The Fitful March of Religious Liberty

James Robinson raises three concerns with our thesis. First, he argues that we provide necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for religious freedom to emerge. Second, he notes that the two major shocks in English history—Henry VIII’s declaration of independence from Rome and the Glorious Revolution—were not, in fact, characterized by greater secularism or religious freedom. Third, Jim wonders about cases outside of Europe, particularly China, where religion was less salient than in Europe but which, nonetheless, never developed in a liberal direction.

James’s first point concerns mechanisms. He is correct to note that the mechanisms we identify provide necessary, rather than sufficient, conditions for the emergence of religious freedom. What we argue is that absent a set of institutions based around general norms, it is difficult to see how religious freedom could have emerged. There was no religious freedom, or liberalism more generally, in the feudal states or despotisms that frequent premodern history. An institutional transformation was required. But this institutional transformation did not make religious freedom inevitable. Individual rulers like Louis XIV could change the course of policy. This fragility is an important part of the story; after all, the 20th century saw much of Europe embrace totalitarianism.

What we point to are systematic factors that can explain why religious unfreedom was once ubiquitous and why the West evolved towards liberalism. Early modern France provides an interesting example. Following the Wars of Religion, an uneasy religious peace emerged under Henri IV and the Edict of Nantes. This peace exemplifies the kind of conditional toleration that we discuss at length in our book. There was no commitment to religious freedom. French statesmen like Cardinal Richelieu and Colbert sought to reduce the independent political power of the Protestant nobility while preserving religious toleration for Protestants. They also encouraged Jews to settle in France. These developments are consistent with the theoretical mechanism highlighted in our book.

This gradual move towards greater religious liberty was interrupted under Louis XIV. Led on by ministers who exaggerated the number of converts to Catholicism, and convinced that it was possible to reunify France religiously, Louis XIV inaugurated a policy of persecution that would cumulate with the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. Autocratic rulers can always reverse policy. What is less appreciated is that the revocation ultimately failed. As documented by historians such as David Garrioch in The Huguenots of Paris and the Coming of Religious Freedom, 1685–1789, persecution proved counterproductive. It was impossible to convert all Protestants; some of them fled, while many who converted under threat of coercion soon reverted to their old religion. By the 1720s, many anti-Protestant laws were no longer being enforced. Garrioch quotes a Lieutenant-General commenting on a family known to practice Protestantism:

[They were ] all new converts who accomplish badly their Catholic duty. They have, however, a very good reputation among the merchants and I am assured that they conduct their business as wood merchants with great probity.

French Protestants finally achieved religious toleration by 1787, under the auspices of the ancien régime. The French case points to the mechanisms that we believe pushed European states toward liberalism. But it also shows that these forces certainly did not make liberalism inevitable.

Robinson’s second point is also valuable. Whereas formerly historians saw the Reformation as marking a decisive point on the path to the secular state (and the privatization of religion), in recent decades scholarship has emphasized the religious character of the Reformation. So it is important to note that that while the Reformation did shatter the medieval equilibrium between church and state, it did not break the relationship between religious and secular authority. Indeed, Henry VIII and his successors sought to re-order this relationship, not to abolish it.

What matters is that, whatever they attempted, none of Henry’s successors succeeded in establishing stable relations between church and state. Acknowledging this failure is required to understand the crisis that the English state underwent in the 17th century. A Church of England that was broad enough to encompass both Catholic sympathizers and radical Protestants was bound to satisfy neither. It struggled to provide legitimate authority in the same way that Catholicism had. Rather than a source of stability, it generated instability. Civil War was sparked by Archbishop William Laud’s failed attempt to impose a common prayer book on Scotland. Political disagreements were impossible to separate from religious beliefs. Even after Charles I was deposed, there seemed no way to bridge the divisions that had arisen among Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Independents.

The Glorious Revolution was the solution to this crisis. And, as Robinson correctly notes, it also did not bring about religious freedom. Indeed, the toleration that James II was prepared to offer in 1687 went beyond that guaranteed by the Bill of Toleration of 1689! As the title of our book suggests, the road to religious freedom was a long one, and it was only in the 19th century that the British state can be viewed as liberal with regard to religion (and even then imperfectly).

The decline in the political role of religion was gradual. Consider the institution known as the “royal touch.” For centuries it was believed that monarchs could cure the disease known as scrofula by laying their hands on the afflicted. This practice did not disappear with the Reformation. In England it came to an end with the Glorious Revolution and the accession of William and Mary (Marc Bloch, 1973).[1] But in France it continued through the 18th century, although belief in its efficacy declined.[2]

Turning to Jim’s third point. Our opening essay indeed focused on Europe. And while we believe our argument has traction for other continents, we have not proposed a universal account that fully explains the path of state development across the entire world.

That said, we discuss China and Japan at length in Persecution & Toleration. Briefly, the argument is that the unique history of early state formation in East Asia meant that the partnership between religious and secular authorities was always tilted in favor of secular authority. Because of this, Chinese identity rules were not tied to religious beliefs as they were in the West and, as the Chinese state built capacity, the tensions between religion and governance did not emerge in the same way. The result was a powerful illiberal state which relied comparatively less on religion for political legitimacy. China has never had religious freedom and from the Tang period onward the Chinese state closely regulated all religion. This is the path that China is on today.

Having a powerful state per se is not certainly sufficient for religious freedom or liberalism. We are not providing a blueprint for how to become liberal (e.g. “build a strong state”). Rather our interest lies in uncovering the factors responsible for the emergence of liberalism in Western Europe. There it was the process of state formation and increased religious diversity after 1500 that made it incentive compatible for European states to establish liberal institutions.


[1] It was briefly revived by Queen Anne.

[2] The last instance was in fact in 1825, during the reign of Charles X, when it was greeted skeptically.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Religion was central to premodern states. So why isn’t it central to the story of how modernity arose? Mark Koyama and Noel D. Johnson argue that it should be. They argue that states with greater capacity — that is, stronger states — could enforce social rules that were neither personal nor based on religious identity, but that could at least potentially treat all religious believers fairly. Religion, they write, is a cheap source of legitimacy for weak states. Strong states can paradoxically offer more freedom, they argue.

Response Essays

  • James A. Robinson looks at how European states enjoy, or suffer from, a unique relationship to monotheistic religion. The early modern English state did not distance itself from religion as a source of state authority. Rather, it tried to make religion more tractable — while keeping the glow of its authority. Robinson extends his argument with examples from Saudi Arabia and China.

  • Hans Eicholz characterizes Johnson and Koyama’s theory of religious liberty as stadial — and thus as similar to theories expounded by Hegel and Marx. He finds it not so immediately objectionable, however, and he subjects it to a careful critique. He argues that it was not stateness per se that caused toleration to emerge, but rather competition among states, and among the institutions of state power, that brought them to seek the tangible advantages of legal toleration.

  • Dalibor Rohac agrees with the claim that stronger states and more effective protections of individual liberty tend to be found together. While state capacity can often be used for evil, the lack of state capacity is not the option to choose in preference to it. Rather we should understand federalism as an important missing piece of the puzzle because it gives individuals multiple levels of authority to resort to in the pursuit of justice.