Sir Walter Ralegh on war and faith

Gaspard de Coligny

It is a little-known fact about Ralegh that, when he was 14 or so, he went to fight for the Hugenot cause in the French Wars of Religion as part of a small group of West Country men under the leadership of his cousin, Henry Champernowne. Insofar as we might tend to perceive Ralegh as something of a protestant hero in the struggle against imperial Spain, this isn’t terribly surprising – despite his extreme youth. We have a ready 20th-century analogy for such idealism in the form of the international brigades who fought in the Spanish Civil War.

But whatever Ralegh’s motivation in enlisting, the experience taught him a deep and abiding cynicism. Wars fought under the banner of religion were, he concluded, merely the continuation of other struggles for political power.

History doth plainly tell us, that that furious war (which broke out in France) in the reign of Francis II, and which occasioned the most barbarous murders, devastations, and such other calamities, (which are the common products of civil commotions, and by continuing near forty years had reduced France to the last misery,) was begun and carried on by some few great men of ambitious and turbulent spirits, deluding the people with the cloak and mask only of religion, to gain their assistance to what they did more especially aim at. It is plain the admiral Coligny advised the prince of Condé to side with the Huguenots, not only out of love to their persuasion, but to gain a party, and be made thereby the stronger; neither can any man think that the papists, out of the principle of the Christian religion, which enjoins us to be meek and charitable, did in few days’ space cut the throats of near thirty thousand protestants in France, many of whom were men of great fame and quality, but out of fear of their numbers and power: these being removed, they made sure of grasping to themselves all rule and dominion.

I find myself returning to Ralegh’s phrase ‘deluding the people with the cloak and mask only of religion’ when I read about today’s militant religious movements – whether Christian fundamentalists, Jewish settlers or Islamist radicals – or a theocratic state like Iran; and I wonder if it wouldn’t be more a productive political response simply to ignore the religious codes in which they couch their views of the world. They are more or less coherent social groups – some of them transnational – reaching out for dominion. Faith is their uniform; it is not their cause. To the extent we might consider such people our enemies, their religion isn’t the thing we are fighting; it is a distraction from the real battles for power.

And I worry that the same might also be said of those whose faith is placed in liberalism, and particularly in its more muscular expressions. I worry, of course, because I’m probably one of them.

NOTE: If you are interested in my other posts on Ralegh, they are here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

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