Community vs. Country

What Can Europe’s Religious Wars Teach Us About Big Government

by Trevor Burrus

Throughout the 16th and 17th Centuries wars of religion raged throughout Europe. These came to a head in the Thirty Years’ War, a period during which most of central Europe, centering on what is now central Germany and Bohemia, was reduced to rubble. The Thirty Years’ War was one of the first times that European kingdoms engaged in large-scale, pointless, internecine conflict, and it certainly wouldn’t be the last.

Matthäus Merian the Elder, copperplate engraving

Although it had many causes, the Thirty Years’ War partially resulted from disputes between Protestants and Catholics. Kingdoms, Empires, and Duchies fought over citizens’ souls and of course the citizens fought back. Whenever states violate, enforce, or try to change our deepest held beliefs–whether it is religion, health care, or something else–conflict will always result. This is as true now as it was then.

During the Thirty Years War, while permanent colonies were being established in America, those who had fled Europe for America looked upon the conflagration with a mixture of terror and relief. Many had left Europe because their country was intolerant of their religious choices. Others, such as Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, would even separate from the separatists. Later, the Mormons, who emerged in the 1820s from the “burned-over” region of upstate New York, would find a home in Utah, and many other religious sects founded during the Second Great Awakening would struggle to find a place where they could practice their religion in peace.

Being familiar with Europe’s history of religious conflict, and particularly England’s tumultuous 16th and early-17th Centuries, the American framers would not have dreamed to give the federal government the power to choose a national religion. Even those deeply religious Framers, such as John Adams, would not force the rest of the continent to live according to their beliefs. To do so would guarantee conflict.

Nowadays, government does not ostensibly regulate or prescribe religious belief. Instead, it regulates and controls how we raise our children, what we can eat or put in our bodies, and what sort of health care we can buy, to name just a miniscule fraction. As government takes control of more and more intimate and important details of our lives we should remember the same lessons learned during the religious wars of Europe: conflict will be unavoidable.

None of this should be surprising. Classical liberal thought teaches us that there is an unavoidable trade-off between the gains from liberality—that is, a government that imposes minimally normative conditions—and the gains from community—that is, a more integrated and more normatively strict collective. With liberality comes gains from trade, and trade is substantially responsible for the growth in human flourishing over the past millennia. Insular communities are poor communities, unwilling to set aside their strictures in order to trade with those who may violate their exacting norms. Consequently, specialization is hampered and wealth is retarded.

Alternatively, there are immense gains to be had from close-knit communities. Communities have a sense of belonging that is simply not available to a minimally normative state. For the same reasons that family is such a powerful force in our lives, and for the same reasons that the bonds of family bring us so much joy, communities are incredibly important to people.

But the two goals are largely antagonistic. A country of 300 million people is not, and will never be, a community. To try and force community norms—that is, maximally normative strictures—upon an entire nation is to create inevitable conflict. To try and, say, enforce a single type of health-care plan upon everyone in the name of “community” will only return us to the types of conflicts that Europe suffered through for so long.

No, there won’t be blood (hopefully), and we will try to solve these issues in a more civilized manner, but there will be conflict–riots, strikes, protests, and sit-ins. In the end, it may take such conflict to return to a classically liberal world in which community and conscience are allowed to flourish within a minimally normative liberal state.


Trevor Burrus is a Legal Associate at the Cato Institute’s Center for Constitutional Studies.

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