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During his 1831 visit to the United States, French nobleman Alexis de Tocqueville was surprised to see the positive role played by active religious faith in nurturing liberty. The dogma of the Enlightenment’s secularizing philosophes predicted the waning of religious enthusiasm as enlightenment and freedom spread, but Tocqueville’s American experience contradicted this dogma. In his great work, Democracy in America, he observed that religion and freedom were inseparably linked for Americans; one could not be conceived without the other. From this he drew a general lesson: “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot” (vol. I, pt. II, ch. 9).

Our twentieth century seems in many ways to have empirically demonstrated Tocqueville’s principle, and a growing body of literature now sounds a supportive chorus. Fyodor Dostoyevski, so it is now often said, was absolutely right about the shadow side of the dictum: “If God is dead, everything is permitted.” Stated differently, history–particularly our experience of totalitarianism in the twentieth century–appears to have verified that it is practically impossible for a people to be both free and good without God.

But now a difficult question: Which religion helps a people to be free? Is Tocqueville’s axiom true for religion in general or only for a particular religion? Is there something specific about the content or character of American religious experience that has no historical analogues in, for example, Roman Catholic Spain, Hindu India, Confucian China, or Muslim Persia? Equally awkward is the question of truth. Can “false” religions nurture genuine freedom and morality together, or must religious claims be “true” to have moral efficacy in a free society?

It is here that the shoe pinches for secular social conservatives. The belief in religion’s importance in public life for maintaining a free and virtuous people is one of the defining marks of social conservatism, but it is not always clear whether such convictions are merely utilitarian in character or whether they are rooted in an equal passion for religious truth. Affirming the need for belief in God simply to “prevent the servants from stealing the silver” hardly rises to the level of meaningful and effective religious commitment. The truth question will not go away.

But our problem is even worse. History also throws in our face counter-examples to Tocqueville’s principle, instances where religion has been the source of intolerance and hateful conduct rather than good. Alongside the horrors of godless totalitarianism in the twentieth century, we must in all honesty also account for Belfast, Beirut, and Bosnia. For good measure let us throw in the Crusades, the Wars of Religion, the Inquisition, and even the Salem witch trials. Is it possible to sort all this out and still defend Tocqueville’s principle?

Lord Acton and Abraham Kuyper: Two Champions of Liberty

I shall attempt at least a beginning in this essay by comparing two champions of liberty, a pair of contemporaries, the Dutch Calvinist theologian—statesman Abraham Kuyper (1837—1920) and the Acton Institute’s namesake, the Roman Catholic British historian Lord John Acton (1834—1902), both of whom judged religion essential to liberty. After a brief survey of each man’s view of religion and liberty, I shall consider their assessments of a horrific and much-debated event in European religious conflict, the notorious Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of August 24, 1572, and following. I will then conclude with some reflections on how these two distinct Christian traditions–the Catholic and the Calvinist (not exactly historically known for their harmonious coexistence)–can, in fact, make common cause for the sake of liberty.

Abraham Kuyper visited the United States in 1898 to deliver the prestigious Stone Lectures at Princeton Seminary, which were eventually published as Lectures on Calvinism. In those lectures, as well as in the numerous addresses he gave in a two-month whirlwind American tour, Kuyper repeatedly praised the American experiment in ordered liberty, claiming the spirit of Calvinism as its soul. Among Kuyper’s favorite and oft-used quotations was one from American historian George Bancroft: “The fanatic for Calvinism was a fanatic for liberty.” Kuyper traced the line of political liberty from a seed planted in Calvin’s Geneva through its transplantation in the Calvinist Netherlands and Puritan England to its full flowering in New England. As corroboration of this historical scenario, Kuyper cited Bancroft’s assessment that America’s “enthusiasm for freedom was born from its enthusiasm for Calvinism.” In Kuyper’s view, America had been providentially blessed in order to be the world’s beacon of liberty.

The reason for this linkage, according to Kuyper, is the Calvinist emphasis on the sovereignty of God. Neither the popular sovereignty of the French Revolution nor the state sovereignty of ancien regime absolute monarchism (or modern socialism) can fulfill the promise of liberty. Individual persons as well as social institutions such as the family do not derive their rights and legitimacy mediately from the state but immediately from the Sovereign God Himself. Political freedom is possible when each citizen’s clear and final allegiance is to God. This is the genuine equality that, in Kuyper’s view, led to full liberty of conscience and political freedom. In that context, he also judged, the hierarchically ordered polity of Rome, combined with its insistence on sacerdotal mediation, could not bring about full liberty.

John Calvin or Thomas Aquinas?

Lord Acton shared this conviction that religion was essential to freedom. In his History of Freedom he concurred with “the idea that religious liberty is the generating principle of civil, and that civil liberty is the necessary condition of religious.” Though this specific conviction was, in Acton’s judgment, “a discovery reserved for the seventeenth century,” he traces its key ingredient, liberty of conscience, back to Thomas Aquinas rather than John Calvin. And though sharing Kuyper’s appreciation for America as “the grandest polity in the history of mankind,” in a review of James Bryce’s American Commonwealth, the Catholic historian scoffs at the accepted doctrine that Calvinist Puritanism was the inspiration for the American Revolution: “If Calvin prompted the Revolution, it was after he had suffered from contact with Tom Paine.” Acton concludes another essay titled “The Protestant Theory of Persecution” with the following fascinating contrast:

In the same age the Puritans and the Catholics sought a refuge beyond the Atlantic from the persecution which they suffered together under the Stuarts. Flying for the same reason, and from the same oppression, they were enabled respectively to carry out their own views in the colonies which they founded in Massachusetts and Maryland, and the history of those two States exhibits faithfully the contrast between the two churches. The Catholic emigrants established, for the first time in modern history, a government in which religion was free, and with it the germ of that religious liberty which now prevails in America. The Puritans, on the other hand, revived with greater severity the penal laws of the mother country.

So now we have rival claims for the title “champion of liberty.” Like simultaneous claimants to heavyweight boxing titles, each one has some semblance of legitimacy. Each one also partakes in a history that casts doubt on the claim. Kuyper realized this when he addressed the problem of church and state in his third Stone Lecture:

[The difficulty] lies in the pile and fagots of Servetus. It lies in the attitude of the Presbyterians toward the independents. It lies in the restrictions of liberty of worship and in the “civil disabilities” under which for centuries even in the Netherlands the Roman Catholics have suffered. The difficulty lies in the fact that an article of our old Calvinistic Confession of Faith [Belgic Confession, art.36, j.b.] entrusts to the government the task “of defending against and of extirpating every form of idolatry and false religion, and to protect the sacred service of the Church.” The difficulty lies in the unanimous and uniform advice of Calvin and his epigones, who demanded intervention of the government in the matter of religion.

Kuyper adds: “The accusation is therefore a natural one: that, by choosing in favor of liberty of religion, we do not pick up the gauntlet for Calvinism, but that we directly oppose it.” Kuyper then goes on, somewhat defensively, to allege a historical unfairness in highlighting the execution of Michael Servetus “whilst the Calvinists, in the age of Reformation, yielded their victims, by tens of thousands, to the scaffold and the stake.” Kuyper’s own judgment, however, is unequivocal: “Notwithstanding all this, I not only deplore that one stake [of Servetus], but I unconditionally disapprove of it.”

The Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Kuyper’s reference to “tens of thousands” of Calvinist victims naturally brings us to the legendary Saint Bartholomew’s massacre of 1572. First, a brief history of events. In the ongoing conflict between the Catholic court and the French Calvinists, an uneasy truce had been achieved through the mediation of the Huguenot leader, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, culminating in the religiously “mixed marriage” in August 1572 between Protestant Henry of Navarre and Catholic Marguerite of Valois, the sister of King Charles IX. With the provocation of the keenly Catholic Queen Mother, Catharine de’ Medici, and with the apparent acquiescence of Pope Gregory XIII, Admiral Coligny was assassinated on August 24, 1572, precipitating a nationwide orgy of Huguenot slaughter by French mobs that lasted into the month of October. Estimates indicate a death toll in the neighborhood of fifty thousand.

While the events of 1572 are in themselves momentous, the mythological characterization and propogandist use of them that followed is even more significant. The assassination of Admiral Coligny and the massacre that ensued became one of the chief cornerstones of Protestant martyrology. Thanks to the printing press and the exodus of Calvinist refugees from France–primarily through Geneva–the memory of the massacre was kept alive throughout Europe and played a significant role in internationalizing the Reformed faith, spurring Calvinist devotion in trying circumstances and times. As the weight of Protestant martyrological interpretation grew, a response from the Catholic side did also. And that brings us back to Kuyper and Acton, both of whom wrote substantive essays on the massacre, focusing on the changing Catholic historiography.

Lord Acton was a scrupulous historian whose passion for honesty in dealing with historical sources and evidence got him into trouble with ecclesiastical authorities on several occasions. He would not fudge the record even when it portrayed his own church in a bad light. In his Saint Bartholomew’s essay, Acton painstakingly traces Catholic responses to the massacre from initial defiance to final denial. The defiant response alleged Huguenot crimes in plotting against the French court; the massacre was acknowledged but justified as a legitimate reaction to real threats against public order by admitted heretics who deserved no mercy. The culmination of this attitude is reflected in Pope Gregory XIII’s commissioning of a commemorative medal and Giorgio Vasari’s triumphant painting of the massacre for the Sala Regia of the Vatican palace.

As Acton traces Catholic responses to the massacre, he observes that the posture of defiant acknowledgment (“Yes, we did; they deserved it”) could not be maintained. The theory that was used to justify the slaughter (“Confirmed heretics must be rigorously punished … It is mercy to kill heretics that they may sin no more”), he notes, “has done more than plots and massacres to cast discredit on the Catholics.” Furthermore, “the majority of the Catholics who were not under the direct influence of Madrid or Rome recognized the inexpiable horror of the crime” though the concern to defend Rome remained intact.

Truth Is the Foundation of Liberty

There did come, however, a change in Catholic opinion: “That which had been defiantly acknowledged and defended required to be ingeniously explained away. The same motive which had justified the murder now prompted the lie.” Fearful of implicating the papacy and thus providing further fuel for the fires of anti-Catholic hatred, apologists for the Church lied:

A swarm of facts were invented to meet the difficulty: The victims were insignificant in number; they were slain for no reason connected with religion; the Pope believed in the existence of the plot; the plot was a reality; the medal is fictitious; the massacre was a feint concerted with the Protestants themselves…. These things were repeated so often that they have been sometimes believed.

But Acton will have none of it. He concludes his essay with these remarkable words: “Such things will cease to be written when men perceive that truth is the only merit that gives dignity and worth to history.”

In 1872, approaching the tricentennial of the massacre, Abraham Kuyper challenged precisely this revisionist Catholic historiography in a series of editorials later published as a brochure. Using some of the same archival evidence as Acton, though painting in broader brush strokes, Kuyper called on his fellow Dutch Calvinists to revive their martyrology but without continuing hatred for their Catholic compatriots. He also acknowledged Protestant guilt in the wars of religion (though not equally!) and called for genuine freedom of conscience in civic life.

The convergence here between Acton and Kuyper suggests some lessons for us. We must be historically honest and modest in our claims. Calvinists and Catholics alike have mixed records on the matter of liberty. Rather than focusing on Calvin or Aquinas, it is preferable to go back to the Early Church–to Augustine, Athanasius, and Irenaeus. It is the biblical doctrine of the image of God in every person that is the indispensable fountain of human dignity and civil liberty. Finally, as the writings of Pope John Paul II so clearly remind us, the question of liberty, of human dignity and life, can never be separated from the question of truth. It is the truth that alone sets us free, even when it is uncomfortable truth.

Dr. John Bolt is a professor of systematic theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.