Reviews

Vincent Geloso, Public Choice:

When we speak of religious toleration today, we generally invoke its enlightened definition in which differences in faith are accepted and welcomed. However, there is a more limited concept of toleration whereby these differences are merely endured, and violence between the faithful is constrained only by the opportunity costs of violence. For this reason, the latter definition of toleration is the only relevant one as it precedes (and probably causes) the more enlightened version.

In Persecution and Toleration, Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama rely on this superior definition to explain the rise and fall of religious violence in Europe. Their arguments are simple enough to comprehend as they follow a lucid analytical storyline. First, there was an era of religious toleration during the middle ages. During this era, weak states made arrangements with religious groups that can only be described as forms of rent-sharing agreements. Second, as the power of states grew during the early modern era, the previous arrangements became harder to sustain and tensions erupted. This is when Europe devolved into religious violence. Third, as the capacities and abilities of states reached their pre-1900 zenith, policy towards religious differences shifted from the local and particular to the national and general. As this shift occurred, religious toleration became the norm rather than the exception. However, just as at the outset of the story, the new arrangements were intended to increase and cement the state’s ability to extract resources from the governed. The main takeaway is that stronger states made toleration possible.

Jared Rubin, EH.NET:

Why does religious persecution happen when and where it does? Are there common threads linking the persecution of medieval European Jews, Russian Jews in the early twentieth century, Muslim Uighurs in northwestern China, and the Rohingya people of Myanmar? Are the causes of such persecutions deeper than just anti-religious sentiment? Are they economic? Political?

These questions are difficult to grapple with, but they are also self-evidently important. Religious persecution has been with us since there has been organized religion. It is highly likely that, if your ancestors belonged to an Abrahamic faith, at least some of them were persecuted for their beliefs. Yet, with some important exceptions — the Holocaust being foremost among them — religious persecution has receded immensely in the developed world in the last two centuries. Even in places like the U.S. and Europe, where Muslims are often treated poorly, the treatment of religious minorities pales in comparison to what was possible in medieval Europe. How did we take the long road to religious freedom?

The fascinating, insightful, and highly learned Persecution and Toleration answers all of these questions, and much more. The argument put forth by Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama, both of George Mason University, hinges on two institutional factors. First, persecution and toleration result from a state’s capacity to provide and administer law and order for its population. The idea is straightforward: when a state has weak capacity, it can do little to prevent persecution. The state also tends to treat people differently based on their status (Johnson and Koyama call these “identity rules”). This means that religious minorities may be particularly vulnerable. Indeed, the occasional persecution may even be good for a ruler. The reason relates to the second institutional factor: the importance of religious legitimacy. When rulers maintain their power in part by being legitimated via religion, scapegoating of religious minorities can be a powerful tool when faced with threats to stability.

Cameron Harwick, Liberal Currents:

Noel Johnson and Mark Koyama’s book, Persecution and Toleration: The Long Road to Religious Freedom, focuses on one particular element in the constellation of liberal virtues – religious toleration – and tells a story very much at odds with our triumphalist mythos. The contrast between our own distinctive convictions on the virtue of religious tolerance and those of our ancestors is due neither to the particular viciousness or ignorance of the premodern West, nor to the particular virtue or insight of the modern West. Instead, they argue, the institutional developments that resulted in modern centralized states, set in motion for mostly quite illiberal reasons, made religious toleration possible in a way that it had not been prior.

If this argument is true of religious toleration, it is probably true of the whole set of distinctively liberal values and freedoms. And if so, the triumphalist mythos may render us complacent in the face of threats to the viability of liberal values. Understanding just what made liberal values viable starting in the late 1700s, and why they were not before, will be crucial to their survival into the future. This is precisely what Persecution and Toleration sets out to do.