Toleration is a classic category of Western political theory. Liberalism can be said to have evolved as a generalization of debates on religious toleration from the 17th century onward. Many debates in political theory about matters of current concern, ranging from debates about free speech and hate-speech legislation, over attitudes to practices of minority groups, to the legitimate extent of state interference in particular areas of social life, are framed as debates on toleration. Finally, some of the most prominent theories within political philosophy view toleration as a central concept, for example, Rawls’s political liberalism. This continuous presence of the notion of toleration within political philosophy has resulted in a standard definition of toleration and a set of standard debates about toleration. Toleration is standardly understood as requiring disapproval or dislike, the power to interfere, and to consist in the abstention from this interference. This has given rise to debates about which kinds of disapproval or dislike are required, whether the condition of power is in itself problematic, and whether noninterference only counts as toleration if motivated by certain kinds of reasons. Nevertheless, this standard concept of toleration curiously fails to capture some of the prominent debates that are often framed in terms of toleration. It is for instance not at all clear whether and how the standard concept applies to states and to individuals regulated by state laws. It is also often unclear whether toleration as defined is a normative ideal or merely a descriptive concept and what the point of using the concept is in either case. Finally, there is surprising little reflection on what the significance is of the space of toleration between interference and lack of disapproval or dislike, and how changes in this space of toleration can be understood.
Bryan A. Banks
Huguenots refer to the group of French Calvinists in France, those expelled from France into the wider European, Atlantic, and global diaspora, and those descendant from either of the first two groups. Driven by faith, religious factionalism, and dynastic rivalries, Huguenots enflamed the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598). Henri IV ended the war by extending a degree of toleration to the Huguenots in 1598 with the Edict of Toleration. Despite the king’s royal edict, the first wave of Huguenots (1530s–1660s) continued to leave France well into the 17th century. The second wave (1670s–1710s) occurred in the second half of the 17th century, when Louis XIV’s persecutory policies began to limit Huguenot communal activities, meeting spaces, available professions, and then with the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), the ability to be Calvinist legally at all. Following 1685, those who remained in France entered into what is often called the Désert period, when French Calvinists continued to practice their faith in clandestine settings, away from the French dragonnades. Those who rode the two waves out of France, settled in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Great Britain, Ireland, and many of the German states. Some used other European states to ride successive waves of diaspora movement out further into Europe and the Atlantic World, relocating to North America, the Caribbean, Suriname, Brazil, South Africa, and then later on into the Indian and Pacific oceanic worlds. Huguenots took advantage of Atlantic spaces in order to prove their value to the French state, but when France no longer proved safe for Huguenots, the Atlantic offered them a refuge, wherein a complex diaspora community emerged in the early modern period.
The Dutch Atlantic is often ignored because for much of its history it was quite small and seemingly insignificant compared to other European colonies in the Americas. However, it began with extraordinarily ambitious conquests and colonizing schemes. The present-day Dutch Caribbean—St. Martin, Saba, Eustatius, Aruba, Curaçao, and Bonaire—is but the remnants of what was, in the first half of the 17th century, an empire that claimed large portions of Brazil, the Caribbean, North America, and Africa. Forged during the decades-long Dutch Revolt against Spain, this budding empire collapsed soon after the Dutch gained Independence in 1648. European powers that had been allies against the Spanish turned against the Dutch to dismantle their Atlantic empire and its valuable trade. A series of wars in the second half of the 17th century reduced the Dutch colonies to a handful of smaller outposts, some of which in the Caribbean remain Dutch to this day. A recent wave of scholarship has emphasized the dynamism, ambition, and profitability of the Dutch Atlantic, whose fate reflected its origins in the small but dynamic Dutch Republic. Like the Republic, it was acutely sensitive to changes in international diplomacy: neither was ever strong enough to go entirely on its own. Also like the Republic, it was very decentralized. While most all of it was technically under the authority of the West India Company, a variety of arrangements in different colonies meant there was no consistent, centralized colonial policy. Moreover, like the Republic, it was never a purely “Dutch” affair. The native Dutch population was too small and too well employed by the Republic’s industrious economy to build an empire alone. As the Dutch Atlantic depended heavily on the labor, capital, and energy of many people who were not Dutch—other Europeans, some Americans, and, by the 18th century, a majority of Africans—colonial Dutch language and culture were overshadowed by those of other peoples. Finally, the Dutch Atlantic also depended heavily on trade with the other European colonies, from British North America to the Spanish Main. The Dutch were expert merchants, sailors, manufacturers, and capitalists. They created Europe’s first modern financial and banking infrastructure. These factors gave them a competitive edge even as the rise of mercantilist laws in the second half of the 17th century tried to exclude them from other countries’ colonies. They also displayed a talent for a variety of colonial enterprises. New Netherland, covering the territory from present-day New York to Pennsylvania and Delaware, began as a fur-trading outpost in the 1620s. However, by the time it was captured by the English in 1664 it was rapidly becoming a “settler colonial society.” Suriname and Guyana developed profitable plantations and cruel slave societies. In Africa and the Caribbean, small Dutch outposts specialized in trade of all sorts, legitimate and not, including slaves, textiles, sugar, manufactures, and guns. Although their territorial expansion ceased after 1670, the Dutch played an important role in expanding the sugar plantation complex of other empires, partly through their involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade. Until the Age of Revolutions, the Dutch Atlantic remained a profitable endeavor, keeping the Dutch involved with Latin America from Brazil to Mexico. Venezuela in particular benefitted from easy access to Dutch traders based in Curaçao. Religion played a smaller, but still important role, legitimating the Dutch state and enterprises like the slave trade, but also opening up windows of toleration that allowed Jews in particular to gain a foothold in the Americas that was otherwise denied them. Although the surviving traces of the Dutch Atlantic are small, its historical impact was tremendous. The Dutch weakened the Spanish and Portuguese Atlantic Empires, opening up a path to Imperial power that would subsequently be seized by the French and British.
There are many versions of liberalism, but it would be uncontroversial to say that they agree in placing a premium on individual liberty. As a political paradigm, liberalism is committed to protecting the freedom of persons to live and think as they choose without interference from the state, provided they do no harm to others. This fundamental commitment underlies the classical liberal arguments for religious liberty and toleration articulated by John Locke and J. S. Mill. It forms the basis for legal provisions guaranteeing freedom of religious belief, worship, and expression in liberal democratic nations, as well as the principle of non-establishment, which prohibits the state from favoring any religion or from favoring religion over nonbelief. The formulation of these two principles, religious freedom and nonestablishment, requires that the spheres of the secular and the sacred be distinguished in order to institute a particular relation between them. Questions have been raised about the validity and universality of this distinction, as well as its implications for the place of religion within political life. In contemporary political theory, the topic of public reason has been especially prominent, the point of contention being whether and how religious discourse may be allowed in political reasoning. Balancing religious freedom against other fundamental liberal rights poses another difficulty in cases where the beliefs and practices of religious individuals and communities come into conflict with general laws or compromise equality, another central liberal value. Sometimes social and political judgments about such cases seem to apply a double standard to the religious practices of certain minorities, moreover, and to reflect an element of cultural racism. This is arguably true of attitudes and decisions in Western countries regarding the hijab and other types of veils worn by Muslim women. Applying liberal principles for regulating religion in a fashion that is genuinely neutral and impartial remains a challenge. Indeed, some argue that there is no way of defining “religion” for the requisite purposes without privileging certain forms of it. If so, liberal efforts to protect religious freedom may end up enforcing varieties of religious establishment.