June 03, 2009

The legacy of Throne and altar religous minorities and confessional states


These blog posts raise an interesting historical question the nature of religious minorities in Confessional states- whether Catholics in the Netherlands or the (by the 19th century much smaller) protestant population of say.

A confessional state is simply speaking a state whose laws privilege a particular religious denomination (or conceivably several denominations). In that Sense the United Kingdom is such a state the "Anglican” Church of England is established in England, the Presbyterian Church of Scotland in Scotland and the British monarch on coronation affirms Christianity and Protestantism as the faith of the land. Similar situations exist in some Scandinavian countries (including Finland which has the very large established church of Lutheranism and the very small one of Orthodoxy. Even today dissident Christian denominations in Sweden and groups (such as Jehovah witnesses) outside a small circle of semi-established ones in Germany, face genuine legal problems

However for this article I mean something very different by the term "confessional state". I mean the state's that were routine in Europe till well into the 19th century. States where not only is one confession established by law but confessions that do not meet the law are discriminated against formally in access to political office. This was true in every state in Western Europe in 1780-even states such as Great Britain and the Netherlands long notorious for their tolerance. In less tolerant states very exacting legal penalties could exist quite late-Sweden eliminated exile as the penalty for Catholicism in the 1850's. Political office was mostly or entirely restricted to members of the "established faith" , taxes went to the state churches (and were a much higher % of taxation than the few religious taxes left in the likes of Germany) and were legally privilege in a host of ways.

In such states the religious minorities understandably felt outsiders to the political system. In the French Revolution and afterwards the system of the confessional states (along with linked power systems such as the power of the monarchs) came under huge attack. The early 19th century saw a backlash-or rather a cacophony of backlashes against this "the union of throne and altar" was endorsed in one form or another (including countries like the UK with very few used altars in those churches) in just about every European country. In a sense this created the whole concepts of right and left- and arguably still shapes them they can be seen as those who wish to push relative to the status quo away or towards (right and left respectively) a radical version or extension of French Revolutionary principals Obviously though the debate has rather moved on -but in the 19th century "established church" meant something much fiercer than the current Church of England or even the Lutheran church of Sweden in terms of political rights

Not surprisingly the Confession ally excluded tended to be rather more hostile to the confessional states and sympathetic to a pluralistic or secular system. This took the form of disproportionate support for parties of the left. I have posted about this in the context of the Dutch liberals (till Kuyper reshaped Dutch politics) but it's equally true elsewhere. For example late 19th century British politics can in very crude and broad brush terms be seen as a three way between the party of Anglicans Scottish Presbyterians and Irish Protestants ( Tories) , the party of British Catholics and Nonconformist liberals nod the party of Irish Catholics (home rulers). Similarly in France the most protestant areas of France tended to be among the most radical-and latter socialist and this still tends to be true today.


The legacy of this can still be seen today. In just about every European country the adherents of denominations which were excluded by the confessional state are more likely to support the left than those who were not (this is particularly true if one allows for religiosity). Exceptions tend to be the rare exceptions that prove the rule. So for example in Germany Catholics are more likely to support the CDU than Protestants but a) Self declared Catholics are more pious in Germany than self declared Protestants and b) the heavily Catholic areas of Germany-Bavaria etc the Confessional states were classically Catholic. Indeed I recall reading an interview this a devout evangelical Christian in Baravia in the 1950's saying she could no vote Social Democratic since it was atheistical or Christian Social Union because it was Catholic.

The superb religious sociologist Steve Bruce has seen these differences as fundamentally being a matter of the conservatism and traditionalism of the Catholic Church naturally making it the party of the right. He interprets the Catholic tendency to vote for the left (at least till very recently) in Anglo-Saxon countries as a matter of class. Respectufly I think this will not work- in Scotland in the 1950's (bear in mind this is the height of class politics in Britain) working class Protestants were more conservative than middle class Catholics! I think the interpretation should be found in the history of confessional states-and even their death. of which religions were the” traditional” one. So where "tradition" was protestants Catholic naturally lean(Ed) to the left, where Catholic to the right. This can link up and overlap with a religiosity cleavage which are often newer. So in France Protestants vote more Socialist than Catholic but churchgoing Protestants and Catholics alike vote massively more for the right than the non churchgoing.

However this tendency to support the parties of the "left" for religious minorities was not invariable even at the height of tensions. So in the late 1820's Catholic Emancipation (whether Catholics who could vote-very liberal for the time, could also sit in Parliament) dominated "left" and "right" in UK Politics. And yet in the mid 19th century there were Catholic Tory mps!

Part of the explanation was that members of the minority could accept a lesser status either as the best possible deal, as an attentive to a secularism which might be more hostile (in the late 19th century for example British Catholics were more likely to vote Tory in school board elections-because Tories were much more pro church schools and host8le to secular education than liberals) or because they believed in the system-even if they were excluded in it . A combination of this helps explain for example why the Popes tended to be very sceptical of leftwing movements in most non Catholic Countries. . I have already explained how this helps explain why the catholic south of the Netherlands did not join the revolt that created Belgium. In England (not the UK) it was so strong that the "restoration of the hierarchy" provoked outrage among English Catholics. The Duke of Norfolk the foremost Catholic aristocrat (indeed the foremost aristocrat the dukes of Norfolk are to the aristocracy of England what the Archbishops of Canterbury are to the bishops Primus inter pares) was so outraged he took communion in an Anglican church (then even more than now against canon law) to express his fury!

So the story of confessional minorities in the nineteenth century has fascinating nuances but the basic story- of minorities being driven to the liberal of radical left is one that still shapes the politics of the western world today.

The picture is of Henry Fitzwilliam Howard- 15 duke of Norfolk a title so old they are the first aristocrats of England (roughly equivalent to the Archbishop of Canterbury among bishops) but an outsider due to his Catholicism.

2 comments:

James Higham said...

superb religious sociologist

Superb? Pro-Christian? :)

Sulla said...

I think his an atheist from a conservative evangelical background ( i could of misremembered). What i like about him is he realisie religon is importnat ries to expalin wha the beliefs actually are rather than just assuiming they're a front for the bourgeois . I have a lot of criticms of his stuff e..g he tends to regard religion as a residue from traditonal society which i think is the wrong way to thik of it (frankly Dawkins's use of memes though dubious makes more sense)but it's among the best i've read.