Macaulay on what happens when a religion casts itself as a political movement

From Macaulay’s History of England, Volume 2, here is a startlingly contemporary warning of what happens when a religion casts itself as a political movement:

The extreme antipathy and dread with which the English people regarded [Roman Catholicism] was not to be ascribed solely or chiefly to theological animosity. That salvation might be found in the Church of Rome, nay, that some members of that Church had been among the brightest examples of Christian virtue, was admitted by all divines of the Anglican communion and by the most illustrious Nonconformists. It is notorious that the penal laws against Popery were strenuously defended by many who thought Arianism, Quakerism, and Judaism more dangerous, in a spiritual point of view, than Popery, and who yet showed no disposition to enact similar laws against Arians, Quakers, or Jews.

It is easy to explain why the Roman Catholic was treated with less indulgence than was shown to men who renounced the doctrine of the Nicene fathers, and even to men who had not been admitted by baptism within the Christian pale. There was among the English a strong conviction that the Roman Catholic, where the interests of his religion were concerned, thought himself free from all the ordinary rules of morality, nay, that he thought it meritorious to violate those rules if, by so doing, he could avert injury or reproach from the Church of which he was a member.

Nor was this opinion destitute of a show of reason. It was impossible to deny that Roman Catholic casuists of great eminence had written in defence of equivocation, of mental reservation, of perjury, and even of assassination. Nor, it was said, had the speculations of this odious school of sophists been barren of results. The massacre of Saint Bartholomew, the murder of the first William of Orange, the murder of Henry the Third of France, the numerous conspiracies which had been formed against the life of Elizabeth, and, above all, the gunpowder treason, were constantly cited as instances of the close connection between vicious theory and vicious practice. It was alleged that every one of these crimes had been prompted or applauded by Roman Catholic divines. The letters which Everard Digby wrote in lemon juice from the Tower to his wife had recently been published, and were often quoted. He was a scholar and a gentleman, upright in all ordinary dealings, and strongly impressed with a sense of duty to God. Yet he had been deeply concerned in the plot for blowing up King, Lords, and Commons, and had, on the brink of eternity, declared that it was incomprehensible to him how any Roman Catholic should think such a design sinful. The inference popularly drawn from these things was that, however fair the general character of a Papist might be, there was no excess of fraud or cruelty of which he was not capable when the safety and honour of his Church were at stake.

The extraordinary success of the fables of Oates is to be chiefly ascribed to the prevalence of this opinion. It was to no purpose that the accused Roman Catholic appealed to the integrity, humanity, and loyalty which he had shown through the whole course of his life. It was to no purpose that he called crowds of respectable witnesses, of his own persuasion, to contradict monstrous romances invented by the most infamous of mankind. It was to no purpose that, with the halter round his neck, he invoked on himself the whole vengeance of the God before whom, in a few moments, he must appear, if he had been guilty of meditating any ill to his prince or to his Protestant fellow countrymen. The evidence which he produced in his favour proved only how little Popish oaths were worth. His very virtues raised a presumption of his guilt. That he had before him death and judgment in immediate prospect only made it more likely that he would deny what, without injury to the holiest of causes, he could not confess. Among the unhappy men who were convicted of the murder of Godfrey was one Protestant of no high character, Henry Berry. It is a remarkable and well attested circumstance, that Berry’s last words did more to shake the credit of the plot than the dying declarations of all the pious and honourable Roman Catholics who underwent the same fate.

It was not only by the ignorant populace, it was not only by zealots in whom fanaticism had extinguished all reason and charity, that the Roman Catholic was regarded as a man the very tenderness of whose conscience might make him a false witness, an incendiary, or a murderer, as a man who, where his Church was concerned, shrank from no atrocity and could be bound by no oath. If there were in that age two persons inclined by their judgment and by their temper to toleration, those persons were Tillotson and Locke. Yet Tillotson, whose indulgence for various kinds of schismatics and heretics brought on him the reproach of heterodoxy, told the House of Commons from the pulpit that it was their duty to make effectual provision against the propagation of a religion more mischievous than irreligion itself, of a religion which demanded from its followers services directly opposed to the first principles of morality. His temper, he truly said, was prone to lenity; but his duty to he community forced him to be, in this one instance, severe. He declared that, in his judgment, Pagans who had never heard the name of Christ, and who were guided only by the light of nature, were more trustworthy members of civil society than men who had been formed in the schools of the Popish casuists. Locke, in the celebrated treatise in which he laboured to show that even the grossest forms of idolatry ought not to be prohibited under penal sanctions, contended that the Church which taught men not to keep faith with heretics had no claim to toleration.