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Written by Jack Cerf
(2/4/2003 11:31 a.m.)
in consequence of the missive, George Austen, the parson, penned by Caroline
John Henry Newman was a severe critic of latitudinarianism, but perhaps not a fair one. He left out of his description the emphasis on ethics and behaviour, as opposed to doctrine and dogma. It would be fairer to say, I think, that the Latitudinarian view was that every man's view of revealed religion is acceptable if it leads him to act in accordance with the generally understood and accepted standards of Christian (and Jewish) morality.
That viewpoint has been the more or less consensus attitude towards religion in the US, paraphrased as "religion is a good thing and everyone should have one." In a society with many sects, the belief that everyone should be allowed to get to heaven in his own way as long as he behaves properly is the best guarantor of civil peace; even the best meant and most charitable advice that someone is mistaken in his faith is not likely to be accepted in the spirit in which it was offered.
That explains the prevalence of Latitudinarian attitudes in the 18th century C of E. They are the reaction to 150 years of bitter religious-political controversy between Henry VIII's break with Rome and the Glorious Revolution of 1689. People were burnt at the stake over religion in England; they were tortured for teaching what was deemed to be an alien and subversive faith; they were fined and imprisoned for illegal modes of Christian teaching and worship. The C of E suffered a purge in the 1650s and a counter-purge in the 1660s over doctrine and dogma. One civil war and one coup d'etat were fought over religious issues. Latitudinarian asserts that the finer points of dogma are probably unknowable and that, in any event, a just and merciful God does not intend to trip up the well intentioned and well behaved in a theology exam. It does so in order to lower the heat of religious conflict and insure civil peace.
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