Wednesday marked the 450th anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, when France’s Catholic king instigated the killing of thousands of Protestants. In the following years, thousands more French Protestants fled for Britain or the Netherlands, while others would make their way to America. Mark Tooley explains how these events shaped religious freedom in the United States:
These refugees were disproportionately middle-class, educated, and skilled. Their emigration strengthened the Protestant nations economically and technologically. The tribulations of the French Protestants also embedded in the Netherlands and Britain, and later in America, a deep fear of persecution by Catholic monarchs and a greater appreciation for religious toleration. Benjamin Franklin recalled that in his Boston boyhood he heard his Puritan preacher inveigh against the French king Louis XIV, who [in 1685 again] criminalized Protestantism in France.
Britain had followed a different course because its clashing political and religious forces of the previous century had, however reluctantly, learned from and accommodated each other through compromise and toleration. This evolving Whig tradition esteemed liberty, order, limited government, progress, and freedom of speech and religion.
There is today in America, and the world, a rising tide of intolerance and impatience with if not disdain for liberty, democracy, “liberalism,” and religious freedom. Why should “false” beliefs be tolerated? Why should people who are “wrong” have the same liberty as the people who are “right?” Isn’t freedom chaotic, decadent, and ultimately unsustainable? Doesn’t the common good require a central political and religious authority dictating the terms under which all shall live?
These illiberalisms ignore the bloody lessons of compromise and accommodation that led to toleration in Britain and Holland, thanks partly to the sufferings of the French Protestants, and eventually to full religious freedom, freedom of speech, and democracy, with protected equal rights for all. Regimes that dogmatically enforce what is religiously “right” typically betray the intent of their own professed religions and create the conditions of their own destruction.