Chapter eight is entitled “Intolerance and War.” The last chapter dealt with the same topic focused on the historically inaccurate secular telling of the Church’s dealings with heresy and the events surrounding witch hunts and the various inquisitions. In this chapter Hart focuses on the secular account of the so-called “wars of religion.” This is the modern myth that religion is inherently violent given its belief in ultimate ends and absolute truth. The proof of this contention are the various historical conflicts, from the Crusades up to the end of the “Thirty Years’ War” and the Peace of Westphalia (1648). Part of the myth is that these were wars purely over different religious beliefs, specifically those between Protestants and Catholics. The second part of the myth we are supposed to believe is that by the nation-state domesticating and privatizing religion the result was a more perfect harmony and peace among people from there forward. But as to this myth in general Hart makes his main point:
Given, though, the lines of coalition that defined these conflicts, and given their ultimate consequences, they ought really to be remembered as the first wars of the modern nation-state, whose principle purpose was to establish the supremacy of secular state authority over every rival power, most especially the power of the church.
Hart goes on to point out that the so-called “wars of religion” were really the exploitation of the Protestant Reformation by regional kings and princes for the furtherance of their own power, which ultimately culminated in the modern nation state.
Hart also addresses the differences between the Crusades, the “only ‘holy wars’ in Christian history,” and the European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The Crusades initially were an understandable, if like the times, violent, response to the robbing and murdering of Christian pilgrims by the Seljuk Turks. Many honorable nobles stepped forward to leave home and family and venture forth to defend the defenseless, liberate captives, and secure holy sites once again. From there however a downward spiral of needless violence and atrocity took over due mostly to the “louts, brigands, and killers,” who also signed up with what were, in hindsight, purely selfish motives of personal gain. As Hart notes though, these efforts and the conflict between Islam and Christendom were “entirely of their time.” Noble goals are often undermined by base motives—something evident in most conflicts.
Of special interest though is Hart’s treatment of the European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These are markedly different from the Crusades. Hart surveys the various conflicts from this time period from the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) up to the “Thirty Years” war (1618) which concluded with the Peace of Westphalia. It is helpful to quote Hart at length here:
The European wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were something altogether different [from the Crusades]. They inaugurated a new age of nationalist strife and state violence, prosecuted on a scale and with a degree of ferocity without any precedent in medieval history: wars of unification, revolutions, imperial adventures, colonialism, the rebirth of chattel slavery, endless irredentism, ideologically inspired frenzies of mass murder, nationalists cults, political terrorism, world wars—in short, the entire glorious record of European politics in the aftermath of a united Christendom. Far from the secular nation-state rescuing Western humanity from the chaos and butchery of sectarian strife, those wars were the birth pangs of the modern state and its limitless license to murder. And religious allegiances, anxieties, and hatreds were used by regional princes merely as pretexts for conflicts whose causes, effects, and alliances had very little to do with faith or confessional loyalties.
Of course William Cavanaugh has also written extensively in this area making a very strong case that the secular state has not been the “keeper of the common good.” It is pretty rich to have modern secular states lecture everyone regarding the supposed violence “religion” engenders. Modern secular states, those external shells of the internal smoldering of nihilistic ideologies, those creators of gas chambers, ovens, gulags, massive pits for graves, killing fields, mass executions, the fire-bombing of hundreds or thousands of civilians with conventional and atomic weapons are hardly in a position to pontificate regarding the cause and use of violent means.
Hart also points out that prior to the Reformation it was a united Christendom which provided a check on warfare and violence. The Church used the threat of excommunication to prevent private wars and attacks on noncombatants such as women and peasants. The Church calendar also prevented wars. The “Truce of God” instituted penitential periods, days of the year, on which armed aggression was forbidden. There were so many days set aside for this purpose that “more than three-quarters of the calendar consisted in periods of mandatory tranquility.” The truth is that before the Reformation and its exploitation by princes to wage war, the Church was the most significant source of peace keeping among the different cities, regions, and people groups in the west.