John Locke and Religious Freedom

© 2016 Robert Osburn

After setting aside the stories about the valiance of Revolutionary Wars heroes, most of us learn a very simple narrative about America’s founding: The new nation transcended the old and bloody religious intolerance of Europe, thanks to secular Enlightenment thinkers (late 17th to mid 19th century) who showed us that we could create stable, just, and peaceful societies where God and religion were safely locked away in churches and private religion. Furthermore, we learned, pre-eminent amongst those Enlightenment thinkers who made the world safe for secular, peaceful society by promoting reason over religion was John Locke (1632-1704)

What always made me uneasy with this neat, clean distinction between the intolerance of the religious and the cheerful tolerance of secular Enlightenment thinkers was this question: From whence did Enlightenment philosophers derive their concepts of tolerance?  Joseph Loconte is the latest scholar to offer a clear answer to that question in God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West (2014).  According to Loconte, Locke, the most frequently-cited of the Enlightenment philosophers whose influence on America’s founders is unquestionable, was himself profoundly and deeply shaped by a Christian humanist tradition that appealed to Erasmus (1466-1536) and, yes, the Bible.

Erasmus, a great scholar who shed helpful light on everything he touched, and his Christian humanist followers rooted their “commitment to civility and theological modesty” in what they called the “philosophy of Christ” (p. 17).  Locke’s groundbreaking A Letter Concerning Toleration  (1689) regularly quoted the Christian humanists and the Bible.  Locke repeatedly appealed to the idea that Jesus demonstrated and Paul taught that no one should be coerced into violating his or her conscience (e.g., Romans 14:5).  And, wrote Locke, the use of violence to enforce particular religious views would only make citizens religious hypocrites and unworthy believers.  Locke regularly appealed to Galatians 5:6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Locke’s quest for an “authentic, vibrant Christianity” (p. 176) motivated his appeal to renounce political violence in order to secure religious obedience.  As Loconte shows so clearly, Locke appealed to the Bible and theological reasoning in order to make his case.

But, the vast majority of us would never know that Locke worked out his tolerant Enlightenment philosophy on the basis of Christian thought and texts, were it not for Loconte’s book.  Unfortunately, this marvelous book requires that the reader must first drop $88.12 at his or her favorite online retailer for the privilege of wading into deep scholarly waters.  The best thing I can recommend is to use Inter-Library Loan.  It’s free, and most libraries participate.

Be that as it may, let it not be said any longer that Locke was the secular, rationalist thinker who saved America’s founders from making the USA religiously intolerant.  Rather, Locke’s ideas were shaped by 16th century Christian humanists who helped him see biblical texts in a fresh new light that revealed a passion for exalting Jesus Christ as the true “Prince of Peace.”  To put the point rather simply, without calling the USA a “Christian nation” (a dubious proposition), America’s founding as a religiously tolerant nation was, nevertheless, much more Christian in its inspiration than we have wanted to admit.  

All those who want to consider reforming and renewing their societies ought to pay attention to the ideas that Locke, the son of a Puritan pastor, loved and taught.  Loconte’s book is a wonderful guide.