Lessons on Illiberalism from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre

Lessons on Illiberalism from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre September 13, 2022

August 24 was the 450th anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, in which, at the behest of the French king Charles IX, soldiers and mobs slaughtered as many as 30,000 Protestants because of their faith.

Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, reflects on this horrific event in his essay for the online journal ProvidenceSt. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre’s Lessons for Today.

He goes over the historical events and their context, then discusses the impact of the massacre.  In France, the king’s brutality in wiping out the Huguenots, extending the king’s sovereignty over his subject’s inner faith, led to a tradition of absolutism that would result in the French Revolution.  In the Protestant nations, the mass-martyrdom intensified fears of Catholicism.  Eventually, though, the massacre led thoughtful people and political leaders to realize the necessity of religious toleration, leading to laws assuring religious liberty, including the First Amendment in the American Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

Tooley then applies these hard-won lessons to today, a time when some thinkers are playing around with “illiberalism“–eliminating democracy, freedom, and human rights–and some Christians, both Catholic and Protestant, are arguing that nations need to be governed by a single religion.

There is today in America, and the world, a rising tide of intolerance and impatience with if not disdain for liberty, democracy, “liberalism,” and religious freedom. Why should “false” beliefs be tolerated? Why should people who are “wrong” have the same liberty with the people who are “right?”  Isn’t freedom chaotic, decadent, and ultimately unsustainable? Doesn’t the common good require a central political and religious authority dictating the terms under which all shall live?

Some of these post-liberals are Catholic integralists who romanticize France’s old regime in which throne and altar were partners in silencing dissent. Other post-liberals are arch Calvinists who insist a truly godly society must be legislated accordingly to their theology, as in perhaps Calvin’s Geneva.

These illiberalisms ignore the bloody lessons of compromise and accommodation that led to toleration in Britain and Holland, thanks partly to the sufferings of the French Protestants, and eventually to full religious freedom, freedom of speech and democracy, with protected equal rights for all. Regimes that dogmatically enforce what is religiously “right” typically betray the intent of their own professed religions and create the conditions of their own destruction.


Illustration:  St. Bartholomew Day’s Massacre by François Dubois (1529 – 1584) – Current valid link to file (same source): Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts; direct link to the image: [2]Original link (museum homepage only): Musée cantonal des Beaux-Arts., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46815694

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