The Long Road to Religious Freedom

Why were restrictions on religious liberty so pervasive in the past? Why did states persecute religious dissent? And how did religious freedom first emerge?

These questions are of seminal importance for understanding the rise of modern states, liberalism, and the rule of law.   Persecution & Toleration explores the relationship between religion and the state from antiquity until today.

The role religion played in legitimating political authority ensured that genuine religious freedom was unthinkable in the premodern world. Religions legitimated the state and the state enforced religious conformity. This relationship was particularly evident in medieval Europe.  Medieval states needed religious legitimation because they lacked other sources of legitimacy.

This deal meant there was no rule of law. The rule of law requires general rules. But equality before the law was absent in premodern European states.  In the Middle Ages, the most common rules were identity rules—rules that treated individuals differently based on their identity.

In Persecution & Toleration, we explore how the relationship between religion and state evolved over time.    The first part of the book outlines what we call the conditional toleration equilibrium.  To illustrate this equilibrium we focus on the fate of Europe’s Jewish communities and the persecution of heretical groups such as the Cathars in France.

The second part of Persecution & Toleration documents the rise of states capable of enforcing general rules, states that had less need of religious legitimacy.    European rulers were opposed to religious freedom, but over time they found that the costs of persecuting minorities were too great.  It was in this new environment that we view arguments in favor of freedom of conscience and religious liberty as beginning to gain greater traction.

The consequences of this shift were transformative.  The abandonment of religious legitimation, the shift from identity rules to general rules, and investments in state capacity were critical to the rise of liberal states, rule of law, and free and flourishing markets.