Locke’s Radical Claims for Conscience

COMMENTARY Religious Liberty

Locke’s Radical Claims for Conscience

Apr 20, 2022 8 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.
Locke’s redefinition of the purposes of church and state would accomplish a Hobbesian goal: political and social stability. Fred de Noyelle / Godong / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

Perhaps the most undervalued quality of a great mind or an awakened mind is the willingness to abandon cherished ideas that cannot stand up to new evidence.

Locke turned conventional thinking about religious pluralism on its head. It was government meddling in religion, he wrote, that caused social unrest and civil war.

A core tenet of the American political order—freedom of conscience—traces its origins to biblical religion.

Perhaps the most undervalued quality of a great mind or, at least, an awakened mind is the willingness to abandon cherished ideas that cannot stand up to new evidence. English philosopher John Locke possessed such a mind. And a good thing, too: His revolutionary thinking about political and religious freedom laid the cornerstone for liberal democracy.

This is one of the understated themes of In the Shadow of Leviathan, by Jeffrey Collins. The burden of Collins’s book is to examine the potential influence of Thomas Hobbes on Locke’s early political thought about the rights of conscience. At first blush, it seems an unlikely project. In his most controversial work, Leviathan (1651), Hobbes sought to constrain religious expression and make it subservient to an omnipotent state. Locke, by contrast, viewed religious liberty as an inalienable right and essential to the concept of self-government.

Collins does not substantially challenge this historiography, but he offers the most searching examination to date of the relationship between these two seminal thinkers on the issue of religious freedom. His bold conclusion: “Locke’s liberalized account of conscience had Hobbesian roots but flourished only when planted in new soil.” Many Locke scholars (including myself) would disagree, arguing that Hobbes’s vision of an instrumental, privatized religion never held much appeal for Locke, who considered questions of faith to be of supreme moral significance.

The influence of Hobbes on 17th-century political thought is a hotly contested question in the  intellectual history of the early-modern period. Yet it is not an arcane debate. At home, America faces unprecedented challenges to the moral legitimacy of its founding principles of freedom, equality, and government by consent. Meanwhile, the most serious geopolitical threats to liberal democracy involve two Hobbesian states, Russia and China, where religious institutions are either suppressed or function as tools of the regime.

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Hobbes and Locke both experienced the trauma of the English Civil War (1642–49) and the political instability of the Commonwealth (1649–60). The execution of King Charles I and the elimination of the monarchy—supported by militant Calvinists inside and outside of Parliament—left a deep impression on them. Hobbes became something of a moral cynic. He believed that individuals were free and equal in the “state of nature,” but that there was no natural moral order to govern society. As he argued in Leviathan, the only way to avoid a “perpetual war of every man against his neighbor” was for every citizen of the commonwealth to surrender his rights to an absolute sovereign.

The same Hobbesian principle of subjugation applied to the institution of the church:

It is the civil sovereign that is to appoint judges and interpreters of the canonical Scriptures; for it is he that maketh them laws. . . . In sum, he hath the supreme power in all causes, as well ecclesiastical as civil. . . . And these rights are incident to all sovereigns, whether monarchs or assemblies; for they that are the representants of a Christian people are representants of the Church. For a Church and a commonwealth of Christian people are the same thing.

Locke never doubted that there was a “law of Nature,” which originated with God and framed man’s moral purposes. But the sectarian violence of his day made him deeply suspicious of political radicals appealing to the authority of the Bible.

As Locke summarized it in his earliest work, Two Tracts on Government, written in 1660, “there hath been no design so wicked which hath not worn the Vizor of religion, nor Rebellion which hath not been so kind to itself as to assume the name of Reformation.” Collins sees “broad Hobbesian influences” in works such as the Two Tracts, where Locke wrote that the political authority should have “absolute and arbitrary power” over “indifferent actions” of religious believers. In this early stage of his career, Collins argues, Locke shared Hobbes’s view of “a contractual state serving temporal ends, of a monopolistic sovereignty trumping the liberty of the church and constantly watchful of clerical conspiracy.”

Collins makes a painstaking case for a Hobbesian connection to a young Locke, but he seems to overplay his hand. He concludes that “Locke wrote on fundamentally Hobbesian themes in a context saturated with polemical disputes over Hobbes’s influence.” But this presumes too much for Hobbes, who was one author among many, and gives too little attention to Locke’s diverse reading in politics, philosophy, and religion. Although he was familiar with Hobbes’s arguments for political absolutism, in the corpus of Locke’s documented reading and note-taking there remains a striking deficit of explicit references to Hobbes.

What seems indisputable is that Locke broke decisively—radically—from Hobbes on the rights of conscience in political society.

First, political absolutism was a hateful doctrine to Locke, because the purpose of government was to protect man’s natural rights to life, liberty, and property. No rational person should imagine that an absolute ruler—who was not himself subject to the law—would honor this fundamental aim. As Locke wrote in his Two Treatises of Government (1689), anyone who believed “that absolute power purifies men’s blood, and corrects the baseness of human nature, need read but the history of this, or any other age, to be convinced of the contrary.” As Collins nicely summarizes it, religious conscience “marked a hard limit to state power and was fundamental to Locke’s theory of popular resistance.”

Second, unlike Hobbes, Locke was not a materialist. Collins correctly observes that “his writings and correspondence revealed a devotion lacking in Hobbes.” That’s something of an understatement, however. Locke devoted enormous energy to exploring the meaning of the Christian faith, collecting sermons and works of theology, and writing commentaries on Paul’s epistles in order to understand better the means of salvation. His singular defense of religious freedom, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), bears the imprint of a devout reader of the Bible. Indeed, Locke believed throughout his life that “every man has an immortal soul, capable of eternal happiness or misery” and that “there is nothing in this world that is of any consideration in comparison with eternity.”

Third, while Hobbes made a pragmatic or political argument for limited toleration—he agreed that the magistrate had no interest in policing private beliefs—Locke framed his case for religious freedom in decidedly moral terms. If neither Jesus nor his apostles coerced people into the kingdom of heaven, he reasoned, neither could the magistrate. “If the Gospel and the apostles may be credited,” he wrote, “no man can be a Christian without charity and without that faith which works not by force, but by love.” Hobbes expected citizens to ignore conscience if it clashed with the edicts of the magistrate. Locke railed against this view, declaring that it endangered men’s souls: “No way whatsoever that I shall walk in against the dictates of my conscience, will ever bring me to the mansions of the blessed.” These beliefs anchored Locke’s defense of religious liberty as a natural and unalienable right.

Finally, Locke utterly rejected Hobbes’s vision of a Christian commonwealth, in which the church was dutifully subservient to the political authority. Hobbes claimed that “in every Christian commonwealth the civil sovereign is the supreme pastor.” Under this view, ministers enjoyed no powers independent of the sovereign. A national church, functioning as an arm of the state, would enforce orthodoxy and criminalize dissent. This, according to Hobbes, was the only way to check the religious divisions that had fueled the English Civil War. This, he wrote, was the basis for political and social stability.

Locke’s repudiation of the Hobbesian project was blunt and unambiguous: “There is absolutely no such thing, under the Gospel, as a Christian Commonwealth.” In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke argued for a sharp separation between the church, with its spiritual aims, and the state, whose purposes were confined to earthly affairs. Neither conferred privileges upon the other. No matter what church the magistrate chose as his own, he wrote, it “remained always as it was before, a free and voluntary society.” Locke called this “the fundamental and immutable right” of religious communities. While Hobbes regarded religion as an institution to serve the secular interests of government, Locke declared that “the end of a religious society . . . is the public worship of God, and by means thereof the acquisition of eternal life.”

Locke’s redefinition of the purposes of church and state would accomplish a Hobbesian goal: political and social stability. In this, Locke turned conventional thinking about religious pluralism on its head. It was government meddling in religion, he wrote, that caused social unrest and civil war. “It is not the diversity of opinions, which cannot be avoided; but the refusal of toleration to those that are of different opinions . . . that has produced all the bustles and wars, that have been in the Christian world, upon account of religion.”

Thus emerged the Lockean ideals that ultimately defined his political career: religious freedom as a universal, natural right; equal justice for all citizens, regardless of religious belief; religious diversity as a source of social strength; and the application of the Golden Rule in civic and political life. Here are concepts completely absent from Hobbes’s political thought.

The book jacket for In the Shadow of Leviathan claims that Collins’s account “establishes the influence of Hobbesian thought over Locke, particularly in relation to the preeminent question of religious toleration.” In fact, the exact opposite conclusion should be drawn.

It is true that, in the immediate aftermath of civil war, Locke shared Hobbes’s opposition to religious toleration and the sectarian strife it apparently invited. “It would prove only a liberty for contention, censure and persecution,” he wrote in 1660, “and turn us loose to the tyranny of a religious rage.” But as England once again employed policies of persecution during the Restoration (1660–89), Locke reversed himself. He concluded that religious uniformity, enforced by the state, was a dead end.

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What is remarkable is that Locke not only divorced himself from Hobbes and the Locke of the 1660s, but from the established norms and assumptions that had governed church–state relations for centuries. “I cannot but own that men’s sticking to their past judgment, and adhering firmly to conclusions formerly made,” he wrote, “is often the cause of great obstinacy in error and mistake.”

What changed Locke’s mind?

This is not a question that Collins seeks to address. He concedes that Locke’s mature view of freedom of conscience was not derived from Hobbesian premises. It required “a theory of equality understanding humanity in imago dei rather than a raw Hobbesian equality of bestial strength.” Yet it obviously required much more than this, since Locke’s contemporaries who defended Hobbesian-style conformity shared many of his core religious beliefs.

As historians such as John Marshall (and this reviewer) have argued, a likely catalyst for Locke’s role as a champion of religious freedom was his close association, personally and intellectually, with the Christian humanist tradition of Desiderius Erasmus. The “philosophy of Christ” articulated by Erasmus, which Locke encountered in England and in the Netherlands during his political exile, was itself a reaction against the violent, authoritarian impulses of Christendom. “Let us not devour each other like fish,” wrote Erasmus. “The world is full of rage, hate, and wars. What will be the end if we employ only bulls and the stake? It is no great feat to burn a little man. It is a great achievement to persuade him.”

Whatever its intellectual sources, Locke’s religious outlook profoundly shaped his liberal politics. This fact alone represents a stiff rebuke to the secular account of the rise of democracy and human rights in the West: A core tenet of the American political order—freedom of conscience—traces its origins to biblical religion. As no thinker before him had ever attempted, John Locke united liberal political principles with the teachings of Jesus. You won’t find that in Leviathan.

This piece originally appeared in National Review