Divided Loyalty? Liberal Toleration in the New Locke Manuscript

Recently St. John’s College issued a press release concerning a newly discovered Locke manuscript on toleration. The manuscript consists of two lists, in which Locke sets down reasons to tolerate and not to tolerate Catholics. The two historians (J.C. Walmsley & Felix Waldmann) who discovered the manuscript showed that Locke drew all twenty-four of these arguments from another book by Charles Wolseley, Liberty of conscience, the magistrates interest (1668). What Locke was doing is pretty clear: he set down eleven of Wolseley’s arguments for tolerating Catholics in the first list. He then argues against tolerating Catholics, using Wolseley’s own principles, in the second list. It appears that he was preparing to write a criticism of Wolseley’s work and believed it was indeed not in the magistrate’s interest to tolerate Catholics, primarily on account of their allegiance to a foreign power.

On the one hand, the uncovered manuscript should settle a frivolous debate surrounding Locke. There are scholars who, as silly as it sounds, believe that Locke was simply unable, conceptually, to extend his “principles” to Catholics on account of time-bound thinking. As if extending the principle of toleration to Catholics is a piece of intellectual work akin to knowing about the precise motions of the planets. Just as the early moderns lacked the telescopic instruments we now possess to perceive such things, so too did they lack that great instrument, History, which has bestowed upon the present-day scholar his perspicacity and humanity. Well, Locke considered the proposition and decided against it. At least we now know beyond dispute he had the wherewithal to think of extending “equall title” to Catholics, whom he unfailingly refers to as “papists.”

On the other hand, this new manuscript will do little to solve a common and more serious objection to Lockean toleration or religious toleration as such. The quotation sure to reignite or perpetuate this debate comes in the second list.

I doubt whether upon Protestant principles we can justifie punishing of Papists for their speculative opinions as Purgatory transubstantiation &c if they stopd there.  But possibly noe reason nor religion obleiges us to tolerate those whose practicall principles necessarily lead them to the eager persecution of all opinions, & the utter destruction of all societys but their owne. soe that it is not the difference of their opinion in religion, or of their ceremonys in worship; but their dangerous & factious tenents in reference to the state. which are blended with & make a part of their religion that excludes them from the benefit of toleration· who would thinke it fit to tolerate either presbiterian or Independent, if they made it a part of their religion to pay an implicit subjection to a forraigne infallible power?

Here we have a statement that will call forth the objection that toleration is either a Protestant or Western value, rather than a value that all men can find reasonable. Religious toleration appears to be the promotion, through law, of a specific theological position, rather than the toleration of religion as such. Locke even notes in another part of the manuscript, “liberty of conscience being intended here to unite the protestants in one common interest under one protector in opposition to them, & soe can not obleige [Catholics].” Acts of toleration promote the theological position that earthly princes are supreme in political matters, or that politics and religion can be separated. There are major religions that reject this clean distinction, or subject the earthly to the spiritual power. These religions are put down by law for their (practical) theological beliefs, while the religions that promote the accepted theological-political doctrine of toleration are protected. Asking men to believe in this separation and threatening them with legal sanction if they do not, appears to some to be no different than asking men to accept Christ or Muhammed on pain of legal sanction.

Some scholars have argued that toleration only requires men to accept political principles, not theological principles. That position is sound and supported by the new manuscript. All twenty-four arguments aim at the well-being of the commonwealth, not the salvation of the soul or the success of any religion. The Catholic question should be decided according to the requirements and aspirations of the commonwealth, not the requirements of Protestants or Catholics. This answer does not go to the heart of the problem, though, because the difficulty scholars have with the principles of Lockean toleration is that they want them to apply to religion as religion, or religion as defined by whomever. In this way, no religion would be excluded from the commonwealth, no sincere believer marginalized. Indeed, Locke seems to promise this much in A Letter Concerning Toleration, even though he tacitly excludes Catholics and explicitly excludes Muslims because both maintained allegiances to foreign powers.

The problem is that it is impossible to say toleration allows for every single religion to be respected by the government, if we allow religion to be defined by what any given man believes it to be. When Locke excludes “Papists” in the manuscript, he does so saying, “who would thinke it fit” to do otherwise? In other words, their exclusion is obviously reasonable because it is intolerable to have citizens with divided political loyalties.

While Locke does argue in his Letter that toleration can encompass all religions, he does so only insofar as they undergo improvement through toleration. He makes the same admission in this new manuscript: “If liberty of conscience obleige all partys to the prince & make them wholy depend upon him, then the Papists may be tolerated.” Toleration can only be “for all” if all are good citizens in the Lockean sense, or approximately so.

There are liberal and conservative objections to religious toleration understood in this way. Conservatives will worry about who gets to decide what is and is not reasonable. This was and is the response of many conservatives to Scalia’s majority opinion in Employment Division v. Smith. Liberals will be upset because, in the midst of equality, a ranking has appeared. For example, there is an article by scholar David J. Lorenzo that accuses Locke of erecting a hierarchy based upon “traditional, practical, and marginalizing judgments.” This objection is not merely academic: consider the puling and duplicitous complaints of the Rajneeshees in Netflix’s excellent documentary series “Wild Wild Country.”

Conservatives now object, “who shall judge?” because they are worried that decent religious beliefs and practices will be squashed by the intersectional-ressentiment of today’s Left. Unfortunately for them, what their objection asks for is a principle irrespective of persons, whereby even the dullest mind could make the distinction between what religion is law-abiding and what religion is criminal. Principles such as, “those religious practices are lawful which are consensual,” or, “those religious practices are lawful which do not harm anyone,” are all legalisms which completely miss the point and ask for security that cannot be won apart from education and cultivation of the ruling class (the people, not the legal professionals). The reliance on such principles is an attempt to turn a parchment barrier into the self-enforcing principle of the wished-for natural law. What happens if a critical mass of Americans thinks that all “organized religion” is harmful? The once clear principle distinguishing lawful from unlawful religions becomes a tool against the religion of decent citizens.

As for the academic left, they may have a point. Locke excludes Catholics, says all religions should be tolerated, and makes these two statements consistent by claiming that all true religion shuns political and irrational doctrines—that is, all true religion is Lockean. In this light, how is Locke’s toleration any different from any other ideology that enforces its political norms? An answer can be found in the new manuscript. Does every ideology successfully “unite the [citizens] in one common interest under one protector”? Can every ideology successfully “obleige all partys to the prince”? In the new manuscript, Locke distinguishes between laws that accomplish these goods and laws that fail to accomplish these goods.

Ideologies that rely on the licentious rather than liberal desires in man can only pander and coerce. Their pandering rarely “secures you of their fidelity,” and their coercion consistently alienates the citizens by “prosecuting that as faction which is indeed conscience.” Any ideology that is only ever “continued by power & force joynd with the art & industry of [propagandists]” is inferior to a political theory and constitution which elevates rational and industrious citizens over vindictive and rapacious citizens. That is, every political theory takes cognizance of, and promotes, the types of citizens that can be expected to be good; whereas this argument that holds all ideologies are equal eschews the distinction between good and bad desires and therefore good and bad citizens.

In light of these lingering and unfortunately vital objections to religious liberty in the West, it is a pleasure to find Locke still speaking. The new manuscript will not solve any of the Lockean paradoxes, such that scholars will come to an agreement about what toleration really meant for Locke. However, it does provide us with a glimpse into the thinking of a philosopher mulling over a public deed that he would go on to complete with great success.


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