Religion in Public: Locke's Political Theology

Religion in Public: Locke's Political Theology

by Elizabeth Pritchard

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John Locke's theory of toleration is generally seen as advocating the privatization of religion. This interpretation has become conventional wisdom: secularization is widely understood as entailing the privatization of religion, and the separation of religion from power. This book turns that conventional wisdom on its head and argues that Locke secularizes


John Locke's theory of toleration is generally seen as advocating the privatization of religion. This interpretation has become conventional wisdom: secularization is widely understood as entailing the privatization of religion, and the separation of religion from power. This book turns that conventional wisdom on its head and argues that Locke secularizes religion, that is, makes it worldly, public, and political. In the name of diverse citizenship, Locke reconstructs religion as persuasion, speech, and fashion. He insists on a consensus that human rights are sacred insofar as humans are the creatures, and thus, the property of God. Drawing on a range of sources beyond Locke's own writings, Pritchard portrays the secular not as religion's separation from power, but rather as its affiliation with subtler, and sometimes insidious, forms of power. As a result, she captures the range of anxieties and conflicts attending religion's secularization: denunciations of promiscuous bodies freed from patriarchal religious and political formations, correlations between secular religion and colonialist education and conversion efforts, and more recently, condemnations of the coercive and injurious force of unrestricted religious speech.

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"It may seem impossible to say anything new about John Locke, but Elizabeth Pritchard has done just that. Combining careful readings of Locke's texts with creative applications of Lockean principles to contemporary disputes over culture, religion, and identity, her book will command a broad audience. The Locke, and the Lockeanism, that emerges here is more subtle, more nuanced, and frankly more interesting than the cardboard cut-out so often praised or denounced in contemporary discussions of liberalism. Political theorists, historians, and scholars of religion and culture should all find their views of Locke challenged and enriched in Pritchard's multifaceted reconsideration of this key figure and his legacy."—Andrew R. Murphy, Rutgers University

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Stanford University Press
Publication date:
Cultural Memory in the Present Series
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Locke's Political Theology

By Elizabeth A. Pritchard

Stanford University Press

Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-8575-4


Fashionable Religion

Stanley Fish insists that the debates on the separation of church and state have "not advanced one millimeter beyond the terms established by John Locke." Moreover, he argues that Locke's use of the Christian binary of body and soul entailed his reconstruction of religion as private belief. Fish blames this Lockean legacy for the fact that contemporary liberal theorists consistently seek to keep religious participants and their arguments out of the political process. Paul Morris also blames Locke, among others, for his embrace of a metaphysical dualism of mind and body, in which religion is privatized and in which "politics is the management of bodies." Morris's most poignant concern in this regard—and one not to be dismissed—is his claim that by confining religions to the margins of privacy, liberalism effectively marginalizes its ideological rivals. In addition, Fish and Morris insist that liberalism cannot claim the high ground of neutrality; liberalism is as much a disciplinary regime bent on inculcation as are the religious communities it aspires to rise above.

Locke is also faulted for liberalism's inability to contend with the rise of global militant religiosities. Mark Juergensmeyer, whose writings have examined the rise of religious nationalism and religious terror around the globe, has sought to mediate some of the differences between these movements and modern liberal democracies. He speaks to the fact that members of liberal democracies are flummoxed by contemporary combinations of religion and violence and surprised that political parties with explicitly religious agendas are winning adherents and even elections. To account for this failure of understanding on the part of citizens of liberal democracies, he observes that "the ideas of John Locke about the origins of civil community ... had the effect of taking religion—at least Church religion—out of public life." Juergensmeyer does not explain what he means by distinguishing "religion" from "Church religion." Nor does he elaborate on what he means by the "public life" from which religion has been evacuated. Perhaps for Juergensmeyer public life is not synonymous with civil society or politics but with "the state."

According to Clayton Crockett and Creston Davis, Locke does not simply privatize religion; he banishes it to the mind. They conclude that, post-Locke, religion is not even to be talked about.

Faith, on Locke's view, does not actually exist in any material or concrete way; for it only ever exists "in the mind." Faith is thus an idealized non-thing or even void. Thus, Locke moves faith away from a "way of life" that is public and inextricably political to an internal disposition that is literally nothing at all. Consequently, the communal aspect of religious faith is utterly abolished, and religion is removed from a public discourse altogether.

For Crockett and Davis the public realm is aligned with space, efficacy, influence, and power. Locke's removal of religion from the public means that religion is not to be heard or seen; it is not supposed to take place or take up space. Religion is nowhere and therefore nothing.

I agree with these critics that Locke's influence is still very much with us. I am convinced, however, that Locke's strategies for securing religious toleration are more complicated than his critics describe. I am further convinced that unpacking this complexity offers resources for understanding and addressing the contemporary conflicts that beset secularization.

I argue that Locke embarked on a reconfiguration of religion. Such a reconfiguration goes way beyond either recommending tolerance as a virtue or advocating a policy of toleration predicated on a separation of church and state. Locke develops a political theology that transcendentalizes sacrality so as to enable religious dissent to circulate publicly. 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. Locke's political theology entails a repudiation of all political theologies in which the divine inheres in certain bodies or literally in scriptures, in which God is susceptible to injury and whose majesty requires avenging that injury.

This theological consensus on sacrality makes possible the translation of religions into opinions and fashions, subject to consensual trade and dispute, and posing no risk to bodies—individual or corporate. Locke does not entomb religion in the mind but places it into circulation. Locke does not privatize religion but converts it to public speech. Thus, although Locke used the term secular perhaps once, I argue that his conversion of religion amounts to making religion secular, that is, making religion worldly. Religion was to be subject to public censure and dispute.

The specific contours of Locke's political theology is a topic for a later chapter (Chapter 3). In this chapter I first discuss Locke's specific remarks on religion and privacy. Second, I set these remarks within the context of changing communicative practices that mark a transformation in the practice and understanding of publicness. Third, I discuss Locke's efforts to reconstruct religion so that it is coincident with (rather than in opposition to) the increasing circulation of ideas and people in early modern England and its colonies. Locke repudiates dominant portrayals of religion in which religion is aligned with the will or body. He insists instead that religion is speech and argument which makes appeal to the understanding and that religious differences and alterations are analogous to fashions. Religion as a species of signs is lifted up and away from bodies; it no longer links them across generations as families, "races," or churches of the elect; nor does it point toward them as weapons. Time and again Locke insists that religion neither forces nor injures—not because it is to be privatized or turned into an inert faith, I submit, but because it will be constituted by circulating signs and styles. Nonetheless, as I elaborate in the concluding section of this chapter, Locke's reconstruction of religion as speech and fashion retains religion's proximity to the body and its ambience of power.

The idea that Locke's political platform was responsible, in part, for sweeping religion from the public sphere and into the private is absurd when one considers, for instance, that in the early modern Netherlands, Catholics and Jews could not have public houses of worship or hold public office. Similarly, throughout Europe Socinian and Quaker meetings of any size were forbidden and their writings were prohibited from circulating. In his Letter Concerning Toleration Locke asks, "If we allow the Jews to have private Houses and Dwellings amongst us, Why should we not allow them to have Synagogues? Is their Doctrine more false, their Worship more abominable, or is the Civil Peace more endangered, by their meeting in publick than in their private Houses?" (54; second italics added). Despite this crystal clear repudiation of religion's privatization, numerous interpreters of Locke would have us believe that Locke insisted that the peace of civil society necessitated religion's retreat to private spaces. Indeed, toleration is superfluous if religions are privatized. What is left to tolerate if religion is hidden behind doors or sequestered in hearts and minds?

Locke nowhere provides a systematic definition of private and public. In certain instances he seems to regard private matters as those that have no bearing on others or in which there are no overlapping jurisdictions. The selection of a marriage partner for a family member qualifies as private, as do individuals and churches in relation to one other. The key distinction between church and state is not that of private and public but in their respective use of force. Governmental or magisterial power is distinguished by "prescribing laws and compelling by punishment." Therefore the ultimate aim of religion (the care of souls) must not be corrupted by legislating or punishing certain religious convictions and practices. This does not mean that Locke thinks that care of souls, or religion, is wholly private or that the magistrate must be neutral and cannot care about religion. Indeed, Locke enjoins all people, including the magistrate, to attempt to persuade fellow citizens of their religious error. He writes, "Charitable care which consists in teaching, admonishing, and persuading, cannot be denied unto any man." The constant effort to persuade individuals as to the error of their ways is, according to Locke, "the greatest Duty of a Christian." Religious power is persuasive power. Locke is not looking to sequester religion but to alter the force associated with it.

Indeed, Locke is not just permitting religion in public; he is insisting on it. Locke nowhere suggests that religion's mere publicity constitutes harm and its privacy, safety. Note that Locke insists that the "taking away of God, tho but even in thought, dissolves all." Moreover, Locke spies danger in religions driven to privacy: "When, therefore, men herd themselves into companies with distinctions from the public, and a stricter confederacy with those of their own denomination and party than other [of] their fellow subjects, whether the distinction be religious or ridiculous matters not, otherwise than as the ties of religion are stronger, and the pretences fairer and apter to draw partisans, and therefore the more to be suspected and the more heedfully to be watched." The particular danger of religious partisanship is avoided by publicizing religion. Locke believed that religions could be erroneous, ridiculous, and dangerous; the way to regulate them was to encourage their subjection to the judgmental and disciplinary pressure of the law of opinion. Better to have a religious position aired and challenged than to have it fester, mislead, and mobilize resistance in private.

Locke no more relegates religion to privacy than he reduces knowledge to innate ideas. Locke repudiates the inwardness and presumptuousness of "innate ideas." For him all knowledge is produced by data from the world without. So, too, his ideal of reason is that it entails subjection to the scrutiny of public argumentation. Like his friend Robert Boyle (1627–1691), Locke envisions reason, and the scientific method specifically, as eminently public practices. Rationality for these writers was not a coincident characteristic of privilege but one of probative arguments. Thus, whether Locke is discussing the production of knowledge or upright Christian citizens, he favors the scrutiny and sharing entailed in public argumentation.

Moreover, Locke's insistence on the appropriately public character of religious speech was in keeping with contemporary trends in publishing. One must not lose sight of the sheer quantity of printed texts produced in seventeenth-century England. More texts were produced in the twenty-year period of 1640–1660 than in the prior history of printing in England from 1485 to 1640. In 1642 alone, 2,134 items were published, most of which were about religion. In the midst of this near explosion of the publication of religious debate, does anyone really think that Locke was looking to put the genie back in the bottle and privatize religion? Locke's writings on religion must be read against the backdrop of seventeenth-century changes in communicative practices—changes that David Zaret convincingly argues mark the emergence of the modern public sphere. This emergence is marked by several developments: the shift from norms of secrecy and privilege to appeals to public opinion, the recognition of the right to petition the government, and printing's imposition of dialogical order on political (and religious) conflict. This imposition of dialogical order offset sixteenth-century English Puritans' fear of the public as a "multitude," a many-headed monster beholden to Satan. At the same time, members of the English monarchy worried that repeated exposure to publications showcasing religious argument instructed readers to fancy themselves as interpreters and nudged them to formulate their own opinions. In short, whether it was welcomed or vilified, the printing and circulation of religious dissent was recognized as tremendously powerful. As John Foxe was to remark in 1570: "The Lord began to Work for his Church, not with Sword and Target, to subdue his exalted Adversary, but with Printing, Writing, Reading." For Foxe the pope would have to abolish printing, for printing "doubtless will abolish him."

The key point is not simply that religion was going public in early modern England but that the understanding and practice of publicness and religion was undergoing fundamental change. Just as the image of the public was transformed from a many-headed monster to that of circulating opinions (from which readers could take up a critical distance), the image of religious dissent was transformed from brandishing a sword to picking up a pen. Locke is a witness to religion's increased circulation in printed material and the concomitant rise of the modern public as well as a proponent of the transformation of religion's medium from bodies to speech and text. Religion, Locke argued, was the stuff of argumentation, and these arguments moreover could conveniently circulate at a remove from vulnerable human bodies.

Religious intolerance and conflict is frequently attributed to an epistemological absolutism, which gives rise to competing claims to incommensurable truths or unwarrantable references to transcendent grounds of argumentation. The problem with this attribution is that it already presumes that religion is a species of argumentation. It fails to account for the processes by which religion is transformed into signs—a transformation that is witnessed and advocated by Locke, although it is certainly not complete and certainly not uncontested. (I will have more to say on this in Chapters 2 and 6.)

Religious differences and their attendant flashpoints of violence were not, and frequently are not, matters of truth but matters of identity and of bodily and communal boundaries. The risks posed by religious dissent are not simply philosophical disagreement or even political deadlock. Rather, dissenters, particularly those labeled heretics and schismatics, were seen as infecting, injuring, polluting, or severing the sacred social-political body. Many were accused of sexual perversion, promiscuity, and licentiousness. Given a presumption that bodies are linked by biblical kinship or incorporation in the redemptive body of Jesus, dissent was regarded as contagious. Thus religious dissenters had to be kept apart (jailed), decontaminated, or destroyed. As Calvin remarked, "Shall the whole body of Christ be mangled that one putrid member remain intact?" Heretics were subject to penalties on their persons and properties precisely because the danger posed by religious dissent was widely imagined to be bodily. Given this context, it would not be enough to simply advocate for the delegation of bodies to the state and minds to religion. Rather, religion's relationship to bodies and wills would have to be reconfigured.

Accordingly, Locke insists that religion ought to proceed through harmless circuits of argumentation. But this is a beguilingly simple declaration. To recast religion as opinion or persuasion, Locke must also loosen its mooring in the will and in persecuted, inherited, endowed, ritualized, and divinized bodies. To do so, he argues that "true" religion cannot be forced because religion makes appeal to the understanding, not the will. Religion is epitomized by opinion, which by virtue of being in the province of the understanding, is impervious to outward force: "True and saving Religion consists in the inward perswasion of the Mind.... And such is the nature of the Understanding, that it cannot be compell'd to the belief of anything by outward force.... It is only Light and Evidence that can work a change in Mens Opinions." With this argument Locke makes a significant departure from traditional Christian teaching as to the centrality of the will in Christian conviction and practice. This is not to say that traditional Christian teaching directed that one could be converted at will, but rather that one must surrender one's will; in other words, human willfulness was the central obstacle to religious orthodoxy. Locke sidesteps the will and insists that the key locus for religion is the understanding.

Locke also insists that religion is altogether unrelated to the encumbrances and inertia of familial ties: "No body is born a member of any Church; otherwise the Religion of Parents would descend unto Children, by the same right of Inheritance as their Temporal Estates.... No Man is by nature bound unto any particular Church or Sect.... No Member of a Religious Society can be tied with any other Bonds but what proceed from the certain expectation of eternal Life." For Locke religious selves are made, not born. Religion is not about blood, land, or money but about words, persuasion, and conviction. Religion is no longer an identity with which one is born and is no longer passed along familial lines of inheritance. True religion is not inherited; it is not habitual or second nature but rather the result of critical reflection on the appropriate evidence.

Excerpted from RELIGION IN PUBLIC by Elizabeth A. Pritchard. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Stanford University Press.
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Meet the Author

Elizabeth A. Pritchard is Associate Professor of Religion at Bowdoin College.

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