This is the fundamental objective of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government. Thomas Hobbes made a secular argument for political absolutism in The Leviathan, but by the 1680s, when Locke composed his Two Treatises, absolutism was wrapped in biblical citations supporting patriarchy. Robert Filmer’s Patriarcha, despite its vastly different theological outlook, shared with Leviathan one fundamental idea: the perpetual and complete submission of every subject to an arbitrary sovereign.
For Locke, this was a one-way ticket to tyranny. If political authority is absolute and unquestionable, then the human race is a slave race. Authors such as Deneen, Dreher, Christopher Ferrara, Yoram Hazony and other conservative critics of liberalism make no meaningful distinction between Locke and Hobbes. They do not appear to have taken their historical task seriously: “Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation,” Locke began his work, “that ‘tis hardly to be conceived, that an Englishman, much less a Gentleman, should plead for it.” Hobbesian-style servitude was exactly what Locke risked his life combatting. Indeed, his First Treatise—often ignored by political theorists—offers an exacting examination of the Hebrew Bible to reveal no rationale whatsoever for absolute rule.
What, then, is the basis for any political authority? This is Locke’s great objective in his Second Treatise, in which he enlists the language and moral authority of man’s natural rights. As he asserts the freedom and equality of every human being, Locke’s biblical anthropology is on display:
The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possession; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not another’s pleasure.
A legitimate political society, Locke reasons, must respect God’s relationship with his people. In his wisdom and with his divine power, God calls each person to work out his will in the world. Created, called and sent by him: they belong to him and to no one else. Unlike Hobbes, Locke postulates a “state of nature” containing a fundamental moral law—that human life must be protected so that it can fulfill its divine calling and serve its true sovereign. Political absolutism, by definition, robs God of his divine prerogative. The only government capable of upholding God’s moral law, Locke concludes, must be based on the consent of the governed.
Herein lies the great contribution of Locke’s Two Treatises: like no other author, he offered a rational, moral and theological basis for consensual government. As historian Peter Laslett summarizes it, Locke established a set of principles for political equality “more effective and persuasive than any before written in the English language.”
Yet this is only part of Locke’s achievement. In A Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke combines the political doctrine of consent with a radical reinterpretation of the life and teachings of Jesus. No tolerant, pluralistic society is possible, he argued, unless it is sustained by a broader culture nurtured by a gospel of divine mercy.
Locke’s Letter completely rejects the prevailing view of religious identity as being rooted in family, geography or political regimes. He argues that faith cannot be inherited; it must be appropriated through individual judgment and consent. The same holds true for membership in a community of believers: the church must be understood as a “free and voluntary society.” Voluntarism in matters of faith, he wrote, is confirmed by “the perfect example of the Prince of Peace,” who never compelled anyone to follow him or embrace his teachings.
Locke’s conservative detractors detect in all this an atomistic individualism. Writes R.R. Reno, editor of the Catholic journal First Things: “Locke’s ideal society is…a free association of individuals, unbound by duties that transcend their choices.” In Liberty: The God that Failed, Christopher Ferrara, president of the American Catholic Lawyers Association, claims that Locke’s vision of liberty is limitless: “For Locke, as for Hobbes, freedom means the absence of restraint on human action.” Among these critics, Locke emerges as an almost demonic opponent of Christianity and God’s moral law. “Locke writes that the law works to increase liberty,” according to Deneen, “by which he means our liberation from the constraints of the natural world.”
A more misleading and fraudulent portrayal of Locke’s philosophy would be hard to imagine. Indeed, Locke seems closer than his critics to traditional Christian doctrine when he explains the nature and importance of authentic faith: “The care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God.” Coercion produces hypocrites, not converts.
Any serious reading of Locke’s work reveals a mind animated by belief in a universal moral law, in the immortality of the soul, and in the hope of eternal life. “The law of Nature stands as an eternal rule to all men,” he wrote, “legislators as well as others.” Declarations that “every man has an immortal soul, capable of eternal happiness or misery” appear repeatedly in his many writings on religious toleration. Precisely because the stakes are so high, Locke argued, the central obligation of government is to protect the freedom of every individual to discover the truth about God and his moral demands, according to his conscience. Government has no higher purpose than this. More to the point: any government that fails to uphold this natural right of religious freedom forfeits its legitimacy.
What kind of a political community, then, does Locke envision? Locke lived through the turbulence of the Restoration (1660–1689), a renewed struggle between king and parliament amid an effort to reimpose religious conformity (via the Anglican Church) throughout England. The latter project was an abject failure. Wherever it was attempted, whether in Protestant or Catholic countries, the unifying vision of Christendom produced the same results: it treated ordinary, God-fearing citizens as criminals, turned neighbor against neighbor and sent thousands to prison or execution. Religious pluralism was a sociological reality in post-Reformation Europe. Locke’s genius—counter-intuitive to establishment elites—was to imagine a political society that could draw strength from diversity.
The just state, he argued, will guarantee the equal rights of all its citizens, regardless of religious identity: “The sum of all we drive at is, that every man enjoy the same rights that are granted to others.” The civic ethos for which Locke pleads in A Letter Concerning Toleration is that people treat their fellow citizens as they themselves wish to be treated. “Nay, if we may openly speak the truth…neither Pagan, nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the civil rights of the commonwealth, because of his religion.”
Elsewhere in the Letter, Locke makes clear that he includes law-abiding Catholics among those to be treated with equity—a radical proposition in a Protestant nation seething with anti-Catholic prejudice.
Catholic thinkers such as Adrian Vermeule, professor of constitutional law at Harvard Law School, simply do not take Locke at his word. “Both politically and theoretically,” he writes in First Things, “hostility to the Church was encoded within liberalism from its birth.” The accusation is groundless. In the Lockean commonwealth, even the most despised religious minorities would be granted full rights as citizens. Impartial justice for all religious believers: is this not the political application of the golden rule, the very heart of Christian morality?
It would take another century before the Lockean vision of a just and pluralist society would find political expression: in America’s Constitutional Convention of 1787. Virtually all of America’s Founders viewed religious freedom as the bedrock of republican self-government. Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson, in a 1947 ruling, put it this way:
If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion, or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.
This conviction is on spectacular display not only in the religion clauses of the First Amendment, but in James Madison’s precursor to the convention debates over religion, his Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments. Written as a response to plans for a general assessment tax to support churches in Virginia, its defense of liberty of conscience nevertheless transcended local politics. Indeed, in no other Founding document are the woeful lessons of Christendom, as well as the insights of Erasmus, Luther and Locke, put to such powerful effect.
To many of Madison’s European counterparts, the religious wars of the post-Reformation period seemed to validate the claims of the soft theocrats: diversity of religious belief invited sectarian violence and social disorder. Yet Madison looked at the historical record—and at the American experiment thus far—and came to the opposite conclusion. “During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial,” he wrote. “What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.” He rejected any form of religious establishment because: