America’s “Wars of Religion”

What a bloody 16th-century conflict can teach us about our political divisions today.

An illustration of murders in the streets on the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre.
The St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. Public Domain/Wikipedia

At the command of their ruler, underlings burst into the homes of the leaders of the opposing party in the early hours of the morning, hacking them to pieces in their beds and dragging their remains through the streets. As dawn broke, many civilians, rather than recoiling in horror, responded with even greater frenzy. Fanning out across the city, they broke into the homes of their rivals, massacring entire families. Men drove swords into pregnant mothers and tore their unborn children from their wombs; other children were spared but were immersed in the blood of their slaughtered parents as a warning to never hold the same beliefs; the river running through the city turned deep red from the hundreds of hacked corpses thrown into it. By the time dogs found no more body parts to gnaw on, more than 2,000 people had lost their lives.

We are two years shy of the 450th anniversary of the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. The event was triggered by France’s Catholic King Charles IX and his mother, Catherine of Medici, when they either ordered or supported the killing of Huguenot Protestant leaders who had gathered in Paris for a royal marriage. But what was meant to be a surgical operation targeting Huguenot leaders turned into a mass butchery, thanks to the passions they had unleashed. While St. Bartholomew’s Day was the most infamous massacre of the period, it was not unique: Dozens of similar events—slighter though no less savage and committed by Huguenots no less than Catholics—occurred during the Wars of Religion that convulsed 16th-century France for more than three decades. Each side was convinced it held the truth; each side was determined to make the other see the light; each side was willing to keep killing until that light could appear.

Thankfully, we are not two days, two weeks, or two months shy of a similar massacre. Yet we should not shy from the striking parallels we might draw between what an increasing number of observers call the America’s wars of religion and their 16th-century French ancestor. Such a comparison suggests that the resolution of our conflict is not a few voting cycles but instead a few generational cycles away.

The wars, which first erupted in 1562, were partly about politics, with Catholics and Huguenots vying to claim power in Paris and reinforce their regional power bases. Fundamentally, however, it was a war over competing belief systems—or, more accurately, between two opposing groups of believers. In other words, the pitched battles were social, not theological; cultural, not doctrinal; communal, not individual. Throats were slit and chateaux were sacked not over specific dogmatic claims, whether they held that the wafer and wine were trans-substantial or con-substantial to the body and blood of Christ, or if we won salvation by being graced or doing good. Instead, Catholics and Huguenots kept killing one another for decades in order to protect what those beliefs represented—namely, their opposing ideas of a good and godly society. For each camp, concludes the historian Mack Holt, their opponent was nothing less than a “pollutant of their own particular notion of the body social.” And when it comes to pollutants, what is one to do except eradicate them?

All of this seemed to come to an end in 1598, when Henri of Navarre, the leader of the Protestant camp, declared (probably apocryphally) that Paris was worth a Mass. Converting to Catholicism, the newly crowned Henri IV banged heads together and enacted the Edict of Nantes, which sought to impose religious coexistence on both sides. Though hailed as one of the greatest monuments to religious toleration, the edict was nothing of the sort. Neither side understood the edict as a lasting settlement, and neither side was capable of understanding toleration in our sense of the word. Instead of an effort to respect and understand another’s worldview, toleration in the 16th century meant little more than the acknowledgment that the other’s worldview was heretical, but that it would take time to either bring over or bury the other side.

As a result, when Henri died—assassinated by a Catholic fanatic—tensions again rose and the edict, increasingly disregarded, was ultimately revoked by Louis XIV in 1695. What followed was nearly another century of religious conflict, ending only with the French Revolution in 1789. (Many historians would argue that the tensions did not end even then, but that is another story.)

Flash forward several centuries and the present moment is redolent with a sense of déjà vu. Of course, there are crucial distinctions between then and now. The truth claims of both Huguenots and Catholics were faith-based, a trait that is now mostly the province of the red camp, while the blue camp mostly insists upon an empirical and rational basis for truth. But if we look at the progressive wing of the blue camp, we see the growing and disturbing tendency to cultivate the very same group experience offered by their foes. As a result, there is the danger of dogmatism on our side, as well. At times, it seems less a question of, say, the relative merits of international engagement or national retrenchment, or the positive or negative forms of liberty. Instead, like our 16th-century ancestors, we lean Manichaean. Truth versus heresy, good versus evil, and right versus wrong.

And perhaps we should no more look to Joe Biden to heal this divide than the French should have looked to Henri. Like his French counterpart, Biden is a “politique”—the label given to those 16th-century actors, like Henri, who believed the integrity of a functioning government was more important than the integrity of a particular group of believers. Like Henri, Biden prides himself on the ability to reach across the aisle; like Henri, he has the personal background and experience to make this case. The problem is that only Henri could manage this balancing act; with his disappearance, so too did the prospects of a peaceful and unified France disappear. Whether the same fate awaits the United States may take as long to know as it did in France.