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Religious freedom, while commonplace in modern liberal democracies, was not always identified as a natural right with which people were born. Historical narratives describe the “Dark Ages” between the fall of the Roman Empire and the advent of early modernity as a period in which the world was divided between various civilizations according to the religions which they professed.
The Reformation was one of the most influential movements in the course of western history. As leaders like Martin Luther, and John Calvin led Christian communities to break from traditional Catholicism, the rate of religious pluralism rose within Europe and led to a series of religious wars that defined the sixteenth century. In an early attempt to mediate these conflicts, German rulers negotiated the 1555 Peace of Augsburg. Alexandra Walsham writes that this document “established the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, by which individual rulers were permitted to choose whether Catholicism or Protestantism should be professed in their states” (Walsham, “Reformation Legacies,” 297.) Thus, in addition to legalizing the practice of multiple religions within the German states, the adoption of cuius regio, eius religio also meant that religion would no longer be forced upon a principality by outside forces. The idea that Christian rulers could have the right to choose their own religion, and that this choice would be respected, represents an early step toward the principles of religious pluralism and toleration. The Peace of Augsburg did not lend religious agency to the subjects living within these principalities, but it did show European leaders that cooperation was possible between rulers who belonged to differing faiths.
The seventeenth century was an especially bloody one which included such conflicts as the English Civil War, the French Wars of Religion, and the vicious Thirty Years’ War. Religious plurality invariably led to violence in the seventeenth century, but these conflicts were often followed by important agreements that fostered some level of religious toleration. In 1598, following the religious battles between Catholics and Protestants in France, the French King Henry (IV) of Navarre signed the Edict of Nantes, which “gave Protestants permission to practice their faith openly, albeit within strict limits and as second-class citizens” (Walsham, “Reformation Legacies,” 299). The Thirty Years’ War famously concluded with the Peace of Westphalia, which decreed (among other things) that while each state should have the right to establish an official religion, they were also obligated to allow their subjects the opportunity to practice different Christian denominations without fear of persecution (Christenson, “Liberty of the Exercise of Religion in the Peace of Westphalia,” 740). By favoring religious toleration, Westphalia’s signatories recognized that only religious toleration would reduce the potential for future conflict between the various sects of Christianity. Documents like the Edict of Nantes and the Peace of Westphalia ultimately failed to end religious persecution and conflict within Europe, but they still reveal a heightened awareness of the need for leaders to tolerate religious plurality within their borders.
As the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries wore on, European intelligentsia began exploring the concept of religious freedom more directly. Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Baruch Spinoza led the intellectual charge in support of freedom of conscience and thought, while political leaders such as Roger Williams and Thomas Jefferson incorporated principles of religious freedom and the separation of church and state into their state building efforts in North America. While legal guarantees of the right to religious freedom would not be made until the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the modern right to freedom of religion is rooted in Reformation-era efforts to mediate religious conflict and incorporate religious toleration into budding European nation-states.
Gordon A. Christenson, “Liberty of the Exercise of Religion in the Peace of Westphalia,” Transnational Law & Contemporary Problems, Vol. 21, 2012).
Alexandra Walsham, “Reformation Legacies,” from The Oxford History of the Reformation, ed. Peter Marshall, Oxford University Press: Oxford, 2022
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