From the Nov/Dec, 2015 issue of Touchstone


Rethinking Lockean Liberty by J. Daryl Charles

Book Review

Rethinking Lockean Liberty

God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle
for Religious Freedom in the West

by Joseph Loconte

Lexington Books, 2014
(261 pages, $95.00, hardcover)

With the "bloody century" and its manifold forms of political-social totalitarianism barely behind us, scarcely a day goes by without news of either some religiously motivated atrocity or some denial of religious freedom. While many in the West anticipated a post-Cold War era of unprecedented peace and freedom, two decades into the twenty-first century it is precisely those developments since the end of the Cold War that vex us relentlessly, developments that come as a shock to those who had assumed Enlightenment thinking and secularizing forces would solve the political-religious problem. Religiously motivated crises and violence around the globe, fostered chiefly by resurgent Islam, have exposed the fragility of secularism as a comprehensive doctrine, causing post-secular second thoughts to emerge among even the staunchest apologists of its dogma.

Joseph Loconte, associate professor of history at The King's College in New York City, has written God, Locke, and Liberty in awareness that unless the current revolutions taking place globally produce societies that protect basic human rights, the political and social results will be catastrophic. The book does not concern current events, nor does it offer a prognosis of the future of religious freedom in Western societies, despite the somewhat misleading subtitle. Rather, its focus is late seventeenth-century Europe, where religiously motivated violence, despite official ends to Europe's religious wars, "continued to disrupt the social order and undermine political regimes."

The Necessary Reconciliation

While no single event, in Loconte's view, was responsible for a transition toward religious diversity and political stability during these years, a handful of individuals, among them John Locke, "sought to create a new reconciliation between faith and politics." Locke's chief contribution, as Loconte sees it, was to argue for religious toleration as a civic and political norm. Locke's most authoritative response to the strife of his day, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), ranks as "the most important defense of religious liberty in the Western tradition." In a way not previously known, Locke "reconceived religious diversity as a source of social and political stability." Christian piety, he insisted, "could lay the foundation for a more just and tolerant society."

The central burden of Loconte's treatise is that despite renewed scholarly attention to Locke in recent decades, the religious character of A Letter Concerning Toleration has in many ways been slighted. Specifically, due to "primarily political interpretations" that render him "the father of modern empiricism," there has been insufficient attention to Locke's conspicuously Christian ideals and objectives. Loconte wishes to demonstrate that Locke embraced "an earlier reform movement within Christianity, the Christian humanist tradition," with a view to advancing his defense of religious toleration.

In recovering Locke's religious views, Loconte refuses to be sidetracked, as are many observers, by Locke's doctrinal peculiarities (the "Puritan Locke," the "Socinian Locke," the "Calvinist Locke," the "rationalist Locke," the "revolutionary Locke," and so on). None of these portraits does justice to the person, inasmuch as Locke found virtue, wisdom, and truth wherever it was to be found. Rather, the relatively "unexamined" Christian elements that helped shape Locke's moral imagination—and the subsequent manner in which this imagination molded his understanding of religious toleration, his social-political vision, and his accent on preserving the common good—are in need of thorough examination.

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The Lockean Idea: Context & Derivation

The structure of God, Locke, and Liberty is fourfold: it attempts to elucidate (1) the context in which late seventeenth-century debates over freedom of conscience took place; (2) the English context in which Locke operated; (3) the influence of Dutch reformers, notably those in the Erasmian tradition, who contributed to Locke's thinking; and (4) the religious and political logic of Locke's toleration rhetoric (what Loconte—perhaps unhelpfully—calls a "politics of Jesus") as expressed chiefly in A Letter. Locke targeted his message first to religious leaders, given their cultural authority and the European tendency to collapse the distinctions between ecclesiastical and political authority. Of all things, it is the liberty of conscience that stands out in his writing. No one, no entity, no authority—ecclesiastical or political—can coerce a person into belief and conviction. Where coercion or repression reigns, both church and state suffer, with the result that the common civic good is undermined, if not destroyed.

In this regard, Loconte's book is an important counterpoint to recent Catholic critiques of Enlightenment secularism that attempt through a "genealogy of modernity" hermeneutic to lay the blame for secularization at the feet of the Protestant reformers. So, for example, University of Notre Dame historian Brad Gregory, in his 2012 work The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, erroneously concludes: "Controlling the churches by disestablishing them freed not only political institutions from churches but also established the institutional framework for the eventual liberation of society from religion" (172).

Religious leaders, however, were not the sole target of Locke's message. As a political philosopher, Locke well understood the role of the state in fostering a climate of toleration. Without a political system that sustained freedom of conscience for all citizens, any expression of religious freedom might be held as suspect by the authorities, if not suppressed outright. Loconte observes, "religious pluralism is for Locke a civic consequence of his belief in the democratic conscience" (202). Put another way, "government by consent demands freedom of belief in a religiously diverse society" (203). Herein Loconte believes we find an important link between Locke's understanding of religious toleration and his broader political philosophy as expressed in his Two Treatises of Government. In the end, Locke is careful to distinguish between the care of the soul and the care of the body politic; the former is a spiritual and voluntary commission, whereas the latter is political and coercive.

Loconte is sensitive to the dominant tendency among scholars to interpret Locke's call for a secular state as an attempt to weaken the role of religion in civic and political life. This received wisdom, however, fails not only to distinguish between the church and the commonwealth but also to discern Locke's underlying assumptions about political authority: a just political order is derivative, which is to say, it derives its authority from heaven. Moreover, Christian morality requires civic and political participation: the Lockean commonwealth is essentially democratic, even when atheists, for moral reasons, are outliers.

Religion, Power & Toleration

Loconte's broader conclusion is richly suggestive. On one hand, Locke is "utterly realistic" about using religion as a cover for the abuse of power. He nevertheless views it as an indispensable underpinning to social morality and the common good. For Locke, Christian morality "demands that all people enjoy the same degree of religious liberty and protection of their civil rights, regardless of their faith commitments" (206). Hence, he can write in A Letter, "if we may openly speak the Truth, and as becomes one Man to another; neither Pagan, nor Mahometan, nor Jew, ought to be excluded from the Civil Rights of the Commonwealth, because of his Religion" (

On the other hand, Locke is unremittingly sober about the prudential limits of the state, and this because of the Christian convictions informing his understanding of human nature. No human being, no ruler, no state can be granted the power to regulate religious belief or matters of conscience. For once that power is granted, there is no means by which to restrain it; the end can only be tyranny.

The American founders were indebted to Lockean thought on toleration. All too typically, postmodern hubris inoculates against learning from those who undertook so noble an experiment. Greater teachability would make it possible to believe, against the chattering of our cultural elites, that religious conviction is not an obstacle to authentic toleration. Locke and the founders remind us of what Abraham Kuyper termed "sphere sovereignty"—the understanding that neither the state nor the church nor any facet of society is "sovereign," that the autonomy of each realm has its limits. And with the founders, Locke reminds us that toleration properly conceived can only issue from Christian metaphysical assumptions—assumptions about the cosmos, about human nature and human dignity, and about moral reality. Absent an authentic Christian presence in society, our century is young enough to become even bloodier than the one just ended. •

J. Daryl Charles —a contributing editor of Touchstone—teaches in the Chattanooga Fellows Program and is an affiliated scholar of the John Jay Institute. He is author, most recently, of Natural Law and Religious Freedom (forthcoming, Routledge) and co-editor (with Mark David Hall) of America's Wars: A Just War Perspective (University of Notre Dame Press, forthcoming). He contributed "Regensburg Left Behind: Christians Responding to Muslim Invitations Haven't Been Listening to Benedict XVI" to the September-October 2009 issue of Touchstone.

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