Saturday, November 19, 2011

John Locke (1632-1704):  Religious Toleration.

John Locke wrote A Letter Concerning Toleration in 1689, the same year he wrote Two Treatises of Government.  Both of these works are important to the founding of the United States.  Reading these two works essentially together, it is clear that they have a unity of thought that would make it suspect to try analyzing their principles separately.  Locke's view of civil government is one that is extremely limited and subject to being rescinded at any moment by the people.  A "church", as Locke has defined it, is similarly a voluntary association of individuals who join together for purpose of religious ceremony.  Within this framework there is considerable room for separation and Locke gives us this:

"This only I say, that, whencesoever their authority be sprung, since it is ecclesiastical, it ought to be confined within the bounds of the Church, nor can it in any manner be extended to civil affairs, because the Church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth. The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable. He jumbles heaven and earth together, the things most remote and opposite, who mixes these two societies, which are in their original, end, business, and in everything perfectly distinct and infinitely different from each other." - A Letter Concerning Toleration.

Keeping in mind that the governments of the 17th century were necessarily limited for reasons of technology and economy, the above assumption that church and civil society had no need to bump into each other might not be totally implausible.  Still, he allows for some friction between the two and outlines what appear to be sensible principles for arbitration. A question that is completely absent from both of Locke's long dissertations is how to handle education - whether this fall under the civil or church authorities.  

Locke's view of toleration is that all religions should be permitted to worship both privately and publicly.  This would include papists, Mohammedans, idolators, Jews, etc.  Between all these groups, he allows for persuasion of all kinds to be used with no limits set by the civil authorities.  In this matter, however, he identifies three exceptions:     

1. "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."

In our day and age, we do have groups which deliberately work to undermine the moral rules which are necessary to the preservation of civil society.  At the same time they make false accusations against those who would preserve the morals that they are actually debasing them.  Oh well.

2. "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."

Having listed Mohammedans and papists as ones who deserve religious toleration, Locke then lists the same two as violating this principle.

3. "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 problem here is that there are atheists who - in spite of their beliefs - are truthful for reasons of custom or conscience, whereas there are examples of religious folk who have no regard for God and lie anyways.  

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