The political situation in the United States offers an excellent and necessary opportunity to examine our ideas concerning toleration. We should turn to John Locke, who presents an argument for toleration worth pondering in a time when few are giving toleration, let alone free speech, freedom of association, or liberty, serious thought.

John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration provides rational grounds for both wide toleration and minimal government policing of private associations. Peter C. Myers describes Locke’s toleration as, “a doctrine of moderate, genuinely political rationalism, embodying a respect for the limits of reason and an appreciation of the indispensable contribution of faith to the cultivation of the capacity for moral personhood or rational liberty.”[1] Lockean toleration limits the power of government from violently coercing members, prevents churches from interfering with the civil goods of members, and establishes the supremacy of the temporal regime over the spiritual regime.

The political situation in the United States offers an excellent and necessary opportunity to examine what is toleration, why is it necessary, and what are its limits. This is necessary for several reasons: the role of the media in elections looms large in the coming 2020 election; online technology companies such as Google, Facebook, and Apple influence what and how millions receive information; and the bounds of acceptable discourse are seemingly being redefined. John Locke presents an argument for toleration worth pondering in our time because few are giving toleration, let alone free speech, freedom of association, or liberty, serious thought.

Christianity and Toleration

Locke’s doctrine of toleration begins with true Christianity, the purpose of the church, and the ends of civil society. He states that what is needed is not another edict of toleration or comprehension bill, but, rather, true toleration. His essay begins with the assertion that all men are orthodox to themselves— a heretical claim in his era.[2] Men think that their own beliefs are the orthodox ones and that all those who differ with them are the real heretics. Later, he remarks that toleration is the chief mark of Christianity. Locke clarifies that rather than a commitment to true Christian doctrine and a concern for human souls, it is self-interest that is at the base of most persecution. He wrote that such persecutions and violence “are much rather Marks of Men striving for Power and Empire over one another, than of the Church of Christ.”[3] It is telling that men suffer all manner of vices and commit sins that clearly contradict the teaching of Scripture while focusing on ceremonies.[4] He finds the torment and death of those deemed heretics troubling because it does nothing to change their minds while simultaneously condemning them to damnation. This behavior stands in contrast to the early church, whose members proselytized the world through their behavior and witness. Persecution for religious belief is irrational because it is used for selfish ends, ignores sin, and condemns the souls of men to Hell. It is also contrary to the example of Christ and his disciples, and ignores the different purposes of the commonwealth and church. Locke presents arguments for toleration consistent with the health of society to limit the power of throne and altar.

Argument for Toleration

Locke presents five arguments for toleration. First, the purpose of civil government differs from the purpose of the church. Second, coercion does not convince anyone. Third, no man knows the true religion, and all have diverse opinions of what it is. Fourth, in practice, coercion is used in service of men’s passion for greed and dominion. Fifth, truth will ultimately prevail.

The ends for which governments are instituted among men are limited. Men compact for the protection of their property: life, health, liberty, and estates. Locke writes, “The Commonwealth seems to me to be a Society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing of their own Civil Interests.”[5] In the state of nature, man has certain individual natural rights and government is established to protect them. The state of nature, while peaceable, is prone to descend into a state of war best described by Thomas Hobbes in which there is “continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” and without any of the benefits of civilization.[6] Three things are lacking in the state of nature: promulgated laws, impartial judges, and the power of the sword to enforce the first two. In order to escape the scarcity and irrationality of the state of nature, men consent to give conditionally some of their power to government in order to better secure their natural rights. David J. Lorenzo writes,

Under Natural Law in the State of Nature we all enjoy a complete freedom from subjection and exercise all rights. Under human law, duly-authorized magistrates exercise the rights we give up to government, while the rights of ordinary citizens are set by the limits on the powers of the magistrate that flow from the terms of our consent, Natural Law, and the tasks of government.”[7]

In the state of nature men have two primary duties: self-preservation and, when possible, the preservation of others. The natural law and natural rights shape the limits of government and define its purpose.

The commonwealth is created to alleviate the problems of the state of nature and requires an organizing structure with the appropriate rulers and government officials to run it. Magistrates have the duty “by the impartial Execution of equal Laws, to secure unto all the People in general, and to every one of his Subjects in particular, the just Possession of these things belonging to his life.”[8] Law guards against the force and fraud of others; it cannot extend to the salvation of men’s souls. Therefore, the magistrate cannot use the force of the political regime to force the salvation of souls. Locke provides three reasons for this.

First, the magistrate was not given the care of the subjects’ souls, neither by God or the consent of the people. It is impossible that man would so endanger his eternal soul as to entrust it to another fallible man. Second, the magistrate can only use force to coerce outward action. He cannot change the soul or persuade men to believe that to which they cannot rationally assent. Third, there is a wide difference of opinion regarding which religion is the right religion, even within Christianity.[9] Therefore, the civil power must concern itself solely with the civil interests of this world, leaving spiritual matters to the care of individuals.

The magistrate has limited duties; Locke indicates that he must “only . . . take care that the Commonwealth receive no prejudice, and that there be no Injury done to any man, either in Life or Estate.”[10] The magistrate possesses the force of the commonwealth. He may only use it in accordance with the purpose of government and the health of society. While the magistrates ensure the execution of the laws, priests and parsons have the care of souls. Religious authorities may preach and exhort, but they do not have the power of the sword. In addition, clergy have the same civic obligations as magistrates and private persons. They must obey the law and not engage in violence or the seizure of material goods. Clergymen should admonish their parishioners “of the Duties of Peace and Good-will towards all men.”[11] Love and charity should be the chief marks of leaders of the church, not violence, ambition, and the desire to dominate others.

Rights of Association

The church governs a separate sphere from the political realm because it has a separate purpose from politics. Locke defines the church as “a voluntary Society of Men, joining themselves together of their own accord, in order to the publick worshipping of God, in such a manner as they judge acceptable to him, and effectual to the Salvation of their Souls.”[12] A man must personally care for his eternal soul and must individually determine how best to secure it. Due to the wide theological diversity within Christianity, it is dangerous to allow another to command one in spiritual affairs. This, coupled with the varying ability of men to use their reason in religious matters, makes it necessary for men to be able to choose whatever church organization seems best to them. Therefore, wide freedom is necessary for men to associate as they deem fit to secure their salvation.

The church, like other voluntary associations, possesses the right to associate consistent with the good of society. Locke writes,

Forasmuch as no Society, how free soever, or upon whatsoever slight occasion instituted, (whether of Philosophers of Learning, of Merchants for Commerce, or of men of leisure for mutual Conversation and Discourse,) No Church or Company, I say, can in the least subsist and hold together, but will presently dissolve and break to pieces, unless it be regulated by some Laws, and the Members all consent to observe some Order. Place, and time of meeting must be establisht [sic]; Distinction of Officers, and putting things into a regular Course, and such like, cannot be omitted. But since the joyning [sic] together of several Members into this Church-Society, as has already been demonstrated, is absolutely free and spontaneous, it necessarily follows, that the Right of making its Laws can belong to none but the Society itself, or at least (which is the same thing) to those whom the Society by common consent has authorized thereunto.[13]

Men may associate for any ends that do not injure the public good or harm men in their rights. Private and voluntary associations have the power to set membership criteria, and to govern themselves by their own rules and discipline members according to them. Because members voluntarily enter into an association and consent to its rules, no one outside the association can make rules for them. However, they cannot harm members in their civil goods.[14]

Four Things Not to Be Tolerated

Locke’s toleration provides for wide freedom of association and belief so long as it is consistent with the minimal conditions necessary to sustain the regime. This includes the protection of morals and man’s property: his life, liberty, estate, and the things necessary to secure these. Eric Claeys rightly notes,

Locke’s liberalism recognizes in citizens the rights to think, believe, and associate as they please, but only to the extent that such rights threaten neither the basic material interests that government protects nor the moral and political consensus that makes liberalism possible.[15]

Few men are able to use their reason to conduct their lives in accordance with their best interests. Liberal regimes require citizens of a certain type because they are given more freedom than those under an absolute government. A certain character and predisposition must be inculcated in the citizenry. In The Essay Concerning Human Understanding, Locke writes about three factors that help to shape men’s behavior: religious prescription, civil law, and the mores of the people.[16] All three have potential punishment attached to them. The first, the punishment of God, the second, the punishment of the civil authority, and the third, the punishment that comes from shame and disdain from one’s fellows. These factors need to be harmonious to contribute to a stable civil polity. Therefore, doctrines or actions that jeopardize the regime may be policed. Locke lists four things government should not tolerate: (1) no doctrines deleterious to society may be engaged in or propagated; (2) claiming peculiar prerogative for private societies; (3) subjection and loyalty to a foreign prince; and (4) denial of the existence of a deity. These four standards preserve the freedom of the private sphere while maintaining the conditions necessary to sustain a liberal regime. The government provides the minimal level of policing consistent with the freedom necessary for men to flourish and the ends for which government was formed.

Doctrines detrimental to society may not be engaged in or propagated. Locke seems concerned with how doctrines manifest themselves in outward actions that may be harmful to society. These actions and the doctrines behind them may be prohibited. He writes, “No Opinions contrary to human society, or to those moral Rules which are necessary to the preservation of Civil Society, are to be tolerated by the Magistrate.”[17] The magistrate must prevent injury to the citizen’s life or estate. Locke uses the example of forbidding the killing of cows in order to increase herds after a disease has killed many of them. Following this logic, government would be justified in the regulation of the killing and disposal of livestock to prevent the spread of disease or in refusing to allow the incorporation of a territory as a state until they outlaw polygamy. Laws of general applicability and for the good of the people may restrain the actions of citizens when consistent with the public good.

Special privileges or exemptions from the law may not be tolerated. Private associations who contend that they are not subject to the civil authorities or law endanger the peace and security of men’s civil goods. Locke specifically attacks Roman Catholics who would argue that a ruler who has been excommunicated has forfeited his rule or Protestants who contend government rule should be founded upon the doctrine of grace. In the political realm, both of these attack the liberty and goods of subjects and the authority of the government. Implicitly, churches and associations who do not attack the law or the proper rule of the government may be tolerated.

Subjects may not give their loyalty to a foreign prince. Any church or association grounded upon such a doctrine cannot be tolerated. Divided loyalty endangers justice, the operations of government, and the safety of the regime. While Locke uses the example of a Mohammedan subject to a Christian ruler but loyal to the Mufti of Constantinople, an equally relevant situation in England at the time would have been Roman Catholics loyal to the Pope instead of the civil government.[18] In a war between Protestant England and any number of Catholic countries on the Continent, a private association could harm the war effort and act as a fifth column. Their divided loyalty jeopardizes the continuance of the regime and therefore cannot be allowed.

Atheists per Locke cannot be tolerated because they attack the base of society. Men must be able to trust other men for society to function and flourish. Atheists who deny God remove one of the prime reasons men obey the law, keep their word, and comply with contracts—fear of God’s punishment and eternal damnation. When men do not obey the law, crime spreads; trust between citizens is necessary for daily life; and contracts must be kept for commerce to flourish. Religion is critical to moderating the passions of men and encouraging them to live in a manner consistent with the freedom of a liberal regime. Because atheists undermine all religion, they cannot plead religious belief as a ground for toleration.[19] Logically, atheists who keep their opinions to themselves, respect religion, and abide by the laws may be tolerated because men may be left alone in their speculative opinions.

Religion does not provide grounds for harming men in their life, liberty, or property. The church and the state operate in different spheres because they have different purposes—the church is dedicated to the salvation of men’s souls, and the state secures natural rights. The government must leave men alone in their conscience and to the free exercise of religion within the broad bounds of toleration set forth. Consequently, “No body therefore, in fine, neither single Persons, nor Churches, nay, nor even Commonwealths, have any just Title to invade the Civil Rights and Worldly Goods of each other, upon pretence of Religion.”[20] Under this kind of toleration, the religious persecution that occurred in Locke’s lifetime would be unacceptable. While the government is restricted in this manner, officials may still praise their religion. Magistrates are not obliged to cast off their concern for their fellow man or their Christian duty but may freely use speech and reason in order to persuade men.[21]

Toleration is necessary for the peace of the community and the salvation of souls. The church and the state have different purposes, and thus, differing spheres of authority. The magistrate does not inerrably know the way to heaven, was not given authority over men’s souls, and cannot use coercion to bring men to faith. The purpose of the church is the salvation of souls. Because of the wide variety of opinions, men must be allowed the freedom to choose what religion and sect seems most likely to achieve that end. The right to association is critical for religious purposes: the freedom to voluntarily form societies, set membership criteria, and establish governing rules. Government may only pass laws for the public good and may not impose outward forms of worship or invade speculative opinions, but it may suppress vice and prevent doctrines harmful to society. Magistrates may only govern for the public good, defined by Locke as “the Rule and Measure of all Law-making.”[22] The magistrate does not have power to impose outward rites and ceremonies upon churches, nor may he forbid rites and ceremonies unless they conflict with laws made for the public good.

Locke’s theory of toleration is not blind to the effect that certain doctrines and the practices of private associations that follow them may have upon a liberal regime. Because the regime offers its subjects the freedom to determine the best way to attain happiness, the commonwealth must police the minimum behaviors necessary for the continuance of the regime. This stands in stark contrast to modern multiculturalism which fails to distinguish between what is honorable and dishonorable, what contributes to the stability of the regime and what should not be allowed. As Publius makes clear in The Federalist Papers, men are not angels nor are they demons.[23] They require government to protect their rights while allowing men freedom to use their reason in order to make choices to achieve personal happiness. Modern America should carefully evaluate whether the blind toleration and even praise that is now afforded to perverse doctrines and harmful actions is consistent with the continuation of the Republic.

Works Cited:

Claeys, Eric. “The Private Society and the Liberal Public Good in John Locke’s Thought.” George Mason University Law and Economics Research Paper no. 07-43. Accessed November 1, 2017.pdf.

Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison. The Federalist. Edited by George W. Carey and James McClellan with an Introduction, Reader’s Guide, Constitutional Cross-reference, Index, and Glossary. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001.

Hobbes, Thomas. Leviathan with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1688. Edited by Edwin Curley. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994.

Locke, John. An Essay Concerning Human Understanding. Edited by Peter H. Nidditch. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979.

_____. A Letter Concerning Toleration. Edited by James H. Tully. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983.

Lorenzo, David J. “Tradition and Prudence in Locke’s Exceptions to Toleration.” American Journal of Political Science 47, no. 2 (2003): 248-58.

Myers, Peter C. “Locke on Reasonable Christianity and Reasonable Politics.” In Piety and Humanity: Essays in Religion and Early Modern Political Philosophy, edited by Douglas Kries, 145-180. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997.


[1] Peter C. Myers, “Locke on Reasonable Christianity and Reasonable Politics,” in Piety and Humanity: Essays in Religion and Early Modern Political Philosophy, ed. Douglas Kries (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1997), 147.

[2] John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. James H. Tully (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983), 23.

[3] Ibid., 23.

[4] Ibid., 24.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan with selected variants from the Latin edition of 1688, ed. Edwin Curley (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 1994), 76.

[7] David D. Lorenzo, “Tradition and Prudence in Locke’s Exceptions to Toleration,” American Journal of Political Science 47, no. 2 (April, 2003), 254.

[8] Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 26.

[9] Ibid., 26-28.

[10] Ibid., 42.

[11] Ibid., 34.

[12] Ibid., 28.

[13] Ibid., 28-29.

[14] Ibid., 31.

[15] Eric Claeys, “The Private Society and the Liberal Public Good in John Locke’s Thought,” George Mason Law & Economics Research Paper no. 07-43, 3, accessed November 1, 2017,

[16] John Locke, An Essay Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Peter H Nidditch (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), bk. 2, chap. 28, sec. 11.

[17] Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 49.

[18] Ibid., 50-51.

[19] Ibid., 51.

[20] Ibid., 33.

[21] Ibid., 27.

[22] Ibid., 39.

[23] James Madison, “The Federalist No. 51,” in The Federalist, ed. George W. Carey and James McClellan (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, Inc., 2001), 269.

The featured image of John Locke is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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