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What History Shows

But history shows that Christianity, when pressed, will murder and burn and torture countless people to enforce orthodoxy. We live in kinder, gentler times, and Christianity experienced a Reformation, a Counter-Reformation and even the Second Vatican Council in ways that Islam sadly has not. And so regular Muslims are far closer to Islamists than many Christians are to Christianists. ~Andrew Sullivan

Has it come to this? Has basic historical knowledge fallen to such a pitiful state that these sorts of statements can be made in earnest by allegedly educated people? Someone who believes that any Christian authority killed "countless people" to enforce orthodoxy reveals himself as an ignoramus. That's all there is to it. In the entire history of the Inquisition--the longest and bloodiest enforcement of any orthodoxy in Christian history--the number of those executed over six hundred years was on the order of 9,000 people. The American government has accidentally killed more Iraqis than that in the last three years for their own liberation (which Sullivan supported), so can we be spared the faux morality of whining about Christian fanatics killing the heterodox? I take St. Theodore Studites' view that it is wrong to kill heretics for their heresy, as it deprives them of a chance to abandon heresy, but even so 9,000 is not "countless people."

The Wars of Religion and the Thirty Years' War were extremely bloody and devastating, particularly in the damage the latter did to agricultural production and food supply (famine, not direct casualties, caused much of the devastating loss of 1/3 of the population in Germany), which do tell us that wars are, well, very destructive and evil. That does not seem to stop Sullivan from endorsing every war that comes along. Had confessional differences not inspired some of the actors in the Thirty Years' War, it might have been brought to a peaceful end more quickly, but what we see in that war is a Europe divided along confessional lines that then goes to war over principally dynastic and political questions. The war kept going as long as it did, and involved as many European powers as it did, because of semi-Realpolitik concerns about their equivalent to the "balance of power." That is not to deny that religious convictions intensified the war and made it more "total" than anything Europe had seen previously, but it seems rather important to point out that this was not the result of the domestic enforcement of orthodoxy (on which all belligerents at that time agreed to be vital and rational) but the identification of particular rulers with different confessions. In a sense, the wars of the 16th and 17th centuries are good arguments against a plurality of Christian churches and in favour of one standard of orthodoxy, but I won't push that line too far. The emperor's war to establish his authority over the dissident princes was a classic example of early success breeding overreach; this was only partly a function of his stern Counter-Reformation Catholicism.

But as the modern, post-Enlightenment age has shown, men freed from the constraints of religious orthodoxy or even simply of religion will find even more absurd things to kill each other over without any sense of proportion or limit. The sack of Magdeburg was horrific (of course, who now remembers the sack of Magdeburg?), but it cannot even compare to the devastation of the March to the Sea or the suppression of the Vendee. These latter two cases of widespread destruction and death wrought for ephemeral, ridiculous ideas tell me that I would prefer the danger of religious wars. At least, as Chesterton said in The Napoleon of Notting Hill, "the only just wars were the religious wars."

Someone who strings together Reformation, Counter-Reformation and Vatican II as if they represented any of the same impulses or changes in Christianity cannot be taken even the least bit seriously as an observer of Christianity (I know it's Andrew Sullivan, but that doesn't excuse shocking historical illiteracy). What, pray, does Mr. Sullivan think happened in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, if not the intensification of violent religious dispute among Christians? In many respects the Reformation was intended to be a purifying, renewing movement of a fairly reactionary (and I don't use that word pejoratively) type. That is inevitably an oversimplification, but whatever else it was neither it nor the Counter-Reformation could readily be associated with the kind of religious "reforms" undertaken at Vatican II.

The essential difference between the restorative rationales of early Protestantism and an Islamic movement like Wahhabism or the Northern Indian Islamic revival of the 17th century is the difference between the kinds of original religion they were trying to restore: on the one hand, the early Apostolic Church and its proper teachings, and on the other the followers and armed doctrine of Muhammad. But the restorative mentality is the same, and it is one that Mr. Sullivan would (and does) find regressive and offensive. For him to speak favourably of Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the same breath with Vatican II reveals him to be a breathtakingly ignorant person on the subject of Christian or, indeed, general European history.

He speaks of the Reformation as if it were some sort of moderating influence, and he seems to think that Reformation and Counter-Reformation helped to separate religion from politics. To put it bluntly, Sullivan could not pass a college early modern European history course with such a confused understanding of these fundamental transformations of Christianity. Islam has experienced reform and revival movements frequently; it is simply that the original form and original life of Islam do not improve with revisions and no number of "returns" to the original can possibly improve upon something so basically flawed.

Daniel Larison | May 11, 2006


Daniel, an excellent flaying of Mr. Sullivan. He is indeed daft as even Jonah Goldberg ably pointed out in his post "Partisan Writing" over on the Corner today.

Jason LaLonde | 05/11/06 12:44

A true tour d'force. Well said. M. Stanton Evans had a good book about this subject entitled The Theme is Freedom where he basically refutes the Whig/Liberal theory of history, the Enlightenment, etc. There's also a good article out there called The Rennaissance Myth on the same subject.

It's such an utterly unnuanced and stupid conflation of facts to notice nothing different from the Pharoh's Egypt, Ancient Babylon, Pagan Ireland, Medieval England, Ancient Rome, 16th Century Spain etc., merely assigning all of them the label: ignorant, supersticious past.

Incidentally, the wars of religion were absolutely terrible, but the presaged modern wars in that competing, total ideologies clashed rather than the formerly restrained intramural fights of Christendom. Was the Church so wrong to resist this infusion of evil which has led to so many more evils in its wake, i.e., liberalism, modernism, nationalism, radical individualism.

Roach | 05/12/06 14:31

Thanks to you both for your comments. It wasn't terribly difficult to show how little the man apparently understands about Christian and European history.

Happily, good Renaissance scholars today (such as Lauro Martines) recognise the extremely limited impact and reach the things normally associated with the Renaissance (the emphasis on classical learning, pagan antiquity, humanism, the changes in art and philosophy and the kabbalistic and occult interests of the upper class) really had. Most of the people who lived during the time of the Quattrocento were by and large late medieval people whose lives continued to be defined by their local patriotisms, their vocations and their religion. The old history of the Renaissance is a perfect example of the limitations and distortions that history of elites will produce; the history of elites is very important, and not to be run down simply because it is about elites, but it is also not the entire story and we are remiss as historians when we pretend that the habits and beliefs of the elites (while undoubtedly very historically significant) can double for the habits and beliefs of an entire era or be made to represent the entire era.

Daniel Larison | 05/12/06 15:55

It's true. In the future they'll think we're all faggots and perverts based on what Hollywood and MTV are putting out, even though it's mostly the province of the low class, the upper class, and a few urban eccentrics.

Roach | 05/12/06 17:02

Yes, unfortunately we will be remembered principally as the people who lifted up the likes of Tom Cruise and Britney Spears to fame and fortune, and as the people who elected such fine statesmen as Clinton and Bush. That some of us have nothing to do with any of that will not improve the reputation of late 20th century, early 21st century America. Let us hope that there are scrupulous historians in the future who will look more closely at the evidence and not fall for whatever myths are made about our time.

By the way, thanks for the latest link and the generous citation.

Daniel Larison | 05/12/06 17:08

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