Tuesday, February 27, 2018
The Limits of Tolerance
What earned King Henri IV his reputation for tolerance was that, even after his conversion to Catholicism, he issued the Edict of Nantes which granted freedom of religion to French Protestants. Needless to say, there were Catholics who were upset by this but, then again, one can also still find Catholics who are critical of King Louis XIV for revoking the Edict of Nantes. For many, whether tolerance is a positive or a negative seems to be a rather subjective question. In the case of France, tolerance seemed to be the only solution to their problem. The edict came at the end of the long and brutal Wars of Religion in France, the last being known as the “War of the Three Henries”. This saw Henri (IV) of Navarre and the Protestants battling against Henri Duc d’Guise and the Catholics with King Henri III in the middle, all fighting against each other, none being strong enough to defeat the other two. France was being shredded by these conflicts and since there seemed to be no end, tolerance was the answer Henri of Navarre found. In order to be king, he would become Catholic but he would also insist that Protestants be free to worship as they pleased so long as they remained loyal to the king and loyal to France, which in those days were taken to be the same thing.
The result was that while Spain had no wars of religion, Germany had plenty of them, culminating in the disastrous Thirty Years War which left central Europe in ruins for decades. The fact that tolerance can make things worse instead of better was not lost on the Protestants themselves. Despite their persecution at the hands of intolerant Catholics, for what they called, ‘following the dictates of their conscience’, once in power they were not prepared to fully embrace tolerance themselves. In countries such as England or The Netherlands, while the Church of England or the Dutch Reformed Church had special status, they were generally tolerant of Protestants who did not adhere to these churches but that freedom of religion did not extend to Catholics. It is obvious to see why. Such tolerance would lead to division which would lead to conflict, sometimes decade after decade of ruinous conflict that could devastate entire nations. Today it often seems necessary to repeat the obvious; differences cause problems. Differences about the fundamental nature of society, the world, loyalty and so on can certainly cause very, very serious problems.
This all underlies a fundamental point I have tried to impress upon people many times. Tolerance is rare and tolerance on the part of governments is practically non-existent. No ruling power ever has or ever will tolerate anything which is a direct challenge to them. They will not tolerate any sort of attack on that which they hold most dear. In Muslim countries, this means that anything anti-Islamic will not be tolerated. It is why, in Germany or Austria, questioning the Holocaust is not tolerated. It is why the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy would not tolerate opposition to their ruling parties. It is why Thailand does not tolerate disrespect toward the monarchy, because that is the foundation of their society. Liberal regimes today, be they republics or monarchies, tend to think they are immune from this. Not so. The rulers of Great Britain, for example, allow republican groups to attack the monarchy because the monarchy is not fundamental to their world view at all. Most European countries, the United States, Canada and so on do not have something so obvious as Islam in Iran or the King in Thailand but they very clearly have a narrative that is fundamental to their worldview and they will tolerate no opposition to this narrative.
Tolerance is a lie and, all too often, a fatal one.