Toleration, Pluralism, and Coexistence: The Ambivalent Legacies of the Reformation

18 May 2018

One of the enduring myths of the origins of modern Western liberalism to which we still cling, albeit unconsciously, is the tradition of linking the Reformation with the rise of toleration. The notion that Protestantism helped to sow the seeds for advanced ideas of freedom of conscience and laid the foundations for practical arrangements that facilitated the acceptance of religious diversity is part of another resilient paradigm: the story of the Reformation’s role as an agent of progress and as a stepping stone towards the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. Integral to the teleological tale of how the values we believe to be central to our civilisation came into being, it is also deeply entwined with the patriotic narratives that underpin Anglo-American senses of national identity. It entails an element of self-satisfaction and self-congratulation that is profoundly at odds with the rampant and pervasive intolerance that lurks under the surface of twenty-first-century society and increasingly erupts into public view. Ironically, especially in Britain, this whiggish myth also embodies and perpetuates a related prejudice: the latent anti-Catholicism enshrined in the black legend of the intolerant medieval Inquisition and of the scheming Jesuits, in the lingering memory of the Protestant martyrs burnt during the reign of Queen Mary I, and in accounts of the constitutional coup that excluded a Catholic monarch from the throne which we continue to christen the ‘Glorious Revolution’.