[From the archives. N.b., “evangelical” in this essay refers to the drive to proselytize until religious uniformity is achieved.]
Religious toleration was something that only made sense after the European conception of religion had been transformed. The only aspect of Inquisition that remains intelligible in light of a twenty-first century distinction between religion and government is its solicitude for the souls of faithful. Salvation is of the utmost importance — even an atheist can imagine a bureaucrat assigning a very high utility to an outcome called “salvation” — so containment of heresy is as important as the containment of smallpox. The Inquisition’s portfolio as epidemiology plus global warming plus the National Bureau of Economic Research: this is the only interpretation of religious intolerance that remains vivid in a secular age. Against this argument for intolerance, the doughty rationalism of the tolerant view that religious feuding only causes violence to both sides and spreads dissent far and wide seems unassailable.
And yet – salvation was not the bone of contention in early modern Europe. The religious law was in effect the law of the land, the parish priests were magistrates, and the great priests had sedem et vocem — the right to sit in judgment and freely advise the potentates of old Europe. There could be no attempt at religious reform which was not also an attempt at educational reform, legal reform, agricultural reform, and political reform. And indeed, where heretics were successful, chantries and monasteries were abolished, universities were upended, peasants were taught to read, princes and parliaments reclaimed newly invented hereditary rights, and so on.
Connected to the inevitably expansive view of the aims of religious heresy (inevitably, because the role of religion was in fact broad) was an evangelical conception of community. Nowadays we find it perfectly sensible to talk about a “community” which comes together to promote knitting, or veganism, or bowling. Indeed, the view of civil society that has flourished among Very Serious Persons since WWII has taken it as an article of faith that only a proliferation of small, self-directed, individually tolerant societies can knit together a happy, cohesive civil society; a view, of course, that gained credence only as a form of ressentiment against the success of communist and fascist societies at achieving the types of social mobilization the Very Serious Persons had dreamed of before the War.
Yet to the early moderns, orthodox and heretics alike, the communitas has precisely what was held in common by all alike. The idea of a parish with two rival churches, or a city with two bishops, was absurd. A community has one festival, one coat of arms, one great fortress-artwork which is symbolic of its hopes and aspirations. The banns are read out to the community many times, – but in one church. The bell which tolls for thee will be the same bell that eventually tolls for me, and it will lead one to the same consecrated ground, and this fate will be duly noted on baptismal records kept in the same closet. When the festivals, symbols, and practices that circumscribe a community are all tied up in a common religious observance, religious struggle is all or nothing.
With this social pressure towards an expansive sense of the scope of the evangelical community, it was of course unsurprising to find that the religious pressure was correspondingly strongly felt. In an age of staggering diversity in the customs of everyday life – food, dress, recreation, production, social niceties – religious deviations were felt to be unbearable. The depth of religious conflict over the date of the proper observance of the Sabbath, of Easter, of Christmas; over the question of icons; over the wording of certain formulae of catechism which the catechumen could not begin to detect in the first place; all this suggest that the universalistic rhetoric of Christianity was felt extremely strongly by medieval and early modern Christians. They had been told that Jesus died to save all men; they could see with their own eyes that the body of the Church was indivisible in practice; and thus they were generally willing to follow the example of their savior. Separation was unacceptable. Revolution was necessary.
I have no way to measure or compare the relative tenacity of evangelism for Catholics, Lutherans, Anglicans, Calvinists, Anabaptists, the post-Calvinist dissenters and the pre-Lutheran sects like the Lollards and the Hussites; but broadly speaking, they were all strongly and irascibly evangelical. Originally I was under the impression that the Greek Orthodox and the Roman Catholics had never been strongly evangelical vis-à-vis one another — but I was very badly mistaken. The religious disorders that arose in the Balkans at the dawn of the Middle Ages, alone, as a result of the rival evangelical zeal of Rome and Byzantium easily rival any episode of the Reformation.
In the Confucian system of ancestor worship, the hereditary priesthoods of many polytheistic religions, or in the joint hereditary religious office/segmentary communal organization of a caste system, the religious community piggybacks on communal solidarity derived from family structures, political structures, and/or economic structures. The peculiar thing about the Christian communion is that its solidarity is not derivative; it grows out of the nominal universality celebrated in its creeds.
Therefore the Christian system of religious doctrine and practice was relatively rigid compared to a segmentary hereditary system. In a segmentary religious system, which borrows its cohesion from the families with which it coincides, evangelism is absent and the desire of competing lineages to threaten each other with sanctions for hypothetical religious deviations is correspondingly lower (as is the symbolic distress such threats would cause). Segmentary systems evolved steadily and syncretized readily, while Christianity did not. Yet when the case for reform of the Christian Church became strong enough to overcome the force of these checks on deviation, the universal claims of the Church took on a new aspect, and instead “reform” the West got Reformation.
(The only segmentary hereditary religious practice that Christianity was unable to stamp out in what we today call Europe was Judaism. The Jews undoubtedly had no evangelical pretensions against the Christian majority, but both their isolation into markedly Jewish separate communities and their avowal of different interpretations of Christian religious texts made them a challenge, every bit as much as the Manichean had been and the Lutheran would become. In the segmentary-tribal worldview, Christians can never be Jews; in the evangelical-fraternal worldview, Jews are disputing the doctrinal truths of Christianity. This asymmetrical coexistence is somewhat unusual. Universalistic religions have co-existed with segmentary religions — for example, Buddhism with any number of local cults — but with two major differences: (a) the segmentary religions typically adopting a path of cooptation of the universalistic religion from a position of strength, rather than rejection and separation from a position of weakness, and thus (b) the two religions’ hierarchies coexist, and one flock supports two separate sets of priests.)