Early American Modifications of Locke’s Theory of Toleration

by vaughn_admin  //  

July 26, 2016

Last summer, the Religious Freedom Project offered dissertation fellowships for students exploring the sources, development, and consequences of religious freedom. The project supported five fellows in exploring the relationship between religious liberty and other fundamental freedoms; its importance for democracy; and/or its role in social and economic development, international diplomacy, and countering violent religious extremism. Cornerstone asks the fellowship winners to share about their research and findings. 

By: Kevin Vance

The views of the American founders on religious liberty provide fertile ground for a range of different interpretations of what religious liberty protects and how religious liberty is justified. Although John Locke’s arguments for religious liberty were influential on the American founders, several founders such as John Adams and James Madison departed from or developed Locke’s arguments in a way that emphasizes how a human being’s religious obligations can limit the power of civil government. 

On behalf of religious toleration, Locke advanced several arguments of a theological nature, such as that the New Testament never plainly commands religious coercion, and that coercion would lead to religious hypocrisy. In addition to these, Locke developed a philosophic argument for religious toleration that chiefly depends on the theoretical separation of temporal and spiritual or eternal affairs. For Locke, the aims of government are determined by the reasons for which human beings enter into political society and leave the state of nature. According to Locke’s theory, religious matters are excluded from the legitimate aims of political society. Without civil government in the state of nature, Locke thought that people would sometimes prefer to steal from others instead of laboring to satisfy their own needs. That danger, Locke argued in his Letter Concerning Toleration, “obliges Men to enter into Society with one another; that by mutual Assistance, and joint Force, they may secure unto each other their Properties, in the things that contribute to the Comfort and Happiness of this Life; leaving in the mean while to every Man the care of his own Eternal Happiness.” People do not leave the state of nature because they are worried about the state of their souls; they leave because they are concerned for the security of their lives and property. 

At the same time, Locke gave some indications that he thought it would usually be irrational for anyone to assent to an alleged revelation of God unless the purportedly revealed truths were accompanied by what a person believed with certainty to be supernatural, miraculous evidence. In his Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke wrote that it is “impossible, that the love of truth should carry my assent above the evidence, that there is to me, that it is true, as that the love of truth should make me assent to any proposition, for the sake of that evidence, which it has not, that it is true.” This skepticism provides even stronger support for the theoretical exclusion of religious concerns from the concerns of civil authority.  Locke suspected that most people would continue to hold divergent opinions without sufficient evidence that they are true. Due to this political problem that he thought was insurmountable, he concluded that it would be best “to maintain peace, and the common offices of humanity, and friendship, in the diversity of opinions.” 

At the time of the ratification of the First Amendment, it was widely accepted that there was a link between religious toleration and political peace. In addition to the argument for religious liberty on the basis of peace, the most cogent defenders of religious liberty at the time of the American founding made essentially Lockean arguments that limited the civil authority’s ability to compel someone to believe or worship in a manner opposed to the prescriptions of one’s conscience. For example, Thomas Jefferson followed Locke’s social contract theory argument when he wrote, “that the opinions of men are not the object of civil government, nor under its jurisdiction.” 

In several important documents from the American founding, the Lockean argument for the right of freedom from religious coercion was adjusted in order to emphasize the connection between that civil immunity and the duties that human beings owe to God, and perhaps even to purportedly revealed truths. 

John Adams had the lead role in drafting a constitution for Massachusetts in 1779 in which he and the drafting committee proposed: 

“It is the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the SUPREME BEING, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe. And no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping GOD in the manner most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience; or, for his religious profession or sentiments; provided he doth not disturb the public peace, or obstruct others in their religious worship.” 

The language of this declaration seems a ground right to religious liberty in the duty to worship God, to whom the Massachusetts draft attributes the particular attributes of creator and preserver. Although the draft did not explicitly link the ideas of duty to God and religious liberty, the authors implied that the duty is connected to individual conscience. 

James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance explicitly links the prior duties that one owes to God with the civil immunity against religious coercion by political authority. He wrote that the right of conscience is unalienable “because what is here a right toward men, is a duty towards the Creator.” While Locke also asserted that human beings have a duty to worship God, he did not link that obligation to the right to religious liberty. 

The American founders were generally faithful to Locke’s understanding of religious liberty. Nevertheless, some of the Americans were inclined to accept a more exalted understanding of religious liberty than Locke’s. Although they generally accepted the social contract theory’s limitation on government power with respect for religion, I argue that there was an openness in the thought of several founders to framing the limit of civil action in reference to obligations of human beings that precede and reach beyond the state. This kind of argument preserves religious freedom as something worthy of special constitutional protection even in the absence of the threat of violent religious discord or widespread popular skepticism. 

Kevin Vance is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at the University of Notre Dame and was a summer 2015 doctoral fellow with the Religious Freedom Project.

This piece was originally authored on January 6, 2016 for the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown’s Berkley Center for Religion, Peace, and World Affairs.