John Locke and the Dark Side of Toleration

“A Church then I take to be a voluntary Society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the publick worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the Salvation of their Souls.”  ∼ John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration

It seems likely that most Americans would find John Locke’s definition of a church non-controversial, perhaps even obvious. This shows both how relevant the seventeenth century philosopher remains to our public life, and how detrimental it has been on many levels. Most Americans who have heard of Locke think of him as the author, via Thomas Jefferson, of the second paragraph of our Declaration of Independence, in which certain self-evident principles are asserted—most importantly that all men are created equal, that they are endowed (by their Creator) with inalienable rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, and that government is instituted for the purpose of protecting these rights. Much ink has been spilled over the issue of whether this one passage from a document intended primarily to achieve a necessary practical goal (formal independence) and tighten relations with an ally (France) from whom Americans were seeking substantial financial and military aid, should be seen as the heart and soul of our republic. Yet, even if one ignores the bulk of the Declaration (which consists of charges against the British monarch couched in terms of traditional and common law rights) and the limited purpose of the document, one must take account of the history, cultural and legal context, not just of that one act, but of the more important foundational document (the Constitution) in framing our political culture.

And yet, one would be foolish to dismiss the influence of Locke on American public life. Much of what he wrote, particularly in his most famous work, the Second Treatise on Civil Government, was largely a gloss upon traditions inherent in English politics for some time, particularly those with roots in Calvinist dissent; it added understandings of political consent and the limits of legitimate power still persuasive today. More troubling for those of us concerned with the long term health and virtue of the republic are his more specifically religious writings, and particularly his writings on religious toleration.

It would be positively un-American, of course (as well as un-Christian) to speak out against religious toleration. The right to worship as one sees fit, within the requirements of public peace, itself has become an object of faith for most of us. Moreover, this position has its roots in crucial Christian teachings regarding mercy and the very nature of evangelization.

But what, exactly, is it that we are to tolerate? And who, or in what capacity, do we tolerate? These questions get to the heart of the problem with Locke’s, and with America’s attitude toward religion in public life. For, whereas our nation was founded within a culture of religious groups committed to religious ways of life, we increasingly have become a nation of individuals governed as individuals by a central government committed to our, in effect, being individuals, and individuals only, at least when it comes to our religion.

This may not appear evident from the quotation given at the opening, here. A voluntary association is not, after all, an individual. It is a group, in this case one that has come together for the purpose of public worship. And what could be more American than that? Let us move on to Locke’s next passage, in which he expands upon this definition:

No body is born a Member of any Church. Otherwise the Religion of Parents would descend unto Children, by the same right of Inheritance as their Temporal Estates, and every one would hold his Faith by the same Tenure he does his Lands; than which nothing can be imagined more absurd.

Here we have the heart of radical individualism and its hostility toward communities, and communities of faith in particular. Once upon a time, most all of us were born into a Church, in the sense that our parents belonged to a particular religious community and sought to bring us up in that religion. We did not hold our religion as a piece of property, of course, for property is something we own, not something to which we owe significant duties. A Protestant might argue with a communal characterization of religion, and clearly Locke has some basis for his assertion. Protestants in particular emphasize the fact that each of us dies alone, after having developed or failed to develop a personal relationship with God. Catholics, too, recognize that each of us is responsible for his own salvation in the final analysis—no matter the advantages we may have, we still must be in a position to accept God’s grace and, with it, salvation.

But, where Locke argued that religion is rooted in personal beliefs which are either self-evident or subjective (and for most of us the latter), most Christians recognize that when we are born we have the capacity to learn from our parents and other members of our faith (not to mention our clerics, the Gospel, other sacred writings, and other sources of religious truth). Locke’s point was that the Anglican Church had no right to punish members of other faiths (except for Catholics, whom he accorded no right to tolerance because he deemed them loyal to a “foreign prince”) because faith cannot be coerced through laws punishing people, for example, for not going to church.

As with much of Locke’s writing on toleration, his practical point is worth endorsing. True conversion does not take place at the point of a knife. Still, to argue that the experience of going to church, particularly with one’s family and neighbors, will not open one’s mind and soul to the religious message being promoted goes against common sense. To dismiss tradition, whether intellectually or as a source of religious habits, is to deny the very nature of reality and the human purpose. It also is to undermine the bases of religion. For religion is not merely a set of beliefs, though these are fundamental to its nature. Religion means “to bind,” and, as religion binds a community together, the member of a church is bound to a way of life and to its fundamental beliefs in part through the liturgical realities of the community. No matter how plain the service, no matter how plain the building and even the manners of one’s co-religionists, the habits of mind and body inculcated through the practices of religion support (or undermine) faith and the possibility of a religious way of life.

To deny the communal nature of a church, not just in its forms of worship and their ultimate goal of salvation is to deny our very nature and the nature of our pursuit of truth and the beatific vision. Such a vision and way of life may not be rational in the narrow, Lockean sense. For Locke religious beliefs may be rational, or rooted in some form of (true or false) revelation, but has no cultural element. Nonetheless, a life in which we live, not just to worship God so as to gain salvation, but to lead a virtuous life with our fellows out of love for and desire to please God, with worship a central aspect of a life lived in this life in preparation for the next is the proper goal of us all, next to which all other goals are as nothing. To forget this fact is to let go of what is most precious in our way of life and leave us mere questing monads with no path to lead us home.

Editor’s note: This column first appeared October 9, 2014 in Imaginative Conservative and is reprinted with permission.

Bruce Frohnen


Bruce Frohnen is Professor of Law at the Ohio Northern University College of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Russell Kirk Center and author of many books including The New Communitarians and the Crisis of Modern Liberalism, and the editor of Rethinking Rights (with Ken Grasso), and The American Republic: Primary Source. His most recent book (with the late George Carey) is Constitutional Morality and the Rise of Quasi-Law (Harvard, 2016).

  • Fred

    Good article Bruce. I wanted to share something I just read that’s related even if a stretch, regarding in-tolerance. I was just listening to Georgetown Professor Michael Dyson lecture on the ancient, noble traditions of Islam and making comparisons between IS and Christianity, citing the usual talking points about homophobia and linking it to the supremacy movement and the KKK. I know he’s not alone in harboring these feelings and it would be bad enough it doing this hiding is his towers at a public university, but how in the world does somebody so filled with hate and rage find employment at Georgetown. No surprise they covered up their Crucifixes so as to not offend for a speech buy the anointed one.

    • DE-173

      Georgetown is at war with temporal reality and God.

      • Fred

        Do you think goal number 27 could be in play here?

        • DE-173

          I might, if I knew goal number 27.

          • Fred

            Sorry, that was a reference to The Naked Communist I mentioned earlier and the 45 goals to destroy America.

      • Catholic pilgrim

        I wish they took the advice of one of their own respectable Georgetown graduates- William Peter Blatty, “The Exorcist” book/movie author. The courageous Mr. Blatty took them up to an ecclesial court so that they would stop calling themselves “Catholic” or “Jesuit” if they don’t reform & actually become Catholic. (I signed Mr. Blatty’s petition, btw.) We should also send a couple exorcists to clean up some of the more coo-coo professors.

    • Trazymarch

      ” I was just listening to Georgetown Professor Michael Dyson lecture on
      the ancient, noble traditions of Islam and making comparisons between IS
      and Christianity, citing the usual talking points about homophobia and
      linking it to the supremacy movement and the KKK.”
      Are you for real? o_O

      • Fred

        Sadly, yes – go search. I have seen him before making other incendiary remarks so I know this isn’t an exception. Of course, that’s hardly a shock in today’s world filled with those that hate Christ. I just don’t expect it from a Georgetown professor, or maybe I do and I don’t want to admit it to myself. I hate to bring race into it, but he was a black man and his rabidness seem mostly tinged with a hatred for whites and white privilege which he seems to have come to associate with Christianity. You would think an honest professor could understand inter Muslim hatred and question why more Muslims have been killed at the hands of other Muslims than any other people on the face of the earth. Like for Al Bore, that would be an inconvenient fact.

        • Trazymarch

          ” Of course, that’s hardly a shock in today’s world filled with those that hate Christ.” Actually making comparison between ISIS and Christianity genuinely suprised me. Mixing black superiority with marxism and hatred for christianity and “love” for islam – not so much.

          • DE-173

            Having Xenophilia and oikophobia is a requirement of being in the statist secular left.

            • pnyikos

              Or you could say that they think of religious Christians and conservatives as members of a foreign culture, and call their behavior a form of xenophobia.

  • JERD2

    I would suspect that the federal government both through the courts and the other branches will trend toward limiting the freedom of association, and with it our freedom of religious exercise.

    We already see this in political language. For Democrats like Hillary Clinton, the freedom of religion (free exercise) has become the freedom of “worship;” suggesting that constitutional protections go only so far as religious practice confined to a worship space like a church. Religious practice intended to engage the larger culture will be be subject to governmental restraint.

    We are in for some rough going.

    • Fred

      It is becoming more and more clear by the day the dark forces at work in this world. Sadly, it has extended it’s grip on us by using the arm of government to coerce and intimidate, making us afraid to speak out lest we be tarnished through their Alinsky bullying tactics in the best case, or through losing our livelihoods and property in the worse. Time to recognize that the Barque of Peter is taking on water and plug the leaks quickly before we all drown. Interesting the tie into to today’s readings of Paul to the Galations: “For all those that depend on the works of the law are under a curse … and those that have faith are blessed”.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      The Catholic historian, Lord Acton, put his finger on the root of the conflict: “Civil and religious liberty are so commonly associated in people’s mouths, and are so rare in fact, that their definition is evidently as little understood as the principle of their connection. The point at which they unite, the common root from which they derive their sustenance, is the right of self-government. The modern theory, which has swept away every authority except that of the State, and has made the sovereign power irresistible by multiplying those who share it, is the enemy of that common freedom in which religious freedom is included. It condemns, as a State within the State, every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own. It recognises liberty only in the individual, because it is only in the individual that liberty can be separated from authority, and the right of conditional obedience deprived of the security of a limited command. Under its sway, therefore, every man may profess his own religion more or less freely; but his religion is not free to administer its own laws. In other words, religious profession is free, but Church government is controlled. And where ecclesiastical authority is restricted, religious liberty is virtually denied.”

      • slainte

        MPS quotes Lord Acton “…It condemns, as a State within the State, every inner group and community, class or corporation, administering its own affairs; and, by proclaiming the abolition of privileges, it emancipates the subjects of every such authority in order to transfer them exclusively to its own….”
        Ahhh..not unlike the merciless crushing of the sovereign southern states whose interests were not aligned with the State.

  • Watosh

    I read where some small Christian college in New England has been told it would no longer be given accreditation because it would not allow a homosexual club on its premises. So there it is. If one’s religion denounces homosexual behavior as wrong, and the state considers homosexual behavior to be a right, then despite all the protections offered by our religious freedom, whose views will be allowed. we are ordered to tolerate homosexual marriage and we have no choice but to provide services for the ceremony, yet our wishes are not tolerated by the homosexuals getting “married.” We are entering into a new appreciation as to the road a secular state will take us, despite the protections of religious freedom that the state offers.

    • maineman

      It has been ever thus. The brief respite from religious persecution that we saw during the last century in the US was the aberration. Caesar has really never stopped trying to get his cross back.

  • Guest_august

    “Everyone should avoid familiarity or friendship, with anyone suspected
    of belonging to masonry, or to affiliated groups. Know them by their
    fruits and avoid them. Every familiarity should be avoided, not only
    with those impious libertines, who openly promote the character of the
    sect, but also with those who hide under the mask of UNIVERSAL TOLERANCE, respect for all religions, and the craving to reconcile the
    maxims of the Gospel with those of the revolution. These men seek to
    reconcile Christ and Belial; the Church of God and the state without

    (Encyclical of Leo XIII promulgated on December 8, 1892. – CUSTODI DI QUELLA FEDE par. 15).

    Now the question is, was John Locke a member?

  • Koufax

    John Locke was a moral relativist just like so many who live today. I can’t believe how he is celebrated in high school and college history/political classes as being someone who brought forth ideas that brought the light into a world that was otherwise dark with the monarchy and “tyrannical” government.

    Long live Louis XIV!

    • HenryBowers

      Materialists can only tolerate other materialists.

  • Tamsin

    The right to worship as one sees fit, within the requirements of public peace… has its roots in
    crucial Christian teachings regarding mercy and the very nature of evangelization.

    We teach that we cannot coerce belief. That the conscience is free, and that man must choose to believe.

    But, No body is born a Member of any Church. Otherwise the Religion of Parents would descend unto Children… nothing can be imagined more absurd.

    Therefore the point of conflict between the Left and the Christian is whether a man can teach his child the Christian virtues. Is the child being forced to believe in Christ at the point of a sword? Or rather, at the point of a butter knife at the dinner table?

    The Left is claiming to speak on behalf of all children to not be bound by their parents to believe in chastity or conjugal marriage. To not be tricked into limiting their sexual expression. The sexual revolutionaries would like to disallow teaching a son to expect to marry a woman, or teaching a daughter to expect to marry a man.

    This conclusion is so radical it’s hard to fathom: that because children are not able to give consent to be taught to control their sexual expression, teaching control is coercing religion, and violates the conscience of the child. The child is an unwitting, unwilling convert. Religious freedom is violated. The child agrees to the family’s assignment of his or her sexual identity and expression at the point of a butter knife, at the business end of a sippy cup, because he or she knows no better.

    Hence “gender theory”, the intense concern from the Left to change the language we use with children, not just in the marketplace or in the schools, but also in the churches and necessarily in the home. And not just for teens, but for children ages 0 to 12 years.

    For the Left, cultivating sexual satisfaction is held up as the most important happiness to be pursued by the individual. They worship the orgasm, and a child’s relationship to this god must be free to begin from birth.

    I often think it’s that one phrase, “the pursuit of happiness” that has got America in so much trouble. Too bad Jefferson didn’t leave it at “life, liberty, and property,” per Locke.

  • Physiocrat

    Locke’s ludicrous views on property ownership continue to dominate, catastrophically, the public view of the subject and underpin libertarianism and anarcho-capitalism.

  • Bill

    I am totally amazed at the twisting and parsing of John Locke’s intent to serve a purpose contrary to his whole idea on toleration.

    Firstly, the entire “Letter Concerning Toleration” was to describe the necessity for separation of Church and State. Simply stated, Locke correctly indicates that laws have no power without punishment. Therefore a law dictating spirituality of any form must have a punishment for failure to obey. Who is to say which denomination or Godly principle is of such a fact that a law with punishment may be established. Who is to say the receiver of such punishment was found guilty of not adhering to a law that the population could agree is a fair and just law of the “correct” denomination and spiritual principle. I would agree with Locke, there is none and only God knows the true answer for all men and women of the earth.

    Secondly, to invoke a law that forces one’s personal journey does nothing for free will and the coming to Christ under one’s own free will and understanding “to seek the truth” and that satisfies their personal spirit with inward belief and acknowledgement . Therefore again, Locke is correct that a law with a punishment can not bring a person’s spirit to Christ. The churches of all denominations provides guidance and information/wisdom to further one’s journey. This must be kept free and open to all to satisfy the free will God that He has set forth people to search upon.
    Thirdly, and surprising the very narrow interpretation of being born into a specific denomination the author criticizes. As parents we do teach what we know about all sort s of matters, but the personal choices our children make are theirs to make alone. Just as a career choice is theirs to make so is their personal journey. The affirmation we place upon adults to re-affirm our Baptism is the adult choice to follow God in a specific manner. The Bible has never set any denomination over another as the singular correct answer. We again, just as Locke asserts, must be free to follow the journey (bear the crosses that are uniquely ours given by God) and feed the internal spirit for our own eternal salvation only in each persons unique way.
    There are no laws on earth that man can create to force a persons spiritual salvation. Shame on you for choosing a very narrow interpretation that has the opposite effect of toleration and aiding the journey of our fellow man/women in their personal journeys.