Friday, September 19, 2014

Thomas Jefferson's secular "trinity" (3a): John Locke

"Bacon, Locke and Newton, ... I consider them as the three greatest men that have ever lived, without any exception, and as having laid the foundation of those superstructures which have been raised in the Physical & Moral sciences." - Thomas Jefferson, 1787

John Locke in A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689) made an argument for the separation of Church and State primarily from the point of view of a Protestant Christian perspective on freedom of conscience. It became one of the classic works of liberal democracy.

The conflict that has come down in history as the First English Civil War, conventionally dated 1842-46, occurred during Locke's childhood. The conflict was precipitated by efforts of Charles I and his Catholic wife Henrietta Maria to impose unpopular reforms in the Church of England in England itself and to impose Church of England rules in Scotland and Ireland. It would be neither the first or the last time in history that religious ideas and secular forces would achieve a convenient alliance. But there was little doubt to contemporaries like Locke that religion was very much involved.

François Dubois painting of the St. Bartholmew's Day Massacre, part of what John Locke saw as the nightmare side of the merging of Church and State

It's become a common theme among American and European conservatives that Islam is stuck in "medieval" viewpoints. This is not the case for Christianity, the argument goes, because Christianity had the Protestant Reformation that brought Christianity into the modern world. And so Islam needs its own Reformation. The implication in this argument that Islam as a religion is centuries more "backwards" than the religion of the consistently peaceful and civilized Christians.

Sadly, many American Christians are not quite so clear on how ludicrous it is to consider Christianity of the last several centuries as a predominantly peaceful religion. In the case of a repeat of the Protestant Reformation for Islam, conservatives should really be careful what they pray for.

The Protestant Reformation, conventionally dated from 1517, was followed by the so-called Wars of Religion, featuring highlights such as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572. The following century saw the Thirty Years War of 1618-48, with which the First English Civil War was contemporary. The Thirty Years War was the most death-dealing conflict in world history prior to the First World War (scroll down at the link). And while not strictly religious, confessional conflicts were a major part of the Thirty Years War.

It's useful to think of this in relation to Thomas Jefferson's life. He wrote and signed the Declaration of Independence in 1776. That was 138 years after the end of the Thirty Years War. Today is 2014, which means the American Civil War ended 149 years ago. And the issues of that war and Americans' varying understandings of it continue to shape our ideas about politics and government very much in 2014.

Jefferson and his contemporaries were intensely aware of what religious wars could do and had done. Locke himself was a contemporary of the Thirty Years War. And religious tolerance - making religion no business of the government and government no part of the formal business of the Church, any church - was a revolutionary, democratic demand in 1689, the date of the Letter Concerning Toleration, 41 years after the end of the Thirty Years War.

Locke writes in the Letter:

I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interests of men's souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth.
He distinguishes the legitimate role of the State as concerning "civil interests": "Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like."

From the side of the Church, it is the responsibility of Christians to win others to the faith and to promote Christian conduct among the faithful. And it must be done by non-coercive means. Certainly without the coercion of the kind exercised by the State:

Because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel anyone to his religion. Nor can any such power be veiled in the magistrate by the 'consent of the people;' because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation, as blindly to leave it to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what what faith or worship he shall embrace: for no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing.
He argued that "the care of the salvation of men's souls cannot belong to the magistrate; because, though the rigour of laws and the force of penalties were capable to convince and change men's minds, yet would not that help at all to the salvation of their souls."

Choice of religion, Catholic, Protestant or otherwise, are not legitimate concerns of the State. "I affirm," Locke writes, "that the magistrate's power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws."

Locke stressed that freedom is essential to honest religion:

A church, then I take to be a voluntary society of men, joining themselves together of their own accord in order to the public worshiping of God in such manner as they judge acceptable to Him, and effectual to the salvation of their souls.

I say it is a free and voluntary society. ... No man by nature is bound unto any particular church or sect, but everyone joins himself voluntarily to that society in which he believes he has found that profession and worship which is truly acceptable to God.
And both the civil and religious perspectives Locke articulates stress the practical consequences of melding Church and State:

... neither single persons nor churches, nay, nor even commonwealths, have any just title to invade the civil rights and worldly goods of each other upon pretence of religion. Those that are of another opinion would do well to consider with themselves how pernicious a see3d of discord and war, how powerful a provocation to endless hatreds, rapines, and slaughters they thereby furnish unto mankind.
Christian Right theocrats in the US today who make the bizarre argument that if Hobby Lobby can't dictate the sex lives of their female employees weren't around in that form in the England of 1789. But they and their allies on the Roberts Supreme Court preach the same kind of theocracy that Locke condemned as both illegitimate government and bad Christianity.

Locke didn't limit his view of the value of tolerance to matters of religion. As he says in the dedication of his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1689), "Truth scarce ever yet carried it by vote anywhere at its first appearance: new opinions are always suspected, and usually opposed, without any other reason but because they are not already common."

Tolerance for scientific and political ideas were important for him, as well. Locke provided some of the most important classical liberal political theory on freedom of speech, as well as freedom of religion.


Christoph Halbig, Michael Quante und Ludwig Siep, "Hegels Erbe- eine Einleitung" Hegels Erbe; Suhrkamp 2004

G.W.F. Hegel, Glauben und Wissen oder Reflexionsphilosophie der Subjektivität in der Vollständigkeit ihrer Formen als Kantische, Jacobische und Fichtesche Philosophie (1802). The version used here is that of G.W.F. Hegel Werke 2, Jenaer Schriften (1801-1807); Suhrkamp; 1970.

The John Locke Collection: 6 Classic Works (Waxkeep Publishing; Kindle edition)

John Locke, On Politics and Education (Classics Club edition; introduction by Howard Penniman)

John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding with introductory material by Alexander Campbell Fraser (Dover; 1959; 2 vols.)

Dumas Malone, Thomas Jefferson: A Brief Biography (1933)

William Uzgalis, "John Locke" (2012) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

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