financial Times against the Cordoba mosque complex proposal for lower Manhattan, he notes:
  • Including Islam within the fold of traditional western religious tolerance is not business-as-usual. It is an experiment. Our Lockean ideas of religious tolerance had their origins in the 16th century (the peace of Augsburg) and the 17th (the peace of Westphalia). Those understandings regulated relations between Christian sects and were steadily liberalised. Judaism later proved assimilable into this system in the US, but not, to put it mildly, everywhere in the west.
  • Islam – which is, like Christianity but unlike contemporary Judaism, an evangelising and expansionist religion – is a bigger challenge. ("A mosque that wrecks bridges," August 6, 2010) 
The idea that 17th-century Europe or even England was the home of "traditional western religious tolerance" is not the argument of John Marshall's extensive study of John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture (Cambridge, 2006).  To quote just the abstract of this important work, Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (1685, pub. 1689) developed in the midst of "debates over toleration for Jews and Muslims as well as for Christians; the limits of toleration for the intolerant, Catholics, atheists, ‘libertines’, and ‘sodomites’, and the complex relationships between intolerance and resistance theories."  In Sources and Debates in English History, 1485-1714, 2nd. ed., we include an extract of his Letter (9.23), but also The trial of Daniel Dammarree for his role in the Sacheverell Riots (April 1710, 9.15) [he helped tear down a mosque, whoops, Dissenter meeting house], as well as an extract from The Toleration Act (9.4), whose full title, "An Act for Exempting their Majesties’ Protestant Subjects, Dissenting from the Church of England, from the Penalties of Certain Laws," 1 Will. & Mary, c. 18, 1689) suggests how limited "traditional western religious tolerance" was.  (Note: I was alerted to Caldwell's take on the past by Andrew Sullivan, "Who Let the Dogs Out," Daily Dish,9 Aug. 2010)

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