What if you lived in Europe during the 16th century? Would you be a liberal or a conservative? Democracy as we know it today did not exist. Monarchs ruled all of Europe and religion was the polarizing issue of that era.
It was a time of fear and division. Europe was polarized, just as American politics is today. The difference is only in the degree of violence between the factions.
Because of men like Martin Luther, John Calvin and Henry VIII, Europe was polarized into nations/empires ruled either by Catholic or Protestant kings and queens. The pope had enormous power to influence the lives of average people and to change the fate of nations by its papal bulls – decrees having the power of religion behind them, with one’s eternal fate hanging in the balance.
England had renounced Catholicism in order for Henry VIII to divorce his wife, Catherine, daughter of the King of Spain. He had formed a new state church, the Church of England. It was a Protestant church. Eventually, Henry died and his Catholic daughter, “Bloody” Mary by Catherine, ruled England. She was very intolerant of Protestants and several were burned at the stake, a horrible death in any time, for practicing their own religious views.
Ken Follett tells this fascinating story as historical fiction in his recent book, “Column of Fire.” Most of his book focuses on the era of Queen Elizabeth, Mary Queen of Scots and the French monarchy, greatly influenced by the de Guise family.
Eventually Bloody Mary died and was replaced by her Protestant half-sister Elizabeth I. Elizabeth took England in a different direction by working toward religious tolerance for the nation. For her efforts, the Catholic monarchs of France and Spain tried to have her assassinated and be replaced by her Catholic cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, whom Elizabeth held captive for more than 20 years.
Just as today, emotions ran hot. There were four major groups who swayed the politics of their times: 1) radical Catholics who wanted to wipe out all Protestants; 2) rigid Puritans who saw the Catholic Church as the “Great Whore” of the book of Revelation; 3) moderate Catholics; and 4) Protestants who wanted people of differing beliefs to live in harmony, peace and tolerance. Queen Elizabeth fell into the fourth category.
Every time Elizabeth tried to bring about cooperation, the extremists on both sides of the religious divide plotted to destroy any efforts at moderation. Somehow, Elizabeth, through 45 years of rule, was able to maintain a precarious balance in spite of assassination attempts and even a war to unseat her.
Just as today, moderates tried to cool the tempers and absolute certainties of ultra-Catholics and ultra-Protestants. In our time, the moderates are found among the Republicans, Democrats and Independents who struggle to bring reason and concern for the common good into our political discourse, with only limited success.
A sense of certainty, self-centeredness and intolerance for differences prevails now, just as it did in Elizabeth’s time. The reasons for these attitudes are similar then and now – fear and the inability to think in a mature way – being able to see and accept the perspectives of others without feeling threatened by those who differ from our experiences.
Each of us has grown up in different circumstances. Each has been shaped by our life experiences. Each of us sees the world around us differently as a result. Why, then, should it be so difficult to understand that no two people will agree on every issue?
Be glad to be living in the early 21st century rather than the late 16th. Even the most unlearned among us knows vastly more than any of those who lived in Elizabeth’s time. We have instant access to the Internet, education and news, which can give us answers to many questions that perplex us.
What these information sources cannot provide, though, is to ability to process information in a careful and thoughtful way.
To attain the understanding that Elizabeth and other moderates possess requires the reading of history, literature and science and the humility to admit there is much that we do not understand, no matter how educated we are. Only that humility of our own vulnerability and ignorance can bring us to be tolerant of the views of others.