Locke's Tenuous Harmonization of Loyalties: Review of "The Pretenses of Loyalty," Pt. 3

Chapters 4 and 5 of Pretenses of Loyalty constitute the heart of Perry’s argument, offering as they do an intriguing re-interpretation of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration and revealing the tensions that will bedevil it in following centuries. Perry’s overall thesis, we will recall, is that modern liberalism suffers from an amnesia, forgetting that there are in fact two prerequisites for a successful policy of religious toleration: harmonization of loyalties and abstract respect. Relying upon the latter alone, modern liberals find themselves flummoxed at the frequency with which border conflicts erupt between religion and politics—having agreed to tolerate all purely religious practices, governments find that many believers insist on expanding the scope of their religion to include civil matters. They ask that believers consent to be led behind a veil of ignorance, willing to treat others and themselves be treated as abstract rights-bearers, but many believers refuse.

Chapters 4 and 5 of Pretenses of Loyalty constitute the heart of Perry’s argument, offering as they do an intriguing re-interpretation of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration and revealing the tensions that will bedevil it in following centuries.  Perry’s overall thesis, we will recall, is that modern liberalism suffers from an amnesia, forgetting that there are in fact two prerequisites for a successful policy of religious toleration: harmonization of loyalties and abstract respect.  Relying upon the latter alone, modern liberals find themselves flummoxed at the frequency with which border conflicts erupt between religion and politics—having agreed to tolerate all purely religious practices, governments find that many believers insist on expanding the scope of their religion to include civil matters.  They ask that believers consent to be led behind a veil of ignorance, willing that others and themselves be treated as abstract rights-bearers, but many believers refuse.

Why?  Because on their understanding, their loyalty to God does not permit it.  Locke, argues Perry, understood the dilemma, and in his Letter Concerning Toleration thus undertakes the twofold argument: first a theological argument showing that toleration is a religious duty, and only then a political argument explaining how it will work.  Only by first arguing from reasons internal to Christianity can he hope to offer a persuasive account for a government policy of religious neutrality.

Here Perry is at his best, drawing attention to the nuances, tensions, and rhetorical devices of Locke’s argument, and gently chiding many earlier commentators for their tendency to ignore the extensive theological elements that pervade the Letter.  These include arguments about the nature and purpose of belief, and the nature and purpose of the Church.  At each of these points, Locke is again treading ground well-worn in post-Reformation disputes (though he is certainly breaking some new ground as well) and Perry is again perhaps insufficiently attentive to this, and is not always as clear as we would like about how these points relate to those just surveyed in Locke’s early work.  First, Locke draws on a sharp distinction between the realm of outward things which is the legitimate province of civil government, and the salvation of souls, which is inward, depending ultimately on right belief alone, and thus unable to be coerced.  In this, of course, he depends upon (though he radicalizes) the sharp distinction that Protestant theology had drawn between “inward” and “outward,” faith and works, since the Reformation, and which underlay his own arguments about adiaphora in his earlier work (in which government responsibility for outward religious matters was defended purely on the basis of its contribution to civil peace, not salvation).  He then defines the Church as a voluntary society of professing believers who have united for the public worship of God and advance the salvation of their souls.  In this, he is again depending on (and radicalizing) the Protestant concern to distinguish the visible church from the invisible, and is almost certainly drawing upon Richard Hooker’s definition of the Church as a “politique societie” (having taken extensive notes on Hooker’s ecclesiology earlier in the 1680s).  Moreover, says Perry, he picks up on the Reformation language of the “marks of the Church” (notae ecclesiae) but only in order to subvert it.  Where the Reformers had tried to define the true church by means of visible marks such as the pure preaching of the word, creating the possibility of schism whenever some considered the preaching insufficiently “pure,” Locke abandons such potentially exclusive litmus tests for an injunction to inclusivity, saying that toleration is “the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.”  (Again, I cannot resist pointing out that whereas Perry implies this to be quite a new move, Hooker can be credited with having laid the groundwork a century before in his rejection of the traditional notae for an inclusive definition of the Church. See Paul Avis, Church in the Theology of the Reformers.)

The result of all this is to persuade believers that fundamental religious duties are not at risk when they are called to tolerate diversity of religious practice, and in many ways the logic is the same as that which underlay his earlier calls for believers to accept imposed uniformity.  Either way, since salvation depends on inward belief, it is not at stake in such questions, and what matters is civil peace.  The key change is that now, having determined that civil peace requires toleration, Locke is able to fortify his earlier arguments by inviting believers to not merely accept toleration as something indifferent to their salvation, but to be positively committed to toleration as a duty of Christian charity.  By this means he seeks to show that not only are civil and religious loyalties compatible, but they positively reinforce each other, for both the duty of charity and the demands of civil peace unite in calling for religious toleration.

Having achieved such a harmonization of loyalties, Locke can then get on with the business of providing the political criterion for distinguishing the “just bounds” of religion and politics, the restriction which ensures that government does not meddle even with indifferent religious matters. This is his doctrine of rights: “‘The great and chief end, therefore, of men’s uniting into commonwealths, and putting themselves under government, is the preservation of their property,’ which for Locke is the basis of rights” (119).  It is by this means that Locke can articulate a principled government policy of religious neutrality, a policy which now, after much of the groundwork has been laid on particular theological grounds, can be theologically neutral and applicable to any religion, Locke hopes.  Since religion is merely a matter of private life, and government’s intrusion into private life is constrained by the social contract to protect rights, we need only ask whether a practice (e.g., slaughtering a calf) would be lawful in the ordinary course of civil life; if so, it is lawful as part of a religious ceremony.

Perry notes several tensions in Locke’s argument, rarely noticed by moderns because of Locke’s rhetorical skill and the extent to which we now share his assumptions, but I will note here just two which are particularly crucial in Perry’s argument.  First, although this harmonization of loyalties might have in fact worked quite well for Locke’s increasingly latitudinarian English Protestant audience, and the similarly-inclined American Founders, it rests upon theological premises which not all believers—not even all Christian believers—will share.  Of course, Locke himself realized this, notoriously excluding Catholics from toleration, at least, to the extent that they refused to separate their properly religious (on Locke’s definition) loyalties from their political loyalties to the Pope.  Since his time, many other groups, such as Jews, Muslims, and Anabaptists have proven particularly intransigent in refusing to unbundle these loyalties, refusing to accept Locke’s narrow definition of the purpose of religion.  For them, their religious duty has an inescapably public dimension, and they are accordingly reticent to be dragged behind the liberal veil of ignorance.

A second issue arises due to the tensions between Locke’s doctrine of rights and his doctrine of the public good, between the “liberal” Locke and the “republican” Locke.  Indeed, even on the most liberal construal, many private actions can be shown to have serious consequences for the public good, by harming public health, or undermining social cohesion.  On a more robust conception of the public good as requiring a shared commitment to public virtue (such as Locke occasionally offers and such as many of his followers among the American Founders heavily emphasised) this is all the more the case.  Here, we might say, the early Locke’s arguments for uniformity will have something to say: external religious actions may be indifferent to salvation, but they may still have a considerable effect on the public good—by instilling virtue or social cohesion, and by restraining unhealthy desires, for instance.  And this being the case, shouldn’t it be possible to argue, even on purely Lockean grounds, that the government ought to favor certain kinds of religious practice or teaching and discourage or even prohibit others?  As Perry goes on to show, this is far from merely a hypothetical.  On the contrary, even those arguments in contemporary American politics most readily identified as “fundamentalist” (e.g., the arguments of Jerry Falwell or J. Budziszewski against homosexuality) turn out, on closer inspection, to be Lockean arguments for the protection of the public good.  Indeed, for many religious believers, it will be axiomatic that because the God who created the world is the same who made its moral laws, obedience to his commands will necessarily be the surest means of protecting the public good.  For such believers, to say, “God hates homosexual marriage” and “Homosexual marriage is bad for our society” are not distinct religious and political claims, but two sides of the same coin.

Locke’s argument has no convincing rebuttal to this, Perry has shown, because at bottom Locke’s argument has the same structure: what God requires religiously (toleration) is the same as what the public good requires politically.  In his final chapters, Perry will survey some alternative recent attempts to find a resolution to this dilemma for our own pluralist societies.

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