Those Were Also the Days

Is it bad form to compare ISIS to Europe’s religious wars after the Reformation?

This Protestant versus Catholic division – our version of Islam’s Sunni versus Shia – was replicated all over Europe. In Britain, France, the Netherlands and Germany, what started as disagreement and protest later morphed into religious persecution and then, often enough, into civil war. Only when these conflicts came to an end in the mid-1600s was this nightmare, which lasted 140 years, brought to a close.

What Syria is going through at this time is no worse than what Germany experienced in the Thirty Years War that ended in 1648. The historian Norman Davies describes the post-war scene thus: “Germany lay desolate. The population had fallen from 21 million to perhaps 13 million. Between a third and half of the people were dead. Whole cities like Magdeburg stood in ruins. Whole districts lay stripped of their inhabitants, their livestock, and their supplies. Trade had virtually ceased.”

Nor is the Syrian calamity any more disastrous than the English Civil War, which petered out in 1651. Read what the Cambridge historian, Robert Tombs, has to say about the conflict: “The Civil War was the most lethal conflict England had suffered since the Conquest. A recent estimate suggests around 86,000 killed in combat, nearly all soldiers; another 129,000, mostly civilians, succumbed to the diseases that accompanied war; and infant mortality reached the highest level ever recorded. These losses, in a population of 4-5 million, are proportionately much higher than those England suffered in the First World War.”

I should add that neither the Thirty Years War nor the English Civil War was caused solely by religious hostility. The former was part of a Continental power struggle, as well as being a contest between Catholics and Protestants. On the latter, Tombs comments that: “Religion was the clearest dividing line, but even that does not explain everything.” But then religion is not the sole generator of Middle East conflict.

Sure, as a committed (or soon to be committed) Protestant, I’d prefer not to be compared to religious terrorists. And when I think about the start of the Civil War I’d like to think (in the neo-conservative part of me) that this was oh so different from the American War for Independence. But can Western Christians really avoid noticing certain parallels between their own past and Islam?

David Robertson, never one to miss a chance to send a missive to a newspaper, thinks we can refuse the analogies by rebranding Presbyterians as — get this — “freedom fighters”:

Rather than Calvinists being the Tartan Taleban, they were the freedom fighters of their day and a key part of the founding of modern Scottish democracy. The National should be celebrating their heritage, not comparing them with the Islamist fascists of ISIS.

How pastor Robertson describes the “freedom fighters” that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, a rebellion foreign policy initiative that helped to create ISIS, is a question that may be answered the next time someone in the British newspapers traces the American revolution to Scottish Presbyterianism.

24 thoughts on “Those Were Also the Days

  1. The quote from the British newspaper The Indpendent is typical of the UK’s crackpot media who cunningly try and find a moral equivalence in so many areas of religion and politics. The Independent isn’t independent, it’s symptomatic of the default setting of the UK’s media with the mother of all left wing liberal wisdom being the BBC. The Beeb know it is influential with it’s $3 billion raked in through a mandatory tax on all tv users.
    Pastor Robertson’s idea of the Calvinist’s being freedom fighters of their day shows once again how such Scots are still wedded to a national idea of religion, more latterly allied with rank socialism which typifies the Scottish political scene.
    If folks want a frank, astute and often acerbic take on ISIS types, religion and UK politics there is no finer writer than Rod Liddle, associate editor of The Spectator who knows how achingly PC the BBC is having worked for it on it’s Radio 4 flagship slot, the Today Programme.His book Whining Monkeys is a good read too.


  2. Give over Paul – The Independent is owned by Lebedev, who also owns The Standard [also, the Beeb is so left wing that the current associated editor of the Speccy is the former editor of the Today program].


  3. Chris,
    Who is this Lebedez chap? Liddle doesn’t follow any clear cut present notion of left wing modern clap trap. He is more an old fashioned socialist of the northern type, not a London or Scottish whinging equality/diversity clone who seek the UK’s destruction for it’s wicked past by promoting the present cultural revolution. The article by Douglas Murray in The Speccie you refer to though is a decent one.
    Going back once again to Pastor Robertson and his barmpot comparison between Calvinism and ISIS at least once again he shows a hankering after theocracy and some notion of Christian culture/politics if he thinks Calvinism is a Reformed and better alternative to ISIS. He’d be better off digging deep into Reformed church polity rather than being a Scottish follower and imitator of TKNY and modern fluffy worship.


  4. Somewhere in the world today a Muslim is reading Machen’s Christianity and Liberalism, and using the title as a model for his own book—Muslims and Liberals Who Don’t Kill Christians.

    One of the reasons I like Machen is the way he simply ignored the Constantinian past (both Reformed and Catholic) Machen was enough libertarian in his politics to be viewed as himself a “liberal” by many with an Augustinian w-v. A person who writes in praise of congregations as “voluntary associations” as Machen did is not going to ask the empire to kill Donatists.

    This Muslim using Machen’s either/ or as a model will assume Constantinianism as inherent in not being liberal. Somewhere in the world a Muslim is reading Van Til and becoming way
    more epistemologically self-conscious. And that Muslim is writing a little essay with the title–Why I Believe in the God who Wants all Christians Dead.

    Sectarians don’t do church as a model to teach how non-Christians are to work with us to move the world in a better direction. Sectarians ask some questions about “the people” in the “if my people” thing. Are the people in the Abrahamic covenant the same as the people in the new covenant? If those of us in the new covenant get our act together, will that trickle down in blessing to the empire in which we find ourselves exiles? Sectarians are not worried about how good violence will restrain (or increase) bad violence for all those who live in the same parish or place.. The earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof, and the Lord is coming back here.


  5. Ivan –“told me about the crimes committed by Turks through fear of a general rising of the Slavs. They burn villages, murder, outrage women and children, they nail their prisoners by the ears to the fences, leave them so till morning, and in the morning they hang them—all sorts of things . People talk sometimes of bestial cruelty, but that’s a great injustice and insult to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so artistically cruel. The tiger only tears and gnaws, that’s all he can do. He would never think of nailing people by the ears, even if he were able to do it. These Turks took a pleasure in torturing children– cutting the unborn child from the mothers womb, and tossing babies up in the air and catching them on the points of their bayonets before their mothers’ eyes. Doing it before the mothers’ eyes was what gave zest to the amusement. Here is another scene that I thought very interesting. Imagine a trembling mother with her baby in her arms, a circle of invading Turks around her. They pet the baby, laugh to make it laugh. They succeed, the baby laughs. At that moment a Turk points a pistol four inches from the baby’s face. The baby laughs with glee, holds out its little hands to the pistol, and the Turk pulls the trigger in the baby’s face and blows out its brains. By the way, Turks are particularly fond of sweet things, they say.”


  6. How pastor Robertson describes the “freedom fighters” that President George W. Bush sent to Iraq to topple Saddam Hussein, a rebellion foreign policy initiative that helped to create ISIS, is a question that may be answered the next time someone in the British newspapers traces the American revolution to Scottish Presbyterianism.

    Fortunately, none of your readers knows or cares what you’re blathering about, although the seasoned Hart-watcher is amused at the rhetorical fast one he’s trying to pull here, disguising bald assertion as principled argument. The American revolution is plainly linked to “Scottish Presbyterianism.”

    As for blaming Dubya for ISIS, another fast one. ISIS traces its origins back to 1999, before we whacked Saddam, and was well-strangled until the Present Occupant pulled even an American rump force from Iraq in 2011.


    WASHINGTON — As he described the factors that went into his decision to keep American troops in Afghanistan, the one word President Obama did not mention on Thursday was Iraq.

    Four years ago, he stuck to his plan to pull out of Iraq, only to watch the country collapse back into sectarian strife and a renewed war with Islamic extremists. Facing a similar situation in Afghanistan, Mr. Obama has decided not to follow a similar course.

    Whether keeping a residual American force in Iraq would have made a difference is a point of contention, but the president chose not to take a chance this time. In seeking to avoid a repeat of the Iraq meltdown by keeping 9,800 troops in Afghanistan next year and 5,500 after he leaves office, he abandoned his hopes of ending the two wars he inherited.

    While not openly drawing lessons from the Iraq withdrawal, Mr. Obama drew an implicit distinction by emphasizing that the new Afghan government of President Ashraf Ghani, unlike the Baghdad government in 2011, still supported an American military presence and has taken the legal steps to make it possible.

    How does it feel to be even more foolish and obtuse than Barack Obama, Darryl? Geez.


  7. In fairness to David Robertson (not something I say very often), these are two different issues – the comparability of wars fought in the name of religion, and the contribution which Calvinists have made in Scottish history.

    ‘The National’ is a new publication which specialises in loopy propaganda for delusional Scottish nationalists whose capacity for sophisticated thought on the virtues of religion approximates that of Richard Dawkins less gifted acolytes. For that audience, it remains valid and important to make the point that Calvinism is not in fact an unmitigated force for evil in (Scottish) society.


  8. Look, Dave Kopel finds a squirrel outside the Presbyterian Church with a lesbian pastor, the one where Terry Gray used to go to church when he wasn’t watching Joker’s Wild.


  9. Cath, I take your point. But I still think Pastor Robertson is incoherent about Islam and Calvinism in Scotland:

    He says:

    It was Christianity that brought the sacred/secular divide into the Western world. It was Christianity, especially after the Reformation, which taught that there were two kingdoms and that the one was not subject to the other. It was within that Christian context that secularism was able to develop and flourish. Christianity is the bedrock and foundation of our secular society.

    So then why does he lament secularization of Scotland? Why is he a transformationalist?

    Plus, he asks of Islam what he can’t answer negatively of Calvinism in Scotland:

    To my Muslim brothers and sisters – Do you deny that Islam is a political as well as a religious ideology? Do you want Islamic law to be enforced in a Muslim Britain? Can you name one Islamic country where there is religious freedom – in particular the freedom to change your religion? Will you allow Muslims in the UK to change their religion if they wish?

    The incoherence is what I see in most critics of 2k. They look to pre-modern Reformed political arrangements for inspiration but turn around and deny that they want a theocratic society. Prior to 1789, all of Europe enforced Christianity in ways that Muslims want to enforce sharia. It’s not Christianity and Islam. Its premodern society and premodern society.


  10. The W1A comedy take about the BBC’s southern/London ethos does have some good insights to how puffed up the Beeb has become, but at a news and social matters level it is dead serious about enforcing diversity/equality and all things PC to the point of sending errant BBC workers onto re-education courses if they err on liberal issues.
    I guess the writers of W1A saw they were working in an ‘right on’ culture which they can laugh at and yet believe in.You have to look at independent writers to get anything remotely unlike the monolithic BBC viewpoint which does have influence as politicians and others feel the pressure through it’s choice of what issues it yaps on about. Having said all that, certain Beeb producers can make excellent documentaries like ‘Bitter Lake’ but such quality is rare on the BBC.
    How does Pastor Robinson find time for ministry and pastoral matters when he pours so much time into his aptly named ‘Wee Flea’ and regular Solas programmes? Can such men not be content to simply labour quietly in their ministerial calling without encouraging an internet audience? How much influence do they want?


  11. Erm, permit me to beat a hasty retreat from any attempt to speak for David Robertson! How he reconciles his own views, I can’t begin to speculate, especially since the days are largely gone when being a Free Church minister entailed commitment to the Free Church distinctive of the establishment principle.

    There’s secular and secular though? Can’t someone disbelieve in Christian plumbing yet still lament the mainstreaming of euthanasia, sabbath breaking, adultery?

    And, is it really the case that the alternatives must inevitably boil down to 2k vs theocracy. Disruption-era critics of Voluntaryism (which I take it was the then equivalent of 2k, but open to correction) weren’t arguing for theocracy when they advocated the establishment principle, unless we have different definitions of theocracy?

    I read some guy’s history of Calvinism recently btw, and was suitably impressed (fwiw).


  12. Cath, I think the big deal here is the establishment principle. The state has a duty to provide for the religious needs of the nation. Then the rulers figure out that religion is exclusive — doesn’t serve all the needs of everyone with franchise. So the state still does religion (tolerance etc.) but without religion (Christianity).

    That Constantine!


  13. “Chris,
    Who is this Lebedez chap?”

    Proof enough that you can’t write off an Independent article as proof of some ‘liberal left wing conspiracy”.

    “The article by Douglas Murray in The Speccie you refer to though is a decent one.”

    Which in its headline makes the same point as the Independent article that you dismiss as the above.


  14. One question I’m still pondering. Post Disruption, the establishment principle is more of an aspiration than something that can feasibly be put into practice. Partly the franchise has changed tastes and expectations. Partly by multiple schisms the church visible itself has made it hard for the state to identify which of the competing Calvinistic voices to listen to and privilege. But does this mean the aspiration itself is misguided and lacks scriptural basis? In other words, accepting as a historical fact that the establishment principle has fallen on hard times, are we meant to interpret this as a big hint from providence that things were never meant to be this way, or as just another discrepancy between scriptural ideal and currently attainable practice?


  15. Cath, what Biblical text do you think commends the idea that unbelievers should be taxed to support the church? I don’t often run into people who think establishment may be the biblical idea, so I’m honestly curious.


  16. Cath, sorry if you’ve heard this before, but where in the New Testament do we have any expression of even an aspiration for establishment? I know people think I’m biased. But I’ve never heard a convincing case from biblical exegesis. (now I see Joel beat me to the punch.)


  17. From memory, things like 1 Tim 2, where if it’s the believer’s responsibility to pray for those in authority to grant space for godly living, it’s presumably the authorities’ responsibility to do that.

    I don’t think the Scottish churchmen insisted that there was a duty on the state to give financial support specifically – it was a bit more generic than that. Not that they objected to financial support, but it was only one of a range of possible ways that the state could recognise and support the church.

    Although if we’re talking taxes, there isn’t
    always a one to one mapping between your habits and how you’re taxed – pedestrians are taxed for the upkeep of motorways, and the healthy for the care of the ill (uncontroversial surely), and many a right-thinking sensible person is taxed – nay, fleeced! – so that the BBC can continue to indoctrinate the masses with its liberal leftie claptrap and fiddlesticks … er, sorry, where was I? Point being that it’s not impossible to imagine scenarios where sufficiently large numbers of the population regard something as sufficiently in the public interest to tolerate it being publicly funded, without all of them being personally committed to or interested in that thing.

    Worth mentioning that the terms of the establishment of the church in Scotland included a recognition of the spiritual independence of the church. Ie that the state had no jurisdiction in church courts (the state had no power ‘in sacris’ but only ‘circa sacra,’ while the church had no jurisdiction ‘in civilibus’ but only ‘circa civilia’). (Unlike other establishments which fatally compromised spiritual independence by granting a civil ruler some ecclesiastical position, eg calling the king the head of the church, etc.)

    (Sorry for the delay in replying, been sabbath observing and travelling. Won’t be offended if the conversation has moved on by now.)


  18. Cath,

    From that passage, all I gather is that we should pray that the authorities do not interfere with the church. I think it would also include slave-masters that should allow their slaves to worship freely. I do not see how that implies either refusing to allow false religions to worship freely, laws that require unbelievers to act (at least in form) like Christians, or that the power of the sword ought to be used to provide for ministers. Christian ought for the slave-masters as well, but I don’t know that means that slave-masters are obligated to make slaves work to support the Church. (1 Peter 2 connects prayer for authority to both government and slave-masters)

    I find taxation for the support of those who are ill to be destructive to everyone in society, including those that are ill. Clearly there are more pressing issues in society, but I think if anyone studies the issue and the history of such governmental efforts in the past that they can see how this occurs.

    Now, on the other hand, I don’t think that I find it sinful for the government to provide materially for the church. It seems as though this is the liberty of the authority. Likewise, I don’t think it is sinful (in form, though it is clearly not meritorious) for an unbelieving slave-master to financially support the church. I do not see any particular reason to try to get unbelievers to financially support the church or to suppress false religion.


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