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The Blessings of Religious Liberty

Editor’s note: This article is the first part of a three-piece essay in response to Thomas Storck’s May article, “The Revenge of Religious Liberty“; parts two and three of this essay can be viewed here and here.

Earlier this year, Ethika Politika featured an article by Professor Thomas Storck that detailed the author’s counter-intuitive hypothesis that religious liberty begets religious persecution.

The argument goes something like this: In order to tolerate multiple religions, the state in John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration necessarily takes a neutral stance towards religious truth, relegating it to the status of mere “private opinion.” Far from protecting religion, this empowers the state to ride roughshod over matters touching religious faith and practice when they conflict with temporal concerns. Because it denigrates the role of religion in the state, the Lockean polity has no place for “norms which rest upon truth” and focuses on materialistic and utilitarian ends.

The United States enshrined Locke’s philosophy in the First Amendment, Storck continues, and though a “vague, Protestant ethos” kept the persecution inherent in toleration at bay for two centuries, the fading of that ethos has enabled the Lockean monster to turn upon its masters. Storck believes that the HHS mandate and other attacks on Christianity are the inevitable result, not of a perversion of religious toleration, but of the concept of toleration itself. He implies, too, that Catholicism and the religious toleration of the last several centuries are intrinsically at odds. (Indeed, he has elsewhere suggested a revisionist understanding of Dignitatis Humanae. )

What, then, is to be done? Here Storck’s argument becomes confused; he does not make it clear whether his purpose is protecting Catholicism from the state or establishing its dominance through the state. He believes that Catholics should ultimately recognize, as Leo XIII’s encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum put it, that “the profession of one religion is necessary in the State [and that] that religion must be professed which alone is true.” He also notes that government’s “acknowledgment of the true religion on the part of the state presupposes a Catholic citizenry.” The state does have an interest in the salvation of souls, he contends, but it is true that this is “the more direct business of the Church.”

Yet he recommends a political community that rules based on the “the truth or falsity” of religions, writes laws that command and forbid beliefs as well as actions (for, as we shall see, what he objects to is the Letter’s contention that laws have jurisdiction only over actions), and judges between sects based on the truth of revelation. If there is any real difference between this and a full-fledged establishment of religion, then no philosopher has ever articulated it. A government that determines policy based, not on natural law, but on the revelation of the “one, true religion,” yet doesn’t require “disabilities” for those outside that religion, is a contradiction in terms and an historical nonentity.

Before I proceed, I would like to remark that however seriously I may disagree with Professor Storck, I share many of his concerns. I especially appreciate his call to “preach the faith in its fullness” instead of hiding behind tenuous legal protections. Christianity is indeed relevant to all of life; there is no moral dichotomy between the public and the private spheres. Denying this has led to a host of social, political and religious problems.

Storck is absolutely right that societies must have “norms which rest upon truth”—he is even correct that a religiously tolerant regime may succumb to the fantasy of “morally-neutral” legislation. Of course, it is equally true that a religious regime may devolve into totalitarian paternalism.

The question is, is this corruption inherent in the structure, or in human nature? A Lockean regime is like republican government, monarchy, aristocracy, federalism, separation of powers, or any other political arrangement involving human beings: It becomes impossible to justly maintain without a self-governing and virtuous citizenry. My disagreement, therefore, is not with Storck’s concerns, but with his argument that the fundamental cause (and, thus, the remedy) of the recent attacks on Christian institutions is a certain political structure, rather than society itself. His conclusion is not supported by the evidence, nor is it a necessary consequence of Locke’s theory of toleration.

Storck’s confusion can be traced back to his misinterpretation of a section of the Letter: “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 goods and person.” Storck takes this to mean that the Lockean polity considers all religious belief “mere opinion;” since laws cannot provide for their truth, laws are essentially amoral. A religiously tolerant regime, then, cannot have “social norms which rest upon truth, which respect human nature, which are not an offense to God.” Its “sphere of concern” is restricted “to things purely of this world,” leading inevitably to the legal subordination of religion to temporal concerns. The Lockean state by its very nature considers religion “a purely private matter.” Belief is a “prop” for the state, nothing more. Laws are ultimately based on materialistic utility, not truth.

This interpretation of the Letter is completely unwarranted. If Storck’s quotation of the Letter is read in context, one sees that Locke is specifically referring only to a certain kind of religious opinion when he says laws have “no business” providing for “the truth of opinions.” These “speculative opinions” are distinct from other religious beliefs in that they “terminate simply in the understanding.” That is, they only need to be believed, not acted upon (an example would be the Calvinistic doctrine of total depravity or limited atonement).

Since civil punishments cannot make a man sincerely believe something against his will anyway, Locke is simply recognizing the limitations nature has set on civil laws when he concludes that they have “no business” touching this kind of opinion. This was intended to prevent the state from forcing sectarian confessions on churches, as had happened in England’s recent past with the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Solemn League and Covenant. It is a statement about law’s jurisdiction, not its content.

To imply, as Storck does, that this statement necessarily denigrates religious beliefs by forbidding legislation on speculative opinions is as logical as concluding that an employer can’t care about his employees as people so long as he can only tell them what to do on the job and has no control over their personal lives. It depends on the moral character of the employer, or, in other words, the society. Laws can only command actions, not religious beliefs, but laws can and should reflect beliefs, as long as those laws’ scope is limited to truths that natural reason can apprehend.

Far from ridding the state of religious influence, the Letter specifically allows magistrates to express their beliefs, without fear of having to conform to the civil religion an intolerant regime creates. Locke’s theory of toleration was meant to end compulsion in matters of faith. He never says that politicians’ religious beliefs may not influence legislation, nor does he suggest that the state cannot promote religious instruction or observances. It’s important to keep in mind that Locke was a member of the Anglican Church throughout his entire adult life. Indeed, the Letter makes a point of guarding magistrates’ duty to exercise a “charitable” care for religion—they may encourage religious instruction and observances even in their official capacities (like politicians in the United States did, as we shall see below).

“Magistracy,” Locke says, “does not oblige [anyone] to put off…Humanity or Christianity.” Some have argued that this passage lends theoretical support to state-funded religious education—certainly most of America’s Framers saw no inconsistency between this policy and the First Amendment.

It turns out, then, that contrary to Storck’s assertions, Locke agrees that there should be “no unnatural separation between our conduct as individuals and our conduct as citizens or as government officials.”


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