Politics & Policy

The Need for a Revival of Lockean Liberalism

Detail of portrait of John Locke by Godfrey Kneller, 1697 (Public Domain/Wikimedia)
A revival of Lockean liberalism would do much to tame the hatreds now afflicting the soul of the West.

In the summer of 1704, English philosopher John Locke began writing a response to a critic of his controversial treatise on religious freedom, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). It was, in fact, the third letter from Locke addressed to Jonas Proast, a chaplain at Oxford University, who insisted that government coercion in religious matters was necessary to preserve social order. Locke fired back: “Men in all religions have equally strong persuasion, and every one must judge for himself,” he wrote. “Nor can any one judge for another, and you last of all for the magistrate.”

Locke died before finishing the letter, but his revolutionary voice is being heard once again. A manuscript titled “Reasons for Tolerating Papists Equally with Others,” written in Locke’s hand in 1667 or 1668, has just been published for the first time, in The Historical Journal of Cambridge University Press. The document challenges the conventional view that Locke shared the anti-Catholicism of his fellow Protestants. Instead, it offers a glimpse into the radical quality of his political liberalism, which so influenced the First Amendment and the American Founding. “If all subjects should be equally countenanced, & imployed by the Prince,” he wrote, “the Papist[s] have an equall title.”

Here was a visionary conception of equal justice for all members of the commonwealth, regardless of religious belief — a principle rejected by every political regime in the world, until 1787 at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. “Locke was willing to contemplate the toleration of Catholics in a fashion which others would never countenance, and he did so with startling impartiality,” write independent scholar J. C. Walmsley and Cambridge University fellow Felix Waldman, who discovered the manuscript. “The tone is emollient, and nowhere replicated in Locke’s works.”

They have it half right. The attitude of English Protestants toward Catholicism in Locke’s day was shaped by over a century of religious conflict. To the Protestant mind, the advance of “Popery” and “priestcraft” represented a temporal and spiritual threat: ranks of religious believers loyal to a foreign potentate, blinded by superstition, hungry for arbitrary power, and latent with schemes of papal domination. Protestant sermons routinely identified the pope with the Antichrist. Locke’s career coincided with the Restoration (1660–88), when Catholics were excluded from public office and their rights of religious worship were severely restricted. By the 1660s, the rise of Catholic France under an absolute monarch, Louis XIV, instigated a fresh round of anti-Catholic fervor. In this acrimonious climate, Locke’s plea for political equality for Catholics was remarkably egalitarian.

Yet — contrary to Locke’s modern interpreters — it was consistent with his views about Catholics and other religious minorities throughout most of his political career. As an assistant to Sir Walter Vane, for example, Locke’s first diplomatic mission in 1665 took him to the Duchy of Cleves, in modern-day Germany. In one of his reports, Locke admits that

the Catholic religion is a different thing from what we believe in England. I have other thoughts of it than when I was in a place that is filled with prejudices, and things known only by hearsay. I have not met with so many good-natured people or so civil, as the Catholic priests, and I have received many courtesies from them, which I shall always gratefully acknowledge.

Locke also records his surprise at the social harmony between Calvinists, Lutherans, and Catholics, who each practiced their faith in relative freedom: “The distance in their churches gets not into their houses. . . . I cannot observe any quarrels or animosities amongst them upon the account of religion.” It was his first encounter with religious pluralism, and it left a deep and lasting impression.

In his first major treatise supporting religious liberty, An Essay Concerning Toleration (1667), Locke constructs an argument, a defense of the rights of conscience, that he will build upon for the rest of his life. He argues that magistrates have no right interfering in religious beliefs that pose no obvious threat to the social order: “In speculations & religious worship every man hath a perfect uncontrolled liberty, which he may freely use without or contrary to the magistrate’s command.” The challenge of accommodating different religious traditions, including Roman Catholicism, is front and center. “If I observe the Friday with the Mahumetan, or the Saturday with the Jew, or the Sunday with the Christian, . . . whether I worship God in the various & pompous ceremonies of the papists, or in the plainer way of the Calvinists,” he wrote, “I see no thing in any of these, if they be done sincerely & out of conscience, that can of itself make me, either the worse subject to my prince, or worse neighbor to my fellow subject.”

It was an extraordinary claim for an Englishman of his era: that Catholics, Calvinists, Jews, and Muslims alike could all be good citizens and good neighbors. Twenty years later, in the throes of another season of anti-Catholic anxiety, Locke delivers the same argument, yet even more forcefully.

In A Letter Concerning Toleration — now considered foundational to the Western canon — Locke insists that the equal protection of civil rights for all religious groups is “agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind.” He uses Catholicism as a test case for explaining why religious doctrines should be of no concern to the magistrate: “If a Roman Catholic believe that to be really the body of Christ, which another man calls bread, he does no injury thereby to his neighbor.” Locke applies his argument not only to Catholics but to the most despised religious minorities of 17th-century Europe. The best way to safeguard the rights of conscience, he concludes, is “to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion.” The American Founders took note.

Nevertheless, Locke has his critics. Political progressives find his religious outlook — he considered the pursuit of God’s gift of salvation the “highest obligation” facing every human being — outdated and offensive. Many conservatives are also ambivalent or even hostile. Catholic thinkers such as R. R. Reno, editor of First Things, not only take Locke’s anti-Catholicism for granted, they view it as evidence of animus toward biblical religion, underwritten by a contempt for the sources of “traditional authority.” In Why Liberalism Failed, Notre Dame’s Patrick Deneen faults Lockean liberalism for “the destruction of social norms” and the “untrammeled expansion of private identity.” Others, such as Yoram Hazony, in The Virtue of Nationalism, denounce Locke’s entire approach to politics as “a far-reaching depreciation of the most basic bonds that hold society together.”

We are entitled to wonder whether these critics have the slightest idea of the actual political and cultural catastrophe that had engulfed Western society when Locke made his most famous arguments for human liberty. The sources of “traditional authority” wistfully recalled by these writers — the state churches and social hierarchies of European society — had transformed much of Europe into a violent, sectarian battlefield. Under the banner of the cross of Christ, the “basic bonds that hold society together” — such as compassion, forgiveness, and mutual respect — were being shredded without a twinge of conscience.

It was Locke’s moral outrage over the widespread abuse of power, reaching another crescendo in the 1680s, that drove him to compose his Two Treatises of Government (1689) and A Letter Concerning Toleration.  English society was in crisis: riven by a brutal crackdown on religious dissent, by the return of political absolutism, and by the growing threat of militant Catholicism. “The idea of a Counter-Reformation design against English Protestantism was far from absurd,” writes historian John Coffey, “and we should resist the temptation to treat Protestant fear as irrational paranoia.” The Dutch Republic, where Locke was living in political exile, was absorbing thousands of religious refugees fleeing Catholic France. The reason: On Oct. 22, 1685 — a few weeks before Locke began composing his Letter — Louis XIV invalidated the Edict of Nantes. France’s brief experiment in religious toleration of its Protestant (Huguenot) population had come to an end.

And a bloody end at that. At least 200,000 Protestants fled in the first wave of persecution. Locke met and befriended many of them. It would have been impossible to ignore the reports of Protestant children taken from their parents, of churches demolished, of ministers beaten, imprisoned, or executed because of their faith. Princeton historian Jonathan Israel describes the mounting Catholic–Protestant tensions thus: “The resurgence of anti-Catholic sentiment, in reaction to the persecution of the Huguenots in France, pervaded the entire religious and intellectual climate of the Republic.”

Despite all of this, Locke defends the civil and religious rights of Catholics in his Letter, as part of a broader argument for freedom of conscience. “I will not undertake to represent how happy and how great would be the fruit, both in church and state, if the pulpits everywhere sounded with this doctrine of peace and toleration.” It is a curious doctrine coming from a man supposedly hobbled by anti-Catholic bigotry.

Why, then, do Locke’s critics conclude that he opposed equal protections for Catholics in the commonwealth? Because in his Letter and other writings, Locke objects to tolerating those who teach that “faith is not to be kept with heretics” or that “kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms.” Such views were a matter of Catholic policy, and it seems clear that Catholic leaders were the chief subjects in Locke’s mind.

Yet Locke makes a crucial distinction between Catholics who pledged loyalty to the political regime under which they lived and those who sought its overthrow — a fifth column “ready upon any occasion to seize the government.” Locke’s detractors fail to acknowledge the machinations of the Catholic Church, in England and elsewhere, in which the Holy See acted to destabilize political authorities or condemn them as heretics and see them toppled. What Locke found intolerable was not Catholic theology per se but rather the agents of political subversion operating under the guise of religious obedience. As he put it in the newly discovered manuscript: “It is not the difference of their opinion in religion, or of their ceremonys in worship; but their dangerous & factious tenets in reference to the state . . . that exclude them from the benefit of toleration.” On this point, Locke could be as tough on Protestants as he was on Catholics.

Today we take political stability and civil order for granted; we do not exist in fear of sectarian forces sweeping away our liberties. But no one living in Locke’s tumultuous times enjoyed this luxury. Some ideas threatened the moral taproot of civil society; they could not be tolerated. In Locke’s world — as in ours — the constitution must not become a suicide pact. Political philosopher Greg Forster insightfully observes that Locke “towers over the history of liberalism precisely because virtually everything he wrote was directed at coping with the problem that gave birth to liberalism — religious violence and moral discord.”

Such is the world as we find it. If prejudice taints Locke’s political legacy, perhaps it is the prejudice of those who prefer false and comforting narratives to difficult moral and historical realities. Locke’s critics have blinded themselves to the bracing nature of his democratic vision: “But those whose doctrine is peaceable, and whose manners are pure and blameless, ought to be upon equal terms with their fellow-subjects.” Here is the only tenable solution to the challenge of religious diversity: equal justice under the law for people of all faith traditions.

No political doctrine has been more integral to the success of the United States, for no nation has been so determined to regard religious pluralism as a source of cultural strength. America’s experiment in human liberty and equality is profoundly Lockean. It is also, in some important respects, deeply Christian. Locke believed that the gospel message of divine mercy — intended for all — implied political liberalism. The founder of Christianity, he wrote, “opened the kingdom of heaven to all equally, who believed in him, without any the least distinction of nation, blood, profession, or religion.”

It would be hard to conceive of a better doctrine on which to build a more just and humane society. A revival of Lockean liberalism would do much to tame the hatreds now afflicting the soul of the West.

Joseph Loconte is director of the Simon Center for American Studies at The Heritage Foundation and the author of God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West.