John Perry on “The Pretenses of Loyalty”


The book began with my conviction that the theology and philosophy of the early modern period is especially important for understanding Christian ethics today. It’s needed for us to figure out “how we got to where we are in our thinking,” as Nick Wolterstorff once put it. It is thus a hinge point on which subsequent church history turns. This is especially the case because it was in this period that there first emerged the plurality of moral languages that we now call pluralism, but which was originally a collection of writers (mostly Christian) casting about for a way to best express questions that had become pressing in their time.

When I’ve previously been asked to comment on The Pretenses of Loyalty, I’ve felt bound to offer general summaries of the sort one finds on the back cover. I’m grateful to the editors of Political Theology for the opportunity, on this occasion, to say something more personal about how and why I came to write it. Hopefully something useful, in terms of summarizing the book, will emerge in the process.

The book began with my conviction that the theology and philosophy of the early modern period is especially important for understanding Christian ethics today. It’s needed for us to figure out “how we got to where we are in our thinking,” as Nick Wolterstorff once put it. It is thus a hinge point on which subsequent church history turns. This is especially the case because it was in this period that there first emerged the plurality of moral languages that we now call pluralism, but which was originally a collection of writers (mostly Christian) casting about for a way to best express questions that had become pressing in their time. From thinkers like Grotius, Hooker, Locke, Butler, and others, we have inherited new approaches to natural law, new ways of envisioning Scripture’s moral authority, new conceptions of rights, and so on.

With this conviction, I was predisposed, as it were, to be sympathetic to the work of modernity critics like MacIntyre, Hauerwas, Milbank, and Cavanaugh. (It matters here that I belong to that generation of Christian ethicists who came of intellectual age only after this critique was fully established; I was still in grad school when Stout’s Democracy and Tradition came out. I’ve often joked that I will someday write an article on the influence this all had on us, and call it, “The Children of [Resident] Aliens.”) Although seeing early modernity as a hinge point predisposed me to read that work sympathetically, there remained in the back of my mind the thought that it wasn’t quite all downhill since Hume (as in MacIntyre), or Scotus (Milbank), or Locke (Cavanaugh), or Constantine (Hauerwas). I thus began with the assumption that something of this critique was deeply right, but also subtly wrong. Charles Mathewes seems to have something similar in mind in a previous contribution to this blog. He says that those who share this inclination are “attracted by both sides” and lists names like Eric Gregory, Luke Bretherton, and Jennifer Herdt. I suppose these are the “children of aliens” that I have in mind.

My book, then, applies this starting point to that strand of political liberalism which connects John Locke to John Rawls. How does the renovation of the church’s political role that begins with Locke continue to shape us today—for good and for ill? One of the shortcomings of the earlier modernity critique was its lack of careful attention to the thinkers it targeted, and so I tried to compensate by studying Locke’s corpus first-hand and in detail. What I discovered, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that the true story of liberalism’s emergence is much more complex that we had been led to believe. Locke was neither a cynical subverter of the church (“Hobbes in sheep’s clothing” as some would have it) nor a traditional natural lawyer born out of time (as claimed by some on the right). What is perhaps most new in the book is my account of how Locke moved from being an early opponent of religious toleration to its patriarch. This is crucial for us to understand today, because it is his argument for toleration that is sometimes blamed for cutting the church’s political witness off at the knees.

What Locke wanted was simple: he was a Deist-Christian of some sort, who sought to prevent violence and persecution being justified by theological claims. His first instinct was to say something along the lines of what Rawls would say much later: government must be neutral with regard to competing theological claims. But he realized this wouldn’t work, for two reasons. The first is precisely what today’s communitarians say against Rawls: the insistence that government be neutral is itself contestable (i.e., not neutral) and, what is more, some Christians have good reason to oppose it. So neutrality is not going to work because it’s opposed on theological grounds.

The second problem was what Locke called “the pretenses of loyalty”—from which I get my title. If the government strives to accommodate diverse religious practices, this generosity will be taken advantage of to such a degree as to destabilize peace and order. The two ways in which it will be taken advantage of he calls (1) the Pretense of Loyalty to God (in which believers avoid legitimate civic duties with spurious religious claims) and (2) the Pretense of Loyalty to the Common Good (where religious bigotry is justified by pretending civic order is at risk). Examples of the first include not paying taxes because an angel told you not to and (true story) the British youth who hid his face with a hood, against a grocery store’s shoplifting policy, because he is a Jedi. An example of the second pretense is the French argument for banning yarmulkes in public schools because they threaten public order. So Locke wanted to avoid violence by making government neutral, but he knew it wouldn’t work: the Christians would oppose it (because their God is not neutral with regard to the good) and everyone will take advantage of it anyway, either to line their own pocketbooks or persecute their neighbors.

That is what the early Locke thought, and only when he had solved those problems did he become the great supporter of (qualified) religious freedom that we know from the Letter Concerning Toleration. He solved the two problems in turn: a reworked political theology for the first and a new political theory for the second. As for the first, he wants to convince his Christian readers that not only is toleration compatible with the gospel, it is required by it. He does this by, quite cleverly, deconstructing and then subverting the Protestant debates about the ‘marks’ of the true church. (For this he depends upon his friend Philipp van Limborch, the Dutch systematic theologian to whom the Letter is addressed.) No surprise, then, that the Letter opens as it does: “I esteem toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.”

The second problem he solves via his doctrine of rights, which for him are built upon the metaphor of property. This avoids the two pretenses because it defines in advance what will and will not count as legitimate instances of religious accommodation. However sincere your Jedi faith or dislike of yarmulkes is makes no difference: all that matters from a legal perspective is the protection of rights.

This, then, is the theological account of political liberalism’s birth that is at the heart of my book. With this in place, we can then re-read the subsequent history of theo-political disputes under liberalism, understanding them afresh. Because Locke devises such an analytically neat solution, he slips into an almost eschatological overconfidence. He genuinely believes he has solved all theo-political conflict for all time. This is most visible in the metaphor of ‘boundaries’ or ‘borders’ that he uses to describe how to avoid conflicts of loyalty between religious or civic authorities: place one sort of duty over here and the other over there. But the solution cannot be the final one that he hopes, and he should know it: for it was always contingent (as we have seen) on the theological beliefs of the populace and therefore inherently unstable. Locke knows the theological beliefs are in flux because he counted on this very fact to allow him to shape those beliefs in the first place. So culture wars disputes like euthanasia, abortion, and homosexuality shouldn’t surprise us. It’s not as though a previously sound solution had somehow stopped working, but rather that such disputes are exactly what we expect given that moral and religious beliefs change over time in any pluralist society.

All of this has pressing consequences for contemporary political theology, especially in America, where Locke’s legacy is more prominent. Thus the book closes by examining a number of writers who seek to amend the liberal solution in this or that way, hoping to compensate for the instability. I here include neo-Calvinists like Wolterstorff and Witte, neo-conservative Catholics like Neuhaus and Novak, as well as a Reform Jew, Martha Nussbaum. I find each of these (and others) lacking in certain ways, and so I conclude by suggesting where we might turn next, looking to possibilities obscured by the liberalism we have inherited. One such possibility lies in a recovery of classical rhetoric, not for the usual David Tracy reasons, but rather because rhetoric was among the artifacts of pre-modernity jettisoned by Locke as dispensable in his new age of certainty. In geometry you don’t need persuasion, only demonstration. But if politics and ethics are not like geometry (both Hobbes and Locke had said they were), then we will need skill in persuasion and disagreement after all. Where might we find such skills? Augustine and Erasmus would be a start, and so they are the subject of my next project.

In the meantime, what does this mean for the fate of the children of aliens—those of us who, like Mathewes and Gregory and Herdt are “attracted by both sides”? One of the lessons that I, at least, have learned is that it’s worthwhile and rewarding for theologians to learn from those we might otherwise assume are ‘merely’ philosophers or political theorists. You can’t avoid this if you want to read the early moderns, for they don’t share our neat disciplinary boundary between philosophy and theology. This should extend to reading ‘pagans’ too. For a time, Hauerwas wrote as though it was dangerous to read liberals, lest we fall in love with them. Saint Jerome famously had the same worry when he dreamt he was damned for reading Cicero. With all respect to Jerome—and the younger Hauerwas—the church decided the other way: reading ‘worldly books’ is not to deny Christ.

A final lesson concerns not sources but audiences. One of the critiques rightly-made by Milbank and Hauerwas is that our images for conceiving of public speech too often come from modern, market-driven democratic liberalism: voting, lobbying via mass media, church ‘policy statements,’ and so on. If we think the church ought to have something worthwhile to say to its neighbors, is there a suitably Christian image for such speech? I think there is, though it’s not one that would have occurred to me before moving to England: the parish. I do not mean a congregation, but rather that ancient geographically-defined community centered around a particular church. The parish priest is responsible in a very real way for all of those within the parish boundaries, whatever their connection to the church. When a non-religious person from our neighborhood seeks his help (which happens more than you might think), he has to have something to say. He then speaks both as a Christian but to a wider, pluralistic society. The same is true of other quasi-parishes, like chaplaincies in hospital, prisons, or colleges. This is a potentially fruitful image for those “attracted by both sides.” It acknowledges that our images for speaking should be suitably Christian, but that our speech must be made appropriately pluralist (or polyglot, as Nigel Biggar calls is). The parish provides a distinctively Christian picture of political speech, without the need for everything we say to be distinctively Christian.

John Perry is McDonald Fellow for Christian Ethics & Public Life at the University of Oxford. His college is Christ Church—something he shares with the two Johns mentioned above. He has a Ph.D. from the University of Notre Dame and has published in the Journal of Religious Ethics, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, and Scottish Journal of Theology.

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