Wars of Religion and Rise of the State

Fantastic piece of scholarship that supports the absolutist interpretation of de Jouvenel here.

My purpose in this essay will be to focus on the way revulsion to killing in the name of religion is used to legitimize the transfer of ultimate loyalty to the modern State. Specifically I will examine how the so-called “Wars of Religion” of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe are evoked as the founding moment of modern liberalism by theorists such as John Rawls, Judith Shklar, and Jeffrey Stout. I will let Shklar tell the familiar tale:

liberalism … was born out of the cruelties of the religious civil wars, which forever rendered the claims of Christian charity a rebuke to all religious institutions and parties. If the faith was to survive at all, it would do so privately. The alternative then set, and still before us, is not one between classical virtue and liberal self-indulgence, but between cruel military and moral repression and violence, and a self-restraining tolerance that fences in the powerful to protect the freedom and safety of every citizen …”

In Jeffrey Stout’s view, the multiplication of religions following on the Reformation produced appeals to incompatible authorities which could not be resolved rationally. Therefore “liberal principles were the right ones to adopt when competing religious beliefs and divergent conceptions of the good embroiled Europe in the religious wars … Our early modern ancestors were right to secularize public discourse in the interest of minimizing the ill effects of religious disagreement.”5 In other words, the modern, secularized State arose to keep peace among the warring religious factions.

I will argue that this story puts the matter backwards. The “Wars of Religion” were not the events which necessitated the birth of the modern State; they were in fact themselves the birthpangs of the State. These wars were not simply a matter of conflict between “Protestantism” and “Catholicism,” but were fought largely for the aggrandizement of the emerging State over the decaying remnants of the medieval ecclesial order. I do not wish merely to contend that political and economic factors played a central role in these wars, nor to make a facile reduction of religion to more mundane concerns. I will rather argue that to call these conflicts “Wars of Religion” is an anachronism, for what was at issue in these wars was the very creation of religion as a set of privately held beliefs without direct political relevance. The creation of religion was necessitated by the new State’s need to secure absolute sovereignty over its subjects. I hope to challenge the soteriology of the modern State as peacemaker, and show that Christian resistance to State violence depends on a recovery of the Church’s disciplinary resources. p1-2


The net result of the conflicts of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was to invert the dominance of the ecclesiastical over the civil authorities through the creation of the modern State. The chief promoters of this transposition, as Figgis makes plain, “were Martin Luther and Henry VIII and Philip II, who in reality worked together despite their apparent antagonism. P3


There is a direct relationship between the success of efforts to restrict supra-national Church authority and the failure of the Reformation within those realms. In other words, wherever concordats between the Papal See and temporal rulers had already limited the jurisdiction of the Church within national boundaries, there the princes saw no need to throw off the yoke of Catholicism, precisely because Catholicism had already been reduced, to a greater extent, to a suasive body under the heel of the secular power. P4-5


The rising bourgeoisie in provincial towns, anxious to combat centralized control, joined the Huguenots in large numbers. Moreover, as many as two-fifths of the nobility rallied to the Calvinist cause. They wanted to reverse the trend toward absolute royal authority and coveted power like that of the German princes to control the Church in their own lands. P5


It is important therefore to see that the principal promoters of the wars in France and Germany were in fact not pastors and peasants, but kings and nobles with a stake in the outcome of the movement toward the centralized, hegemonic State. P7


Far from coming on the scene as peacekeeper, we have seen that the rise of the State was at the very root of the so-called “religious” wars, directing with bloodied hands a new secular theater of absolute power.p13

The whole thing is worth a read, the only issue is with the conclusions which are disastrously wrong. Despite this, the author understands the game, however does not follow through on the implications. If power (definable as the political structure and the actors pursuing goals in line with ruling) was the driving force, then power is THE driving force of culture. This makes liberals merely cargo cultists worshiping the unintended outcomes of structural solecisms. From the reformation to the Civil Rights Era, the only coherent explanation beside liberal mysticism is this.