Locke’s Doctrine of Toleration: A Contract with Nothingness (Part II)

by Jeffrey Bond

Today we present the second installment of an essay on John Locke’s doctrine of toleration.  The first part can be found here.  An earlier version of this essay appeared in A Letter from the Romans, the Newsletter of the Roman Forum and the Dietrich von Hildebrand Institute, February, 1999, No. 4.


Having briefly reconstructed the orthodox Catholic teaching on toleration, both dogmatic and practical, we are now in a better position to consider Locke’s arguments for toleration in his Letter.  Locke’s professed reason for promoting toleration is the same as that given by proponents of toleration today:  he wishes to establish peace in civil society by putting an end to men persecuting and even killing one another over religious differences.  We see immediately, then, that Locke’s promotion of toleration is consistent with what he identifies as the purpose of the social contract as outlined in his Second Treatise.  Man voluntarily leaves the state of nature and enters into civil society to protect his life, his liberty, and his property from invasion by others.  Locke teaches that the very purpose and justification for civil society consist in this alone:  to ensure a life of comfortable self-preservation.  Thus, Locke defines the commonwealth as “a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests,” and he carefully restricts these civil interests to “life, liberty, health, and indolency of the body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.”  In fact, Locke expressly asserts that the jurisdiction of the magistrate, who in Lockean society possesses the legislative power, “neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls” (p. 172).  Locke rejects not only the Platonic and Aristotelian teaching that politics is the architectonic art the business of which is the care of souls, but also the Catholic Church’s perfection of that teaching, which holds that politics, while remaining autonomous in its own realm, must nevertheless be subordinate to the higher principles revealed by the Catholic Faith.

Having so narrowly limited the business of government to that which pertains to the body alone, it becomes an easy task for Locke to accomplish what he sets forth as his goal in the Letter:

I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion, and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.  If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interest in men’s souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth (p. 171).

We are not surprised, then, when Locke informs us that, “the church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth.  The boundaries on both sides are fixed and immovable.”  Moreover, Locke asserts that the church and commonwealth “are in their origin, end, business, and in everything perfectly distinct and infinitely different from each other” (p. 184).

By insisting that the line between church and state is absolute, Locke attempts to put two traditional notions to rest:  first, that religious purposes are served by civil authority; and second, that civil interests are served by the public support of religion.  In order to undermine this traditional Catholic teaching on the mutual reciprocity between the Church and the state, Locke uses two sets of parallel arguments:  the first set is dependent upon his understanding of religion, which is generically Christian, but specifically Protestant; and the second set is dependent upon Locke’s understanding of the nature of civil society.  Having already defined the commonwealth in such a way as to limit it strictly to matters pertaining to the body, Locke then defines a church in such a way as to limit it strictly to matters pertaining to the soul:

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 a manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls (p. 175, emphasis added).

As Locke’s subjective language makes clear, his definition is clearly Protestant, emphasizing as it does the private judgment of the church members as to what is and is not acceptable to God.  Furthermore, Locke’s definition of a church emphasizes the freedom to join, not the content of what the church believes.  Note, however, that the freedom Locke grants to individuals to define what is acceptable to God, as well as the freedom to join or leave any church without physical coercion, does not include the freedom to extend their religious concerns into the affairs of the body politic.  Locke insists that civil authority may not be assisted by religion in any way, nor may religion be served by an intervention of the civil authority.  He rejects the idea of legal imposition of religion; instead, he carefully limits the legally permissible scope of religious activity so that conflicts will not arise.  In this way, Locke attempts to establish civil peace by effectively banning religion from the body politic, as if men’s souls were not merely distinguished notionally from their bodies, but were somehow completely separate in reality itself.  By treating the soul and body as abstractions, as if a human being were two distinct things instead of one, Locke is able to make a radical separation in principle between church and state.  In language made familiar to Americans through the First Amendment to the Constitution, Locke insists that the laws may neither establish nor forbid any articles of faith or forms of worship.

There is, of course, a problem with Locke’s insistence on the absolute separation of church and state.  Although he neatly divides reality into two completely distinct worlds, nevertheless man’s civil and religious interests, just as a man’s body and soul, must still live together in the same place.  Clearly, then, some relationship between them must exist, and therefore Locke is compelled to consider more specific rules to govern possible conflicts.  The principle he enunciates is as follows:  the magistrate can forbid anything that endangers the civil interests of the commonwealth, whether it occurs in a church or not.  Thus, whatever the magistrate can lawfully forbid in the public realm he can also forbid in the private realm if it has practical consequences adverse to civil interests.  For example, if it is unlawful to kill infants in secular life, then it can also be forbidden in a church, even if that particular church claims such killing as part of what they believe is owed to God.  Hence, according to Locke, the magistrate is not actually forbidding a religious sacrifice; it is the slaughter of children that is forbidden.  The magistrate, since he cannot concern himself with the good of souls, cannot forbid something because it is a “bad” religious practice, but only because it is a bad political practice.

But what is to be done if the magistrate, while operating within his legitimate authority, violates a man’s religious conscience?  Locke states that anyone is free to break a law that violates his conscience, but he must suffer the punishment for breaking that law.  If, however, the magistrate acts outside of the law, then there is no obligation to obey him.  Locke’s position is thus summarized as follows:  there is no legitimate civil law that has a specifically religious purpose; and the individual has no exemption from legitimate civil law on religious grounds.  There can be no doubt, then, that Locke’s separation of church and state is heavily weighted in favor of the state.  In addition, the state, in principle, makes no distinctions between true and false religion in deciding what religious doctrines it will or will not suppress.  Locke writes the following:

Further, the magistrate ought not to forbid the preaching or profession of any speculative opinions in any church, because they have no manner of relation to the civil rights of the subjects.  If a Roman Catholic believe that to be really the body of Christ, which another man calls bread, he does not injury to his neighbor. . . I readily grant that these opinions are false and absurd.  But the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth, and of every particular man’s good and person (p. 205).

Locke is apparently willing to tolerate this central Catholic doctrine concerning the Eucharist—even while he ridicules its content—but he refuses to tolerate Catholic opinions in practical matters, as we shall soon see.  The reason for Locke’s intolerance in non-speculative matters becomes clear when he finally admits that the boundaries between the church and the state are not as “fixed and immovable” as he had initially claimed.  He now acknowledges that there is in fact a meeting point between the church and the state:

The good life, in which consists not the least part of religion and true piety, concerns also the civil government; and in it lies the safety both of men’s souls and of the commonwealth.  Moral actions belong, therefore, to the jurisdiction both of the outward and inward court; both of the civil and the domestic governor; I mean both of the magistrate and the conscience.  Here, therefore, is great danger, lest one of these jurisdictions intrench upon the other, and discord arise between the keeper of the public peace and the overseers of souls.  But if what has been already said concerning the limits of both these governments be rightly considered, it will easily remove all difficulty in this matter (pp. 205-206).

While admitting the “great danger” of conflict with respect to the realm of moral actions, Locke is confident that invasions by one jurisdiction into another will be rare, presumably because men in Lockeland will prefer their civil interests to religious ones.  With self-interest having been liberated by means of the narrowing of civil interests to bodily concerns alone, Lockean men can be counted on to choose their own comfortable self-preservation rather than risk the possible loss of life, liberty, and property for the sake of their private religious beliefs.  Therefore, despite Locke’s sudden concern for the “good life,” he is manifestly not reverting to the classical and medieval teaching that promotes virtue for its own sake as the proper political end for man.  After all, Locke has so arranged matters that the state and church have an interest in moral actions for very different reasons.  Lockean morality is not for the sake of virtue or for the salvation of souls, but rather for the sake of preserving property and a pleasant existence.  In sum, civil society has a legitimate interest in morality only insofar as it is concerned with protecting life, liberty, and property, but no further.

Like Hobbes and his followers, who initially banished all traditional moral education in favor of a new “scientific” analysis of humanity, but then rushed to assure us that moral education can be used to restrain the passions their systems have unleashed, Locke, too, finds himself looking to morality to prop up his social contract.  Modern man has every reason to fear this kind of moral education, for our age has seen it all too often in the form of re-education camps, gulags, mental hospitals, and the silencing of those who have embraced traditional morality.  Instead of the objectively good life being the purpose or end of civil society as it was for the ancients and the medievals, Locke seeks to use morality as a means to support his radically limited political ends.  If we keep this in mind, it is easy to understand why and when Locke sets limits to his doctrine of toleration which, in effect, subordinates the church to the state.  For example, because Lockean society is built upon the social contract, Locke is very concerned with men keeping their promises.  He therefore refuses to extend the right of toleration to atheists because their denial of the existence of God undermines civil society:  “Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon the atheist.  The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all” (pp. 212-213).  Although in the Second Treatise Locke suggests that enlightened self-interest—without any additional moral support—is sufficient to keep men true to their promises, here, in the Letter, Locke indicates that the social contract itself depends upon some religious belief.

Locke’s social contract, however, does not rely upon just any religious belief.  He seeks to promote only those beliefs that will support, and not challenge, the limited political ends which he has proposed.  Therefore, just as Locke refuses to tolerate atheists for their lack of belief, he is even more determined to suppress Catholicism for having the wrong religious beliefs, namely, those that undermine his doctrine of toleration.  Locke makes his case as follows:  “I say, 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” (p. 210).  Although Locke admits that examples of these kinds of opinions are rare in any church, he identifies another “more secret evil” which is more dangerous to the commonwealth.  This greater danger, Locke explains, is “when Men arrogate to themselves, and to those of their own sect, some peculiar prerogative covered over with a specious show of deceitful words, but in effect opposite to the civil right of the community” (pp. 210-211).  For example, although Locke notes that no sect openly teaches that princes may be dethroned by those who differ from them in religion, certain sects, he claims, say the same thing in other words:

What can be the meaning of their asserting that kings excommunicated forfeit their crowns and kingdoms?  It is evident that they thereby arrogate unto themselves the power of deposing kings, because they challenge the power of excommunication, as the peculiar right of their hierarchy.  That dominion is founded in grace is also an assertion by which those that maintain it do plainly lay claim to the possession of all things. . .  I say these have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate; as neither those that will not own and teach the duty of tolerating all men in matters of mere religion (p. 211).

 Although Locke does not mention the Catholic Church by name here, his attack upon certain distinguishing aspects of Catholic doctrine is unmistakable, such as the pope’s authority to excommunicate even kings.  Moreover, in his less famous An Essay on Toleration,[1] Locke writes that Catholics or “any similar group” should not be tolerated because “where they have power, they think themselves bound to deny it to others.”  Catholics, “who owe blind obedience to an infallible pope,” cannot be won over “either by indulgence or severity;” they are “irreconcilable enemies” both in regard to their “principles and interest.”  Catholics, Locke explains, are “like serpents” who can “never be prevailed on by kind usage to lay by their venom” (pp. 95, 96).  Thus, Catholicism ought not to be tolerated because it contains doctrines “absolutely destructive to society” (p. 92).  Locke even goes so far as to imply, by way of comparison to the brutal persecution of Catholics in Japan, that it would be prudent to employ a similar policy of suppression in England.  For although he generally counsels against persecution, since it often engenders compassion and esteem from those of different religions, Locke argues that this will not occur in the case of the persecution of Catholics who “are less apt to be pitied than others, because they receive no other usage than what the cruelty of their own principles and practices are known to deserve.”  After all, Catholics will not “be thought to be punished merely for their consciences” because they “own themselves at the same time the subjects of a foreign enemy prince” (p. 96).  In his Letter, Locke makes this same accusation against those who submit to a “foreign enemy prince,” by which title Locke clearly means the pope, and perhaps even the Prince of Peace, our Lord Himself:

That church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those that enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince.  For by this means the magistrate would give way to the settling of a foreign jurisdiction in his own country, and suffer his own people to be listed, as it were, for soldiers against his own Government.  Nor does the frivolous and fallacious distinction between the court and the church afford any remedy to this inconvenience, especially when both the one and the other are equally subject to the absolute authority of the same person, who has not only power to persuade the members of his church to whatsoever he lists, either as purely religious, or in order thereunto, but can also enjoin it them on pain of eternal fire (p. 212).

Because Catholicism will not and cannot teach Locke’s doctrine of dogmatic toleration, and because Catholics submit to the pope and ultimately to Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, Catholicism cannot be granted the right of toleration by the magistrate.  As was evident from the beginning, Catholicism is Locke’s mortal enemy.  Note, however, that Locke rejects the primacy of the pope not on theological or religious grounds, but because the papacy allegedly undermines civil society.  Earlier in the Letter, Locke directly challenges the Catholic doctrine of apostolic succession, but his argument is weak in the extreme.  Consider his response to those who would insist that the true church must have a bishop “with ruling authority derived from the very apostles:”

To these I answer:  In the first place, let them show me the edict by which Christ has imposed that law upon his church.  And let not any man think me impertinent, if in a thing of this consequence I require that the terms of that edict be very express and positive; for the promise He has made us [Matthew 18:20], that wheresoever two or three are gathered together in His name, he will be in the midst of them, seems to imply the contrary.  Whether such an assembly want anything necessary to a true church, pray do you consider.  Certain I am that nothing can there be wanting unto the salvation of souls, which is sufficient to our purpose (pp. 176-177, emphasis added).

Certainly the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura is lurking behind Locke’s response, to say nothing of his explicit reliance upon private judgment and individual certitude.  The only support Locke gives for his position is to quote a single passage from Matthew, all the while ignoring the more determinate passage two chapters earlier where our Lord explicitly founds His Church on the Rock which is Peter (Matthew 16:18).  Locke shows little interest in pursuing the all-important question of church authority; and if we consider the context of the passage Locke does cite (Matthew 18:15-20), we see that when our Lord says “wheresoever two or three are gathered in My name,” His words presuppose that the two or three are already in His Church, which Matthew records our Lord as having established two chapters earlier.  In other words, two or three men coming together in His name does not definitively found a church, because Christ established His Church on Peter; but whenever those who are already in His Church gather in His Name, our Lord says He will be with them.

Locke likewise does not pursue the question of how Scripture is to be interpreted with any genuine concern, for he immediately falls back on the subjectivity of all interpretation.  He writes as follows:

But since men are so solicitous about the true church, I would only ask them here, by the way, if it be not more agreeable to the church of Christ to make the conditions of her communion consist in such things, and such things only, as the Holy Spirit has in the Holy Scriptures declared, in express words, to be necessary to salvation; I ask, I say, whether this be not more agreeable to the church of Christ than for men to impose their own inventions and interpretations upon others as if they were of Divine authority, and to establish by ecclesiastical laws, as absolutely necessary to the profession of Christianity, such things as the Holy Scriptures do either not mention or at least do not expressly command?  Whosoever requires those things in order to ecclesiastical communion, which Christ does not require in order to life eternal, he may, perhaps, indeed constitute a society accommodated to his own opinion and his own advantage; but how that can be called the church of Christ which is established upon laws that are not His, and which excludes such persons from its communion as He will one day receive into the Kingdom of Heaven, I understand not (pp. 177-178).

If there is no living authority established by God to interpret even the “express words” of Holy Scripture, then each man logically becomes the ultimate authority for himself.  There is something deeply ironic about the fact that Locke—in the very place where he presents himself as somehow knowing the mind of the Holy Spirit, the true laws of the church of Christ, and who will and who will not be saved—criticizes the pope for allegedly manipulating the church of Christ to accommodate his own opinion and his own advantage.  Finally, Locke shows the disingenuous nature of his inquiry into these fundamental theological matters when he writes at the conclusion of the passage quoted above that this is “not a proper place to inquire into the marks of the true church” (p. 178).  Since Locke began his Letter by setting forth toleration as the chief characteristic mark of the true Church, his comment must be seen as ironic.  At the same time, Locke’s comment points to the very heart of his doctrine of toleration because it indicates that theological debates of this kind are precisely what he wishes to eliminate by convincing men to adopt dogmatic toleration.  All claims to orthodoxy, as Locke has already insisted, are just pretenses to seeking power.  Rather than engage in frivolous and fruitless speculations, then, Locke invites his readers to accept the true church’s sole article of faith, namely, that this is no objective knowledge of a divine order.

(Continued in Part III . . . )


[1] All quotations from Locke’s An Essay on Toleration are from Viano, C., ed., “An Essay on Toleration,” in John Locke: Scritti editi e inediti sulla toleranza (Einaudi, 1961).