The Locke Paradox

June 11, 2008

In “A Letter Concerning Toleration,” John Locke wrote that “I esteem that toleration to be the chief characteristic mark of the true Church.” Writing in an era recently ravaged by all manner of religious strife, manifested most notably by the Glorious Revolution of 1688 settling the Catholic-Protestant conflicts of 17th Century England, Locke’s premise makes sense. Locke argued that rather than have a Hobbesian central authority to settle all matter of religion on behalf of a society, the best available option was for religion to be privatized. If religion is a matter for the private chamber instead of the public square, then the doctrinal persuasions of one leader or another become irrelevent to his actions as a public official. Furthermore, if I tolerate your doctrinal dissent when I’m in power, maybe you will tolerate mine when roles are reversed.

Locke’s ideas on toleration formed the basis of much of the thought on the relationship between church and state in America’s infancy. The “go along to get along” mindset was formative for men loke John Adams, who believed that virtue was the key to happiness, and that if a person were properly educated, he would see that only through the pursuit of virtue was true happiness possible. Jefferson’s idea of a “wall of separation between church and state” was largely a reaction to the excesses of church influence in government and politics.

And given the Catholicization of the Spanish Empire under Isabella, the painful birthing of the Anglican church under Henry VIII, the whole Oliver Cromwell mess, and (oh by the way) the Thirty Years War, Locke and his disciples might have a point. Keep government and religion separate, if for no other reason than in the name of peace.

As far as that goes, I agree. For that matter, so does the Apostle Paul. In 1 Timothy 2, Paul says Christians should pray that they can lead “peacable, quiet lives” in relation to the government. Interestingly for those of us in Churches of Christ, he uses the exact same language to describe the relationship between men and women in the church.

Furthermore, the historical evidence seems to indicate that Locke may have had a point. Societies where religious disagreement is a reason to fight have been marked by constant sectarian violence or harsh repression of any dissenting views — religious, policitcal, or otherwise. By contrast, the tolerant societies have (generally) been peaceful, so long as there was nothing else to fight over.

But I would argue that Locke was not so much right as he was lucky.

Those societies which adopted his views fo tolerance and put them into practice were, at the time they became tolerant, largely Jesus-ist. The major societal disagreements Lockeian cultures have faced have not been between Jesus-ism and something else, but between one brand of Jesus-ism and another. But as Jesus has taken more and more of a back seat in those cultures, what has replaced Him has become harder and harder to tolerate.

John Locke was lucky, then, because his brand of tolerance only works in a society that leans on the crutch of the teachings of Jesus. Kick away that crutch, and tolerance becomes catastrophic.

Ironically, Christian teaching says as much. 2 Corinthians 12:20-21 says that the only possible path to virtue is by being invested in a community of faith. A religion that is purely private cannot, by definition, do anything to prevent sin or promote virtue. In fact, “private” religion does the exact oposite, providing a shield behind which all manner of vice and iniquity can hide.

For a society to truly be tolerant, there must be certain moral precepts everyone agrees to, accepts, and openly discusses in the public arena. If those precepts are violated — or even supressed — what is left is chaos.

Note:  This was originally published on Stuff I Think, For Now, my old Blogspot site.  I’ll be bringing ministry-related stuff over here in the coming weeks.  Lipscomb sports, politics, and other random stuff will stay over there.