Will the USA Come to Regret Trading Religious Tolerance for Rank Indifference?
John Locke, Freedom of Religion & America
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I. Who Was John Locke, Freedom’s Greatest Philosopher?
Englishman John Locke (1632—1704) is arguably our most influential modern thinker. He is regarded as the leading light of several signal movements, without which the modern era would be inconceivable, including—Classical Liberalism (aka modern Conservatism), Property Rights, the Enlightenment, Libertarianism, Empiricism, Natural Rights, and Freedom of Religion, etc.
Locke enjoyed notable friendships and debates with some of the leading figures of his day, including Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle, the 1st Lord Shaftesbury Ashley Cooper, etc. Locke was also deeply religious, considering himself a Christian, and undertaking a lifelong study of theology and biblical commentary. One author describes his influence:
John Locke was a 17th-century English philosopher whose ideas formed the foundation of liberal democracy and greatly influenced the American Revolution. He taught all people are born equal and education can free people from the subjugation of tyranny. Locke believed government was morally obligated to guarantee individuals always retained sovereignty over their own rights, including property ownership resulting from their own labor.
A political player condemned by the Crown, Locke exiled himself to Europe until 1689, when he wrote his masterpiece, Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Locke returned to England after King James II fled and William was crowned William III (aka the Glorious Revolution). He then published his most important works, including A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Two Treatises on Government (1690) and Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693).
II. A Biblical Locke Creates Religious Freedom
John Locke was raised in a believing household and retained an appreciation for Puritan themes his entire life. Kim Ian Parker’s The Biblical Politics of John Locke describes his intense and lifelong fixation on holy writ. During an age of extreme religious passion and partisanship, John Locke came to his position of religious tolerance through much effort. It was not Locke’s initial reaction to the question of religious liberty, but a conclusion he assumed after much thought and exposure to other ideas, as well as real-life experience. The sources of Locke’s doctrine of religious tolerance are notable, and from at least six different sources. His was an age of extreme passion and opinion regarding religious belief, all of it centered on biblical debate.
A. Reverend John Owen
After Cromwell established the Protectorate, after the regicide, Locke came to Oxford and Christ Church under the careful eye of the incomparable theologian John Owen, greatest ever British divine. Here, Locke sat under many Owen sermons stressing the need for religious tolerance and the lack of compunction regarding religious conviction. So the first source of Locke’s inclination towards charity in religious belief was John Owen’s own tolerant convictions. Owen had himself reacted after seeing the horrors of the Siege of Drogheda and slaughter after Irish Catholics. These refused to bow the knee to the Protestant creed when Cromwell conquered Ireland. Owen was Cromwell’s personal minister and witnessed all this firsthand.
B. Stubbe—Essay in Defense of the Good Cause
Second, Locke’s former classmate, Henry Stubbe, wrote an essay titled Essay in Defense of the Good Old Cause (1659) which pleaded for religious tolerance. Parker writes, “Stubbe, like Owen, argued that since toleration of others was sanctioned in the Bible, one should not actively seek out heretics.” This appears to have met with some acceptance by Locke, although he was not in favor of granting tolerance to Catholics, whom he eyed suspiciously. The general British Protestant resistance to the Pope was symbolized by the infamous Guy Fawkes and the incredible Gunpowder Plot, meant to blow up Parliament and return a Catholic king to the English throne, a century before.
C. Bagshawe—The Great Question
Third, Edward Bagshawe likewise wrote a polemic in favor of religious toleration, The Great Question Concerning Things Indifferent in Religious Worship (1660), which influenced Locke’s opinion. Bagshawe’s argument was that where the Bible commanded behavior, the magistrate was well within his rights to enforce this. But where the Bible was silent, charity should be the model. Locke at first disagreed with Bagshawe, only later coming around to his way of thinking.
D. Tolerant Continental Congregations
Fourth, while in Brandenburg, Germany in 1665, Locke had encountered Lutheran, Catholic and Calvinist congregations who were models of tolerance of one another. This showed him that such tolerance was viable in a real-world example, and was quite attractive. He wrote to his close friend, the scientist Robert Boyle, about how the congregants and the city inhabitants…
...quietly permit one another to choose their way to heaven; and I cannot observe any quarrels or animosities amongst them upon the account of religion. This good correspondence is owing partly to the power of the magistrate, and partly the prudence and good nature of the people, who (as I find by enquiry) entertain different opinions, without any secret hatred or rancour.
E. Lord Shaftesbury
Fifth, Locke was lucky enough to become friendly with one of the most remarkable and influential men of the age—Robert Ashley Cooper, 1st Lord of Shaftesbury. After saving Cooper’s life with a timely liver procedure, Locke gradually became the seminal Whig’s most trusted adviser. Cooper became Lord Chancellor in Charles II’s court, and he commissioned Locke to advise on “civil and religious affairs.” During this period Locke composed his Essay on Toleration (1667-68), which claimed the sovereign’s role was simply… “for the good, preservation, and peace of men in society.” Further, the magistrate must not interfere with purely speculative matters, such as the nature of the “belief of the Trinity, purgatory, transubstantiation, antipodes, Christ’s personal reign on earth,” etc. But, Locke does not countenance tolerance for atheists. Further, Locke does recognize the Ten Commandments, but does not countenance the state enforcing the religious parts.
Sixth, Locke became a member of the congregation of Rev. Benjamin Whitcote. This influential minister was latitudinarian, meaning he espoused a minimalist creed, and emphasized the role of reason in faith. Latitudinarians emphasized following the law to please God. These themes were later developed in Locke’s treatise, The Reasonableness of Christianity.
Locke’s final position on the Bible was rational, whereas he disputed the existence of original sin, and argued that the key to Christian faith was belief in Jesus as the Messiah. Yet, the key interest of Locke’s entire life would appear to be biblical Christianity, which however heterodox never appears to be anything but a sincere belief in his own mind.
III. Founders Create Religious Freedom: Constitution, Bill of Rights & First Amendment
Certainly John Locke was a colossus to the Founders, and in terms of influence, he is the main influence on the Declaration, according to Michael P. Zuckert in Launching Liberalism, On Lockean Political Philosophy. John Locke’s tolerant view of religion was handed down to the colonies and Founders by the time of the Constitutional Convention. Further, the very idea of a law of laws, or Constitution, was a mainstay of Locke’s governmental theory. It is a secularization of the biblical covenant theory.
A. Fundamental Influences of the First Amendment
The First Amendment Religion Clause is the result of four separate influences, being Puritan, Evangelical, Enlightenment and Republican, according to John Witte in Religion and the American Constitutional Experiment. Further, Witte finds six principles of religious liberty common amongst them—liberty of conscience, free exercise of religion, religious pluralism, religious equality, separation of church and state, and disestablishment of religion.
B. Continental Congress & Religion
There is no doubt that America, during the time leading right up to the drafting of the Constitution, was an extremely pious and Christian society. During the Continental Congress in 1774, when the Founders met to discuss the worsening conditions with England, the group was led by Anglican ministers offering prayer for the undertaking. During this time was called for the first of its four-fast day proclamations:
“a day of publick humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that we may with united hearts and voices, unfeignedly confess and deplore our many sins”... that we may “be ever under the care and protection of a kind Providence and be prospered”; and “that virtue and true religion may revive and flourish throughout our land.”
On November 1, 1777 Congress proclaimed the first-ever Thanksgiving, the first overtly Trinitarian Christian statement was released:
It is therefore recommended to the legislative or executive powers of these United States, to set apart THURSDAY, the eighteenth day of December next, for SOLEMN THANKSGIVING and PRAISE. That at one time and with one voice the good people may express the grateful feelings of their hearts, and consecrate themselves to the service of their DIVINE BENEFACTOR, and that together with their sincere acknowledgements and offerings, they may join the penitent confession of their sins, whereby they had forfeited every favor, and their humble and earnest supplications that it may please God through the merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of remembrance. That it may please him graciously to afford his blessing on the governments of these states respectively, and prosper the PUBLIC COUNCIL of the whole. To inspire our Commanders, both by Land and Sea, and all under them, with that Wisdom and Fortitude which may render them fit Instruments, under the Providence of Almighty GOD, to secure for these United States, the greatest of all human Blessings, INDEPENDENCE and PEACE: That it may please him, to prosper the Trade and Manufactures of the People, and the Labor of the Husbandman, that our Land may yield its Increase: To take Schools and Seminaries of Education, so necessary for cultivating the Principles of true Liberty, Virtue and Piety, under his nurturing Hand; and to prosper the Means of Religion, for the promotion and enlargement of that Kingdom, which consisteth “in Righteousness, Peace and Joy in the Holy Ghost.
And it is further recommended, That servile Labor, and such Recreation, as, though at other Times innocent, may be unbecoming the Purpose of this Appointment, be omitted on so solemn an Occasion.’‘
C. Revolutionary War Bibles
On September 11, 1777—during the Revolutionary War, Congress voted to import 20,000 Bibles for distribution in the new States. Afterward, the Congress endorsed a privately printed version of holy writ.
D. Continental Convention & Religious Liberty
The 1787 Continental Convention did not address much the issues of Christian liberty, but only since it was assumed the States themselves were the only proper venue to address the topic, according to Witte. There was no federal provision yet to tackle the subject, but eleven of the thirteen States had already created explicit protections for religious liberty. During the terse debates, an exasperated Benjamin Franklin asked for opening prayers but was rebuffed. He countered with a general admonition and prayer:
In this Situation of this Assembly, groping, as it were, in the dark, to find Political Truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not, hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our Understandings? In the Beginning of the Contest with Britain, when we were sensible of Danger, we had daily Prayers in this Room for the Divine Protection! Our Prayers, Sir, were heard; and they were graciously answered. All of us, who were engag’d in the Struggle, must have observ’d frequent Instances of a Superintending Providence in our Favour. To that kind Providence we owe this happy Opportunity of Consulting in Peace on the Means of establishing our future national Felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need its Assistance? I have lived, Sir, a long time; and the longer I live, the more convincing Proofs I see of this Truth, That GOD governs in the Affairs of Men! And if a Sparrow cannot fall to the Ground without his Notice, is it probable that an Empire can rise without his Aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local Interests, our Projects will be confounded and we ourselves shall become a Reproach and a Byeword down to future Ages. And what is worse, Mankind may hereafter, from this unfortunate Instance, despair of establishing Government by human Wisdom, and leave it to Chance, War and Conquest. I therefore beg leave to move.
That henceforth Prayers, imploring the Assistance of Heaven, and its Blessing on our Deliberations, be held in this Assembly every Morning before we proceed to Business; and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that Service.
The Constitutional Convention unanimously passed the Constitutional draft on September 28th, 1787, and as the ninth state passed it, ratified it for the nation on July 2, 1788. But no Bill of Rights was included, which caused some consternation.
E. Bill of Rights
According to Leonard Levy, in Origins of the Bill of Rights, goaded by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison studied all the State’s Bills of Rights and chose what he thought best, and then the House select committee decided on the language. According to Witte, 20 different texts were offered before the final version of the 1st Amendment was chosen, which offered no clear-cut, single meaning. The language of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause reads thus:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…
Certainly the American Founders were influenced greatly by John Locke, especially upon religious liberty. Obviously this helped make a more sedate, and therefore prosperous society upon peace. Yet, one can now only wonder what the future holds as Americans trade tolerance for shameful, pagan indifference—in this once most pious of all nations?