John Locke on Religious Liberty

by Fr. Jonathan Loop, SSPX

In an editorial for the Wall Street Journal written on January 25, 2012, then Archbishop Timothy Dolan stated, “When the Founding Fathers determined that the innate rights of men and women should be enshrined in our Constitution, they so esteemed religious liberty that they made it the first freedom in the Bill of Rights.” He goes so far as to identify religious freedom as the “cornerstone”1 of American government. Although the archbishop’s immediate purpose in writing this article was to oppose the presidential administration’s contraceptive mandate, his underlying goal is to outline the proper relations between church and state, especially in America. He considers ideal the situation wherein the government permits members of different religions both to worship publicly and to live in accord with their consciences. Inasmuch as the eminent Cardinal is expressing the accepted opinion of the majority of the Catholic hierarchy in our day, it is necessary for us to examine briefly its origins and character.

These ideas in great measure may be traced to the writings of John Locke, a philosopher who exerted much influence on the men of America’s founding generation. He articulates most clearly his understanding of the proper relations between church and state in a small work titled A Letter Concerning Toleration, written in 1689. In order to grasp better the understanding of religious liberty which dominated American political culture until at least the 1960s and which still has some influence in our nation, it is necessary to examine this short essay. What follows is not an attempt to justify or to attack, but merely to describe.

To begin, Locke’s argument may be simplified as follows: religious societies or churches have different ends than political societies. Therefore, they have no business interfering in one another’s internal affairs. Indeed, he begins his essay with the claim that the motives which lead people to mix the two are rather based on a desire for power than a zeal for souls. At best, he claims that there is confusion as to the extent and nature of the power of civil magistrates to promote this or that creed.

Therefore, Locke endeavors to distinguish the nature, goal, and proper means of the two powers. To begin, he claims that a commonwealth is “a society of human beings constituted solely for the preservation and advancing of civil goods, [amongst which are] life, liberty, bodily health and freedom from pain, and possessions of external things, such as landed estates, money, furniture, etc.” In other words, the jurisdiction of politics is essentially limited to the goods of this world. We must understand that Locke did not wish to exclude from these goods proper moral habits. Later on in the essay he will specifically say that the government cannot tolerate religious opinions which undermine the moral qualities—e.g., justice, courage,2 fidelity, etc.—necessary to preserve civil society. As a necessary consequence of the this-worldly goal of civil society, Locke maintains that the authority of a government is limited to providing for these goods: “It is the duty of the civil magistrate, through laws established impartially for all, to secure to all the people in general, and to the individual subjects in particular, the just possession of the things pertaining to this life.” To legislate on questions of theology with no bearing on morals would be to arrogate to itself an authority which it cannot possess.

What is the foundation of such a claim? It is clear that Locke wishes to highlight the role of human choice in the establishment of political societies while downplaying the intervention of God. He explicitly argues that God has in no way imparted to any civil ruler the right to force men to embrace the true religion or, by extension, to prohibit the peaceful practice of religions other than his own. While not denying that God is the author of man’s nature —indeed, in other works he specifically argues that man is a creature of God —and therefore is the author of political society, he circumscribes the role of the positive will of God in politics to a very narrow sphere. Later on in the work, Locke will argue that should there be a dispute between the supreme human legislator in a society and his subjects about some point of religion, there is no one but God who can decide the dispute and that God will do this at the end of time.3 In the meantime, it is impossible to know who truly speaks for God. In short, Locke is asserting that there is no way to know how God wishes political society to be organized other than by consulting reason,4 which can ascertain the rules of civil society rendered necessary in light of the nature of man.

We may further note that Locke is silent in his letter on the duties which any civil society as such owes to God. Pope Leo XIII, in his encyclical Immortale Dei, teaches that the “State, constituted as it is [by nature], is clearly bound to act up to the manifold and weighty duties linking it to God, by the public profession of religion.” There is nothing equivalent in Locke’s treatment of the subject. Nevertheless, he does grant that the government is free to promote its own understanding of religion:

“But you will say, the magistrate is able to use arguments, and thereby draw the heterodox into truth and effect their salvation. So be it; but this is common to him with other human beings: if he teaches, if he instructs, if he corrects the erroneous by arguments, he certainly does what is becoming for a good man. It is not necessary for the magistrate to lay aside either the human being or the Christian.”

What he says of the “magistrate” may be said to be true of government in general. Thus, it may promote a certain religious view if it should so please.5 However, Locke does not here speak of any duty to do so, nor any positive obligation to seek out the one true religion and to promote it at the expense of others, as Leo XIII expressly states. The American founders, for their part, agreed that government was free to support and promote certain religious views. For example, the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780 expressly commanded towns to set aside public funds to pay for Protestants preachers who were to direct the public worship of God.6

George Washington went further and declared in his Thanksgiving Proclamation: “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor.” In other words, our first president believed the government should teach that God provides laws for men and exercises providence in their regard. Washington nevertheless wholeheartedly agreed with Locke that while the government was free to encourage certain religious beliefs, it had no right to compel members of the political community to join this or that religious denomination. In other words, those Americans who refused to take part in Thanksgiving—or who did so in manners opposed to the sensibilities of the members of government—were not to be punished by the civil magistrate.

This brings us to another aspect of Locke’s teaching; namely, that no one ought to be deprived of their legitimate rights on account of their religious beliefs. Again, Locke’s presupposition is that the laws of society are derived from man’s natural needs, which are not connected to any religious opinions. He says explicitly: “If a Papist believes that to be truly the body of Christ which someone else calls bread, he does no injury to his neighbor. If a Jew does not believe the New Testament to be the word of God, he alters no civil rights. If a heathen doubts of both Testaments, he is not therefore to be punished as if a wicked citizen.” This attitude evidently lies at the foundation of the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, passed in 1785, wherein one reads: “that our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions, any more than our opinions in physics or geometry.” Locke and Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Virginia statute, are claiming that such doctrines about God’s nature affect men’s moral conduct to the same extent as do questions of mathematics and are thus irrelevant to political life, with this added caveat: such religious opinions are not as open to demonstration as are the laws of the physical sciences. Therefore, they are not fit subject matter for the laws of the realm and it is unjust to punish people—whether by depriving them of life or property or by withholding from them the equal advantages of civil society—for holding them.

However, Locke is not of the mind that any and all opinions about God ought to be countenanced by government. Indeed, he lists four beliefs—partly theoretical, partly practical7—which must be suppressed. Why? Locke, not being a fool, would admit that not all opinions about God have the same relation to moral behavior as do geometric theorems. In the first place, a religion which teaches corrupt moral doctrines ought not to be tolerated. Thus, Locke would have approved of the actions of the United States Congress when in the 1890s it threatened to dis-incorporate (i.e., seize) all property held by the Church of Latter-Day Saints should it insist on its practice of polygamy. Secondly, Locke claims that a religion which claims for its members prerogatives contrary to the civil rights of non-members should not be tolerated. In this class, Locke includes the ability to depose kings for heresy.8 In effect, he is claiming that this is an unjustifiable attempt by some to rule other people without their consent. Thirdly, he states that government cannot permit anyone to adopt a creed which puts them under the jurisdiction of a foreign prince, for it undermines their loyalty to their own sovereign. This argument was long used against Catholics in the United States.9 Finally, he teaches that no atheists can be countenanced, for such deny the foundation of all morals. Thus, Locke would approve of the censorship of movements such as American Atheists, who this past Christmas posted billboards in Times Square of New York City with pictures of Santa Claus and Our Lord with the phrase: “Keep the Merry, dump the Myth.”10 He would neither praise the ambivalence of state and local governments in the face of such campaigns nor of the teaching of radical secularism in public schools and universities. Indeed, he might well have viewed a government which allowed such doctrines to be taught in its institutions of higher learning as suicidal. Locke thus did judge that the government ought to limit and determine to an extent the parameters of right belief for its subjects, but he believed the criteria for such interference to be the effects—reason and not revelation—of religious teachings on moral behavior.

Now, a notable effect of Locke’s position is to deprive those who claim—whether rightly or wrongly—to be God’s representatives of any special right to direct political matters either directly or indirectly. For the correct method of organizing society to obtain and preserve temporal goods does not depend on any special supernatural revelation. As a result, leaders of different churches are no better situated to determine what is most conducive to the common good of civil society than the other members of their religious communities or even non-members thereof. In light of this, he would almost certainly have approved in part of John Kennedy’s statement: “I believe in an America Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act.” The fact that he denies ecclesiastics such prerogatives is implicit in his definition of a church. He defines it as “a free society of human beings, joining themselves together spontaneously, to worship God publicly in such mode as they believe will be acceptable to the deity for the salvation of souls.” Locke admits that such voluntary societies must have some form of hierarchy, but implicitly insists that the members of this hierarchy have jurisdiction only over those who have voluntarily submitted to them in those spiritual matters pertaining to the salvation of their souls (as a result, he denies that they have any power to compel their subjects with temporal punishments aside from excommunication). This does not, he suggests, give these leaders any greater insight into the natural law than other men and therefore does not confer on them a special prerogative to judge the actions of political superiors.11

Nevertheless, Locke argues that this hierarchy is supreme in its internal affairs. He observes that “the right of establishing laws can belong to none but the society itself; or at least (which comes down to the same thing) to those whom the society itself has approved by its own consent.” Therefore, he argues that it is not the place of the civil government to dictate to these communities how they are to conduct themselves. The first consequence of this is that such societies are wholly free to admit or to exclude those whom they will. Thus, Locke would agree with Cardinal Dolan’s delight at the decision of the Supreme Court in the recent Tabor case, where all nine members of the court agreed that a Lutheran school could most certainly terminate the contract of a teacher who did not subscribe to Lutheran views.

After having given this sketch of Locke’s view in his Letter Concerning Toleration, we are in a position to observe that his teaching regarding the proper relations between church and state is relatively simple in itself, though its practical application can be somewhat complex. In short, men voluntarily join two kinds of societies—one political, the other religious—for essentially different purposes. In the first case, they seek to provide for the good things of this life by submitting to a ruler with the power to use force to protect them. In the latter, they attempt to worship God in the manner which they believe pleasing to Him by observing certain rules and rituals. Those who refuse are kicked out. While the government may promote this or that church, it may neither compel men to join it nor prevent them from joining private associations to worship as they see fit. It may only prohibit those religious opinions which reason perceives to be harmful to good morals and the common temporal good of society. It is this vision of the relations between church and state which Cardinal Dolan calls the “cornerstone” of the American system. The good Cardinal and much of the Catholic hierarchy thus embrace a vision of politics which is certainly faithful to much of the American tradition. However, we must confess that it is foreign to the tradition of the Church—as expressed in Quas Primas by Pope Pius XI—for it renders impossible the social reign of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Fr. Jonathan Loop was born and raised an Episcopalian. He attended college at the University of Dallas, where he received the grace to convert through the intermediary of several of his fellow students, some of whom later went on to become religious with the Dominicans of Fanjeaux. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in political philosophy, he enrolled in St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary, where he was ordained in June 2011.

1 By referring to religious liberty as the “cornerstone” of American government, Cardinal Dolan is arguing that it is as important to the political system of the United States as is Our Lord Jesus Christ in the economy of salvation. If he is correct, this would necessarily mean that if one rejects religious liberty, one rejects the entire American project. It may be further observed that the full quote is: “the stone which the builders have rejected has become the cornerstone.” In this light, Cardinal Dolan is saying that religious liberty was something previously rejected by the “builders”; amongst whom are all pre-Vatican II popes.

2 Here it may be of note to observe the criticism directed by President George Washington to the Quakers of his day, who refused to fight in defense of the country: “Your principles and conduct are well known to me; and it is doing the people called Quakers no more than justice to say, that (except their declining to share with others the burden of the common defense) there is no denomination among us, who are more exemplary and useful citizens.”

3 In this light, it is interesting to note that the feast of Christ the King in the Novus Ordo has been moved to the end of the liturgical year.

4 In his First Treatise, Locke says: “reason is our only star and compass” [emphasis added].

5 Thus, Locke would not simply agree with what was said by John F. Kennedy in his famous speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association in 1960: “I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.” Locke would agree that the president should not impose his views on his people, but would not be of the mind that the president’s views need only be his “private affair.”

6 “As the happiness of a people, and the good order and preservation of civil government, essentially depend upon piety, religion and morality; and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community, but by the institution of the public worship of GOD, and of public instructions in piety, religion, and morality: Therefore, ...the several towns...[shall] make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of GOD, and for the support and maintenance of public protestant teachers of piety, religion and morality.” Taken from:

7 Here, it is important to note that “civil rights” are not identical to “natural rights.” The latter are derived immediately from man’s nature while the former are rights discovered by reason to be necessary for good life in civil society. An example of civil rights would be voting or holding elective office. The distinction is analogous to what St. Thomas Aquinas refers to as the “primary” and “secondary” precepts of the natural law. The former are principles of conduct derived immediately from man’s natural desires while the latter are practical conclusions arising from them.

8 Thus, the English crown would have been justified to persecute Catholics in the wake of St. Pius V’s excommunication of Queen Elizabeth I and his subsequent claim that she was deprived of any rightful claim to rule.

9 Perhaps ironically, Locke’s statement here more directly affects Anglicans, who have as the head of their church the reigning monarch of Great Britain. Given this principle, all countries not subject to England should rightfully forbid any Anglican churches within their territories.

10 Locke does not admit what is taught by Leo XIII and other popes; namely, that the “teaching Church” (i.e., the Pope and the bishops) have been given a special grace of state by God to judge accurately what is and is not commanded or prohibited by the natural law.

11 I say “in part” because Locke would probably note that these students do not have a civil right to go to the university at all. Students choose freely to come to the university and therefore they implicitly promise to abide by the standards of the university. Thus, the university has a right—in principle—to establish conditions whereby students may associate on campus. Of course, Locke would view the decision of the university as bad inasmuch as it tends to exclude men of decent moral character.