Tolerating (Publick) Religion (John Locke)


Following the lead by Craig Martin in Masking Hegemony: A Genealogy of Liberalism, Religion, and the Private Sphere, I took a peek at John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration. The standard version is that Locke represents a liberalism in which religion, reduced to the private sphere, has been excluded from the public sphere. Craig tells us to think otherwise, finding in Locke’s example a form of Christian religion that continues to exercise its hegemony in the society as a civil institution. Namely, religion is never simply private, not even liberal religion.

Reading Locke’s letter on toleration would support Craig’s reading. Religion is not a private thing of the heart, asocial and divorced from public life, at least not according to Locke. Actually Locke makes the argument that since Jews and Protestant sectarians are already praying in private, i.e. in private homes, that there’s no reason they can’t do it in public. For Locke, it could be argued, the essence of religion is public worship, is the “church,” not private belief or even “the salvation of souls.”

Locke insists that religious dogma and rites are not the business of the public magistrate, not the business of governmental politics. About this, a commonwealth should be indifferent and neutral.  But according to Locke, religion itself is, indeed, a social phenomenon.

Locke wants to free “men” from “all Dominion over one another in matter of Religion.” He famously maintains that the business of politics is temporal order and security, and that the only business of religion is the salvation of souls. At the same time, Locke also insists that “All men know and acknowledge that God ought to be publickly worshipped.” “”Men therefore constituted in this liberty are to enter into some Religion Society, that they may meet together, not only for mutual Edification, but to own to the world that they worship God, [etc.]” (A Letter Concerning Toleration, edited by James H. Tully. pp.38-9).

A Letter Concerning Toleration constitutes a plea to tolerate, not the private expression, but rather the public expression of religion, and in this, there should be “[no] difference between the National Church an, and other separated Congregations” (p.39). Even more interesting, why should a church be an different, why should public assemblies be “less sufferable in a Church” than in other civil society public venues such as “a Theater or Market?” (p.53, cf. p.54).

Note the argument, not in favor of private religion, but its public expression. “If we allow the Jews to have private Houses and Dwellings among us, “Why should we not allow them to have Synagogues?” Even more to the point: “Is their Doctrine more false, their Worship more abominable, is the Civil Peace more endangered, but their meeting in publick than in their private Houses?” (p.54) The argument appears earlier as a negation where Locke states about rituals that might include infanticide or other “such heinous Enormities,” that there is no reason to tolerate them, not in public and not in private. “These things are not lawful in the ordinary course of life, nor in any private house; and therefore neither are they so in the Worship of God, or in any religious Meeting” (p.42)

Instead of formalizing a binary distinction between public and private spheres, especially in matters of religion, in matters of tolerated rites and proscribed rites, the point would rather be to argue that if one can tolerate or should not tolerate a doctrine or a rite in private then, for the sake of consistency, there’s no reason why that doctrine and rite can’t be tolerated or can be tolerated in public.

The notion that liberal religion is or should be purely private is a canard, used by liberal critics of religion to box up religion and suppress its public expression as well as by conservative and Marxist critics of liberalism to argue that liberalism is atomistic, asocial, and laissez faire. As for Locke, he defines a church, and with it religion, as “a voluntary Society of Men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the publick worshiping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the Salvation of their Souls.” As free and voluntary as Locke wants its form to be, it remains for all that a “Society” based upon laws, order, and consent (p.28). This seems very different to me than the caricature of liberal society and liberal religion as typically promoted by liberals themselves and by their critics.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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