Free Speech Fundamentals: Locke's Letter on Toleration

Strap in. I am about to tell you something that may make you uncomfortable. 

"Toleration" as a political virtue is not about being nice.

It is a not a shorthand for the Golden Rule: "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you" (Matthew 7:12).

It is not about not judging others lest you be judged, or about giving good things to others when they ask you for help.

It is not about multiculturalism or "diversity" or being open to other's perspectives.

Above all, it is not about refusing to defend your own religious and political traditions against those who would seek to replace them with theirs.

What it is is a uniquely Christian virtue predicated on specific pronouncements of the Lord Jesus Christ.
1. "My kingdom is not of the world" (John 18:36), meaning that there is no State of which Christ claims to be ruler.
2. "Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's, and unto God the things that are God's" (Matthew 22:21), meaning that there are things over which the State has jurisdiction, but that these things do not include what is owed to God, specifically worship.
3. "And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house of city, shake off the dust of your feet" (Matthew 10:14), meaning that worshipping God should not be coerced. Here Jesus was instructing his disciples on how to preach the kingdom of heaven to the lost sheep of Israel: not with swords, but with words.
Milo used this same image in his Christmas talk
Politically, it is about the separation of Church and State, which thanks to the evangelicals of the sixteenth century (we call them Protestants) became an explosive and deadly issue in Europe for almost two hundred years. (There were issues about the relationship between the Church and State in the Middle Ages, but they were different. Henry VIII took care of all that by having Parliament declare him "Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England," only to open another can of worms.) This is the history we in America need to be studying because this is the history that gave birth to the political institutions of our country, more specifically, to the North American colonies founded by the English and Scots-Irish over the course of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

Not that the colonists themselves spoke in terms of the separation of Church and State. Many of them, particularly the Puritans (think "Progressives"), came to the New World with the express intent of establishing more pure (thus their nickname) communities in which to worship God as they believed they should. But as refugees from the religious wars that wracked England and Scotland for the better part of two centuries, they knew what it was like for the government to try to tell them how they should pray--and they didn't like it. The English Civil War of the 1640s began over a prayer book, which the King of England tried to impose on the Scots. (It's complicated, just ask a Redneck.)

This was the context in which John Locke (1632-1704) wrote his famous Letter on Toleration, the ultimate source for the arguments that many make nowadays for why we should worry more about being tolerant than about preserving the public institutions and laws the colonists (we call them Founders) put in place. Locke would beg to disagree.

Locke wrote the letter while living in exile in Amsterdam. It was first printed in Latin, then in Dutch and French. William Popple translated it into English and published it anonymously in London in 1689. Its publication was directed specifically against an act of Parliament of May of that same year, which denied freedom of worship not only to Catholics, but also to Protestants like Locke and Popple who dissented against the doctrine of the Trinity, with the exception of those who took an oath of allegiance (which not all would do). Neither dissenters, even those who took the oath, nor Catholics were allowed to hold public office. This Toleration Act of 1689 remained in force well into the nineteenth century, with Unitarians being barred from meeting for worship until 1813 and Catholics from public office until 1829.

You might think, therefore, that Locke, as a dissenter, would call for the dissolution of King and Parliament and the institution of a whole new political system more amenable to such diversity of opinion. It was, after all, what the Roundheads had tried to do, and what Oliver Cromwell succeeded in doing for a decade. Okay, not quite: Cromwell was as close as the English have come to a religious dictator (second only to Henry VIII and his daughter "Bloody" Mary, as the Protestants called her), and it was in response to his intolerance and the fears that James II would bring back Catholicism and Mary's enthusiasm for the stake that prompted the Glorious Revolution of 1688. (I paraphrase what I have learned from my early modernist colleagues; it is far more complicated than I am making it here.) My point is: the English had spent decades reorganizing their political structures and did not want to have another war. But those like Locke did want to be able to worship in a way that accorded with their consciences without being persecuted or killed.

Accordingly, Locke started with a theological argument. "Honoured Sir," he wrote to his friend Philip von Limborch, a Dutch dissenter. "Since you are pleased to inquire what are my Thoughts about the mutual Toleration of Christians in their different Professions of Religion, I must needs answer you freely, That I esteem that Toleration to be the chief Characteristical Mark of the True Church." Note that Locke claims at the outset that toleration is something Christian: the mark of the true Church. The problem was that Christians could not agree on what method of worship--what Locke means by "Religion"--to practice and had been killing each other over disagreements in how to praise God. What they had tried--forcing everyone to live under the same canon of worship by rule of law and threat of death--had manifestly not worked. People stubbornly persisted in dissenting against the King, Parliament, and anyone else who would try to make them pray in a particular way, all the while calling themselves Christians for trying to preserve the True Church.

Locke had another suggestion. On the one hand, he opined, there was the Commonwealth, which "seems to me to be a Society of Men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing of their own Civil Interests." These interests, Locke explained, "I call Life, Liberty, Health, and Indolency of Body; and the Possession of outward things, such as Money, Lands, Houses, Furniture, and the like."  "It is the Duty of the Civil Magistrate, by the impartial Execution of equal Laws, to secure unto all the People in general, and to every one of his Subjects in particular, the just Possession of these things belonging to this Life." It is these things, Locke is saying, and these alone that are of Caesar's concern. What is not Caesar's concern, pace Henry VIII, is the Salvation of Souls: "For no Man can, if he would, conform his Faith to the Dictates of another. All the Life and Power of true Religion consists in the inward and full perswasion of the mind; and Faith is not Faith without believing."

According to Locke, the only thing that the Civil Magistrate could command were those things that could be compelled by outward force. But Faith, being inward, is not susceptible to such coercion as the Civil Magistrate might exercise: "Confiscation of Estate, Imprisonment, Torments, nothing of that nature can have any such Efficacy as to make Men change the inward Judgment they have framed of things." More to the point, what if the Civil Magistrate were wrong? "There being but one Truth, one way to Heaven, what Hopes is there that more Men would be led to it, if they had no Rule but the Religion of the Court, and were put under a necessity to quit the Light of their own Reason, and oppose the Dictates of their own Consciences, and blindly to resign up themselves to the Will of their Governors, and to the Religion, which either Ignorance, Ambition, or Superstition had chanced to establish in the Countries where they were born?" People might be damned simply by virtue of where they were born.

On the other hand, Locke went on, there was the Church, which "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." NB what Locke is not saying here. He is not arguing for the idea of "spiritual but not religious" which many Americans now take to be the essence of "real" religion: not bound to anybody else's ideas of what spirituality should be. The whole point of a Church, as Locke sees it, is to gather together in public to worship God. It is a voluntary society, not something one is born into, but it is a society for worship which can make laws for itself and the regulation of its membership. It is not obliged to allow just anybody to be a member, but neither can its punishments go beyond exclusion from membership in the society for its purpose of worship: "For Churches have neither any Jurisdiction in Worldly matters, nor are Fire and Sword any proper Instruments wherewith to convince mens minds of Error, and inform them of the Truth." Just as the Civil Magistrate cannot force people to believe things about the way in which they should worship, nor can the Church deprive anyone of his Civil Rights to Life, Liberty, Health, and the Possession of outward things.

Here Locke was categorical: "No man whatsoever ought to be deprived of his Terrestrial Enjoyments, upon account of his Religion. Not even Americans [by which he meant the indigenous peoples of the New World], subjected unto a Christian Prince, are to be punished either in Body or Goods, for not embracing our Faith and Worship. If they are perswaded that they please God in observing the Rites of their own Country, and that they shall obtain Happiness by that means, they are to be left unto God and themselves." (Here Locke had clearly been reading Las Casas or arguments derived from Las Casas's In Defense of the Indians.)

And yet, there were limits.  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." Happily, Locke believed, such opinions were 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 Judgment of all Mankind: because their own Interest, Peace, Reputation, every Thing, would be thereby endangered." (Locke had clearly never met a Marxist revolutionary.)

Second: The Civil Magistrate ought not to tolerate those who refuse to keep their promises or who argue that the prince ought to be dethroned or who claim Dominion over the Community as a whole.

Third: "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." Most particularly, Locke insists, Muslims: "It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahumetan only in his Religion, but in every thing else a faithful Subject to a Christian Magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople; who himself is intirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor, and frames the feigned Oracles of that Religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahumetan living among Christians, would yet more apparently renounce their Government, if he acknowledged the same Person to be Head of his Church who is the Supreme Magistrate in the State."

Fourth: There were Atheists, upon whom "Promises, Covenants, and Oaths, which are the Bonds of Society," could have no hold: "The taking away of God, tho but even in thought, dissolves all. Besides also, those that by their Atheism undermine and destroy all Religion, can have no pretence of Religion whereupon to challenge the Privilege of Toleration. As for other Practical Opinions, tho not absolutely free from all Error, if they do not tend to establish Domination over others, of Civil Impunity to the Church in which they are taught, there can be no Reason why they should not be tolerated."


Locke goes on to consider the question of schisms and heresies, but at no point does he say anything about being nice or doing unto others or trying to see things from another's point of view. At stake are not feelings, but Truth and the access to Truth, which Locke insists the State cannot deny. Nor does Locke claim that there are multiple Truths, all of which should be considered equally true. Quite the reverse. In Locke's view, as in that of his contemporaries, there was one Truth, one Way, one Life to which human beings were called. The problem was discerning which way was the true one, what form of worship was correct. The danger, as Locke saw it, was in giving the Civil Magistrate the power to coerce any particular form of worship against the conscience of the people living under his jurisdiction, as the Magistrate, being Caesar, not God, might be in error, and thus coerce the whole Commonwealth to damnation.

This did not mean, however, that there should be no State. The whole concept of Civil Society depends, in Locke's view, on there being such a thing as a Civil Government under the authority of a Magistrate who is empowered by law and use of force to protect the Life, Liberty, Health, and Possessions of the people of the Commonwealth. Toleration was a matter of civic order: the Church kept within its proper bounds, the State kept within its. Just as the Church was defined by its function (public worship), so the State was defined by its function (protecting the Life, Liberty, Health, and Possessions of those living under its jurisdiction). The problem, as Locke explained to his friend, came when these two jurisdictions became confused: the State attempting to regulate worship, the Church claiming jurisdiction not only over people's souls, but also their bodies and property. Toleration, for Locke, meant not confusing these jurisdictions.

Which is why, as a political concept, it has its limits. Christianity may claim that God's kingdom is not of this world, but this is not, as Locke appreciated, the way in which Muslims conceive of the jurisdiction of their law. Certainly, if there were Muslims who were willing for the jurisdiction of sharia to apply only to their souls and not to their property and bodies, Locke's definition of toleration would apply. Likewise, as Locke would have it, if there were atheists willing to swear oaths, that is, to bind themselves with their promises to abide by the rules of Civil Society, they might be tolerated, but for Locke, as for his contemporaries, it was inconceivable that people who did not believe in God might be so bound. Nor, according to Locke, ought the Civil Magistrate to tolerate those dedicated to the destruction of the Civil Society or to Morals. Toleration would not be a virtue if it led to the downfall of the State, which, in effect, Locke was reassuring his friend it would not. What mattered was the freedom to worship God according to the dictates of one's conscience while at the same time enjoying Liberty, earthly Possessions, and Life.


As we like to say at the University of Chicago, so what? Well, it all depends on what kind of society we want to live in. Thanks to Protestants like Locke, the Founders of our country were convinced that the way people worship God should not be a matter for the State, although their descendants in the nineteenth century had problems with accepting Catholics as fellow Christians, whom they feared were beholden to a foreign prince (the pope). (If you doubt me, see Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.) The real question is what to do with those who do not see the State in the same terms, as a protector of property rights and liberty (which Marxists reject) or as distinct from the Church (which, according to their own ideals, many Muslims do not). Locke, being Christian, was able to conceive of a society in which the Church (what is God's) remained distinct from the State (what is Caesar's). Do we really want to live in a society in which there is only the State (Marxism) or in which the Church and the State are one (Islam)? If the answer to either of these options is no, as I suspect for most Americans it is, then how do we deal with those in our State who would choose the State alone, abolishing both property rights and liberty, or conversely who would identify the State with the Church, such that the law of the Church would be identical with the law of the land?

Popular posts from this blog

Talking Points: Three Cheers for White Men

How to Signal You Are Not a White Supremacist

RFB Meets EMJ and OBS

Why I Love Milo

Joking Matters