Locke: On Religious Tolerance

Alright, let’s get back to Locke. The other week we talked about A Letter Concerning Toleration, where Locke suggested that Christians concerned with burning heretics should also go around burning other Christians for moral crimes. This week we’re dealing directly with the heart of the letter – with the actual claim about how society should be set up.

  • The text: A Letter Concerning Toleration
  • The author: John Locke
  • Read it yourself: I’m reading an edition from the Thomas Hollis Library – they seem to have the same text online over here.

So Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration regards the relationship between the church and the state. In it, he makes some pretty major claims about the nature of religion, society, and the role of government – it’s worth reading purely as an articulation of some of the general assumptions that are commonplace today. For example, Locke suggests that it’s not appropriate for a government to compel belief in one religion or another, “because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as to leave it to the choice of any other, whether Prince or Subject, to prescribe to him what Faith or Worship he shall embrace.” If the government ordered us all to be Amish, it’d be inauthentic – faith has to be embraced by the individual as something of their own. “Faith is not Faith without believing.” So we all have to decide on our own faith, and the government should just stay out of it. That’s a common belief today.

Both of these initial points are also familiar from our time looking at Martin Luther. For example, Luther argues that the role of the monarch is to protect the peace. A king isn’t supposed to be a priest, or a minister – they’re just supposed to keep things quiet so that the rest of us can get on with believing. He also contends that when it comes to communion and the sacraments, “whoever believes them fulfils them, even if he should not do a single work.” Communion is made valid by the belief of the individual. It’s not surprising, then, to hear Locke reiterate the same basic points and link them together. Faith is made real by something inside you, and therefore the monarch should not dictate your faith, because a) it would be fake, and b) it’s not their job. In Locke’s words, “the power of civil government relates only to men’s civil interests; [it] is confined to the care of the things of this world; and hath nothing to do with the world to come.”

Really, what’s interesting with Locke is watching him tease out all the implications of the Protestant Reformation. He’s repeating all of the things that Luther said, and working them through to their conclusions. Luther says that faith has to come from the individual. That means, Locke adds, that you can’t force someone into a religion, because they won’t have faith, and it’ll be inauthentic. And if forcing someone into a religion is bad, then the state shouldn’t be able to do it either, so you can’t have state-mandated religion. Further, if the state can’t privilege one religion over another, then religious punishments and religious differences shouldn’t have any legal consequences. You can’t have the state giving special treatment to one religion over another. If you get excommunicated from your faith, that shouldn’t mean that you lose your property or rights. Those things belong to the state, and are not the concern of the church. “Excommunication neither does, nor can deprive the excommunicated person of any of those civil goods that he formerly possessed. All those things belong to the civil government, and are under the magistrate’s protection.” As institutional churches lose their hold over levers of social power, and as the interior life of the individual is held up as the key element in the pursuit of salvation, religious truth becomes private and personal. Ultimately, Locke is able to define a church as a “voluntary association of men, joined together of their own accord,” which is a genuinely staggering assertion. So much of where we are today is wrapped up in there – we all have our own individual truths, and we have to live them out in our lives and accept that not everyone will see things the same way, and we’ve got postmodern theology that sees that pluralism as maybe how things were supposed to be all along – it’s this whole thing, and it’s fascinating being able to trace its development from Luther through Locke and into the modern day.

In Locke’s view, then, religion can exist under the state as a series of small, fragmented, voluntary groups, where individuals can come together in pursuit of something that they all collectively believe. They can deal with those things in their churches, and then the state more broadly will provide a neutral common ground for all parties to go about their business without prejudice. That sounds nice, but it’s not really something that happens in practice. Religion keeps escaping into the public domain, and affecting how we engage with each other. There’s a strain of Calvinist thought, in particular, that sees the public sphere as itself still fundamentally a religious environment. When we discussed Calvin on government, back in March, we saw that he defined the role of government as twofold. It should allow people to “carry on innocent commerce with each other,” and it should also ensure that “no idolatry, no blasphemy against the name of God, no calumnies against His truth, nor other offenses to religion, break out and be disseminated among the people.” He advocates for a public form of religion, where every moment of our day to day life aligns with our wider spiritual values. This is where you get bakers refusing to make wedding cakes for gay couples – it’s people who believe that the role of civil society is to allow for a sort of public form of religion, where your job and your career are themselves expressions of your faith. This strain of thought arises from very similar principles to those laid out by Luther. If faith is founded on your belief, then you must be a believer at all times, and your actions in the world must be expressions of that inner truth. Where Locke uses the interior nature of faith to push religious institutions away from state authority, Calvin sees it as a motivating force underpinning and arguably radicalizing all of our actions along sectarian lines. The same basic principle is expressed in two conflicting ways – and it’s our job to figure out what to do with that tension.

One comment

  1. One widely discussed strategy for reducing religious conflict in England was called comprehension. The idea was to reduce the doctrines and practices of the Anglican church to a minimum so that most, if not all, of the dissenting sects would be included in the state church. For those which even this measure would not serve, there was to be toleration. Toleration we may define as a lack of state persecution. Neither of these strategies made much progress during the course of the Restoration.


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