The Appropriation of Locke

COMMENTARY American History

The Appropriation of Locke

Sep 16, 2021 17 min read

Former Director, Simon Center for American Studies

Joseph was director of the B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies and AWC Family Foundation Fellow at The Heritage Foundation.
Outside of the Bible, no writings were more widely read or cited in the revolutionary period than Locke’s. Culture Club / Contributor / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Criticism of Locke’s liberalism as the solvent of tradition, virtue, and religious belief continues to influence political scientists and public intellectuals.

Since Dunn’s work, a large community of scholars has explored how Locke’s political philosophy was embedded in the religious beliefs of post-Reformation Europe.

Locke’s aim was a return to historic biblical teachings that would give rise to a more just, tolerant, and pluralistic society.

More than fifty years ago, the Cambridge political scientist John Dunn shook the academic world by the collar when he argued—contrary to the secular account of the origins of liberal democracy—that the intellectual father of the liberal project was an essentially Christian thinker. A chief complaint in his Political Thought of John Locke (1969) was the absence of any serious treatment of the relationship of Locke’s political philosophy to his religious beliefs. “It is an astonishing lacuna,” he wrote.

Dunn’s work, an exploration of Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1689) in its historical context, did much to fill it. “Locke saw the rationality of human existence, a rationality which he spent so much of his life in attempting to vindicate, as dependent upon the truths of religion,” Dunn declared. Indeed, Locke’s entire intellectual enterprise depended upon “the axiomatic centrality of the purposes of God.” Dunn’s bracing conclusion: Locke’s conceptual approach to political society “is saturated with Christian assumptions.”

If Dunn is correct, then the liberal order owes a profound debt to the biblical tradition with respect to its ideas about freedom, equality, and our capacity for self-government. Indeed, the argument now being waged over the legitimacy of the American political order—coming from both the ideological Left and the religious Right—is really an argument over Locke’s moral vision of a just society.

No seventeenth-century thinker, after all, exerted more influence over the American Revolution and the Founding generation. Outside of the Bible, no writings were more widely read or cited in the revolutionary period than Locke’s. It is not too much to conclude that the American experiment in self-government was originally and substantially Lockean in its political and religious outlook, which is to say, following Dunn, that it was “saturated” with Christian beliefs about human freedom and human responsibility. If so, then any debate over the character and future of the American project must take into account the relationship between Locke’s political ideals and his religious convictions. 

>>> 1776: A Lockean Revolution

Two of the chief targets in The Political Thought of John Locke were C. B. Macpherson, a Canadian political scientist, and Leo Strauss, the German immigrant to the United States who helped to revive the study of classical political theory. Taking a Marxist approach, Macpherson regarded material property as the central concept in Locke’s political thought. He accused Locke of using natural law as a “façade” to justify the “unlimited accumulation” of property in a capitalist society. Strauss, famous for distinguishing between the explicit and supposedly hidden meaning of historical texts, persuaded a generation of political theorists that Locke was a closet Hobbesian who used biblical language to cloak a radically individualist, anti-religious agenda.

Despite their differences, Macpherson and Strauss both regarded Locke as an Enlightenment skeptic who rejected Christianity’s supernatural claims, moral precepts, and belief in the immortality of the soul. Locke’s attachment to the individual’s right of appropriation is so uncompromising, wrote Macpherson, that it “overrides any moral claims of the society.” Likewise, Strauss claimed that Locke elevated the lone individual “as the center and origin of the moral world.” His damning conclusion: “Locke is a hedonist.”

This criticism of Locke’s liberalism as the great solvent of tradition, virtue, and religious belief continues to influence political scientists, educators, and public intellectuals. For the ideological Left, it has nurtured the progressive assumption that liberal values emerged only as societies became more secular and dispensed with religious belief. More recently, Macpherson and Strauss have been enlisted by those among the religious Right who accuse Locke of transforming the classical and Christian conceptions of freedom into a license for personal liberation.

Yet the image of Locke as a postmodern hedonist has not held up well under scholarly scrutiny. Since the publication of Dunn’s Political Thought of John Locke, we have had decades of Locke scholarship exploring not only his political philosophy, but also his lifelong religious beliefs and concerns. Though differences of opinion remain over the contours of Locke’s religious faith, there exists broad agreement about Dunn’s essential thesis: in Locke’s writings we encounter not only a severe critic of authoritarian religion, but also a fierce defender of Christianity’s moral precepts who considered himself an orthodox believer.

There are many places in the corpus of Locke’s writings where he articulates his beliefs about God, human nature, and the moral obligations owed to God and neighbor. In the opening lines of Two Treatises of Government, for example, Locke presumes the natural freedom of mankind in rebuking political absolutism: “Slavery is so vile and miserable an estate of man, and so directly opposite to the generous temper and courage of our nation, that it is hardly to be conceived that an Englishman, much less a gentleman, should plead for it.” The remainder of the First Treatise is a careful, biblical refutation of patriarchal absolutism. Locke builds upon this theme in the Second Treatise, in which he declares God’s proprietorship over all mankind:

For men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent, and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one Sovereign Maker, 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.

Neither Strauss nor Macpherson paid much attention to Locke’s proclamation that a trustworthy political theory must be rooted in religious anthropology. Many in Locke’s audience, no doubt, would have recognized his allusion to a passage from Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

The theology expressed in the Two Treatises forms the conceptual core of Dunn’s analysis of Locke’s political philosophy. “Men were owned by God. They were vessels sent on a voyage by him,” Dunn writes, and they were thus obligated “not to rob their owner of their services.” For Locke, legitimate political authority must respect the divine prerogative.

A succession of scholars have reached similar conclusions about Locke’s beliefs. At a 1982 Carlyle Lecture in Oxford, the political theorist Jeremy Waldron experienced the stirrings of a Lockean epiphany. The speaker, Alasdair MacIntyre, observed that Locke’s arguments for equality and individual rights in the Two Treatises of Government were so imbued with religious content that they could not be taught in America’s secular public schools. Waldron balked, assuming that “the theology could be bracketed out of Locke’s theory.” Nevertheless, after re-examining Locke’s political and religious works, he concluded that Locke’s claims about human equality were inseparable from his belief in man as a creature subject to the commandments of his Creator. “The theological content cannot simply be bracketed off as a curiosity,” Waldron writes in God, Locke, and Equality (2002). “It shapes and informs the account through and through.”

The Cambridge historian Mark Goldie rejects attempts to turn Locke’s view of liberty into libertinism. Locke, he explains, did not believe in freedom of action in a moral vacuum. “We are put on earth to fulfill our best nature; we are here to do God’s business,” Goldie writes in his edition of Locke’s Two Treatises (1993). “Accordingly, political freedom consists in a lack of impediments to conducting a godly life.” Elizabeth Pritchard, a professor of religion at Bowdoin College, insists upon “the centrality of theism” to Locke’s liberalism. “Locke’s workmanship argument is emphatic that each human is the property of God,” she writes in Religion in Public: Locke’s Political Theology (2014). “Locke’s political theology is predicated on a consensus on the sacrality of humans qua property of God. It is this consensus that grounds human rights, more specifically, the liberty and equality of all human beings.”

Another pillar of Locke’s political theology is what some scholars have called “the democratic intellect.” They emphasize Locke’s belief in the universal capacity of human reason: the ability of every person to understand that God exists and what he requires. As Locke declares in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding (1690), whatever differences exist among people of different economic or social backgrounds,

they have Light enough to lead them to the Knowledge of their Maker, and the sight of their own Duties. . . . It will be no Excuse to an idle and untoward Servant, who would not attend his Business by Candle-light, to plead that he had not broad Sun-shine. The Candle that is set up in us, shines bright enough for all our Purposes.

Writing in The Cambridge Companion to Locke (1994), Hans Aarsleff, a professor of English at Princeton, explains that, although Locke was a “pious believer in scriptural revelation, . . . his public philosophy was directed toward God’s manifest revelation in creation because it, by being open to the reason and senses of all, allows for equality of knowledge for all.” Locke’s anthropology legitimized, without moral distinction, the rational capacities of every human being. Here is an unashamedly religious rationale for political equality: the proposition that God has constituted human nature so that every individual, by virtue of his or her humanity, possesses both the capacity and the obligation to seek after God and to discern his moral law.

Since Dunn’s work, a large and growing community of scholars has explored how Locke’s political philosophy was embedded in the religious beliefs and assumptions of post-Reformation Europe. In The Mind of John Locke: A Study of Political Theory in Its Intellectual Setting (1994), the Cambridge historian Ian Harris explains that, for Locke, the task facing man was not an amoral quest for self-preservation or a Hobbesian struggle for survival. Rather, Locke conceives of God “not merely as creator and preserver of mankind, but as setting purposes fundamental to human life.” God was for Locke the “binding force” of natural law.

In Revolutionary Politics and Locke’s Two Treatises of Government (1986), the political theorist Richard Ashcraft observes that Locke first developed his thinking about man’s moral duties to God in his Essays on the Law of Nature (1666), published early in his career. These duties, Locke writes, are bound up with the law of nature and derived “from the right which the Creator has over His Creation.” Though self-preservation is an essential attribute of humankind, it cannot be the basis for the moral laws that govern men and nations. Instead, building upon the divine prerogative declared in Genesis, Locke argues that political absolutism is incompatible with God’s “grand design” for humankind. “The political message of Locke’s commitment to creationism is starkly clear,” writes Ashcraft. “Neither monarchs nor fathers have a right to destroy God’s workmanship, since such a right belongs to the maker of the property.” Ashcraft calls this the “primary axis” upon which Locke rejects political absolutism.

If the absolute sovereignty of God precludes absolutism among men, another basis for political society—accessible to all—must be proposed. But what? This was Locke’s great objective in his Second Treatise, where he cited the Bible sparingly, relying on natural law and natural rights to make the case for human freedom and equality:

The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, 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.

Scholars widely agree that Locke rooted this “law of Nature” in the divine will and that it was upon this theistic foundation that he based his argument for consensual government. In John Locke’s Politics of Moral Consensus (2005), the political theorist Greg Forster writes that, for Locke, the only kind of natural or moral law worthy of the name was divine in origin. “To be a moral law properly so called, a law need not be revelatory—it can be discerned in nature instead—but it must bear God’s authority.” In John Locke: Essays on the Law of Nature (1988), the philosopher Wolfgang von Lyden writes that Locke rejected the doctrine of Thomas Hobbes, which makes self-preservation and self-interest the basis of natural law. Instead, God was for Locke the “binding force” of natural law. “He derives natural law from man’s rational nature and this, in turn, from God’s wisdom and eternal order that prevails in the universe.” Kim Ian Parker, the author of The Biblical Politics of John Locke (2004), observes that Locke himself drew out the political implications of a divinely ordained natural law: those who violated the law of nature faced punishment from political authorities “for seeking to destroy others who are, in effect, God’s property.”

Many see a strong connection between Locke’s theological basis for consensual government and his argument for the rights of conscience in matters of faith. Locke’s interest in the debates over liberty of conscience began during the Restoration (1660–88), a period of intense religious persecution. A broad defense of religious liberty—grounded in both natural rights and revealed religion—became one of his lifelong pursuits. “In one form or another,” writes the political scientist Gordon Schochet, “religious toleration constitutes the single strand that unites his entire intellectual and political career.”

Here again a consensus has emerged. Like his political radicalism, Locke’s advocacy for religious liberty was framed and motivated by a set of firmly held religious beliefs. Scholars debate Locke’s orthodoxy, but there is little doubt that he maintained a lifelong belief in the divine authority of the Bible, in Jesus as the Messiah, in the hope of eternal life, and in a final judgment.

Dunn was one of the first scholars to take seriously Locke’s convictions on these matters. Contrary to materialist interpretations, Dunn insisted that Locke’s belief in eternal life shaped his politics and drove his appeal for the rights of conscience. For Locke, only genuine faith, based on the “inward persuasion of the mind,” could be acceptable to God. As Dunn explained:

The right of freedom of conscience in Locke’s eyes is fundamentally a right to worship God in the way one judges that God requires: a right which follows from, and is barely intelligible without the duty to do just that. . . . It is a grotesque impertinence for any human political authority to intrude its inept and irrelevant pretensions into this overwhelmingly important individual preoccupation.

Most scholars have come around to this view. In their edition John Locke: An Essay Concerning Toleration (2006), J. R. Milton, a philosopher at King’s College London, and his brother Philip Milton, a lecturer in law at the University of Leicester, examine nearly all of Locke’s writings on religious freedom from 1667 to 1683. As they see it, Locke’s individualism was severely constrained in that every person was accountable for his own soul—for the integrity of his life and faith—before a holy God. “[Locke’s] starting point, the foundation on which everything rests, was that everyone has two destinies, one in this world and the other in the next,” they write. “Of these the latter is by far the most important . . . and religious considerations must take priority over secular ones.”

Locke’s views on the subject of religious reform can be situated roughly within the Protestant tradition of Martin Luther. “As nobody else can go to heaven or hell for me,” Luther wrote, “so nobody else can believe or disbelieve for me.” As Locke put the matter himself: “The one only narrow way which leads to heaven is not better known to the magistrate than to private persons,” he wrote in A Letter Concerning Toleration, “and therefore I cannot safely take him for my guide.”

There are plausible reasons to view Locke not only as a religious believer, but also as a Christian reformer. In John Locke: Writings on Religion (2002), the philosopher Victor Nuovo argues that Locke took the Christian doctrine of redemption deadly seriously because the prospect of eternal happiness “was for Locke not an idle hope but an assurance beyond doubt.” His rejection of militant Christianity “does not put him outside the Reformation, but, together with his fidelity to the Protestant principle of sola scriptura, arguably places him within it as one of its advocates.

Like his political radicalism, Locke’s advocacy for religious liberty was framed and motivated by a set of firmly held religious beliefs.

In recent years, no scholar has explored with more care the sources of Locke’s thinking about religious liberty than John Marshall, an historian at Johns Hopkins University. In his magisterial John Locke, Toleration and Early Enlightenment Culture (2006), Marshall places Locke in the company of reformers who championed the “primitive Christianity” of the early church over the use of force in winning converts. Locke collected virtually everything written about toleration he could get his hands on: the works of Desiderius Erasmus, Sebastian Castellio, Jeremy Taylor, William Chillingworth, Philipp van Limborch, and others in the Christian-humanist tradition. All were Trinitarian, orthodox Christians; all sought a more tolerant form of Christianity. Like them, according to Marshall, Locke believed that “God himself required a voluntary or consensual worship which could not proceed from force” and that “the duties of equity and charity in imitation of Christ and the apostles required the toleration of others.”

In the opening pages of A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), his most sophisticated defense of religious freedom, Locke repeatedly appeals to the teachings and example of Jesus and his disciples as the moral lodestar for a more liberal political order. “The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion, is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and the genuine reason of mankind,” he wrote, “that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind, as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it, in so clear a light.” It is beyond question, Marshall writes, that for Locke “the duty of charity was a crucial argument for toleration, as charity was the most important duty of Christianity.”

The Yale philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff warns that it is a mistake to isolate Locke’s religious beliefs from his political philosophy: “For a striking feature of Locke’s thought is that religious considerations enter into all parts of his thought; Locke’s philosophy as a whole bids fair to be called a Christian philosophy.” Against Macpherson and Strauss, J. R. Milton argues that Locke’s Christian vocabulary “cannot be interpreted either as a pious façade or . . . as a mere residue in a mind already fundamentally secular but either reluctant or unable to acknowledge itself as such.” Mark Goldie concurs: “Locke’s philosophy was profoundly imbued with Christian convictions: he was no secular thinker.”

Thus, over the last half century, scholars from all disciplines have repudiated the profile of Locke created by Macpherson and Strauss: Locke as a Hobbesian, hedonist, materialist, deist, and an opponent of traditional religion. Indeed, we have learned that Locke sought to anchor his entire approach to politics in one of the central doctrines of the Hebrew and Christian scriptures: the concept that God has marked out a noble calling for every human being, a purpose that was not intended to be realized in a political order based on slavery.

What, then, explains the secular interpretations of Locke that continue to be propagated? In his own day, Locke was attacked as an atheist; one contemporary critic compared him to “one of those Locusts that arose out of the smoke of the bottomless Pit.” Today Locke is hailed by much of the Left as a champion of the radical Enlightenment and pilloried by much of the Right as a tool of the devil to dissolve mankind’s obligations to God and neighbor.

George Kateb, a professor of politics at Princeton, argues—somewhat bizarrely—that only in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding is Locke truly sincere in his arguments for God’s existence. “When he invokes God elsewhere he is not sincere,” Kateb wrote in 2009, without offering any criteria to evaluate Locke’s sincerity. “What is more, nothing moral or political follows from his sincere theological arguments.” As we have seen, quite a bit follows from Locke’s religious convictions. Nevertheless, Kateb claims that Locke “made an unequaled contribution to the emergence of secularism in general and political secularism in particular.” In Why Liberalism Failed (2018), the Notre Dame political scientist Patrick Deneen parrots the Marxist critique and condemns Locke’s liberalism as “a catastrophe for the ideals of the West,” based upon a “false anthropology” that exalts “the unleashed ambition of individuals.” Still others have imbibed the materialist narrative and applied it to the American Founding. The result is a view of liberal democracy as having been steeped in an anti-religious, radically individualistic ethos from its birth.

We are thus faced with a profound conceptual mistake involving one of the most consequential minds in the Western political tradition. Locke’s Two Treatises of Government became a catalyst for the American Revolution and for other revolutions dedicated to human equality, freedom, and government by consent of the governed. His Letter Concerning Toleration transformed the debates over the rights of conscience and ranks as the most important defense of religious liberty ever written. These works stand at the heart of the liberal-democratic canon.

Locke’s achievements are best appreciated in their historical setting, the time that Paul Hazard called “the crisis of the European mind.” Born in 1632, Locke lived during one of the most turbulent periods of English history: the English Civil War, the Restoration, and the Glorious Revolution. He witnessed firsthand the devastating results of religious persecution. Political absolutism and religious authoritarianism were ravaging European civil society; deeply intertwined, both relied upon eccentric interpretations of the Bible.

Locke met them head on. Whatever the precise content of Locke’s religious beliefs, no serious account of the body of his work can fail to detect a set of religious convictions that functioned as the motive force behind his political philosophy. Locke returned often to the life of Jesus as the model for private and civic behavior. “It is not enough to believe him to be the Messiah,” he warned in The Reasonableness of Christianity, “unless we also obey his laws and take him to be our king to reign over us.” Locke’s aim was to instigate a revolution in the theological outlook of European society: a return to historic biblical teachings that would give rise to a more just, tolerant, and pluralistic society.

>>> Cicero: A Republic—If You Can Keep It

Locke’s aim was to instigate a revolution in the theological outlook of European society: a return to historic biblical teachings that would give rise to a more just, tolerant, and pluralistic society.

This conclusion comes as no surprise to scholars who have studied not only Locke’s published works, but also his unpublished manuscripts, notebooks, and letters. Locke’s extant correspondence consists of about 3,650 letters. Spanning more than five decades, they reveal, among other things, a man of heartfelt faith grappling with the gulf between the moral demands of Christianity and a society lacerated by sectarian strife.

While in political exile in the Netherlands, for example, Locke wrote to his friend, Philipp van Limborch, the leader of a dissenting church in Amsterdam. Limborch had sent Locke a manuscript of his Theologica Christiana, a defense of Christian orthodoxy and a plea for religious toleration. “If you wish me to speak openly and sincerely,” Locke wrote, “nowhere have I found opinions more clearly set forth, better supported by reasoned arguments, further removed from party feeling, and in all points more conformable to the truth” (italics added).

For anyone who cares to examine it, the scholarship offers a stunning rebuke not only to Macpherson and Strauss, but also to the entire secularization thesis. Funeral services for this great myth are long overdue. The roots of the most cherished values of liberalism—its emphasis on human dignity, equality, freedom, and pluralism—grew in the soil of religious belief. Put another way, liberal democracy emerged not because of secularization, but because of a fresh and dynamic application of the principles of biblical religion.

Many actors played a role in the triumph of these concepts in the West, but none was more influential than John Locke. Consequently, any scheme for democratic renewal that remains either ignorant or contemptuous of this history is surely a fool’s errand. Indeed, the recovery of Locke’s singular moral vision is one of the most urgent cultural tasks of our day.

This piece originally appeared in The New Criterion