Locke’s Religion: Foundation or Façade?
As the cracks and fissures within our society become visible, we see increasing debate about our society’s foundational principles of classical liberalism, and the man at the center of it, John Locke. His religious views have important political implications, though I will try to mostly avoid politics as I comment on his theology. Is Locke… The post Locke’s Religion: Foundation or Façade? appeared first on VoegelinView.

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As the cracks and fissures within our society become visible, we see increasing debate about our society’s foundational principles of classical liberalism, and the man at the center of it, John Locke. His religious views have important political implications, though I will try to mostly avoid politics as I comment on his theology. Is Locke an atheist whose intellectual project is founded on hedonism and secularism? Or are the ideals of liberty and individual rights an expression of his Christianity?
The secular Locke is the most common view currently in circulation. As an example, take The Constitution of Knowledge by journalist Jonathan Rauch (2021), a stirring defense of classical liberalism. Rauch gives Locke the lion’s share of credit for the pluralism and intellectual freedom that characterize the modern liberal order, but with an unfortunate twist. According to Rauch’s narrative, Locke’s heroic contribution to liberalism included “expelling from intellectual respectability … claims which are not checkable … includ[ing] most of the theological and metaphysical disputes over which the wars of religion were ostensibly fought.” For Rauch, the secularism of Lockean liberalism paved the way for the peace and prosperity of the modern world.
On the other side of the political spectrum, we have Yoram Hazony’s Conservatism: A Rediscovery (2022), in support of the rising National Conservative movement. Hazony’s narrative uses Locke as the counterpoint to his post-liberal conservative political proposals. But Hazony’s reading of Locke on religion is the same as that of Rauch – that Locke’s reliance on “reason alone” left no place for religion or tradition in modernity. Hazony adds that Locke’s social contract strips society of any sense of duty or loyalty to God and family. For Hozony, Lockean liberalism is to blame for the moral degradation of modern society and its weakness to the rising neo-Marxist threat.
Though widespread, I find the secular Locke hypothesis unpersuasive. Far from expelling religious thought from intellectual respectability, as Rauch would have it, Locke wrote much on religion and theology, and religious reasoning motivated even his political work. For example, his opens the Second Treatise and his discussion of the State of Nature by citing the foundational principles from which his reasoning flows. First, he cites Christ’s second great commandment (from a quotation by Hooker) to support the idea of man’s equality and duties to each other. Then he cites a deeply Christian philosophy of the individual and his purpose in life:
Sec 6 … “The state of nature has a law of nature to govern it, which obliges every one: and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind, who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty, or possessions: for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise maker; all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business; they are his property, whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure: and being furnished with like faculties, sharing all in one community of nature, there cannot be supposed any such subordination among us, that may authorize us to destroy one another
The essay continues with references to and dependencies on God throughout, like all of his writings. Christianity forms the basic assumptions that frame his whole approach. This is clearly not just a rhetorical gloss. But could the appearance of Christian piety be an actively deceptive framing for an anti-religious agenda? This would be very hard for me to accept given his Protestant background and the fact that he wrote whole volumes of theology centered on Christ. For example, The Reasonableness of Christianity was a study of Christ’s words in the Gospels with two primary conclusions, as I read it. 1) He says of Christ’s invitation to mankind: “The faith required was, to believe Jesus to be the Messiah, the Anointed: who had been promised by God to the world.” 2) He concludes that reason and philosophy are insufficient to establish a moral society, but revelation and Christ were needed. Though his religious ideas may be challenging to categorize, these conclusions are neither atheism nor deism nor “just a good teacher” liberal theology. In fact, in his A Letter Concerning Toleration, he made it clear that his idea of toleration could only go so far: “Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God.”
It is interesting that both left and right still buy into the idea of Locke as atheist (or maybe deist) even though this is flatly contradicted by Locke’s own words. How could this be? In two excellent overviews of the shifting perspectives on John Locke, Joseph Laconte1 and Donald Devine2 describe how the prevailing view of Locke has changed from the start of the 20th Century. Originally, of course, Locke’s religious reasonings were understood as written, and it was clear that his ideas and reasoning were informed by Christianity (though his conclusions often strayed from orthodoxy). This changed in the 20th Century with new readings by Leo Strauss and Marxist C. B. MacPherson, among others. The idea that Locke’s religious rhetoric (and apparently entire volumes dedicated to theology!) was nothing more than a facade to make publicly acceptable his Hobbesian and purely hedonistic philosophy came from Strauss’s influential reading. According to Laconte, however, the Straussian reading has generally been repudiated by more recent scholarship on Locke and the Enlightenment, which again sees Locke’s thought as fundamentally saturated in Christianity and his reasoning filled with Christian assumptions. If Laconte is overstating the case, it is at least fair to say that there are two schools of thought among scholars of Locke, with what is sometimes called the “Cambridge” school ascendent over the Straussian in recent years.
If the Straussians are right and Locke’s religious works and the Christian framing of his political writings were designed just for public consumption, I would expect him to avoid controversial theological topics and stick to well-accepted Christian rhetoric. But that is not what we see at all – Locke’s theological positions were always controversial. For example, after publishing The Reasonableness of Christianity, he felt obligated to follow it up with two long “Vindications,” responding to various controversies. Why would Locke choose to enter the deep waters of religious debate, and even more than that, choose obviously unorthodox positions on important theological issues that would inevitably entwine him in controversy? In fact, as a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I see a surprising number of parallels between his religious statements and LDS theology3, which have been cause for persecution in the 19th century and ostracism from the Christian fold in the eyes of many still today. These views, like rejection of original sin4, rejection of salvation by faith alone,5 openness to modern revelation6, the suggestion that the soul might be material7, openness to polygamy in certain circumstances8, rejection of the creeds, and most especially rejection of the Trinity9 (but belief in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost), are not positions one would take if the objective is a deceptive religious facade for public acceptability.
So why is it that the Straussian hypothesis of Locke as a clandestine atheist persists so strongly in politics and culture despite its contradiction in Locke’s own words and in recent scholarship on Locke and the Enlightenment? For one thing, the motivated reasoning is bipartisan. As demonstrated by Rauch and Hazony, both the liberal Left and the post-liberal right rely on the narrative of an atheist Locke to advance their respective agendas. For another, who on the religious right will stand up for Locke? Though strong on faith in Christ, Locke alienates both Catholics and Protestants with his heterodox religious views. If mainstream Christians generally do not consider The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be a part of Christianity, it is understandable that most Christians today would also reject claims that John Locke is a Christian. Joseph Laconte is one on the Christian right who stands up for Locke, but in doing so even he feels the need to stretch the truth by saying that Locke “considered himself an orthodox believer.” This is true only in so far as Locke sought to re-define orthodoxy to broaden the tent of who is considered Christian.
I would suggest that the most useful framework for understanding John Locke’s political ideas is that of the Christian rationalist. Or if the term Christian is debatable for some given his position on the trinity, at minimum we can say together that he is a “faithful” rationalist. It is true that Locke read Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, and other rationalists, and indeed, tried to downplay it. His thought certainly owes something to their way of thinking. Yet Locke’s work remains faithful to Christ and driven by Christian assumptions of the existence of a Creator and moral equality of all men as children of God. As a parallel example today, I can read and appreciate the style of thinking of today’s rationalists like Robin Hanson and Scott Alexander on many issues, while also noticing that their reasoning and conclusions would be improved if it were not for a blind spot toward religion and spirituality. Locke was talented enough to do something about it – to take in the rationalist style of thought and improve it with the religious assumptions and values it had been lacking, to great effect. Strauss, unable to admit to any overlap between rationalist thought and religious thought, could understand Locke only by becoming blind to the latter.
In partial defense of Leo Strauss, Christian rationalism in the style of John Locke is all but dead today and remains almost incomprehensible. Locke’s rationalism maintained a belief in miracles and the supernatural, including Christ’s atoning sacrifice and resurrection, and relied on the authority of the Bible, though distrusting the conclusions of extra-biblical traditions and creeds. This approach may be exceptional. Most attempts at Christian rationalism today and in the past have fall into one of two failure modes. On one hand, the largest portion of once-Christian rationalism has devolved into faithlessness and within a generation or two ended up rejecting even the idea of revealed truth. On the other hand, many attempts at Christian rationalism are incapable of breaking new ground or uncovering new ideas because they are understandably and even commendably unwilling to cross certain lines of tradition that have defined orthodoxy for so long. It might very well be true that a Lockean style of Christian rationalism is inherently unstable and impractical – that if pursued for long enough it will inevitably fall to one side or the other. And yet, this exceptional, metastable, non-equilibrium superposition of the faithful and the heterodox, the Christian and the rationalist, is the only reading of Locke that really makes sense.
I wager that the best framework for understanding Locke is as a believer in Christ and humanity, distrustful of the then-current state of political affairs, applying reason to a set of instincts and assumptions derived from Christianity to work out a political theory that he hoped would improve the world. His purely religious thought probably had less of an impact, but I would suggest that the framework for understanding it is very similar. He was a believer in Christ and the Bible, distrustful of the creeds, sects, and bitter divisions of his time, seeking truth by applying reason to a set of Christian intuitions and the Bible, willing to break with orthodoxy and tradition when dictated by reason and not contradicting revelation.
For so long, Locke’s words on religion have been turned upside down to use him as a pawn in the service of contemporary political agendas. Whether you and I agree with his theological approach or conclusions, one must let his words speak for themselves.

NOTES:

[1] Joseph Laconte, The Appropriation of Locke, The Heritage Foundation, Sept 16, 2021.
[2] Donald Devine, “The Real John Locke – and Why He Matters,” Law and Liberty, May 24, 2014.
[3] This of course is not to say that I or the Church would agree with everything Locke ever said.
[4] The Reasonableness of Christianity: “Everyone’s sin is charged upon himself only.”
[5] The Reasonableness of Christianity speaks of the “law of works” in addition to the “Law of Faith.”
[6] Nathan A. Jacobs, The Revelation of God, East and West: Contrasting Special Revelation in Western Modernity with the Ancient Christian East, Open Theology, 2017 3:565.
[7] D. Kenneth Brown, Locke’s Solid Souls, Open Journal of Philosophy 2012 2(4): 228.
[8] Susanne Sreedhar and Julie Walsh, Locke the Law of Nature, and Polygamy, Journal of the American Philosophical Association, 2016 2(1): 91.
[9] Locke’s silence on the Trinity is generally taken to mean that he rejects the doctrine but hesitated to stir up undue controversy by asserting this rejection too clearly.

 

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