Archive Civic Polity Peter Escalante Steven Wedgeworth

John Locke’s Assumptions

There is often heated debate, in the realms of politics and church history, over the religious (or antireligious) nature of the Enlightenment and of early modern political thought, especially the school of Liberalism.  The loudest is the debate about the question of whether or not the United States’ Constitution, Founding Fathers, and overall political theory represent a “Christian” point of view or a secular one.  If the voices of the debaters show no sign of tiring, the debate itself tired long ago.

One of its cardinal mistakes is the focus on subjective considerations.  Historical figures’ religious self-identification and church attendance are taken as the primary index of whether their statesmanship was religious or irreligious, along with the consistency and integrity of their personal thought and practice.  If a certain figure can be shown to have talked like a  Deist or a philanderer, then it is thought sufficiently proved that he was not in any way a Christian statesman.  Conversely, if he prayed in public or had substantial portions of the Book of Common Prayer memorized from childhood, he is taken to be an authentic Christian.  And there’s always the ubiquitous and categorically confusing Freemasonry to consider.  The problem with such subjective elements is that they cannot be easily used to prove public legal and political significance.  Whether a politician or philosopher was personally devout does not necessarily illuminate the origin and character of his theory, nor the social and communal understanding and reception of it.

More helpful, it seems, is to investigate the arguments put forth by the early modern political theorists and to evaluate their various assumptions and conclusions, asking what other beliefs, commitments, and assumptions must be held in order to form a coherent position.  This assumes that there might be a coherent position to find; of course, it may not be so, and certainly will not be so for all early modern political philosophers.  We would also have to identify which philosophers and jurists were actually significant and influential in that day, and all such investigations run the risk of wish-fulfillment rather than history.  An accurate picture requires very careful research.  And, needless to say, such a project would prove far too large for an essay such as this.  But we can outline the question.

So for now, we will content ourselves to one important thinker and one important document.  We will not make the leap to its effects or longer legacy, though we have certain opinions there too.  Still, we believe that this sort of investigation will prove a good start for future projects.  Here we’ll be taking a closer look at John Locke and his A Letter Concerning Toleration.[1]

Locke is typically considered to be the most influential modern philosopher in the legacy of Liberal political theory and the American founding.  We would like to add much more to this picture, of course (namely the Continental and English churchmen preceding Locke and the legacy of German jurists such as Pufendorf and Althusius).  Still, Locke’s place in this is secure, and his authority is large.  Understanding his theory, along with its context would go a long way to framing the larger political and philosophical conversation in the 18th century.  His Letter is especially important because it sets out the argument for religious toleration as well as the rationale for it and necessary guidelines for maintaining it.

There has been a new interest in Locke’s Letter as of late, and there is a basic consensus that, while it definitely did argue for religious tolerance and a measure of open “secular” space, it most definitely did not argue for an areligious secularism.  Ian Shapiro explains:

Lock was not embracing atomistic individualism by taking this stand.  Rather he was committed to a particular view of the nature of religious belief and the relationship between the individual and his creator that had to be rooted in authentic individual commitment.  This led to his view that religious convictions of all sorts should be tolerated so long as they do not threaten the integrity of the state, but this was a view he affirmed, ultimately, for religious reasons.[2]

Eric Nelson, in his very intriguing but incomplete treatment of “political Hebraism” in early modern political thought, puts more theological meat on Locke’s bones:

Where God is not the civil sovereign, Locke argues, the number of religious matters worthy of legislation is vanishingly small, confined to “civil concernments” understood quite narrowly…

But [Locke] does nonetheless explicitly defend the legitimacy and importance of the national church, and he also retains the two most basic Erastian convictions: that all binding religious law can only be civil law, and that the civil sovereign should only make religious laws that are politically necessary (but must make those).  Locke certainly regards far fewer religious laws as politically necessary than many of his predecessors, but the reasoning is the same….

Locke’s embrace of the Hebrew republic could not be more different from Spinoza’s.  While Spinoza’s God is simply nature itself, and his Israel just one ancient commonwealth among many, Locke’s God is the God of both testaments, and his Israel is God’s kingdom.  To put it another way, Spinoza’s politics is secular because, for him, the Biblical God does not exist; Locke’s politics is secular, because, on his account, the Biblical God who sent us into the world “by his order, and about his business” wants it that way.  Both thinkers endorse toleration, but only Spinoza does so for secular reasons.[3]

This characterization pushes back from the previous view of Locke as a pure Deist.  Locke certainly was something of a Deist, but he was a Deist who could make theological arguments based upon careful exegesis of the Old and New Testament Scriptures.  Let us now highlight a few of Locke’s statements about religion and the role of the Church in a commonwealth, seeking to highlight some of his basic assumptions and ask what sort of intellectual and religious framework makes sense of them.

All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.  Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true, and the other well-pleasing unto God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation.[4]

Here we see that “true religion” is primarily internal for Locke, and its essence consists of faith, that is personal belief and conviction.  No external practice can take precedence over this internal character of religion.

He goes on to contrast this against the use of coercion and force:

True and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.  And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of any thing by outward force.[5]

Locke adds that the magistrate can certainly use reason and argumentation, in an effort to persuade the heterodox, but that this is a faculty held in common with other men and need not require the use of force.  “It is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with penalties.”[6]  Legal penalties “are no ways capable to produce such belief.”[7]  In short, the magistrate ought not to punish heterodoxy because to do so would be counter-productive.  It would not produce belief or true religion.

In fact, coercing belief would likely make the salvation of souls more difficult.  Locke argues:

For, there being but one truth, one way to heaven; what hopes is there that more men would be led into it, if they had no other rule to follow but the religion of the court, and were put under a necessity to quit the light of their own reason, to oppose the dictates of their own consciences, and blindly to resign up themselves to the will of their governors, and to the religion, which either ignorance, ambition, or superstition had chanced to establish in the countries where they were born?[8]

A politically coerced religion would militate against the rights of conscience and personal faith.  It would subordinate the individual’s informed conviction to the will of their native country.  Locke is clear that mere external performance of religious worship and ritual is no assistance to salvation and in many circumstances is an active hindrance.

Consistent with this, Locke says that the Church is a “free and voluntary society.”[9]  He adds:

Nobody is born a member of any church; otherwise the religion of parents would descend unto children, by the same right of inheritance as their temporal estates, and every one would hold his faith by the same tenure he does his lands; than which nothing can be imagined more absurd.  Thus therefore the matter stands.  No man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect, but every one joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God. The hope of salvation, as it was the only cause of his entrance into that communion, so it can be the only reason of his stay there. For if afterwards he discover anything either erroneous in the doctrine or incongruous in the worship of that society to which he has joined himself, why should it not be as free for him to go out as it was to enter? No member of a religious society can be tied with any other bonds but what proceed from the certain expectation of eternal life. A church, then, is a society of members voluntarily uniting to that end.[10]

Now this is certainly a specific definition of “the Church.”  It is voluntary and organized along the lines of the profession of its members.  Locke’s definition excludes any notion of de jure divino church government, whether Roman or Protestant, and he excludes any notion of corporal power being invested in the ecclesiastical assembly.

Locke even describes his own view of the esse of the church, defined by the positive commands of Holy Scripture:

But since men are so solicitous about the true church, I would only ask them here, by the way, if it be not more agreeable to the Church of Christ to make the conditions of her communion consist in such things, and such things only, as the Holy Spirit has in the Holy Scriptures declared, in express words, to be necessary to salvation; I ask, I say, whether this be not more agreeable to the Church of Christ than for men to impose their own inventions and interpretations upon others as if they were of Divine authority, and to establish by ecclesiastical laws, as absolutely necessary to the profession of Christianity, such things as the Holy Scriptures do either not mention, or at least not expressly command? Whosoever requires those things in order to ecclesiastical communion, which Christ does not require in order to life eternal, he may, perhaps, indeed constitute a society accommodated to his own opinion and his own advantage; but how that can be called the Church of Christ which is established upon laws that are not His, and which excludes such persons from its communion as He will one day receive into the Kingdom of Heaven, I understand not.[11]

Locke is certainly sounding the part of a Puritan Congregationalist here, though he was himself arguing for a national-church reform.  He is not of the more extreme Puritan variety, though.  For civil purposes, a thing need not possess divine command.[12]  It need only serve the common good.  In the divine worship, however, only those things commanded by God can be introduced.  Locke even makes an argument from the regulative principle of worship:

Again, things in their own nature indifferent cannot, by any human authority, be made any part of the worship of God ; for this very reason: because they are indifferent. For, since indifferent things are not capable, by any virtue of their own, to propitiate the Deity, no human power or authority can confer on them so much dignity and excellency as to enable them to do it. In the common affairs of life that use of indifferent things which God has not forbidden is free and lawful, and therefore in those things human authority has place. But it is not so in matters of religion. Things indifferent are not otherwise lawful in the worship of God than as they are instituted by God Himself and as He, by some positive command, has ordained them to be made a part of that worship which He will vouchsafe to accept at the hands of poor sinful men…

We see, therefore, that indifferent things, how much soever they be under the power of the civil magistrate, yet cannot, upon that pretence, be introduced into religion and imposed upon religious assemblies, because, in the worship of God, they wholly cease to be indifferent. He that worships God does it with design to please Him and procure His favour. But that cannot be done by him who, upon the command of another, offers unto God that which he knows will be displeasing to Him, because not commanded by Himself. This is not to please God, or appease his wrath, but willingly and knowingly to provoke Him by a manifest contempt, which is a thing absolutely repugnant to the nature and end of worship.[13]

Thus there is clear distinction between the sacred and civil arena.  The religious assembly is very important, and the specifics of liturgy are so much so that they require divine command.  And it is precisely due to the existence of “indifferent things,” and their incompatibility with the regulative principle, that the civil is not to intrude upon the sacred.

Locke does not agree with the older notion that idolatry ought to be coercively suppressed by the magistrate.  He says that there is a distinction between sins and crimes:

But idolatry, say some, is a sin and therefore not to be tolerated. If they said it were therefore to be avoided, the inference were good. But it does not follow that because it is a sin it ought therefore to be punished by the magistrate. For it does not belong unto the magistrate to make use of his sword in punishing everything, indifferently, that he takes to be a sin against God. Covetousness, uncharitableness, idleness, and many other things are sins by the consent of men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the magistrate. The reason is because they are not prejudicial to other men’s rights, nor do they break the public peace of societies. Nay, even the sins of lying and perjury are nowhere punishable by laws; unless, in certain cases, in which the real turpitude of the thing and the offence against God are not considered, but only the injury done unto men’s neighbours and to the commonwealth. And what if in another country, to a Mahometan or a Pagan prince, the Christian religion seem false and offensive to God; may not the Christians for the same reason, and after the same manner, be extirpated there?[14]

Locke answers the charge that idolatry was punished under the Mosaic administration by rejecting  the claim that Christians are still bound to that administration, a claim rejected by Calvin and Hooker long before Locke.[15]  Further, he adds that the Mosaic administration had a particular civic polity (as Nelson has already explained to us):

For the commonwealth of the Jews, different in that from all others, was an absolute theocracy; nor was there, or could there be, any difference between that commonwealth and the Church. The laws established there concerning the worship of One Invisible Deity were the civil laws of that people and a part of their political government, in which God Himself was the legislator. Now, if any one can shew me where there is a commonwealth at this time, constituted upon that foundation, I will acknowledge that the ecclesiastical laws do there unavoidably become a part of the civil, and that the subjects of that government both may and ought to be kept in strict conformity with that Church by the civil power. But there is absolutely no such thing under the Gospel as a Christian commonwealth. There are, indeed, many cities and kingdoms that have embraced the faith of Christ, but they have retained their ancient form of government, with which the law of Christ hath not at all meddled. He, indeed, hath taught men how, by faith and good works, they may obtain eternal life; but He instituted no commonwealth. He prescribed unto His followers no new and peculiar form of government, nor put He the sword into any magistrate’s hand, with commission to make use of it in forcing men to forsake their former religion and receive His.[16]

But Locke’s toleration is not absolute.  It is confined by the limits of the common good.  Speculative religious ideas can be tolerated, nearly in total, yet religious ideas with practical consequences must be more carefully observed.[17]  Again, the common good must be coherently preserved:

But to come to particulars. I say, first, no opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society, are to be tolerated by the magistrate. But of these, indeed, examples in any Church are rare. For no sect can easily arrive to such a degree of madness as that it should think fit to teach, for doctrines of religion, such things as manifestly undermine the foundations of society and are, therefore, condemned by the judgement of all mankind; because their own interest, peace, reputation, everything would be thereby endangered.[18]

According to Locke, there are three “religious” issues of his day that must not be tolerated.  These are 1) Any religious justification for deception, 2) Any external political allegiance entailed by a religion, and 3) Atheism.

Another more secret evil, but more dangerous to the commonwealth, is when men arrogate to themselves, and to those of their own sect, some peculiar prerogative covered over with a specious show of deceitful words, but in effect opposite to the civil right of the community. For example: we cannot find any sect that teaches, expressly and openly, that men are not obliged to keep their promise; that princes may be dethroned by those that differ from them in religion; or that the dominion of all things belongs only to themselves. For these things, proposed thus nakedly and plainly, would soon draw on them the eye and hand of the magistrate and awaken all the care of the commonwealth to a watchfulness against the spreading of so dangerous an evil. But, nevertheless, we find those that say the same things in other words. What else do they mean who teach that faith is not to be kept with heretics? Their meaning, forsooth, is that the privilege of breaking faith belongs unto themselves; for they declare all that are not of their communion to be heretics, or at least may declare them so whensoever they think fit. What can be the meaning of their asserting that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms? It is evident that they thereby arrogate unto themselves the power of deposing kings, because they challenge the power of excommunication, as the peculiar right of their hierarchy. That dominion is founded in grace is also an assertion by which those that maintain it do plainly lay claim to the possession of all things. For they are not so wanting to themselves as not to believe, or at least as not to profess themselves to be the truly pious and faithful. These, therefore, and the like, who attribute unto the faithful, religious, and orthodox, that is, in plain terms, unto themselves, any peculiar privilege or power above other mortals, in civil concernments; or who upon pretence of religion do challenge any manner of authority over such as are not associated with them in their ecclesiastical communion, I say these have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate; as neither those that will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of mere religion. For what do all these and the like doctrines signify, but that they may and are ready upon any occasion to seize the Government and possess themselves of the estates and fortunes of their fellow subjects; and that they only ask leave to be tolerated by the magistrate so long until they find themselves strong enough to effect it?

Again: That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. For by this means the magistrate would give way to the settling of a foreign jurisdiction in his own country and suffer his own people to be listed, as it were, for soldiers against his own Government. Nor does the frivolous and fallacious distinction between the Court and the Church afford any remedy to this inconvenience; especially when both the one and the other are equally subject to the absolute authority of the same person, who has not only power to persuade the members of his Church to whatsoever he lists, either as purely religious, or in order thereunto, but can also enjoin it them on pain of eternal fire. It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration. As for other practical opinions, though not absolutely free from all error, if they do not tend to establish domination over others, or civil impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no reason why they should not be tolerated.[19]

While this specific and numerically large group of excluded persons might strike some readers as rather “intolerant,” it is quite consistent with Locke’s rationale.  He argues that all religious bodies which are based on voluntary membership and spiritual persuasion can and should be tolerated, and indeed this will work to promote the common good.  Likewise, he argues that all religious bodies which stand contrary to free assembly should not be tolerated, since that would work against the common good.  This is how mutual toleration by diverse parties can coherently exist.  So long as they do not attempt to undermine the common good, they are free to operate in the same civic space.  They may certainly argue and preach against one another, using the tools of internal suasion, but they may not employ civil force against one another.

This argument is straightforward, and it was eventually taken as such an obvious one that its assumptions went mostly unquestioned by later readers (especially Americans).  But those assumptions really are glaring.  Locke is operating on very precise definitions.  He assumes what a church or religious body is and is for, what true religions consists of, and what the common good is.  These terms and their definitions are essential for his argument and, more importantly, they are essential in order for it to be convincing.  Obviously not everyone shares these definitions (namely the Roman Catholics, Muslims, and atheists).  The relevant question is, who does?

Now for some theologians and philosophers, currently fashionable among academics, this sort of observation is taken as a critique of Locke and secularism.  That is not our intent.  We believe that Locke’s proposals for religious toleration, with various modifications according to context, have been tried and found useful and attractive.  None of the “criticize modernity” advocates have actually been willing to call for the revocation of their respective civil liberties.  Indeed, religious freedom is regularly claimed to be “under attack,” and this claim is made by the religious traditionalists against the modern secularists.  It seems that at least this one contribution of liberalism is as beloved as ever.  We too are quite happy with religious liberty and would like to see it continue to be protected.  Our point is simple: there are certain conditions which make religious liberty intelligible, and those conditions are not universally held by all peoples and all religions.

This brings us back to our very first point.  Whether Locke was himself a good Protestant is far less important than his theological assumptions and the prevalent religious and political intellectual framework held by his subsequent readership which found his argument persuasive.  We are concerned about principles and the way in which the argument holds together.  The entire context is that of broad Protestantism.

None of this is meant to brag or merely feather the cap of our religious tradition.  There have been many schools within Protestantism that did not advocate religious toleration, and there have been many non-Protestants who have embraced toleration and fought for its protection and advance.  The point is again to show how Locke’s argument makes sense, and further, that in a way it represents the logical development of central Protestant teachings.  There must be an understood notion of the “common good,” “the church” must be primarily invisible, church and state must respect one another’s respective jurisdictions, sins and crimes must be distinguished according to their respective internal and external characters (and they must be prosecuted only as they affect the common good), and tolerance is seen as a civil good insofar as it helps to promote this common good.  Intolerance, on the other hand, cannot be tolerated, as it necessarily diminishes that common good.

The lingering question today, and one which highlights the way in which Locke’s argument is no longer universally understood, is what to do about those who do not and cannot share these religious and political assumptions.  For Locke, the answer would be along the lines of an oath of loyalty.  This would of course require the citizen to publicly renounce various religious tenets which were incompatible with that loyalty, but such would be the price for citizenship.  In today’s secularism this seems impossible and even almost unintelligible.  This is even a challenge for the religiously-minded, as explored in John Perry’s recent book (Two of our friends have posted interactions: see Brad Littlejohn’s review here, as well as Davey Henreckson’s engagement here and here).  But however one resolves the dilemma, the reality is inescapable.  The tolerant state is itself a state founded on specific theology, and that theology must have a compelling reason to promote toleration.  When it lacks such a theological foundation, liberalism quickly becomes illiberal.  To retain a “liberal liberalism,” so to speak, we must articulate a coherent philosophical, theological, and constitutional theory.

[1] The Letter is available from a number of places online: (here and here, for example), but for ease of citation, we will be using the print version edited by Ian Shapiro: John Locke, Two Treatises of Government and A Letter Concerning Toleration. ed. Ian Shapiro (Yale University, 2003).

[2]  from the preface of Locke, Two Treatises xiii

[3] The Hebrew Republic (Harvard University Press, 2010) 135-137

[4] Locke 219

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] 220

[8] ibid

[9] ibid

[10] 220-221

[11] 222

[12] For instance, the Elizabethan Puritans could be characterized as “theonomists,” see:

[13] Locke, 233-234

[14] ibid 238

[15] ibid

[16] 239

[17] 240

[18] 241

[19] 244-246

By Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante

Steven Wedgeworth and Peter Escalante are the founders and editors of The Calvinist International.