What Is Liberalism?--#4B: The Argument 4 Religious Freedom

Frontpaged at My Left Wing.

The Argument for Religious Freedom: Part 4 in a series based on the entry for Liberalism in the Dicionary of the History of Ideas. [Series recap w/links at end of diary]

Part 4A made seven main points:

 (1) Luther's "priesthood of all believers, though it had precursors, signaled a new departure, radically re-centering religious authority within the individual conscience.

 (2) Luther's hold on his own principle was ambiguous and contradicted by his own practice.

 (3) The extreme "relativism" of today-even to the point of post-modernist interpretations-was present at the beginning with Luther, though of course not realized.

(4)  Castellion's De haereticis, an sint persequendi, published in 1554, was the first defense of tolerance supported by explicitly liberal ideas. There are three liberal arguments Castellion advances, which we can amplify as follows:

 (5) God is merciful, and nurturant. He does not punish men for not meeting impossible standards.

 (6) We can't substitute ourselves for God. Belief must be sincere, to be acceptable to God. But only God can know who is sincere.

 (7) The spiritual condition of the believer is a prime concern. It cannot simply be trumped by claiming "true faith." All that we can do, as mortals, is to try to support one another in our own spiritual quests.

[New stuff on the flip...]

Next: Two Pragmatic Lessons

This principle was not clearly and vigorously asserted until the end of the seventeenth century. Years of controversy and long and painful experience were needed to bring home to men two lessons: that domestic peace and security do not depend on people having the same, or even broadly similar, religious beliefs; and that persecution is unlikely to bring about uniformity of belief, even though it may silence the heterodox.

(8) Domestic peace and security come from tolerance, not uniformity.

The first lesson disposes those who learn it to accept liberty of conscience on political grounds: let people hold and publish what religious opinions they choose, since the attempt to impose religious uniformity endangers the peace more than does religious diversity.

(9) Persecution doesn't work, anyway.

The second lesson disposes them to accept it on religious and moral grounds: let individuals hold and publish what religious opinions they choose, since forbidding them to do so will not ensure that they accept with sincerity the opinions of those who impose the sanctions.

After many a hard knock for over a hundred years, we're finally ready to get serious about putting Luther and Castellion together, supported by these two pragmatic lessons:

The case for liberty of conscience was refined and reduced to essentials by Spinoza, Locke, and Bayle. Spinoza, in the twentieth chapter of his Tractatus theologico-politicus (1670), asserted man's right to reason freely about everything and said that the sovereign invades this right if he prescribes to his subjects what they must accept as true or reject as false. Bayle, in his Commentaire philosophique sur ces paroles de JésusChrist, "Contrains-les d'entrer" (1686), argued that coercion in matters of belief encourages hypocrisy and corrupts society by destroying the good faith on which it depends.

We interupt this paragraph to say, "Here comes the real kicker":

And it is absurd, as some people do, to condemn persecution when it is harsh and approve it when it is mild. Since faith is important, heresy, if it is a crime, must be a serious one and ought to be severely punished; and if it is not a crime, it ought not to be punished at all. The conscience that errs has rights as much entitled to respect as the conscience that possesses the truth. Even atheists should be tolerated; and if Catholics should not be, it is not on account of their faith, but because they are intolerant. For the doctrine that heretics should be persecuted is not religious but political; and it is pernicious because it makes for disorder and is destructive of good morals.


Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), shorter than Bayle's Commentary and more popular and less abstract than Spinoza's argument in the Tractatus, is the classical apology for liberty of conscience. Though it does not, any more than does Bayle's Commentary, put forward new ideas, it is clear and vigorous. Coming towards the end of a long period of religious wars and persecutions, it brings together into a coherent and compelling whole the most solid arguments for religious liberty. It is an act of completion, the last best word of its age for a kind of freedom that men had learned, slowly and painfully, to recognize and to value.

This is very important! Locke is a monster figure in the history of liberalism. This is partially justified, merely because of how often, how widely and how fundamentally he is cited.  However, it is a mistake to fetishize him, and particularly to ignore the fact that in matters of religion-one of his two main contributions (the other being social contract theory)-he is not an originator, but a synthesizer and summarizer. You will find an awful lot of Locke-worship among libertarians. Probably worth a whole book in itself. But the most significant thing to say here is that Locke's views are the result of a long social and historical process. They did not spring from his brow in a virgin birth.  Individualism is, once again, an outgrowth of a specific social milieu.

The proper business of civil government, according to Locke, is to protect and promote men's interests. Though everyone has the right to try to persuade others to hold beliefs which he thinks are true and important, nobody has the right to use force to that end. The civil magistrate has no authority from either God or man to require anyone to profess or refrain from professing a belief on the ground that it is true or false, necessary to salvation or incompatible with it. It is not for him to dispute with his subjects or to persuade them to a particular religion. Even if he could force them to adhere to it, he would not thereby save their souls, for salvation depends on a free adherence to what is true.

A pretty darn robust wall of separation, don'tcha think?

A church is no more than an association of men who come together to worship God in the manner they think acceptable to him, and no church can claim authority from God to be the only teacher of the true faith. Like any other voluntary association it may make rules for its members, may admonish and exhort them, and may expel them for disobeying the rules. But it may not deprive them of their civil rights, or of any rights other than those they acquire by joining it, nor may it call upon the civil power to do so.

No belief is to be suppressed merely because it is heretical, nor any practice merely because it is offensive to God. No doubt, what is offensive to God is sinful, but what is sinful is not punishable by man. No man deserves punishment at the hands of other men, unless he has offended some man, unless he has invaded his rights. Locke, in this Letter, seems at times to come close to saying what J. S. Mill was to say long afterwards: that men are answerable to civil authority only for their harmful and not their immoral actions. Yet he does not say it outright, nor even clearly imply it.

This ambiguity is also important to note. This is something that libertarians, with their ahistorical presentism, are particularly prone to miss. But Locke still took for granted, to a degree unclear in his writings, the police powers of the state.  (This has nothing to do with Hill Street Blues, it's the older, broader meaning of the word, to police: to regulate.) It is police powers that libertarians absolutely deny-except, for some inexplicable reason, to enforce contracts.  

Over time, liberals have significantly shifted their background assumptions about how far police powers may extend, and why. They have never denied all police powers, but they have often focused their attention on the dangers that police powers bring. Locke was a prime example of this.

The text itself delves into this, though without the specific warnings against libertarian misreading:

What he does say is that all beliefs are to be tolerated "unless they are contrary to human society" or to moral rules "necessary to the preservation of civil society." This is not a clear saying. What is to be reckoned contrary to human society or necessary to the preservation of civil society? Since Locke wrote his Letter, there have been many attempts to answer this question or others like it. Locke held that there are rights that all men have, and we can perhaps ascribe to him the belief that anything is to be reckoned contrary to human society if it prevents the exercise of these rights, either directly or by subverting institutions on which their exercise depends. It is actions, therefore, rather than beliefs, that are directly contrary to human society.

Here's the twist:

But actions are inspired by beliefs. Are people to be punished for expressing and publishing beliefs that inspire harmful actions? Or is it enough that such beliefs should be combated by argument, and their attractive power diminished by education?

And here's another blow at the simplistic libertarian holiness-of-contracts view, on the way to making a deeper point: Liberals have always been concerned with the issue of preserving social order, they have always wrestled with the threat of undermining it. What they have not done-which social conservatives (and todays communitarians, too) almost always do-is to take this concept of social order and mythologize it, absolutize it and freeze it in past formulations.  

Hence, it's perfectly consistent with centuries of liberal thought for liberals to argue in support of gay marriage precisely because it preserves social order, albeit in a form that is not, presently, regarded as tradtional. </stack of digressions>

Now, where was I?  Oh yes: Another blow at the simplistic libertarian holiness-of-contracts view, yada-yada-yada:

Locke speaks of moral rules necessary to the preservation of society. Presumably, that promises be kept is such a rule. Yet all societies distinguish between enforceable promises (contracts) and promises that are not enforceable. Nor is the keeping of promises that are not enforceable any less necessary to the preservation of civil society than the keeping of the others. In all societies there are rules, supported only by "moral sanctions," no less necessary to preserving the social order than rules the breach of which is a punishable offence. If the breaker of these rules is not liable to punishment, should the man be so who teaches that they need not be kept-or not in all circumstances?

Locke's letter closes one stage in the long debate on freedom of speech and association, and opens another. It puts forward, simply and persuasively, a number of important principles but goes only a little way in considering how they should be applied.

 See, nothing new here. We got our principles we can all agree on, and fight like the dickens over how to apply them. And we delude ourselves that some dead white dude 300 years ago had all the answers, if only we'd just go back to what he said.

What he said: "Well, maybe."

And that's the liberal way. Keep the conversation going....


In the introductory diary, I made a series of big points.
In Part 2 (a), and (b), I made just one big point: that liberalism developed as a pragmatic response to the context of the modern state.
In Part 3, a similar point: that liberty of conscience--starting with and centered on religious belief--emerged as a liberal value in response to historical developments.
Part 4a began the argument in this diary, explaining the first 7 points.

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1 Comment

Getting better all the time
Paul, much more focussed and going after a more clear goal.

I'm reading Benjamin franklin right now, and in his writings, though he may have been known as a deist, we see the workings of a non-relativistic author.

Temperance, is the key, I think he would say.
You have taken the approach, that if turned towards compactness and clarity of thought, would be a powerful argument for your cause and ideal.

by turnerbroadcasting 2005-08-29 08:28AM | 0 recs


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