John Locke and the Dark Side of Toleration

“A Church then I take to be a voluntary Society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the publick worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the Salvation of their Souls.”  ∼ John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration

It seems likely that most Americans would find John Locke’s definition of a church non-controversial, perhaps even obvious. This shows both how relevant the seventeenth century philosopher remains to our public life, and how detrimental it has been on many levels. Most Americans who have heard of Locke think of him as the author, via Thomas Jefferson, of the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence, in which certain self-evident principles are asserted—most importantly that all men are created equal, that they are endowed (by their Creator) with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that government is instituted for the purpose of protecting these rights. Much ink has been spilled over the issue of whether this one passage from a document intended primarily to achieve a necessary practical goal (formal independence) and tighten relations with an ally (France) from whom Americans were seeking substantial financial and military aid, should be seen as the heart and soul of our republic. Yet, even if one ignores the bulk of the Declaration (which consists of charges against the British monarch couched in terms of traditional and common law rights) and the limited purpose of the document, one must take account of the history, cultural and legal context, not just of that one act, but of the more important foundational document (the Constitution) in framing our political culture.

And yet, one would be foolish to dismiss the influence of Locke on American public life. Much of what he wrote, particularly in his most famous work, the Second Treatise on Civil Government, was largely a gloss upon traditions inherent in English politics for some time, particularly those with roots in Calvinist dissent; it added understandings of political consent and the limits of legitimate power still persuasive today. More troubling for those of us concerned with the long term health and virtue of the republic are his more specifically religious writings, and particularly his writings on religious toleration.

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It would be positively un-American, of course (as well as un-Christian) to speak out against religious toleration. The right to worship as one sees fit, within the requirements of public peace, itself has become an object of faith for most of us. Moreover, this position has its roots in crucial Christian teachings regarding mercy and the very nature of evangelization.

But what, exactly, is it that we are to tolerate? And who, or in what capacity, do we tolerate? These questions get to the heart of the problem with Locke’s, and with America’s attitude toward religion in public life. For, whereas our nation was founded within a culture of religious groups committed to religious ways of life, we increasingly have become a nation of individuals governed as individuals by a central government committed to our, in effect, being individuals, and individuals only, at least when it comes to our religion.

This may not appear evident from the quotation given at the opening, here. A voluntary association is not, after all, an individual. It is a group, in this case one that has come together for the purpose of public worship. And what could be more American than that? Let us move on to Locke’s next passage, in which he expands upon this definition:

No body 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.

Here we have the heart of radical individualism and its hostility toward communities, and communities of faith in particular. Once upon a time, most all of us were born into a Church, in the sense that our parents belonged to a particular religious community and sought to bring us up in that religion. We did not hold our religion as a piece of property, of course, for property is something we own, not something to which we owe significant duties. A Protestant might argue with a communal characterization of religion, and clearly Locke has some basis for his assertion. Protestants in particular emphasize the fact that each of us dies alone, after having developed or failed to develop a personal relationship with God. Catholics, too, recognize that each of us is responsible for his own salvation in the final analysis—no matter the advantages we may have, we still must be in a position to accept God’s grace and, with it, salvation.

But, where Locke argued that religion is rooted in personal beliefs which are either self-evident or subjective (and for most of us the latter), most Christians recognize that when we are born we have the capacity to learn from our parents and other members of our faith (not to mention our clerics, the Gospel, other sacred writings, and other sources of religious truth). Locke’s point was that the Anglican Church had no right to punish members of other faiths (except for Catholics, whom he accorded no right to tolerance because he deemed them loyal to a “foreign prince”) because faith cannot be coerced through laws punishing people, for example, for not going to church.

As with much of Locke’s writing on toleration, his practical point is worth endorsing. True conversion does not take place at the point of a knife. Still, to argue that the experience of going to church, particularly with one’s family and neighbors, will not open one’s mind and soul to the religious message being promoted goes against common sense. To dismiss tradition, whether intellectually or as a source of religious habits, is to deny the very nature of reality and the human purpose. It also is to undermine the bases of religion. For religion is not merely a set of beliefs, though these are fundamental to its nature. Religion means “to bind,” and, as religion binds a community together, the member of a church is bound to a way of life and to its fundamental beliefs in part through the liturgical realities of the community. No matter how plain the service, no matter how plain the building and even the manners of one’s co-religionists, the habits of mind and body inculcated through the practices of religion support (or undermine) faith and the possibility of a religious way of life.

To deny the communal nature of a church, not just in its forms of worship and their ultimate goal of salvation is to deny our very nature and the nature of our pursuit of truth and the beatific vision. Such a vision and way of life may not be rational in the narrow, Lockean sense. For Locke religious beliefs may be rational, or rooted in some form of (true or false) revelation, but has no cultural element. Nonetheless, a life in which we live, not just to worship God so as to gain salvation, but to lead a virtuous life with our fellows out of love for and desire to please God, with worship a central aspect of a life lived in this life in preparation for the next is the proper goal of us all, next to which all other goals are as nothing. To forget this fact is to let go of what is most precious in our way of life and leave us mere questing monads with no path to lead us home.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared October 9, 2014 in Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.


  • Bruce Frohnen

    Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

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