Locke and the question of toleration

Jan 2019
198
Montreal, QC
#1
John Locke is perhaps most famous for his Letter Concerning Toleration. Because of it, and his other works after, he is modernly upheld as the father of liberalism. After all, it advocated for principled religious toleration, railing against the government's dangerous acceptance of popery and Anglo-Catholicism. As a King James VII/II apologist, I've often encountered Locke's works when people are trying to rebut my points. Many times have I seen that James was an intolerant tyrant who wanted to do away with anything that wasn't his particular persuasion, that being Catholicism. Yet, many people fail to engage with the complexities of John Locke's work. It was originally a correspondence between Locke and Philip von Limborch, a Dutchman and fellow antitrinitarian (!!!) Protestant. Locke had written it during his exile, which had been imposed on him because of his complicity in the Rye House Plot. That aforesaid plot involved the assassination of both Charles II and his brother, the Duke of York (later James II), so that the throne may pass to Charles' decidedly Protestant bastard son, the Duke of Monmouth. Willing to commit murder – and regicide, at that! – to avoid a Catholic succession is hardly the most tolerant thing that one could do.

One keystone of Locke’s thought was to return popular sovereignty to the people, in order to ensure religious toleration.(1) This is especially interesting to consider within the confines of absolutism, government, and toleration. In an early work, Locke advocated for tolerance, but with a caveat: “but yet only so far as they do not tend to the disturbance of the state.”(2) To him, Catholic doctrines were “absolutely destructive” and the papist was an inherently power-hungry individual.(3) We can certainly classify Locke’s toleration as being principled, despite his hatred towards Catholics. Toleration must work to serve the greater good of humanity and Christendom. Those infernal papists could not be tolerated, because they were a threat. It would, therefore, go against all principle to tolerate them. They were “unreliable.” Thus, in his disdain for the Catholics, Locke’s toleration was principled, but by no stretch of the imagination was it universal. Yet we so often see Locke held up as a paragon of toleration.

On the other hand, James II is construed as a monster of a man; a tyrannical papist with no other goal than to force all of his countrymen to join him. His defeat at the Battle of the Boyne (1691) is still celebrated to this day. He is recalled as a Catholic tyrant and a cruel monarch. Yet, more recent scholarship in his ill-fated kingship has offered a different view on his regime. Such a negative assessment of James stems from, by and large, Whiggish traditions in historiography. Parliament tried many times to push through exclusion bills in an attempt to bar James from succeeding his brother. The House of Commons in 1680 had explicitly stated that “the Duke of York, being a Papist, and the hopes of his coming to the Crown, hath given the greatest countenance and encouragement to the present designs and conspiracies of the Papists against the King and Protestant Religion”, thus excluding him from succession, on principle.(4) Yet, the legend still holds that he was the wickedly intolerant one. His Catholicism presumed hatred and intolerance. Yet, two years after his succession, James moved to dissolve penal laws, stating that:

conscience ought not to be constrained nor people forced in matters of mere religion; it has ever been directly contrary to our inclination, as we think it is to the interest of government, which it destroys by spoiling trade, depopulating countries, and discouraging strangers, and finally, that it never obtained the end for which it was employed… We do likewise declare, that it is our royal will and pleasure, that from henceforth the execution of all and all manner of penal laws in matters ecclesiastical, for not coming to church, or not receiving the Sacrament, or for any other nonconformity to the religion established, or for or by reason of the exercise of religion in any manner whatsoever, be immediately suspended; and the further execution of the said penal laws and every of them is hereby suspended.
(5)

There is no real way of knowing if James’ toleration as espoused in his indulgence is genuine (principled) or pragmatic. No matter his intention, however, it is still established as universal toleration. James’ brother had also tried to advance such changes, but found it impossible with Parliament standing in his way. One long-time thorn in Charles’ side in this regard was Anthony Ashley Cooper, First Earl of Shaftesbury, who also happened to have Locke as a secretary!(6) Locke’s association with the rather intolerant Whigs should raise many questions. Most of all, it draws our awareness to the inextricability of religion and politics in this time. Charles and James’ politics and religion had no place in the tolerant society that Locke laid out in his Letter and other works before it. Principled toleration must be principled. If it were to allow all sundry ideas and beliefs, then it would not be so.

There was, it seems, a conflict of interest between Locke’s toleration and Whiggery. Both Charles and James were ready to pass toleration, and by any means necessary, even if that meant dissolving Parliament. Surely, they both knew the risk in doing so; they only had to look to their father to see the danger in doing away with Parliament. For Locke, the toleration that the kings wished to advance was not a principled one. Universal toleration for Locke, was dangerous. It allowed for destructive religion that could threaten society. Tolerance could only be extended as far as society could allow for it. To Locke, English society could allow all sorts of Protestant dissent, but it had no room for Catholicism or atheism, on principle.

We can see, then, that Locke’s toleration certainly is principled, but it is exactly this principled nature that prevents it from being universal. It is inherently self-limiting. By principle, it cannot tolerate the intolerable. Though the society structured in A Letter Concerning Toleration is one where the government may not force its subjects’ hands in the matter of conscience, Locke’s attitude on Catholics and atheists is abundantly clear. They were not reliable citizens. When we consider this, we come to see that Locke’s intolerance of these groups – or, at the very least, his disdain of them – is a principled thing. Something cannot be principled if it is not universal; that totally negates the very meaning of the term principled. Politics and religion are far too intertwined to have principled toleration apply to everyone. The religious origins of the work, along with Locke’s political persuasion would make it impossible. It seems, then, that pragmatic, universal toleration – the type that Charles II and James II tried to enforce – would be contrary to Locke’s principled toleration.

I posit that James' toleration was both universal and principled. If it wasn't principled toleration, then he wouldn't have gone to such lengths to enforce it. He would have acquiesced and kept his throne. However, he would rather live in principle without his crown. But this universal toleration of Charles and James could only be done through a virtual abuse of their power (in Parliament's eyes), but it was still universal. At the same time, Locke advocated for a limited government, and principled toleration, exempting Catholics.

So, I suppose that the crux of my question is what can we begin to make of toleration within this lens? Which is better, if we may use such a word? I find people pointing to Locke as an example of toleration to be misled. Locke found the Catholics to be intolerable, thus not deserving of toleration. But the Stuart kings allowed for complete toleration, at the expense of liberty. I know that the term "enlightened despot" was not in use during the 1600s, but I find that it fits James II quite well. As a Stuart, he was inclined to despotism, yet he was still enlightened in his absolutism. Should we discount the Stuart kings' toleration just because they were absolutists?

I look forward to a healthy and mature discussion on the matter.

-DoY

----
1. John Locke, ed. James H. Tully, A Letter Concerning Toleration (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983), 7.
2. John Locke, ed. David Wootton, Political Writings (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 2003) 191.
3. Locke, Political Writings, 146.
4. Exclusion Bill, 1680.
5. Act of Indulgence, 1687.
6. Locke, Letter, 5.
 
Oct 2011
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#2
Okay, so this is a hell of a question and I'm going to start by trying to parce out the key issues at play.

There is the overarching discussion to be had about the role of religion in politics in Early Modern Europe at large, which by itself is enough for a dissertation.

Then we have this tension between "principled toleration" and "universal toleration" and how it relates to James as well as to Locke himself and the context in which they lived.

Finally there is this question at the end about what the difference between the two means, assuming we are able to define a meaningful difference, and which one is better, by which I assume is meant "preferable in relation to the historical time period in question", and if we are really ambitious we can maybe extrapolate that out nto our current political climate, but I'll leave that for last if I attempt it at all.

I'm going to start by just trying to take a small bite here, because it would be easy to drown in the complications.

As is so often the case both historically and now, the principles people espouse are closely tied to the context in which they are dreamed up. It is no coincedence in other words that Locke, an overt anti-Catholic, living among a similarly anti-Catholic populace, would propose the idea
...to return popular sovereignty to the people, in order to ensure religious toleration.
Such a "principle" was virtually guaranteed to work in favor of Locke's own biases and prefernces.

In fact, as I'm writing this, I'm beginning to wonder if such a proposal, given the context, can rightly be considered a "principal" at all. Principals, by definition, should be ideas which can stand on their own regardless of context, and I'm not convinced that's what Locke is proposing. We can run a quick thought experiment, and ask ourselves if Locke would have proposed such a "principal" if the religious situation in England was reversed, with, say, a Protestand monarch but Catholic-leaning populace. Given his biases, I find such a thing unlikely.

And so perhaps what Locke is doing here is not proposing a principal so much as a stratagem, the difference being that a principal stands on its own merits irrespective of context or goals, while a stratagem is an idea designed specifically to achieve a preferred outcome within a specific context, which strikes me as closer to what Locke was doing.

Now that might seem to condemn Locke, but on the other hand, it isn't obvious that James' universal toleration was itself principaled rather than strategic, and it may indeed be the case that we are left with two opposing stratagems masquerading as principals, aimed at the advancement of each proposer's ends.

One way to find out if James' proposition was purely strategic or was a more deeply held principal would be to find out what he said about religious toleration in other nations. Do we have any sources in which he addresses the Huguenots in France for example, or his opinion on their previous plight? His opinion there could be extremely revealing as to whether he really believed in religious toleration or was simply trying to advance the goals of Catholicism as such.

Continuing from there, I find it fascinating that at the same time these ideas are being discussed in England, a parallel of opposites is unfolding in France, where the previous religious tolerance is being unravelled by the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (in the Edict of Fontainebleau,1685) by Louis XIV. I'd like to explore how that affected the debate in England (which was of course by no means happening in a vacuum).

Now, this is as good a spot as any to begin exploring the meaning of religion in politics in the 17th century, but I want to pause and save that for another post, because its the broadest, and I think, most challenging element at play here. I want some time to wrestle with it before making any claims, but maybe what I've written thus far is enough to move this discussion forward in anticipation of that.
 
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AlpinLuke

Ad Honoris
Oct 2011
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Lago Maggiore, Italy
#3
I'm an antitrinitarian Protestant as well, so I don't understand the surprise about this detail.

Anyway, about Locke, I tend to prefer a political reading of his work: he wrote in a period when Catholics seemed able to regain a bit of kudos in England and this was concerning for some environments. So that I'm not so impressed by "principles" regarding Locke, but I'm quite impressed by his political astuteness [even if it's not sure he wanted his work to be published, probably it's the contrary]. The English Protestant world needed such an educated work.

The separation between State and Church is not an invention of Locke, he simply elaborated the concept in his own historical context. What probably is particular and valid it's his conception of "church". Substantially he rejected the idea that there is a true way to the divinity and he sustained that it's not a problem of the state to endorse this or that religion [while during the Reform and the Counter Reform the states acted to sustain Catholicism or the Reformed Churches]. In good substance he saw the believer as an individual following a free choice and not an imposition by the state.

And this principle of the free choice is probably why he didn't tolerate the Catholics: the Catholic Church was a state and it had [it has got] a Prince ... or an Emperor ... the Pope. So in a certain sense to join it means to accept the religion imposed by a state. To tolerate the Catholics would have meant to accept that in England some citizens followed a foreign authority. With an evident damage of the English Justice System.

My opinion is that in Locke's view only free national churches were acceptable and to be tolerated. Any church leaded by a foreign religious authority was not to be tolerated.

In his vision I see two weak points:

1. the nature of the organization of a religion can be a free choice and so I don't see why Catholics shouldn't be tolerated. His "deism" falls on this.
2. what about atheists? Locke didn't tolerate them ... why? Is it not a free choice to renounce to have a religion?

As for I have understood Locke expressed a politically oriented religious and theological perspective.
 

Rodger

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
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#4
I admire Locke great and believe he proposed some radical ideas for his time. So, he certainly should be seen a revolutionary, in the best sense of the word. With that said, no man (or woman) is omniscient. The idea of "principled toleration" is one that can be manipulated to reflect the principles of the the beholder. And even in a system where there is popular sovereignty by the "people" such principled toleration" can still violate the rights of individuals. Locke certainly set the western world in the right direction, leading an evolution that is seen today.
 
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AlpinLuke

Ad Honoris
Oct 2011
24,918
Lago Maggiore, Italy
#5
I admire Locke great and believe he proposed some radical ideas for his time. So, he certainly should be seen a revolutionary, in the best sense of the word. With that said, no man (or woman) is omniscient. The idea of "principled toleration" is one that can be manipulated to reflect the principles of the the beholder. And even in a system where there is popular sovereignty by the "people" such principled toleration" can still violate the rights of individuals. Locke certainly set the western world in the right direction, leading an evolution that is seen today.
He was a pioneer for sure. He was able to endorse the separation of State and Church in a context of religious tolerance. Obviously, since he lived in his own time and in his own historical context, we cannot be surprised to note oddities in his philosophical ideas. His religious tolerance was actually limited by a political approach to the problem. It was evident that he offered an educated philosophical justification to the English authorities not to tolerate Catholics [and this meant that the political usage of his ideas was easy].

At the end [and this could be a historical curiosity] the Anglican Church has got a secular authority as chief ... the Crown. In this it's not that different from the Roman Catholic Church [the Pope is the crowned "king" of the State of Vatican]. So, it's not imposed by the state, but it's the state ...

But this would be a well longer discussion.
 

Rodger

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
5,359
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#6
He was a pioneer for sure. He was able to endorse the separation of State and Church in a context of religious tolerance. Obviously, since he lived in his own time and in his own historical context, we cannot be surprised to note oddities in his philosophical ideas. His religious tolerance was actually limited by a political approach to the problem. It was evident that he offered an educated philosophical justification to the English authorities not to tolerate Catholics [and this meant that the political usage of his ideas was easy].

At the end [and this could be a historical curiosity] the Anglican Church has got a secular authority as chief ... the Crown. In this it's not that different from the Roman Catholic Church [the Pope is the crowned "king" of the State of Vatican]. So, it's not imposed by the state, but it's the state ...

But this would be a well longer discussion.
Well said. Changes in thinking are often incremental. He moved the western world in the direction of religious tolerance, even if his tolerance was not universal. Sort of like the American experiment moved the needle on the idea of representative government, while not including women and slaves.
 
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Oct 2011
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Well said. Changes in thinking are often incremental. He moved the western world in the direction of religious tolerance, even if his tolerance was not universal. Sort of like the American experiment moved the needle on the idea of representative government, while not including women and slaves.
Well that's an interesting thing to say in the context of this thread, because James, at the same time Locke wrote, was ready to advocate for universal religious tolerance. Locke doesn't look like such a revolutionary in comparison, but one could make the argument that he pushed the needle just enough to be acceptable to the masses, which isn't revolutionary but rather politically/socially savvy.
 
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Rodger

Ad Honorem
Jun 2014
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#8
Well that's an interesting thing to say in the context of this thread, because James, at the same time Locke wrote, was ready to advocate for universal religious tolerance. Locke doesn't look like such a revolutionary in comparison, but one could make the argument that he pushed the needle just enough to be acceptable to the masses, which isn't revolutionary but rather politically/socially savvy.
I got the impression from the OP that James' may have been motivated by pragmatism. He was in the religious minority. Assuming James was sincere, I was considering some of Locke's other principles, such as popular sovereignty. Certainly, James was not advocating for the demise of the monarchy?
 
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#9
I got the impression from the OP that James' may have been motivated by pragmatism. He was in the religious minority. Assuming James was sincere, I was considering some of Locke's other principles, such as popular sovereignty. Certainly, James was not advocating for the demise of the monarchy?
Well, it's hard to say how sincere James was being and how pragmatic he was being. But in any case it isn't clear that Locke was being any more principaled and less pragmatic than James. Locke's principles always conveniently supported his politics. If he had been a Catholic, I don't think he would have supported popular sovereignty for example.
 

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