A New Lockean Manuscript and the Limits of Religious Toleration

The content of the new manuscript of Locke’s is not a view of toleration that we lost along the way and should hurry to recover for these troubled times. The text is actually a sobering reminder of the limits of a Lockean approach to religious toleration, which is based on a minimalistic understanding of religion.

A few weeks ago, a recently discovered manuscript by Locke on the toleration of Catholics was published in the Historical Journal. Written around 1667 or 1668, the text passed through private collections until, sometime in the early twentieth century, it landed in the library of St. John’s College, Annapolis. After being edited and published, it has made the rounds in the media. A piece in the Guardian, for instance, affirms that this manuscript “shows the Enlightenment thinker expressing unexpected social liberalism.” Another piece in the Wall Street Journal wonders whether the discovery of this piece heralds a return of Locke to the American imagination after the critiques of Yoram Hazony and Patrick Deneen. In National Review, Joseph Loconte takes up these critiques and even more explicitly connects the discovery of this manuscript to the American founding and to our contemporary situation. In his view, “A revival of Lockean liberalism would do much to tame the hatreds now afflicting the soul of the West.”

Needless to say, the discovery is in itself a fascinating event for Locke scholars. As the editors of the piece, J.C. Walmsley and Felix Waldmann, write in their instructive introduction, this manuscript not only confirms the ongoing reflection of Locke on the toleration of Catholics; it also shows the extent to which his thought on these issues developed in connection to contemporary debates. In the discovered manuscript, Locke carefully interacts with a treatise by Charles Wolseley on liberty of conscience, a connection that had only been adumbrated by previous students of Locke. But for all of its historical interest, the content of the manuscript is not a view of toleration that we lost along the way and should hurry to recover for these troubled times.

The text is actually a sobering reminder of the limits of a Lockean approach to religious toleration. In the manuscript, Locke reviews both the reasons for toleration of Catholics and the reasons for refusing such toleration. Wolseley had argued for a broad toleration of Protestant non-conformists, while simultaneously rejecting toleration for Catholics. It is the justification for this difference that Locke sets out to test, invoking arguments like the following for their toleration: “If toleration be the way to convert Papists as well as others, they may equally to be tolerated. If Papists can be supposed to be as good subjects as others they may be equally tolerated.”

But this is, of course, not Locke’s conclusion. It is only one side—the losing side—of his deliberation. The other side is the well-known argument that finds its way into his later published work: the conflicting loyalties of Catholics make them unfit candidates for toleration. Locke not only reaches the same conclusion here as in his later writings but gives a detailed argument for this limit to toleration. For instance, he argues that when persecuting Catholics, it is unlikely that one will err in “prosecuting [sic] that as faction which is indeed conscience.” They “must necessarily be all factious however some of them may be sincerely conscientious [sic].”

The article in the Wall Street Journal summarizes this argument for non-toleration succinctly: the reason for not tolerating Catholics “isn’t religious but political.” In his Letter, Locke put it in almost the same terms: when “the Law is not made about a Religious, but a Political matter,” the fear of religious intolerance can be laid to rest. Modern commentary is surprisingly comfortable with this approach. The manuscript’s editors write of “the charity of its assumptions,” of Locke’s “striking” and “startling impartiality.” The Guardian even manages to consider this “the origin and catalyst for momentous and foundational ideas of western liberal democracy.”

This is a very strange conclusion to reach and quite a low bar for “unexpected social liberalism.” After all, it is not that Locke asserts the legitimacy of toleration and then, strangely, fails to extend it to this specific group—which could be a reasonable explanation for his refusal to tolerate atheists. Rather, he only develops his later justification of toleration once this political limit has been secured.

When confronted with critiques of his view, Locke’s defenders naturally point to the fact that the disruption of European coexistence in early modern times made tolerance a matter of life and death. Loconte wonders whether critics of Locke “have the slightest idea of the actual political and cultural catastrophe that had engulfed Western society.” Perhaps these doubts are not altogether misplaced; after all, some contemporary critics of liberalism embrace a Catholic integralism that is not clear about the space it would leave for other Christians in the unlikely event of its success. Most critics do, however, know about the multiple catastrophes of early modern religious strife and the centrality of toleration for a divided world. But an argument for toleration in its Lockean form does not follow from the more general need for toleration, either in the seventeenth century or today.

Consider, for instance, the alternative form of toleration found in Roger Williams’s Rhode Island. As Teresa Bejan argues in her recent book Mere Civility, Williams wanted toleration with a minimal understanding of civility that does not require citizens “to grant each other a respectful laissez-faire in matters of conscience while going to Hell in their own fashion.” William’s view combines mere toleration, a permission for views considered abhorrent, with active engagement (as, for instance, in missionary attempts at persuasion and conversion).

This, of course, is how many tend to read Locke as well. But Bejan rightly underscores Locke’s tendency to go beyond toleration, or to cut away the edge of objection that is part of toleration. In her words, “he reimagined toleration not only as a means to, but as itself a kind of concordia.” As she points out toward the end of her book, Bejan considers Lockean concord as the dominant form liberalism has adopted, with expectations of social harmony dominating the Rawlsian view of a tolerant society.

Catholic critics have often considered Locke as a standard case of anti-Catholic bigotry. As we have seen, Lockeans tend to object. Loconte writes that the newly discovered manuscript “challenges the conventional view that Locke shared the anti-Catholicism of his fellow Protestants.” But Locke’s anti-Catholicism, whether one affirms or denies it, may be of only secondary importance. The problem in Locke’s view may not be a failure to correct his prejudices in the light of his principles, but a problem in the principles themselves.

In the Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke stressed the magistrate’s incapacity to establish which is the true Christian faith, a position few would dispute. But his approach to toleration requires that we at least establish what religion is and what it isn’t, an equally difficult task. As more than one critic has pointed out, Locke’s paper-thin description of religion—the holding of beliefs and the performance of rites conducive to eternal life—hardly fits the complex and encompassing character of most actually existing faiths.

Locke’s Letter begins, indeed, not with the separation of church and state, but with an explication of the nature of Christianity that describes it in almost exclusively practical terms. The work likewise closes with an appendix on heresy that considers additions rather than subtractions from the doctrine as heretical. This diatribe against all “contrivers of symbols, systems and confessions” is not accidental to Locke’s view of toleration. Instead of pushing for toleration between opposed substantive doctrines, this doctrinal minimalism makes the holding of substantive views itself suspect of endangering the tolerant society.

It goes hand in hand, moreover, with an equally thin view of religious membership. In the Letter, the church is presented as a voluntary society into which no one is born, and one that is concerned alone with right worship as a way to salvation. Locke thus hopes to secure both freedom of exit (those who entered voluntarily may leave voluntarily) and absence of conflict (the church lacks not only the coercive means, but also all the earthly concerns of the state). This is the most influential modern argument for toleration, but it makes it difficult for later generations to see how toleration can go hand in hand with strong persuasions and inherited forms of life.

Thus, the Lockean exclusion of Catholics from toleration can partly be explained in terms of prejudice, and partly in terms of reasonable fears of Catholic destabilization of the English political regime. But it must also be put into the context of this understanding of religion. Like his later works, the recently published text includes Locke’s lament because Catholics have “blended” their religion with other beliefs. His minimal conception of religion—of the place and nature of doctrine, of the nature of religious membership, and of the proper concerns for a religious body—has become deeply intertwined with our own views of toleration. Today substantive creedal assertions, especially when not restricted to the presumably religious, are perceived as intolerant; group-life itself tends to be read as oppressive, and many imagine that the advancement of toleration is equal with the liberation of individuals from any strong bonds.

Once the view of religion latent in the Letter becomes explicit, we can see the risks involved in arguing that the limits to toleration must be “political, not religious.” It is not that limits to what a community can tolerate on political grounds are nonexistent. Rather, if we thin out our understanding of religion so that only a minimal set of concerns counts as properly religious, most beliefs actually held by believers tend to fall in the risky zone where Realpolitik sets the limits of the tolerable.

The enthusiasm for Locke’s position that one can find in the reactions to the newly discovered manuscript shows the degree to which we are unaware of these risks. Though the exclusion of Catholics from the Lockean proposal may now seem to be anecdotal, policing conflicting loyalties and whitewashing with the invocation of political aims remain a part of religious intolerance throughout the world. If these continue to be pressing issues, we not only need a precise concept of toleration––one that does not do away with substantive objections––to address them. We also need to revise the narrow and misleading descriptions of religious phenomena that stand at the center of the Lockean case for toleration.

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