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'Wars of religion,' then and now

A statue of King Henry VIII statue at King's College in Cambridge, England.
A statue of King Henry VIII statue at King's College in Cambridge, England.

When casual observers, or even trained experts, gaze upon the anarchy in the Middle East, they're tempted to despair. The bewildering range of ethnic groups, tribes, political factions, religions and sects — all with widely divergent and irreconcilable interests — seems overwhelming. And, despite what politicians sometimes suggest, there’s no clear — let alone easy — resolution for this complex and chaotic situation. Indeed, it’s doubtful that any policy proposed by outsiders can be ultimately successful.

Paradoxically, among the closest historical parallels to the contemporary religious and political turmoil in the Middle East are western Europe’s Catholic-Protestant wars of religion in the aftermath of the Reformation. Beginning in the 1560s, a series of wars between rival European kings and states engulfed Holland, France, Germany and England. These wars weren’t fully resolved until 1648 on the continent and 1651 in the British Isles. The most horrific was the Thirty Years War (1618–1648) in Germany that killed an estimated one-third of Germany’s population through war, famine and disease. Overall, these internecine Christian wars of religion endured nearly a century. Unfortunately, final resolution of the social, ethnic, political, economic, military and religious conflicts now ongoing in the Middle East will probably require generations as well.

The immediate impact of the European wars of religion was the establishment of the political principle “cuius regio eius religio” — “whose reign, his religion.” In practical terms, the king decided what the religion of his realm would be; all kingdoms had a state religion, as most European countries still do.

Lutheranism became the state religion in most German and Scandinavian principalities, while Spain and Italy remained devoutly Catholic. In the classic example, Henry VIII of England (1509-1547) decided — for resolutely nontheological reasons — that his country should become Protestant with the king as the head of the Anglican (English) Church.

Another Protestant Henry, Henry IV of France (1589-1610), converted to Catholicism to obtain his throne, famously quipping, “Paris is well worth a mass.” He was assassinated by a Catholic fanatic in 1610 because of his support for religious tolerance for French Protestants. Such terrorism was widespread during the wars of religion, most famously when the radical Catholic Englishman Guy Fawkes undertook the failed “Gunpowder Plot” (a 17th-century version of a “dirty bomb”) in 1605. His goal was to destroy Parliament and assassinate James I (of the King James Bible), to place a Catholic king on the throne.

The torture and execution of real or perceived political and religious radicals was the norm for both Protestant and Catholic rulers — generally to obtain confessions or implicate others in a plot. Burnings at the stake and beheadings were commonplace — as they’re unfortunately becoming in the Middle East. Kings used terror to control their people, while revolutionaries used terror in an attempt to overthrow kings. It was not an age of moderation.

The Netherlands fared no better. After 80 years of civil war (1568–1648) — which included numerous outside invasions by Spain, France, Germany and England — the Netherlands ultimately split into largely Protestant Holland and predominantly Catholic Belgium (Flanders). The Protestant prince of the Netherlands, William of Orange, was assassinated in 1584 at the instigation of Catholic Philip II of Spain. From this chaos, and even during it, the Dutch went on to become leaders in world economy and culture in the 17th and early 18th centuries — the age of Rembrandt.

Religious minorities were treated with varying degrees of tolerance — or intolerance — depending on the monarch and situation. Many countries allowed for some type of limited religious tolerance, but no state offered religious liberty as we understand it today. The principle of separation of church and state was first invoked in the United States, in direct defiance of the European principle of “state religion.”

If history is any guide, expecting the social, economic, ethnic, political and religious rivalries and conflicts of the Middle East to be resolved with paper treaties, swift military interventions or even long-term nation-building is simply unrealistic. The wars of religion in the Netherlands took a long time, 80 years, but difficult things often do.

Unfortunately, in an age where many U.S. politicians and journalists can think only in soundbites, tweets, and 24-hour news cycles, resolution of Mideast crises will require a sustained effort over decades, perhaps even several generations. And it won’t come from outside military force or treaties, but — for good or ill — from decisions of Middle Eastern people themselves.

Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. William Hamblin is the author of several books on premodern history. They speak only for themselves.