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Religious Toleration and the Theologico-Political Problem, Pt. I

Editor’s note: This article is the first installment in a three-piece essay. Parts two and three can be viewed here and here, respectively.

Several months ago, Thomas Storck responded to my rebuttal of his original article, “The Revenge of Religious Liberty,” by arguing that John Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration “conceals an essentially totalitarian attitude towards religion.” Since protecting religious freedom means legislating on the basis of natural law rather than a national creed, Storck contends, a tolerant government leaves no place for the supernatural. It depends on “purely this-worldly motives.” This creates an “absolute dichotomy” between religion and politics, leading to the marginalization and persecution of believers.

Storck saves his choicest criticisms for the United States [1] since it embodies the tradition of religious liberty. Tolerant governments, he claims, are “wholly uninterested” in “whether there is any religious truth at all.” In fact, we can blame the First Amendment for swallowing up “pretty much all vital religion” in America and unleashing “pleasure seeking of all kinds.” For these reasons, he thinks that no self-respecting Christian should “find … satisfaction in contemplating [a Lockean] regime or dwell within its portals with entire peace of soul.”

I am almost at a loss at how to respond to such an exercise in misrepresentation. Fortunately, Storck’s assumptions are so many, and so poorly supported, that simply toppling a few should cause the whole structure of his arguments to collapse. [2]

Perhaps most fundamentally, Storck assumes that human reason, even if informed by a Christian conscience, is an insufficient basis for government. He gives two arguments for this position:

  • God may require civil governments to do things unknowable to human reason.
  • There is no “agreement on what we mean by natural law.”

To prove the first point, Storck spends a great deal of time dissecting a passage in which Locke says that there are extreme cases in which government may halt any practice, even a religious one, for as long as it threatens to destroy civil society:

If “the Interest of the Common-wealth required all [sacrifices] of Beasts should be forborn for some while, in order to [increase] the Stock of Cattel … destroyed by some extraordinary murrain; Who sees not that the Magistrate, in such a case, may forbid all his Subjects to kill any Calves for any use whatsoever?” [3]

Storck objects that if a government were to protect its people from starvation in this way, it could risk keeping them from doing God’s will. What if “God is pleased … by the sacrifice of calves” and may “end the epidemic … if … appeased?” Since a Lockean commonwealth may legislate only according to what the natural law reveals, Storck reasons, it is unable to supplicate God to find out.

This is clever rhetoric, to be sure, but it masks a whole host of assumptions that don’t hold up to the slightest scrutiny. First, I would ask Storck which he thinks more likely to anger God: a government that temporarily suspends a ceremonial rite in order to save its citizens’ lives, or a government that allows its people to starve in the name of appeasing God?

If Storck responds that sacrificing in the midst of famine wouldn’t necessarily endanger a nation if manna rained down from Heaven, he must demonstrate how a magistrate under the New Covenant is supposed to know when, and under what circumstances, God promises to provide in this way. Does God speak to today’s politicians from a burning bush, as he did to Moses? If not, which of his prophets should our rulers consult? And how does that prophet know that he has correctly interpreted God’s will?

Both Scripture and sacred tradition do indeed offer profound guidance for government officials, but neither of these pillars presumes to reveal whether or not God will perform a specific miracle in a specific time and place. Without absolute assurance of that, does Storck seriously think that a magistrate would be justified in putting an entire community in danger of starvation?

This consideration leads us to the following question: If a properly-informed natural reason is sufficient for government even in this most ridiculous of hypothetical cases, when would it not be? Locke’s reliance on natural law, then, assumes no dichotomy between the supernatural and politics. It assumes that God interacts differently with civil governments than with His Church.

Even Storck’s pet example, Reynolds v. United States, in which the Supreme Court upheld a ban on polygamy, reinforces this conclusion. To protect consciences, the justices’ arguments appealed to natural law, not a national creed that forbade Mormon beliefs altogether. The Court also wrote that polygamy undermines the “sacred obligation” of marriage, the cornerstone of society. [4]

After suggesting straight-facedly that the justices should have tried to save the defendant’s soul, Storck twists the Court’s moral stance against cultish perversion into evidence that toleration creates a moral vacuum in which secular prerogatives trump all else, including the religious free exercise that it claims to secure.

But this is a strange way to read the case. Don’t the facts show the opposite? What the Court’s opinion proves is that, though legislating on the basis of natural law and the common good of society, a Lockean republic successfully protected true religious liberty while refusing protection to license masquerading as liberty. And it did all this while only forbidding a single practice (and one, it is worth observing, that was controversial even within Mormonism).

Is this jurisprudence an instance of the “totalitarian attitude towards religion” that Storck claims to find in the Letter? Under the system for which he has argued—one in which there is no pretense of protecting religious freedom—what would stop legislators from completely stamping out any religious group that ran afoul of the current state-approved orthodoxy? Minorities are persecuted in the name of the common good in every government. What counts are the mechanisms in place to protect them.

Storck, however, shrouds the obvious interpretation of Reynolds in sophistry. The Court may have technically reached the right decision, but its reasoning was dangerous, he argues. Instead of answering George Reynolds’s arguments about the “religious truth or falsity” of polygamy, the justices encroached on his freedom because of “sociological and political arguments.”

Perhaps Storck could elaborate on the distinction between “religious truth” and the truth of “sociological and political argumentation.” Isn’t truth truth? Or does Storck think the Court was wrong, that polygamy doesn’t devalue marriage, harm women, and erode the bonds of society? If not, then why does he think the Court’s reasoning is dangerous? Certainly, polygamy is forbidden by God, but why? Isn’t it because polygamy offends his nature—that same nature that St. Paul says even unregenerate Gentiles see expressed in creation? [5]

In short, Storck expects the impossible. No supreme court has ever pontificated about why, in the ultimate analysis, actions are “good” or “bad.” No supreme court has ever been instituted to save wayward souls. Storck’s arguments assume the demolition of every boundary between church and state. Even under religious establishments, heresy primarily comes under the purview of civil courts because it disrupts civil order and the common good—the same reasons whereby the Supreme Court forbade polygamy—not because heresy is simply wrong in the abstract. If Storck wishes to contest this point, he will have to present detailed, historical evidence to the contrary.

[1] His many mischaracterizations are best exemplified in his flagrant misconstrual of Calvin Coolidge’s 1925 quip that “the chief business of the American people is business.” By quoting this remark out of context, Storck has done considerable violence to Coolidge’s intended meaning:

[2] Space prevents me from spending a great deal of time vindicating the United States’ specific policy of religious freedom (with the exception of its handling in the Reynolds case). But since Storck’s interpretation of our history is so exclusively premised on his tortured reading of Locke, correcting that interpretation will, by implication, show how groundless are his criticisms of First Amendment jurisprudence.

[3] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration and Other Writings, ed. Mark Goldie (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2010), 38

[4] Chief Justice Morrison Waite’s opinion in Reynolds v. United States, as well as other instances from the Court’s proceedings, may be accessed here:

[5] Romans 1:19-20; 2:14-15


Readers are invited to discuss essays in argumentative and fraternal charity, and are asked to help build up the community of thought and pursuit of truth that Ethika Politika strives to accomplish, which includes correction when necessary. The editors reserve the right to remove comments that do not meet these criteria and/or do not pertain to the subject of the essay.

  • Thaddeus

    Chris Ferrara’s Liberty the God that Failed renders all attempts to defend Locke and the American Regime’s flawed Lockean foundations failed attempts.

  • Daniel Schwindt

    Ditto, Thaddeus. Tocqueville saw what these ideas were doing, both to faith and to solidarity:

  • Thaddeus

    After MacIntyre, it makes no sense to try to rehabilitate Enlightenment thinking in any of its forms. Political order, of whatever kind, is theologically based, by nature. It can’t be changed. Locke was delusional. If you want a non-theologically based political order, the best you’ll get is a soft tyranny, i.e., controlled anarchy governed by oligarchs according to the dictates of their own passions, using fear-mongering propaganda and perpetual war against contrived enemies and blackmail to control the people’s minds and to prevent any effective citizen opposition, just as we have today in America. John Courtney Murray, Maritain, and Neuhaus, and Weigel–their project to Catholicize Locke (or Lockeanize Catholicism) has failed and should never be tried again. We need to begin again, starting with a careful study of Leo XIII’s Immortale Dei.

  • Alan Lille

    The founders did not believe in the natural law of the schoolmen but in the natural rights theory of the post enlightenment. These are not the same thing. A simple review of Scalia’s opinion in, 494 U.S. 872
    Employment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (No. 88-1213) illustrates this very well. The attempt to baptize Locke is folly.

  • Thomas Storck

    Mr. Gill,

    After you’ve completed your series I’ll respond by means of another article.

  • Certainly both are correct, and can remain friends!

    Personally, I cheer on Storck– we are drowning in reason, and clearly our churches should have reacted a long time ago. I believe the author could be over-reacting, too; I believe Mr. Storck would admit a few real-world limitations to his arguments.

    The danger in our world lies not with steering back towards Storck however, towards an ever-present and unabashed consideration for a common morality in our public sphere. The danger lies with continuing in the same direction e.g. the relentless expungement of moral purposes in favor of economic efficiencies and false freedoms.

  • Dan Hugger

    Well done Nathan!