Why Persecute?

Why was religious persecution common in the premodern world? This is the question Noel Johnson and I address in Persecution and Toleration.

Answers that rely on the alleged barbarism of the times or the brutality or narrowed-mindedness of individual churchmen or rulers are unsatisfying. We need to understand why religious dissent was so alarming that political and religious authorities resorted to violent repression.

In Persecution and Toleration, we outline why states often had an incentive to enforce religious conformity.

Suppose the ruler wants to pass a law. The religious authority can choose to legitimate this law or to oppose it. If the religious authority opposes it, the law will be seen as illegitimate, and the ruler will face unrest or opposition in attempting to enforce it. If the religious authority legitimates the law, then compliance with the law will be greater and the law will be enforced at a much lower cost for the ruler. Rulers therefore have a good reason to want legitimacy. Because religious authorities were the most powerful source of legitimacy in the premodern period, it was natural for rulers to rely on religious legitimacy.

Rulers can bargain with religious authorities to obtain legitimacy. One way to do this is to enforce religious conformity. This provides a natural framework for studying religious persecutions.

One insight is that persecutions are necessarily political. The justification for persecution can vary. Secular authorities will persecution in terms of secular arguments. Religious authorities may persecute on religious or doctrinal grounds. But structurally these persecutions will resemble one another.

A second key argument is that some form of religious repression was the default in the premodern world but outright persecution was, in fact, quite rare. The default level of religious repression we characterize as a state of conditional toleration. Religious differences were usually tolerated, but only conditionally. Outright persecution was quite rare. But the threat of persecution played an important role in enforcing religious conformity, restricting dissent and providing states with legitimacy.

How general is our account? Is this story only applicable to Western Europe? Or to monotheistic societies? Can it explain the persecution of Christians in pagan Rome or the persecution of Christians in 17th century Japan? And what distinguishes religious persecutions from other persecutions?


To address these concerns, consider the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire. Historians such as Candida Moss downplay these persecutions (here). Catherine Nixey’s The Darkening Age — reviewed positively in the New York Times —for example, writes:

“The idea, therefore, of a line of satanically inspired emperors, panting for the blood of the faithful is another Christian myth. As the modern historian Keith Hopkins wrote, ‘the traditional question: “Why were the Christians persecuted?” with all its implications of unjust repression and eventual triumph, should be re-phrased: “Why were the Christians persecuted so little and so late?”

Nixey correctly cautions the reader not to view Christian accounts of the death of martyrs as historical accounts. But her argument is a larger one. To her mind, the persecution of Christians was not a religious persecution. Commenting on the Roman governor Pliny’s decision to persecute some Christians, she writes:

“Pliny’s problem with all of this is not religious. He is not upset because Jupiter has been neglected, or Hera has been slighted: he is upset because the citizens of his province are becoming disgruntled by the Christians’ behaviour . . .”

“. . . Even the locals who were forcing Pliny’s hand might not have been complaining about Christians for religious reasons either: it has been speculated that what was really upsetting them was not theology but butchery. Local tradesmen were angry because this surge of Christian sentiment had led to a drop in the sales of sacrificial meat and their profits were suffering: anti-Christian sentiment caused less by Satan than by a slow trade in sausage-meat.”

Because Christians were punished as pests and social deviants, rather than for reasons conventionally identified as religious, Dixey suggests this was a simple matter of“law and order”. If anything her sympathies appear to be with the Roman governor responsible for prosecuting Christians:

“What should Pliny do with these odd people? Trajan’s reply is brief and to the point. He doesn’t get into theological or legal debates about the legal status of Christianity (to the disappointment of later scholars); nor does he (thus confounding the martyrdom tropes) fulminate against the Christians. He does agree with Pliny that those who are proved to be Christian ‘must be punished’ — though for precisely what charge is unclear. He also adds that ‘in the case of anyone who denies that he is a Christian, and makes it clear that he is not by offering prayers to our gods, he is to be pardoned as a result of his repentance however suspect his past conduct may be’. Roman emperors wanted obedience, not martyrs. They had absolutely no wish to open windows into men’s souls or to control what went on there. That would be a Christian innovation.”

This hardly not exculpates the Romans or implies the persecution of Christians was a myth. Nixey is correct that the Roman authorities were unconcerned with what Christians believed. But she is wrong to suppose that this is the defining characteristic of religious persecution. And the urge to downplay the persecution of Christians suggests other anachronistic instincts are at work. After all, no-one denies that Christians were killed, often horrifically, in the Roman persecutions (for a critical review of Moss’s book, on which Nixey relies, see here).

Theologians were, of course, concerned with wrong beliefs. But the reason why religious dissent became a major concern to both secular and religious authorities in medieval Europe was precisely due to the threat heresy posed to the established social and political order.


Consider another example from medieval Europe. Norman Cohn’s Pursuit of the Millennium explains the threat heretical movements posed to political order. Focusing on the most revolutionary millennium sects — movements that envisioned the last days as at hand, and took action to herald their coming — Cohn’s text vividly captures both the appeal as well as the radicalism and violence of these movements. Describing the manifesto of the “Revolutionary of the Upper Rhine”, Cohn writes:

“the route to the Millennium leads through massacre and terror. God’s aim is a world free from sin. If sin continues to flourish, divine punishment will surely be visited upon the world; whereas if sin is once abolished, then the world will be ready for the Kingdom of the Saints. The most urgent task of the Brethren of the Yellow Cross is therefore to eliminate sin, which in effect means to eliminate sinners . . . To achieve that end assassination is wholly legitimate: ‘Whoever strikes a wicked man for his evildoing, for instance for blasphemy — if he beats him to death he shall be called a servant of God; for everyone is in duty bound to punish wickedness.’ In particular the Revolutionary calls for the assassination of the reigning Emperor, Maximilian, for whom he had an overwhelming hatred.”

Such beliefs were a threat to all established authority. Church authorities were naturally concerned with monitoring belief and practice. But heresy also posed a potent threat to secular authority.

Of course, many people in medieval society had incorrect and unorthodox religious beliefs. What principally concerned the Church was not ignorance but heresy: obstinately holding beliefs that directly contradicted Church teachings.

Heresy was feared because it was a source of disorder. Religious dissent had the potential to unleash revolutionary violence and social chaos. This was one reason why Martin Luther recanted his earlier support for religious liberty during the Peasant Revolt.

Arguments for enforcing religious conformity went deeper than the fear of revolutionary violence. Such was the importance of the Church to the social and political order that all challenges to Church authority were perceived as threats to society.


Consider the doctrine of apostolic poverty — which emerged in the 11th and 12th centuries as the Commercial Revolution was transforming the European economy increasing urbanization, trade, wealth, inequality and also poverty. Shocked by the growing gap between the rich and the poor, adherents to this doctrine aspired to the simple poverty of Christ’s followers. They lived without property or money and they were critical of the wealth accumulated by the Church.

The fact that the Church was wealthy did not, of course, imply that Churchmen were not devout or dedicated. The problem was, however, that the Church was also a political institution. Many bishoprics were the preserve of the nobility who would jostle to ensure that their younger sons became influential churchmen. These prelates were expected to be the equal of the secular nobles, to entertain lavishly, and to dress splendidly. Taken too far, therefore, apostolic poverty threatened the legitimacy of the Church and its relationship with secular authority.

Through mendicant orders such as the Franciscans, the Church could accommodate these demands and concerns. But groups who directly attacked the legitimacy of the Papacy itself, such as the Waldensians and the Spiritual Franciscans could not be tolerated. The leader of the Spiritual Franciscans, Angelo da Clareno denied that Pope John XXII was pope, a direct challenge to the legitimacy of the Church. Precisely because of the threat they posed to the church and state alliance — and not because of their theological beliefs, which were unremarkable — the Spiritual Franciscans had to be repressed.

Were the concerns of the Roman Emperors so different from those of medieval rulers and churchmen? Religion was not a private affair in antiquity. It had political consequences; it mattered for the fate of the Empire. The first Empire-wide persecution of Christians occurred under Decius (r. 249–251). Decius’s response to the political crisis facing the Empire — invasions from both Persia and the Goths — was a revival of the state religion and the imperial cult.

Claiming that Roman persecutions of Christianity were not religious but political, as Moss and Nixey do, is misleading; all persecutions are political. Because it began as a persecuted cult, Christianity as a religion contained many potent arguments against religious persecution. For these reasons, it was probably less predisposed to persecution than many other religions. Nevertheless, the fact that the medieval Church eventually came to persecute dissent points to deep, structural, political economy factors that made religious freedom impossible. It this these factors that are the subject matter of Persecution & Toleration.

Populism versus Constitutional Democracy

What is the difference between a conservative and a reactionary? A conservative knows when she has lost.

A conservative respects the status quo for the sake of stability. The reactionary rebels against it. Unfortunately, it is the reactionary impulse within Brexit that now threatens to hem in the liberties of British citizens, and threaten the rights of foreign residents, for a long time to come. A looser but productive relationship that Britain could have had with the European Union was lost, first at Maastricht in 1992, then again at Lisbon in 2007. A conservative recognizes this loss and adapts her politics to the new landscape. The reactionary tries to reconstruct those lost pasts in vain as the chaotic debates in Britain and the increasingly disappointing outcome illustrates.

Does this mean that referendums are bad? Do they only embolden radicals and reactionaries? It depends. If referendums are used to rubberstamp the decisions of a party in power, or as a way of deferring political judgement, then they are useless at best, dangerous at worst. By contrast, if they are part of the fabric of a democracy, and act as a real veto on constitutional change, rather than a populist rallying point, then they can be enormously valuable. They act as an additional check on the political establishment that might be irrationally fixated on some new governance structure. It ensures that every major change carries with it some level of majority support.

Ten years ago, I wrote a monograph Total Recall: How direct democracy can improve Britain. I advocated supplementing representative democracy with a norm or statutory requirement for referendums on constitutional issues and new local initiative powers. I focused on direct democracy in US states that mean that US state elections often involve both voting for representatives and on propositions. Referendums are required for state constitutional changes. In some states, citizens can initiate new legislation through propositions.

There are parallel constitutional requirements in force in parts of Europe, particularly in Switzerland, Norway and Ireland. It is hardly a coincidence that direct democratic mechanisms have slowed down European integration wherever they have had statutory rather than merely advisory force. Ireland had to go to the polls several times to get the ‘right’ answer but at least this meant that a majority of Irish eventually accepted the new EU arrangements. By contrast, Switzerland and Norway, against the wishes of their political establishments, took European integration only so far before settling with generous trade relations and much more limited political integration. The cost-benefit calculus of their arrangements are up for debate, but few would deny their legitimacy. Britain’s future position, by contrast, may turn out to look much worse and all because its people never had the chance to say ‘no’ until long after the facts on the ground changed.

It’s the ability to say ‘no’ that’s important, with the implication that the status quo must still be a viable option. A people cannot be legislators. Mass votes can’t add up to complex judgements to inform actionable law. Hence the Brexit referendum for leaving the EU for an unknown alternative was bound to lead to chaos which, in the long run, may undermine the legitimacy of representative government, let alone popular democracy, rather than strengthen it. There is no status quo ante to return to.

At the time I was writing Total Recall, the spirits of referendums never voted on haunted British politics. Referendums were promised on adopting the Euro and the European Constitution. Both were abandoned when the Government realized they would almost certainly lose. So we stayed out of the Euro but signed what became the Lisbon Treaty. This turned out to be a deadly combination that eventually led to Brexit. The Euro is quite badly managed as an economic scheme. As a political mechanism, however, it binds members of the Euro much closer together. Leaving the European Union, as Britain is doing, is perilous and costly. Leaving the Eurozone would be even more difficult as it would involve establishing a new currency from scratch. If New Labour had been serious about putting Britain in a federal united states of Europe, it should have gone all in with the Euro from the beginning.

So Brexit could have been avoided but not by ignoring majority sentiments. If British referendums were constitutionally mandated rather than the random outcome of internal (in this case, Conservative) party politics; if referendums were required to change the status quo rather than a mechanism for a belligerent minority to relitigate past losses, then, like Switzerland and Norway, we would be in a much better position now.

Will our political leaders learn this lesson for the future? That I doubt.

Eye Candy: Gay marriage in Europe (2018)

NOL gay marriage Europe
Click here to zoom

Opponents of gay marriage might have trouble explaining this one, at least in the free world.

Too many shadows whispering voices. Faces on posters too many choices. If when why what how much have you got…

Lunchtime Links

  1. My country, your colony | why the Holocaust in Europe?
  2. compliance and defiance to national integration in Africa [pdf] | on doing economic history
  3. ethnonationalism and nation-building in Siberia [pdf] | cosmopolitanism and nationalism
  4. political centralization and government accountability [pdf] | decentralization in military command
  5. unified China and divided Europe [pdf] | unilateralism is not isolationism

Political Decentralization and Innovation in early modern Europe

My full review of Joel Mokyr’s A Culture of Growth is forthcoming in the Independent Review. Unfortunately, it won’t be out until the Winter 2017 issue is released so here is a preview. Specifically, I want to discuss one of the main themes of the book and my review: the role of political decentralization in the onset of economic growth in western Europe.

This argument goes back to Montesquieu and David Hume. It is discussed in detail in my paper “Unified China; Divided Europe’’ (forthcoming in the International Economic Review and available here). But though many writers have argued that fragmentation was key to Europe’s eventual rise, these arguments are often underspecified, fail to explain the relevant mechanisms, or do not discuss counter-examples. Mokyr, however, has an original take on the argument which is worth emphasizing and considering in detail.

Mokyr focuses on how the competitive nature of the European state system provided dynamic incentives for economic growth and development. This argument is different from the classic one, according to which political competition led to fiscal competition, lower taxes, and better protection of property rights (see here). That argument rests on a faulty analogy between competition in the marketplace and competition between states.  The main problem it encounters is that while firms can only attract customers by offering lower prices (lower taxes) or better products (better public goods), states can compete with violence. Far from being competitive, low tax states like the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth were crushed in the high-pressure competitive environment that characterized early modern Europe. The notion that competition produced low taxes is also falsified by the well-established finding that taxes were much higher in early modern Europe than elsewhere in the world.

It is also not the case that political fragmentation is always and everywhere good for economic development. India was fragmented for much of its history. Medieval Ireland was fragmented into countless chiefdom prior to the English conquest. Perhaps we can distinguish between low-intensity but fragmented state systems which tended not to generate competitive pressure such as medieval Ireland or South-East Asia and high-intensity fragmented state systems such as early modern Europe or warring states China. But even then it is not clear that a highly competitive and fragmented state system will be good for growth. In general, political fragmentation raised barriers to trade and impeded market integration. Moreover a competitive state system means more conflict or more resources spent deterring conflict. For this reason political fragmentation tends to result in wasteful military spending. It can be easily shown, for instance, that a much higher proportion of the population spent their lives in the economically wasteful activity of soldiering in fragmented medieval and early modern Europe than did in either the Roman empire or imperial China (see Ko, Koyama, Sng, 2018).

Innovation and Decentralization

What then is Mokyr’s basis for claiming that political fragmentation was crucial for the onset of modern growth? Essentially, for Mokyr the upside of Europe’s political divisions was dynamic. It was the conjunction of political fragmentation with a thriving trans-European intellectual culture that was crucial for the eventual transition to modern growth. The political divisions of Europe meant that innovative and heretical thinkers had an avenue of escape from oppressive political authorities. This escape valve prevented the ideas and innovations of the Renaissance and Reformation from being crushed after the Counter-Reformation became ascendant in southern Europe after 1600. Giordano Bruno was burned in Rome. But in general heretical and subversive thinkers could escape the Inquisition by judiciously moving across borders.

Political fragmentation enabled thinkers from Descartes and Bayle to Voltaire and Rousseau to flee France. It also allowed Hobbes to escape to Paris during the English Civil War and Locke to wait out the anger of Charles II in the Netherlands. Also important was the fact that the political divisions of Europe also meant that no writer or scientist was dependent on the favor of a single, all powerful monarch. A host of different patrons were available and willing to compete to attract the best talents. Christina of Sweden sponsored Descartes. Charles II hired Hobbes as a mathematics teacher for a while. Leibniz was the adornment of the House of Hanover.

The other important point that Mokyr’s stresses is Europe’s cultural unity and interconnectedness. As I conclude in my review, Mokyr’s argument is that

“the cultural unity of Europe meant that the inventors, innovators, and tinkers in England and the Dutch Republic could build on the advances of the European-wide Scientific Revolution. Europe’s interconnectivity due to the Republic of Letters helped to give rise to a continent-wide Enlightenment Culture. In the British Isles, this met a response from apprentice trained and skilled craftsmen able to tinker with and improve existing technologies.  In contrast, political fragmentation in the medieval Middle East or pre-modern India does not seem to have promoted innovation, whereas the political unity of Qing China produced an elite culture that was conservative and that stifled free thinking”.

It is this greater network connectivity that needs particular emphasize and should be the focus of future research into the intellectual origins of growth in western Europe. At present we can only speculate on its origins. The printing press certainly deserves mention as it was the key innovation that helped the diffusion of ideas. Mokyr also points to the postal system as a crucial institutional development that enabled rapid communication across political boundaries. Other factors include the development of a nascent European identity and what Chris Wickham calls, in his recent book on medieval Europe, “the late medieval public sphere” (Wickham, 2016). These developments were important but understudied complements to the fragmented nature of the European state system so frequently highlighted in the literature.

A short note on minorities and the Left

Lately I have been thinking about how minorities affect the Democratic Party here in the US. Basically, all minorities vote for the Democrats in national elections, but minorities tend to be conservative culturally. This has the effect of pulling the Leftist party waaaaay to the center (a fact that makes it hard for me to complain about Democrats’ pandering tactics).

Sure, the GOP will always be the party of old white people, but if the Democrats’ left-wing is essentially neutered due to minority voting blocs within the Party, who cares?

The fact that the Democrats pine for minorities explains why the US has never had a very powerful socialist movement. Socialists will often blame “neoliberals,” “capitalists,” “reactionaries,” and other assorted boogeymen, but doesn’t the minority insight make much more sense?

This minority insight has also got me thinking about demographic changes in Europe over the past 30 years. Basically, Europe has had a huge influx of immigrants since the fall of socialism. In the old days, Sweden was for Swedes, France was for the French, Germany was for Germans, etc. etc. This  mindset helps to explain why European states had such overbearing welfare states and why economic growth was so limited up until the late 1980s.

As immigrants moved into these welfare states, the Left-wing parties began to pander to them. This had the same effect as it did in the United States: culturally conservative voting blocs diluted the Leftism of traditionally Left-wing parties. As a result, these welfare states became less robust and economic growth became attainable again.

A big underlying point about my musings on this subject is that socialism relies on nationalism in the area of popular politics and policymaking. Without Sweden for the Swedes-type sloganeering, socialism becomes ridiculous to the masses. This underlying point, along with the straightforward fact that immigrants dilute socialist power (economic, political, and cultural), suggests to me that libertarians who pay close attention to popular politics should relax when it comes to the fact that minorities don’t find libertarian ideals all that appealing.