Religious toleration appears near the top of any short list of core liberal democratic values. Theorists from John Locke to John Rawls emphasize important interconnections between the principles of toleration, constitutional government, and the rule of law. Conscience and Community revisits the historical emergence of religious liberty in the Anglo-American tradition, looking deeper than the traditional emergence of toleration to find not a series of self-evident or logically connected expansions but instead a far more complex evolution.
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Murphy argues that contemporary liberal theorists have misunderstood and misconstrued the actual historical development of toleration in theory and practice. Murphy approaches the concept through three "myths" about religious toleration: that it was opposed only by ignorant, narrow-minded persecutors; that it was achieved by skeptical Enlightenment rationalists; and that tolerationist arguments generalize easily from religion to issues such as gender, race, ethnicity, and sexuality, providing a basis for identity politics.