The emergence of the liberal doctrine of toleration in the thought of John Locke

Kenneth Lawrence Grasso, Fordham University


The existence of a commonly held civil theology or public orthodoxy is a precondition of a viable and well-functioning political order. In the English nation-state, prior to the seventeenth century, such an authoritative civil theology was supplied by an established church. The English wars of Religion, however, demonstrated that an increasingly fragmented Christianity was no longer capable of fulfilling this role. Faced with intractable religious divisions, toleration was adopted as a prudential device to secure peace. This expedient, however, left England without a viable civil theology. A careful study of the work of John Locke indicates that Lockean liberalism originated in an attempt to address the complex of political and epistemological problems posed by the religious wars, and to formulate a new civil theology for English society. At the heart of Locke's program was his doctrine of toleration. In his Letters on toleration, Locke argues that toleration is a defining principle of rightly constituted political order. Locke's doctrine of toleration is rooted in his restricted understanding of the goals of politics, which, in turn, is a function of his understanding of the nature and epistemological status of religious truth. A close examination of the limits Locke places on toleration, furthermore, reveals that the effect of this doctrine is to elevate Locke's own political creed to the status of a new civil theology, the acceptance of which has profound consequences for the community's spiritual life. The privileged position conferred on his own political creed by Locke is a manifestation of what he believes to be its superior epistemological status relative to the doctrines of the churches. The Lockean settlement proved to be unstable. The epistemology of Locke's Essay, rather than supporting Locke's natural theology and natural law teaching, issued logically in value noncognitivism. The result was the modern pluralist state: a regime whose public order is grounded in the eschewal of all "value judgements." When seen in the light of its origins, it becomes clear that the claims of the modern pluralist state cannot be uncritically accepted: the pluralist state is not truly neutral, and a pluralist society is not, as it professes, a society without a civil theology. A pluralist regime has merely replaced the orthodoxy of Locke's political creed with a new orthodoxy of public agnosticism.

Subject Area

Political science|Philosophy|Religion

Recommended Citation

Grasso, Kenneth Lawrence, "The emergence of the liberal doctrine of toleration in the thought of John Locke" (1989). ETD Collection for Fordham University. AAI8917233.