The Rich Roots and Spoiled Fruits of Liberal Toleration


After decades of efforts to be emancipated from religious influences, the toleration of political liberals is still only an impoverished relative of its classical cousin.

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Toleration as it was understood by early modern philosophers like John Locke was richer and fuller than toleration as political liberals understand it today. Political liberals today think of toleration in a methodologically secular way: they try to replicate the two-kingdom infrastructure of Christian liberty in ways that do not retain the Christian model’s theological commitments.

But after decades of efforts to be emancipated from religious influences, political liberals have only succeeded in developing a toleration that is an impoverished relative of its classical cousin.

What Does Toleration Mean to Contemporary Liberals?

Consider the standard political liberal account. Toleration, for today’s political liberals, is a willingness to allow others to lead lifestyles of their choosing, as long as they do not harm their neighbors. In our modern societies of strangers, in which people live alongside each other but are uninvolved in each other’s day-to-day lives, and in which people endorse many conflicting accounts of the good, toleration has seemed to a lot of liberal theorists to be the most functional way of keeping the peace. Thus, liberal toleration is the idea that in conditions of pluralism each person should refrain from interfering in others’ attempts to live their lives as they see fit.

For John Rawls, a representative political liberal, toleration is a trait of citizens who are accepting of each other and who are willing to cooperate amicably with each other in conditions of reasonable pluralism. It involves an effort to refrain from an untoward interference in the lifestyles of others. Usually, it is also manifested in the willingness of the citizens to allow each other to pursue their comprehensive conceptions of the good without the threat of discrimination or coercion.

For Rawls, the free exercise of reason generates a variety of different comprehensive doctrines. Since it is not possible—in Rawls’s view—for persons to achieve agreement on these comprehensive doctrines in conditions of freedom, they must tolerate each other. Rawlsian toleration is thus, at most, undertaken for the sake of fair terms of social cooperation.

The Two-Kingdom Model

By contrast, consider the toleration accounts of the early modern theorists, especially Locke and his immediate predecessors. Most such accounts were Christian. As such, their animating purpose was to realize the generosity and charity of the Christian worldview.

Their background was a two-kingdom political division that was seen by early modern theologians as being ordained by God for the sake of human flourishing. The teachings of Locke’s Protestant predecessors were varied on the aims of two-kingdom theory. But they generally agreed that the normative standard of the earthly kingdom is a threshold-level morality that is obligatory for all persons and enforceable by the state. The idea was that the job of political systems is to establish, via education and coercion, a foundation of basic upright moral practices. The normative standard of the other, heavenly kingdom is a more exalted and religious ideal that is required only of believers. The church’s purpose, then, is to elevate a certain class of persons—Christians—to a higher level of moral and spiritual flourishing, which they could not otherwise achieve through the more minimal moral requirements of the state.

Early modern theologians—thinkers in the era between John Calvin and Roger Williams—saw the laws of the state as protecting persons from the most egregious vices, and as placing them in a position to succeed in the heavenly kingdom. But they also believed that faith is ultimately a matter of internal conviction, and thus is non-coercible. Thus they believed that the different ways in which persons pursue God ought to be tolerated.

The purpose of early modern Christian toleration was to free persons to rise, via religious aspiration, to a more exalted level of flourishing. Its animating force was the Christian worldview and the belief that spiritual truth is achievable in one kingdom in a way that is simply outside the authority of the other.

Locke’s Understanding of Toleration

John Locke’s model of toleration descended from these other accounts and was closely tied to his Christian theological commitments. In this respect, it is distinguishable from its contemporary, secular counterparts: it is ideologically thicker, and it is predicated on Biblical pronouncements. For Locke, there is certainty in the truths of the Christian Scriptures and in the attributes of the Christian God. But Locke is skeptical about the ability of human beings to access these truths. The attainment of religious truth is mediated by the exercise of human reason and is often an uncertain thing.

Locke sees persons as being entitled to their spiritual beliefs whenever they have made a good-faith effort to determine the truth about a particular matter. Thus, toleration is important because it provides persons with the freedom to engage in an effective belief-determining process. Such a process makes them entitled to their religious beliefs, even though there is no guarantee that their beliefs are correct.

Locke’s ideas were, in one sense, akin to the toleration accounts of contemporary liberals: one reason Locke valued toleration is that it facilitates social cooperation. In Locke’s view, the purposes of human societies include, among other things, the preservation of property and the protection of human labor. Toleration promotes cooperation and enables persons to pursue such goals in peace. This is why Locke also supports toleration in the Letter Concerning Toleration with arguments that are independent of his theological commitments.

Thus, Locke’s view of toleration differed from the two-kingdom views of his Protestant predecessors in two important ways: first, although he was just as confident as they were that there are religious truths, he was not as confident in the capacity of human beings to attain such truths; and second, he viewed toleration as promoting earthly cooperation in addition to spiritual ends, whereas his theological predecessors seemed to envision the two-kingdom model as primarily being a way of facilitating a more exalted religious flourishing.

Seeking the Truth or Just Keeping the Peace?

Contemporary liberal accounts of toleration—like Rawls’s—are descended in certain ways from a classical and Christian framework, even though they have sloughed off commitments whose absence now makes them inferior. Generic liberal toleration still shares the same basic structure of early modern toleration, making a strong distinction between two different spheres. Liberal toleration, like the two-kingdom theory, is an effort to divide society into two different arenas—today, a public sphere and a private one. But the fact that the secular and Christian accounts of toleration share a sphere-based division of society is not enough to make liberal toleration as rich and full an account as its classical and Christian counterpart.

The purposes of modern political liberal toleration are pedestrian by comparison to classical toleration accounts like Locke’s. They are earthly and functional rather than exalted, generous, and selfless: liberal toleration is intended, at most, to keep the peace among citizens. It is agnostic about the good. It is not an attempt to do what one believes is best for those whom one is tolerating—say, to refrain from interference for the sake of giving the other person a richer and freer space within which to pursue spiritual truth. Since secular liberals like Rawls view human beings as developing the distinction between the public and private spheres for the sake of their social cooperation, their toleration accounts treat peace—a merely functional and pragmatic end—as the major goal of toleration. Political liberal toleration does not make a judgment about the possibility of achieving the good. Thus, it does not express to the one being tolerated that the one who is tolerating her in fact cares about her or her achievement of that good.

By contrast, the classical toleration accounts were aimed at the welfare of the person(s) being tolerated. Toleration for Locke is supposed to promote, simultaneously, both the cooperation of persons and the pursuit of religious truth. Locke believed in toleration for the sake of giving the one who is being tolerated a maximal amount of freedom within which to come to faith on her own—in the voluntary way that truths of faith are supposed to be pursued. For Locke, the reason to tolerate is that one believes it will improve the life of the one being tolerated, since she will be given greater freedom to achieve religious truths on her own. Even if she does not achieve such truths, her life will still have been improved by the fact that she had the opportunity to do so.

Contemporary liberal toleration expresses no such thing. In fact its point is to let such a person know that he is of no consequence to the one who is tolerating him. Such toleration is based on nothing more than an effort to keep the peace by refraining from interfering in the lifestyles of others, whatever those lifestyles happen to be.

A theory of toleration should not just be judged by its practical results. It should also be judged by its theoretical commitments: the assumptions upon which it is based, the implications it entails, and the uses it is intended to serve. That for the sake of which someone is tolerated is, arguably, as significant as the actual manner in which he is tolerated. Since political liberal accounts argue for toleration for the sake of peace and not for the sake of others’ welfare, they are inferior to the accounts of the early moderns, with their selfless aim of helping all freely to achieve what is good and true.

Jeremy Neill is an assistant professor of philosophy at Houston Baptist University.

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