Tolerance, Liberalism, and Lessons for a Fractured America
Barely two years after the Catholic Church completed its repudiation of Protestant doctrine in Council of Trent (1545-1563), an Italian convert to Protestantism jumps into the fray. A layman trained as a lawyer, Jacopo Acontius delivered a memoir that exposed the dark psychology of the persecution in a way no one had ever attempted. His singular work, The Darkness Discovered: Or The Devil’s Secret Stratagems Revealed (1565), proposed a defense of religious freedom that helped revolutionize church-state relations in the West.
“The best way to discover the schemes of the devil”, wrote Acontius, “is to seriously consider what is the end to which all his consultations are aimed, which is not very difficult to say.” Satan’s grand design, he said, is to alienate men and women from life with God, to lead them into conflict, misery and death. This, he explained, was the consequence of the religious disputes which threatened to overwhelm Europe. “So are the people divided into sects who hate each other with mortal quarrel, refraining from no kind of injury, and… observe not how in doing so they obey their own passions, but think that ‘they are very pleasing to God.
The bitter bigotry that shrouded sixteenth-century Europe offers a warning about the tribalism that now darkens American public life. Just as our modern culture wars have taken on a militant character, disagreements over fundamental religious issues have escalated into violence. The Europeans no longer seemed capable of living together, each dispute becoming a political question, framed in apocalyptic terms.
Such was the world as Acontius encountered it early in his career. Born into a Catholic family around 1500 in or near Trento, he received a classical education, evidently immersed in the works of Aristotle, Plato and Archimedes. We do not know what circumstances led to his conversion, but as the Protestant Reformation spread across the continent, Acontius joined other Italian Protestants who fled to Switzerland. He meets Italian academicians trained in Renaissance humanism.
Acontius also encountered the repressive policies of rival religious communities. In Geneva, John Calvin triggered a debate among Protestants when, in 1553, he authorized the execution of Servetus for heresy. In the Netherlands, Catholic Spain struggled to contain the growing Calvinist minority. In France, the religious wars between Calvinists and Catholics (1562-1593) were already devastating a large part of the country.
What distinguished Acontius from other advocates of religious tolerance—and there were not many of them in his time—was his willingness to expose the scandal of persecution by getting to the root of the problem: the moral disposition of the man. “Acontius sought to analyze and explain the psychology that underlies all religious persecution,” writing WK Jordan in The development of religious tolerance in England“and his contribution in this regard has probably never been matched.”
Drawing on scripture, Acontius agreed that mankind was a created being good and perfect in all respects, “but breaking the commandment of God, he became of another nature quite contrary, exceedingly corrupt and susceptible of all sorts of vices”. The vices of mankind, which Satan sought to exploit, included inflated self-esteem, moral blindness, and complacency.
The desire to persecute others, Acontius believed, was primarily the result of intellectual arrogance: supreme confidence in the truth and correctness of one’s opinions. It was a weakness that afflicted ministers and monarchs alike.
The character of European society, in which religious leaders held unchallenged authority, created a repressive dynamic. As Acontius summed it up, “every man’s life and reputation are exposed to the scourge of those whom they call preachers”. And preachers, he wrote, were especially prone to pride. If an individual disagreed with them – and thus challenged their knowledge or skill – they would “pass under their censorship” and “lose their credit altogether”.
The problem was exacerbated by the church-state relationship. Once the pattern had been established whereby religious controversies would be decided by the magistrate, he would not resist the temptation to abuse his power. Like the preacher, he would consider anyone who contradicted him a heretic. Thus, the strategy of Satan, Acontius wrote, consisted in manipulating political authority to implement the whims of an arrogant and embittered clergy. “But who is there bearing the sword, who will not be considered pious, and who will not count as a heretic whoever thwarts him in matters of religion?” The final arbiter of truth would be the executioner.
The persecution, instead of mitigating disagreements about religion, has aggravated the problem. The dissidents harden their position, convinced that their adversaries are acting out of malice. “For they do not destroy errors, but make them invincible; they do not uproot them, but they propagate them; they do not destroy them, but multiply them in great abundance. The result: the growth not only of sects and heresies but also of hatred and disorder. “And so, by a sort of contagion, evil spreads far and near.”
This cycle of repression and social unrest, Acontius repeatedly pointed out, was rooted in “the disposition of man, naturally inclined to pride and great loftiness of mind”. Its ultimate cause could be found in the story of creation: the temptation of the serpent in paradise for man to become like God. “So that there has been such a persuasion in mankind ever since, that every man regards himself as a kind of divinity.” In The darkness discoveredSatan could be seen not only as a truly malevolent being, but also as a symbol of human arrogance.
The response to the problem of persecution was multifaceted. First, Acontius placed enormous emphasis on the need for rational argument, civil debate, and free inquiry. The persecution of suspected heretics only encouraged the base motives of political and religious leaders. “His solution”, writes W. K. Jordan, “was instead to use moral and rational persuasion and leave the heretic to work out his own salvation.”
Second, Acontius proposed an approach to religious belief that would take it out of the realm of politics, beyond the reach of the state. “If there be controversies in religion, let them clash on both sides with the scriptures and arguments, but let the magistrates look at them again and again, that they may, under pain, s abstain from anything that may tend to provoke each other.” It was not for political authority to enforce doctrinal orthodoxy.
The most profound remedy for the “contagion” of persecution, however, was a return to basic biblical concepts about God and his great patience with sinners. The person who seemed to be in grave spiritual error, who had strayed from the fold of God, may not always remain so. Isn’t it possible, asked Acontius, that he “is at last found by the best of shepherds, healed and brought back to the flock?” The possibility demanded charity.
For Acontius, the supreme example of mercy was Jesus. The eye of the accuser must be fixed on him and not on the man whom he considers a heretic. “So you must not look at his person, but at the person of Christ whom he represents, and remember how great his love was for you,” he wrote. “As he did not refuse, being himself just and innocent, to die for you, unjust and greatest of sinners, especially by such a cruel and bloody death.” In other words, the primary obligation of Christians caught up in theological disputes was to meditate on Christ’s great love and mercy for them, expressed in his sacrificial death on the cross.
It was a plea for Christian charity that would not be forgotten. When the English philosopher John Locke was in political exile in the 1680s in the Netherlands, shortly before writing his defense of religious freedom, he was reading The darkness discoveredwho circulated among the dissident Protestant community who had befriended him.
Locke purchased other tolerant works while in Holland, but he seems to have been particularly moved by the arguments he encountered from Acontius. Locke started A Letter Regarding Tolerance (1689), for example, insisting that a display of humility in the face of religious differences was the identifying mark of the followers of Jesus. “If, like the Captain of our salvation, they sincerely desired the good of souls, they would tread the steps and follow the perfect example of the Prince of Peace” – an example of patience and love in the face of intense hostility.
Like Acontius, Locke elevated the faculty of reasoning and the “inner persuasion of the mind” in matters of faith. “Only light and evidence can effect a change in the opinions of men; and that light cannot in any way come from bodily suffering or any other outward pain. Coercion produced hypocrites, he wrote, and not true believers.
Locke also took the idea of keeping the magistrate out of religious disputes – and took it to its logical conclusion. The power of the state, he writes, “is confined to the care of the things of this world and has nothing to do with the world to come”, while “the Church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the republic. The boundaries between these two institutions, says Locke, “are fixed and immutable.”