February 2019

Today’s westerners are likely to be highly tolerant of other religions, but this was not always the case. Indeed, repression was the norm in many European societies during the early modern era. So what changed? 

The standard story holds that after the Reformation, Europe simply fought itself to exhaustion. Whole nations were decimated in religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Eventually, rulers and common people alike began to look for a way to stop the bleeding, and from this necessity, toleration emerged. 

This month’s lead essayists beg to differ. Mark Koyama and Noel D. Johnson argue that stronger states had less need of religious unity, because stronger states could rely on contracts and the rule of law to establish interpersonal trust and national solidarity. As a result, they didn’t need the type of solidarity that comes from religious unity. Liberalism was therefore a luxury they could afford. 

This is bound to be a controversial idea, though Koyama and Johnson stress its origins in classical liberal historiography. Joining them to discuss religious freedom, liberalism, and how we can further religious toleration in the modern world, we have invited Prof. James A. Robinson of Harvard University, Dalibor Rohac of the American Enterprise Institute, and Dr. Hans Eicholz of Liberty Fund. We also welcome readers’ comments through the end of the month.

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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.

Coming Up

Conversation through the end of the month.

Related at Cato

Cato Unbound: How the World Got Modern,” November 2009

Book Forum: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and PovertyApril 4, 2012