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Religious Freedom, John Locke, and the American Polity, Pt. II

Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part series. Part one ran yesterday.

In the Aristotelian tradition, political deliberations are deliberations about man’s good, and “the end of [politics] must include those of the [other sciences], so that this end must be the good for man” (Ethics, I, 2).  It is hard to see how religion and religious truth could be excluded from genuine political discourse, as that is understood by Aristotle.  But in a Lockean society the serious business of living, that which occupies the energies and public concerns of society, does not include religion.  Religious belief and practice, so long as they do not infringe upon the regime’s laws, are allowed, indeed at times encouraged as props for political stability or a means of psychological solace for the populace; but any real concern with the truth or falsity of any religious doctrine is explicitly outside the concern of the government, and hence, outside the concern of the public sphere. [1]

If religious truth is irrelevant to our public discourse, religion is therefore effectively privatized, reduced to “mere opinion,” implicitly made of no account.  Any argument that a citizen may legitimately make in the public sphere must be based upon this-worldly considerations alone.  To adopt Locke’s approach to the question of religious freedom is to make religious doctrine something entirely private, something of so little apparent significance that it can be forgotten when important matters of state are discussed.  And if my religious convictions are of so little importance that they must be set aside whenever I enter into public debate, why should I pay any attention to them in my private life?  Gill says that “Christianity is indeed relevant to all of life; there is no moral dichotomy between the public and the private spheres.”  But he himself, by embracing the Lockean approach, necessarily embraces Locke’s absolute dichotomy between the two spheres.

Gill claims that “not until a mid-twentieth rash of Supreme Court cases” did it become “common to interpret this [First Amendment] restraint as indifference.”  But it is hard to see how the justices in Reynolds could have been more indifferent toward religious truth than they were.  Moreover, in this connection I might cite the 1779 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson, which granted entire freedom only to what it called “religious opinion,” but went on to say that “when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order” then the “civil government [and] its officers [may] interfere.”  The numerous quotations from various figures such as Chief Justice John Marshall, Justice Joseph Story or Alexis de Tocqueville with which Gill adorns his article and which he alleges exhibit a favorable attitude toward religion or Christianity, represent, on the one hand that “vague Protestant ethos” which certainly permeated American society for a great part of our history, but also most often indicate a purely instrumental view of religion; i.e., religion is a very helpful social prop, as in the well-known passage in George Washington’s Farewell Address, that,

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports … And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion … [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle,

or the statement in the Northwest Ordinance of 1787, that “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

The numerous invocations of the name of God which one can find in American state documents and in the writings and speeches of politicians, even today, conform perfectly to the Lockean dictum that religious truth shall not be an object of serious national consideration.  For never when God is mentioned in these utterances are we told anything about him, about his law, his provision for mankind, his rewards or punishments.  They are in fact empty invocations of the god of American civil religion, not the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, not the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ, but a mere name, a term calculated to lull and calm listeners into a comfortable and mindless acquiescence in the banishment of the true God from American public life.  This is the necessary result of John Locke’s political teachings, and at present the full implications of those teachings are manifesting themselves in American society.

Gill is determined to read both Locke and the American historical record as favorable to Christian doctrine.  He asks, for example, “if religious beliefs are so unimportant a part of the Lockean state, why does Locke refuse toleration to atheists and Muslims?”  Well, Locke himself gives the answer to that.  In the case of atheists, as Gill himself notes, it is because he did not think that they would have any motivation for keeping their “[p]romises, covenants, and oaths,” and in the case of Muslims, it was for the political reason that they were “bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor,” so that they would necessarily be a sort of perpetual fifth column seeking to undermine the state.

Moreover, although Locke’s reason for refusing toleration to atheists appears to concern the theological question of belief in God, it is far from clear that Locke saw belief in God as anything other than an effective means for motivating people to keep their “[p]romises, covenants, and oaths.”  In other words, Locke was not necessarily concerned with the theological question of the existence of God, but simply with the instrumental value of belief as a means of promoting honesty in social conduct.

Gill, I believe, is a Protestant.  As such it is not surprising that he looks upon religious faith differently from the way a Catholic would.  He admits, for example, that “[t]he Church as an institution had very little direct influence on the federal government because of the First Amendment,” and says next to nothing about the quotation from Pope Leo XIII that I introduced:

Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness—namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges.  Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true … (Leo XIII, Encyclical Libertas Praestantissimum, no. 21).

Instead, Gill says that “in implying that the natural law is not a sufficiently just basis for government,” I am “departing from the tenor of mainstream classical and Christian philosophy.”  Pope Leo’s  teaching that the state has a duty to recognize religious truth, indeed to render corporate homage to God, is hardly some byway of Western thought, but has been the norm throughout most of history.  It is modern regimes that ignore religious truth that are the exceptions, exceptions that even the ancient pagans would have regarded as godless, for their polities were intimately involved in sponsoring divine worship as they understood it.

Gill opines that it is sufficient if the state base its legislation on the natural law.  But this is not so simple a matter as he appears to think.  In the first place, there is not necessarily any real agreement on what we mean by natural law.  For Locke, man’s natural state is outside of society.  He does not conceive of this as necessarily a chaotic state, but it is definitely a state free of political or social restraints—”though this be a state of liberty, yet it is not a state of licence,” and one has “an uncontrollable liberty to dispose of his person or possessions,” except that he has no “liberty to destroy himself” or “to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions.” [2] But surely Gill is aware of how far this Lockean doctrine differs from the classical and Catholic understanding, in which man’s natural state is in political society.  For Locke, acceptance of political authority is always a restriction of man’s original and natural freedom.  For the tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas, man is a political animal, and his natural state is within the polis.

Secondly, even if we consider man’s existence only within political society, we encounter difficulties applying natural law in our legislative enactments.  It is the case to be sure that the vast majority of human laws will be restatements or specifications of natural law, but who is to decide what is a legitimate restatement or specification?  It is precisely over questions of the scope of natural law that today we have so much controversy:  over marriage and contraception, for example.  And historically, in Catholic thought, marriage was seen as indissoluble and divorce as a violation of natural law, which seems to be contrary to Locke’s own opinion. [3]

Lastly, we are not speaking merely of law-making here, but of the tenor of our public discourse.  Is God, is his revelation, are the dogmas of his Church permitted to be raised as serious arguments in public discourse?  Or are they a priori to be excluded on the grounds that political discussions can deal only with “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like”?  It is in this refusal to engage with religious truth that the essential character of the Lockean state becomes clear.

In thinking about Gill’s article and the issues he raises, I am more and more convinced that at bottom the differences between us involve fundamentally different understandings of the role of the polis in human affairs.  In the philosophical tradition of Aristotle and St. Thomas it would be absurd to separate religion from our political deliberations.  Both necessarily deal with the good for man. The political commonwealth is natural to man, and thus necessarily must deal with all that concerns human life.  The polis is not some joint stock company established to deal with necessary but quite subordinate matters, leaving mankind’s highest concerns as purely private affairs.

In any case, if Gill and anyone else does hold such an opinion, history is having an ample revenge upon them.  For the Lockean attitude toward the real business of government and life has now swallowed up pretty much all vital religion in the United States.  Thinking perhaps to safeguard religion, it first privatized it, then ignored it, and finally allowed it to wither away unnoticed whilst we were pursuing the things that really mattered to us, “life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.”

When Calvin Coolidge said that the chief business of the American people was business, he spoke more truly than perhaps even he realized.  Add to that pleasure seeking of all kinds, and we have an entire summation of a Lockean commonwealth.  But one would hope that no Christian could find much satisfaction in contemplating such a regime or dwell within its portals with entire peace of soul.

[1] For a more extended discussion, see my article, “John Locke, Liberal Totalitarianism, and the Trivialization of Religion,” Faith & Reason, vol. 26, no. 3, autumn 2001, pp. 227-248.

[2] Concerning Civil Government, Second Essay, II, 6.

[3] Cf. ibid., VII, 80-83.


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