Joseph Loconte is associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York City. His latest book, God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West, framed this discussion. David George Moore who blogs at www.twocities.org conducted the interview.
Moore: Give us a quick overview of your book.
Loconte: The book argues that the single most important defense of religious freedom in the West—John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689)—was not a result of Enlightenment skepticism toward religion. Rather, Locke drew inspiration from an earlier Christian reform movement, the Christian humanist tradition of Erasmus of Rotterdam. Like no thinker before him, Locke reconceived religious diversity as a source of social and political stability. He dared to imagine how a more generous approach to Christian faith, modeled on the teaching and example of Jesus, could establish religious liberty as a cultural and political norm. Drawing deeply on the doctrines and ideals of the Christian humanists—including the universal capacity of reason, the idea of mutual charity in matters of conscience, and the importance of genuine piety—Locke’s Letter laid the foundation for a more just and tolerant society.
Moore: Erasmus figures prominently in your book, and you lead in with a quote from him. I want to hone in on the last two lines of that quote: “It is no great feat to burn a little man. It is a great achievement to persuade him.” Why did you include that quote, and how can we Christians do a better job of gentle persuasion with those who differ with us?
Loconte: Erasmus never articulated a formal theory of religious freedom. But as a believing Catholic he condemned the violent and dogmatic temper of Catholic authorities as a disgrace to the gospel of Christ. Throughout his writings he emphasized the need for dialogue and civil debate in the pursuit of truth. Erasmus denied the idea that coercion and violence could produce authentic faith. He believed that every person was responsible (and able) to seek and embrace the truths necessary for Christian salvation and for a life honoring to God. This helps explain his passion for translating the Bible into languages more accessible to the layman—something considered scandalous in his own day.
Like Erasmus, we should think first about how the teaching and example of Jesus should guide us as we interact with people of different faiths, or of no faith. How did Jesus respond to intense opposition to his message? He didn’t shy away from proclaiming the truths of the kingdom of heaven, but he invited everyone within earshot—without exception—to engage with him over the big questions of life and death, mercy and judgment, etc. Erasmus took people seriously: he treated them with deep respect, as if they really did bear the image of God. And he was confident that, through reason and persuasion, God’s truth was capable of finding its way into the hearts and minds of the people with whom he disagreed.
Moore: While reading your terrific book, I kept saying, “Why isn’t Locke better known among Christians?” Sure we have some vague sense of Locke’s influence on our founding fathers, but on the subject of religious tolerance we hardly ever hear his name. Two possible reasons came to me for why Locke is not well known among American Christians: Yes, he had a big impact on the founding fathers, but they end up getting most the attention. After all, they are Americans and he was English! Also, it seems that Locke’s less dogmatic spirit towards Christian doctrine might cause many Christian to conclude he is not orthodox enough to be one of our heroes. Would you respond to my speculations?
Loconte: Yes, as Americans, conscious of our revolutionary break from Great Britain, we tend to assume that the Founders repudiated all things British. But that’s of course nonsense: colonial Americans condemned the English Crown because they believed their natural rights as Englishmen were being violated. The more you study British history—especially the contributions of Locke to political and religious freedom—the more you see the immense intellectual and spiritual debt we owe to Locke and his allies. Madison and Jefferson were acutely conscious of this debt. So were America’s Protestant ministers, who quoted him often in their revolutionary sermons.
It’s true that many Christians today are dubious about Locke’s commitment to Christianity. I believe that they have been misled by the liberal, secular narrative that has tried to transform Locke into an Enlightenment skeptic. Secularists cannot bring themselves to believe that toleration and freedom of conscience grew from the soil of Protestant Christianity, which was so important to the birth of the American model of liberal democracy. They want to secularize the American Founding, which means they must secularize Locke, since his influence on the Founders was so profound. But no intellectually honest reading of Locke’s writings—his books, tracts, letters, and journals—can leave any doubt about his essentially Christian beliefs.
Moore: Pride causes us to believe it is easier to corral more truth than we really can. In what ways does Locke’s emphasis on “theological humility” offer a better way forward?
Loconte: I think this is one of the most important features of Locke’s thinking about religious freedom. Religious zealots naturally accuse Locke of being a doubter because he wanted a less dogmatic approach to Christianity (in his own day he was accused of atheism). We must never abandon or water down those truths and doctrines essential to the faith. But many of the most grievous episodes in the history of Christianity were caused by disagreements over church teachings and doctrines that could not possibly be considered essential by Christ Himself. In this sense, Locke’s awareness of human frailty—of our inclination to confuse our own ambitions or prejudices with God’s truth—is one of the most neglected aspects of his thinking. Put another way, Locke took the doctrine of the Fall of Man deadly seriously: we are often deeply mistaken in our beliefs. Locke began his famous Essay Concerning Human Understanding by insisting that his readers “sit down in a quiet ignorance of those things, which upon examination, are found to be beyond the reach of our capacities.” Here is a call for theological modesty in a very immodest age.
What Locke experienced in England and elsewhere in Europe is something to which we are all prone: The more we presume to know about the deep mysteries of God and the Bible, the more likely it is that we will throw up barriers between ourselves and those who can’t go along with us. I don’t think that divisions over religious belief are always bad—sometimes they are a tragic necessity. It takes wisdom and maturity to hold firmly to the truths that are essential, but to know when to relax our grip—to admit that on some questions we cannot claim the same level of confidence. It takes humility to make room in our thinking, and in our friendships, for people with very different views.
Locke’s theological humility also caused him to seek out truth from a great variety of sources: he believed that religious truth could be found outside the Bible and traditional Christian texts. Thus his personal library numbered over 3,600 volumes. He was willing to learn from any thinker who valued the search for truth and was committed to intellectual rigor, honesty, and charity.
Moore: As a new Christian I heard Major Ian Thomas say, “Not fasting, not Rom. 5-8, but Jesus is the key to the Christian life.” How does Locke’s emphasis on Jesus affect his view of religious toleration?
Loconte: Here we arrive at the moral center of Locke’s thinking on toleration and religious freedom. (Although Locke uses the word “toleration,” what he means by it is not grudging toleration of religious minorities, but rather what we in the West mean by full-bodied religious liberty.) One of Locke’s favorite verses in the Bible was Galatians 5:6: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” As Locke made the case in his Letter: “If the Gospel and the apostle may be credited, no man can be a Christian without charity, and without the faith which works, not by force, but by love.” Locke was delivering a moral rebuke to the entire church-state apparatus of coercion. In his view, it was a flat contradiction of the ethics of Jesus and the early Church.
Locke lived at a time when the public profession of faith mattered most; attendance in the “established” church was mandatory and the failure to comply was a criminal act. But for Locke, an authentic Christian life—characterized by compassion and humility toward all people—was infinitely more important than outward adherence to creeds or rituals. Indeed, he began his Letter by appealing to the life and teachings of Jesus, “the Captain of our Salvation,” who set the example of religious toleration in the way he won converts to his cause—through love, service, patience, and persuasion. Locke’s indignation and distress at how the militant church was defaming the character of Christ flows like a river of rage throughout his Letter. Remarkably, most Locke scholars completely ignore this aspect of his argument for religious liberty.
Moore: In one section of your book, my marginal note reads “Proximity and friendship with people who hold contrary views makes you more gracious.” I don’t mean to convey it waters down your convictions, but really getting to know those you differ with does make you more gracious. What can Locke teach us in this regard?
Loconte: Locke lived what he preached with regards to religious toleration. He was always forming or joining small associations of fellow thinkers and writers: men who met regularly to discuss and debate the most important philosophical, political, or religious questions of the day. From what we know of these associations, they brought together people from very different theological points of view. Locke was a vital part of one such group, called the Lantern, which he joined when he was in exile in Holland during the 1680s. When he returned to England after the Glorious Revolution, he received a letter from Benjamin Furly, one of the group’s founders and himself a Quaker (one of the most despised religious minorities in Europe): “All in the Lantern salute thee, and do regret thy absence.”
It’s worth asking ourselves, in our age of hyper-specialized media, etc., how we might be part of similar gatherings of truth-seekers, whatever their religious background.
Moore: Locke wanted religious toleration for all, except he believed atheists were not entitled to it? Briefly describe why, and what you think about his view.
Loconte: Locke was unequivocal: “Those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of God.” This seems to contradict Locke’s argument that beliefs considered erroneous (and virtually everyone in Locke’s day considered atheism an erroneous belief) would be overcome by a free exchange in the marketplace of ideas. Here it’s important to remember the historical context.
I think there were two main reasons why Locke denied toleration to atheists. First, Europe of the late seventeenth century was a profoundly oath-driven society. Oaths governed relationships in the family, in commerce and trade, in the church, the courts, and in Parliament. Social trust and cohesion depended upon people who could make pledges based on their fidelity to God, a Being who cannot lie. Thus, as Locke puts it in his Letter: “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bond of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist,” he writes. “The taking away of God, though even in thought, dissolves all.”
Second, Locke viewed atheism as a sign of irrationality, a consequence of intellectual sloth and sinful pride. That may come as a surprise to those who consider Locke the father of empiricism, but he makes this clear in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding. He argues that the majesty of the physical world plainly points to the existence of a Deity and he regards as “senselessly arrogant” those who imagine that man could be the product of a godless universe.
From our vantage point, it seems that Locke mistakenly assumed that atheists couldn’t or wouldn’t obey the Moral Law—the moral norms that inform the conscience of ordinary human beings—and thus presented a threat to civil and political life. I can’t agree with Locke’s conclusions about atheists as a class of citizens, or about the State affording them no toleration. But I think he was right that the political authority should not be neutral about the existence of God: it should tilt toward theism and uphold the natural rights tradition that is grounded in belief in God. Now, four centuries after Locke’s death, we are witnessing what happens to political and civil life when materialism and militant atheism begin to dominate the public square—and it’s not a pretty picture. “The taking away of God, though even in thought, dissolves all.” In an effort to enforce its own version of orthodoxy, an intolerant secularism seems prepared to establish a system of coercion as unjust and repressive as anything in the seventeenth century.
Moore: I suggest you get your publisher to release a mini book (~forty pages) where your most important insights can be distilled. It could be more widely dispensed and for a much cheaper cost. You owe me no cut of the royalties for the idea.
Loconte: I love this idea. I think during our own age of intolerance, fanaticism, and sectarian violence we need a more accessible biography of Locke, one that makes clear his indispensable contribution to the bedrock doctrine of liberal democracy: the rights of conscience in matters of faith. I’ll consult with my Committee as to your royalty rights.