Revisiting the man who invented tolerance

And lastly, he is often regarded as the primary proclaimer of the right to religious tolerance, to freedom of religion within a free state. This last point is one which is much under discussion in many places, including many English-speaking countries. Religious freedom seems to have given birth to the separation of Church and state. The separation of Church and state is now often taken to mean that the religious beliefs of citizens, or the moral beliefs which are tied up with their religious beliefs, have no place in a free democracy. That this is tantamount to intolerance of the views of religious believers is clear, but seldom commented on in the media. The recent case of Rocco Buttiglione, who was forced to withdraw his candidature for high office in the European Union because he had once expressed a view that homosexual activity is a sin, is a case in point. On the other side, we have the recent victory in 11 of the American states of constitutional proposals protecting traditional marriage, defined as being between a man and a woman, and the consequent insistence on the part of these states that while there may be no reason to outlaw homosexual unions, there is no reason to call them "marriage", either. It is worth noting that these propositions passed in all 11 states. However, in this piece I do not aim at discussing these more weighty matters. I only wish to ask whether Locke deserves his reputation as the great champion of religious freedom and toleration. It is certainly true that he was in favour of tolerating nonconformist Protestant worship, a view which was opposed by the Anglican Church establishment of his day. But he did not extend this toleration to Jews, Quakers, or Catholics. He even explicitly says that it should not be extended to Muslims, though this can hardly have been a practical problem in his time. He mentions Muslims, I think, merely to make a point against Catholics. He claims that Catholics, like Muslims, are subject to a foreign prince, and therefore cannot be loyal subjects of the King of England. These views were not merely speculative: they were embodied in England's Act of Toleration of 1696, a measure put through by Locke's political patrons. This act, indeed, does not go even so far as Locke was willing to go: it merely suspends the prosecution and persecution of nonconformist Protestants. It does not explicitly pronounce that they have a right to worship as they please. Catholics and Jews were excluded even from the practical toleration extended by the Act. Above all, Locke insists on the validity of religious tests for political, civil and military office. Only those who were willing to profess themselves Anglicans and receive Holy Communion in the Anglican church were to be considered fit to hold office of any kind. These tests were not abolished by the Act of Tolerance. It is clear then, that when people claim that Locke is the forefather of religious toleration in, for example, the United States, they are very much mistaken. Religious tests are forbidden by the US constitution, and in the body of the text, not in the first amendment (which is so often appealed to as the origin of religious freedom. One might be tempted to say: "Well, Locke was not as much in favour or toleration as we are today, or as the Founding Fathers of the United States were, nearly a hundred years after Locke's time. But at least he was ahead of his own time, and set political life in the direction of our own fuller religious tolerance. Surely he deserves credit for that?" Unfortunately, this would not be true. There was at least one man of Locke's time who genuinely believed in religious toleration, who defended his lowest Quaker servants against the action of the law, who promoted religious freedom in the colony of New York, over which he had special powers and responsibilities, and who even in England, when it was possible for him to do so, arranged for the suspension of tests and the toleration of all nonconformist Protestants, Catholics and even Jews. That man was James Stuart, Duke of York, later King James II. And it is an undoubted fact that Locke worked for the exclusion of James from the succession, for the application of strict tests to James himself, and eventually was instrumental in bringing in the King of England's enemies, the Netherlands, precisely and explicitly to overthrow the toleration which James had tried to bring about. Does Locke deserve his reputation as the forefather of religious freedom and toleration? Christopher Martin teaches philosophy at the University of St Thomas in Houston, Texas. Email: martincf(at)


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  • Christopher Martin