John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration”: Begging the Question?

I promised in yesterday’s Great Books Monday post that I would make a separate post dealing with Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration.” I’d like to get other people’s feedback on this piece because I’m still sorting through my own thoughts; last week was the first time I’d ever read the essay in its entirety.

As in some of his other writings, Locke makes persuasive, maybe even compelling, arguments from definitions and first principles in the “Letter Concerning Toleration.” However, his definitions and first principles present certain problems, and if one doesn’t accept them as legitimate, it seems to me that his entire argument collapses.

Take, for instance, Locke’s definitions of “commonwealth” and “church.” Locke says of the former:

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.

Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

Then a bit later, we find this statement:

A church, then, I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshipping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.

If you accept these definitions, then the rest of Locke’s argument will look great. The State has nothing to do with spiritual things, and the church has nothing to do with material things, ergo no civil penalties should ever be levied on anyone because of religious practice. (For the sake of simplicity, we’ll stay within the bounds of Locke’s arguments, even though he leaves open the possibility of penalties against atheists and “intolerant” faiths.)

Here’s my problem, though: at a minimum, it’s arguable whether such definitions of church and state can be legitimately derived from either scripture or the pre-Enlightenment history of the West (or the history of any other civilization, for that matter). Apart from a few Anabaptists, who would have accepted these definitions as late as 1600? No one in England, as far as I can tell.

Locke defends these definitions, but not at any great length, and I doubt anyone not already of his opinion would have been persuaded by them.

Of course, Locke makes many sound points in the essay, such as when he expresses skepticism that religious persecution is really motivated by concern for the souls of the persecuted people. (He fails to address the argument that persecution might be necessary to stop heresy from spreading, though.) And my discussion above doesn’t mean that I don’t believe in toleration or that I think there are no good arguments for it. It just seems to me that Locke has not provided the bulletproof case for it many people seem to assume he has.

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About Dr. J

I am an Associate Professor and head of the Department of Humanities at Faulkner University. I am also Associate Editor of the Journal of Faith and the Academy.
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4 Responses to John Locke’s “Letter Concerning Toleration”: Begging the Question?

  1. Fred Jewell says:

    The definitions of both commonwealth, or at least the civil interests it exists to promote/protect, and church seem both too broad and too limited. Do we need civil society (the state) to promote “indolency of the body?” Does “health” include anything beyond a physiological dimension?
    While some churches, even [or especially] today, seem to have little purpose beyond public worship, many others have much broader goals involving evangelism, benevolence, education, social reform, just for starters.
    Like you, I can think of no examples from antiquity until the totalitarian regimes of the 20th century where “church” and “state” were not extensively comingled.

  2. Pingback: John Locke and Dr. J on Research on Religion | The Western Tradition

  3. Trent Benedetti says:

    It seems like the two paths the US took – one from the Enlightenment age and one from the Church are clearly separate in Lockes common wealth and church statements. However, any basic understanding of theology would argue that the church was to be involved in society.
    Matthew 5:13-16:
    You are the salt of the earth; but if the salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? … You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid… Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.
    Today the secular society progressives would like to have the church follow Lockes definition of worship as in “freedom of worship” versus “the free exercise thereof” – that is of religion.
    It is an interesting “dance” society plays over the centuries – as I am learning from Dr. J’s Western Civ lessons on LibertyClassroom.com – between secular/pagan society and christianity or practice of religion as an influencing agent in society.

    • Dr. J says:

      Trent, I recently listened to a Cato podcast in which the “freedom of worship” vs. “free exercise of religion” was discussed. The speaker echoed your point about how the Left is attempting to restrict the influence of religion to houses of worship (unless, of course, the religious influence leads to support of a progressive policy agenda).

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