Locke on tolerance

British writer William Rees-Mogg writes about John Locke’s first major publication, “A Letter on Toleration” (1690), and summing it up like this: “The world ought to be more tolerant but some things remain intolerable.” Locke, who was writing specifically about tolerance of other churches under the British state church, advocated “absolute liberty,” especially in matters of religion. And yet, he made an exception for “opinions contrary to human society, such as manifestly undermine the foundations of society”.

Locke did not believe that governments could always tolerate “opinions contrary to human society, such as manifestly undermine the foundations of society”. It is not clear what Locke had specifically in mind, but terrorism would surely be covered. In the 20th century both Nazism and Leninism were “opinions contrary to human society” in this sense — they were simply intolerable.

He also warned against trying to tolerate certain doctrines that 17th-century Protestants attributed to the Jesuits. These included the teaching that “faith is not to be kept with heretics”, and that “kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms”. Locke thought that “a Church has no right to be tolerated” whose members have to obey a foreign prince because that would mean that the ruler allowed “his own people to be listed, as it were, as soldiers against his own Government”.

Seventeenth-century Islam was included in the criticism. “It is ridiculous for anyone to profess himself to be a Mohametan (sic) only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, while at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor.” Fortunately, the Papacy no longer claims the right to excommunicate and depose monarchs, there is no Ottoman Emperor, and if there still is a Mufti of Constantinople he certainly has no universal authority in Islam. But Osama bin Laden really is a dangerous man who does claim obedience of his followers.

Modern liberals may be shocked at John Locke’s final exception to the rule of toleration. “Lastly,” he writes, “those are not 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 taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all.”

We’re just talking about Locke here. Certainly the American constitution, rightly, goes much further than he would in allowing for all religions and no religions. But still, he makes an interesting distinction between religions that uphold social order and those that undermine social order.

HT: Robert Kimball

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    “opinions contrary to human society”: Who makes the call? At some stage, nearly every religious / philosophical concept/message was contrary to human society.

  • http://www.scyldingsinthemeadhall.blogspot.com The Scylding

    “opinions contrary to human society”: Who makes the call? At some stage, nearly every religious / philosophical concept/message was contrary to human society.

  • Anon

    I don’t think our Constitution goes further than Locke. ‘Religion’ meant Christianity to the framers. Likewise when they wrote and twice made the Northwest Ordinance into law, so that there might be colleges and universities that would “teach the useful arts, and religion”

    There was special toleration of Jews, the common view was that America was also a chosen nation, as one popular song of the War of Independence had it “Abraham’s Daughter”, but not beyond that.

    There are works that show that Locke was re-presenting Rev. Samuel Rutherford’s _Lex, Rex_ of 1644 to his contemporary Europe. That work is the culmination of Christian political thinking through at least the American revolution – and Jefferson and the other writers of the Declaration of Independence plagiarized from that book in the Declaration of Independence – it wasn’t considered plagiarism in those days.

    I suspect that Locke was thinking of something more like the Edict of Nantes, where there was religious freedom for all denominations that held to the Bible and the three ecumenical creeds, were loyal to lawful governments, didn’t practice polygamy, communism, etc, which some sects, attempting to start Christianity over from scratch – but lacking learning – did try briefly in different places. For Europe that was *radical* for modern America, it would be misperceived as tyranny, even though it was the common view of nearly all Americans less than a generation ago.

  • Anon

    I don’t think our Constitution goes further than Locke. ‘Religion’ meant Christianity to the framers. Likewise when they wrote and twice made the Northwest Ordinance into law, so that there might be colleges and universities that would “teach the useful arts, and religion”

    There was special toleration of Jews, the common view was that America was also a chosen nation, as one popular song of the War of Independence had it “Abraham’s Daughter”, but not beyond that.

    There are works that show that Locke was re-presenting Rev. Samuel Rutherford’s _Lex, Rex_ of 1644 to his contemporary Europe. That work is the culmination of Christian political thinking through at least the American revolution – and Jefferson and the other writers of the Declaration of Independence plagiarized from that book in the Declaration of Independence – it wasn’t considered plagiarism in those days.

    I suspect that Locke was thinking of something more like the Edict of Nantes, where there was religious freedom for all denominations that held to the Bible and the three ecumenical creeds, were loyal to lawful governments, didn’t practice polygamy, communism, etc, which some sects, attempting to start Christianity over from scratch – but lacking learning – did try briefly in different places. For Europe that was *radical* for modern America, it would be misperceived as tyranny, even though it was the common view of nearly all Americans less than a generation ago.

  • fw

    some points …

    (1) the stoics and aristotle are proof that even pagans can approximate very closely ALL the moral ingredients necessary to have a just society.

    (2) Civic morality therefore can be circumcribed in the second table of the law (that part that regulates our relation to our neighbor as opposed to the first table that deals with our relation with God. Not that for me as a christian these are ever to be separated…)

    (3) consequently all civil laws must be based on rational arguments that can be made in the absence of “God said, therefore…” “Do no harm” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “love your neighbor as yourself” are the basic foundations for the logic here……

    (4) Living now here in Brasil, I am increasingly impressed by the foundations of the american founding. Lately I am impressed by the concept of being ruled by laws (republican government) as opposed to being ruled by men (democratic government).

    To wit, I am troubled by partisans who talk about trusting the bush administration as to the use of torture and guantanamo, and who don´t see in all of this a nasty and precident setting push away from the rule of law in favor of the situation ethics of tecnicalities such as guantanamo being not U.S. Soil, and the idea that constitutional law and rights should be applied differently depending on location (in the usa or not?) or citizenship.

    Here when I had a building code dispute with a remodel, I asked where I could go to read the codes and laws for my own self. I am still asking. Fundamental to the rule of law are that there are no secret laws. that everyone gets to see the laws in print in advance. Implied in this is that the laws will not be changed to fit changing constituencies and circumstances, but rather that laws will be formulated based on logical fairness and then be applied INdescriminately with no respect to person, and with the judicial descretion of mercy depending on circumstance. In the law, voltaire is right… perfection is the enemy of the good. Mercy is what makes the law become justice and not just an eye for an eye.

  • fw

    some points …

    (1) the stoics and aristotle are proof that even pagans can approximate very closely ALL the moral ingredients necessary to have a just society.

    (2) Civic morality therefore can be circumcribed in the second table of the law (that part that regulates our relation to our neighbor as opposed to the first table that deals with our relation with God. Not that for me as a christian these are ever to be separated…)

    (3) consequently all civil laws must be based on rational arguments that can be made in the absence of “God said, therefore…” “Do no harm” and “do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “love your neighbor as yourself” are the basic foundations for the logic here……

    (4) Living now here in Brasil, I am increasingly impressed by the foundations of the american founding. Lately I am impressed by the concept of being ruled by laws (republican government) as opposed to being ruled by men (democratic government).

    To wit, I am troubled by partisans who talk about trusting the bush administration as to the use of torture and guantanamo, and who don´t see in all of this a nasty and precident setting push away from the rule of law in favor of the situation ethics of tecnicalities such as guantanamo being not U.S. Soil, and the idea that constitutional law and rights should be applied differently depending on location (in the usa or not?) or citizenship.

    Here when I had a building code dispute with a remodel, I asked where I could go to read the codes and laws for my own self. I am still asking. Fundamental to the rule of law are that there are no secret laws. that everyone gets to see the laws in print in advance. Implied in this is that the laws will not be changed to fit changing constituencies and circumstances, but rather that laws will be formulated based on logical fairness and then be applied INdescriminately with no respect to person, and with the judicial descretion of mercy depending on circumstance. In the law, voltaire is right… perfection is the enemy of the good. Mercy is what makes the law become justice and not just an eye for an eye.

  • fw

    we do not live in John Locke´s world. Christians are in the minority now.

    It is short sighted to push for abortion laws, laws about marriage and homosexuality and such based on “god says it is wrong.”

    Christians could greatly cement a secure future as a minority and at the same time produce a civil good by educating the world at large on the virtues of “rule by law.” “rule by law” (as opposed to “rule by men” is a concept that I am convinced ONLY could have come about in a christian context. But it is ideal for creating a society that is just and allows for a christian minority to flourish and thrive.

  • fw

    we do not live in John Locke´s world. Christians are in the minority now.

    It is short sighted to push for abortion laws, laws about marriage and homosexuality and such based on “god says it is wrong.”

    Christians could greatly cement a secure future as a minority and at the same time produce a civil good by educating the world at large on the virtues of “rule by law.” “rule by law” (as opposed to “rule by men” is a concept that I am convinced ONLY could have come about in a christian context. But it is ideal for creating a society that is just and allows for a christian minority to flourish and thrive.

  • Michael the little boot

    fw,

    Could you clarify what you mean when you say “Christians are in the minority now”?

  • Michael the little boot

    fw,

    Could you clarify what you mean when you say “Christians are in the minority now”?

  • fw

    #5 ah michael you caught me maybe…

    I think that i mean that the christian set of presuppositions , both social ones and religious ones are no longer assumed, without much thought, to be the defacto norm.

    I am not saying that the usa was ever a christian nation in the sense that a fundamentalist would mean it.

    and I guess I am not really sure what I would think of someone saying that christians were ever really in the majority in the usa…

    I guess I am floating the thought that we are living in a post christian era really.

  • fw

    #5 ah michael you caught me maybe…

    I think that i mean that the christian set of presuppositions , both social ones and religious ones are no longer assumed, without much thought, to be the defacto norm.

    I am not saying that the usa was ever a christian nation in the sense that a fundamentalist would mean it.

    and I guess I am not really sure what I would think of someone saying that christians were ever really in the majority in the usa…

    I guess I am floating the thought that we are living in a post christian era really.

  • Michael the little boot

    fw,

    I like that. “Post-christian era.” I think it communicates what you’re trying to say more clearly.

    Sorry, though. I wasn’t trying to catch you! :)

  • Michael the little boot

    fw,

    I like that. “Post-christian era.” I think it communicates what you’re trying to say more clearly.

    Sorry, though. I wasn’t trying to catch you! :)


CLOSE | X

HIDE | X