Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Monday, March 07, 2016

LOCKE: A Letter on Toleration (Church and State)

John Locke claims “it is easy to understand to what end the legislative power ought to be directed, and by what means regulated, and that is the temporal good and outward prosperity of the society.”  Temporal good and outward prosperity is the secular goal of society.  But Locke goes on to say “It is also evident what liberty remains to men in reference to… the Almighty… obedience is due in the first place to God, and afterwards to the laws.”  Here we have what in modern terms is called the separation of church and state.  According to Locke each sphere has its own function.  The state is to provide for the temporal good and outward prosperity of its citizens.  The church is to provide for the eternal good and inward prosperity for the souls of its flock.  A question comes up and Locke asks it this way.  “What if the magistrate should enjoin anything by his authority that appears unlawful to the conscience of a private person?”  What if the faith of the church and the laws of the state come into conflict?  Locke says “I answer that if government be faithfully administered, and the counsels of the magistrate be indeed directed to the public good, this will seldom happen.  But if perhaps it do so fall out, I say that such a private person is to abstain from the actions that he judges unlawful, and he is to undergo the punishment, which is not unlawful for him to bear.”

Locke clearly believes that “obedience is due in the first place to God, and afterwards to the laws.”  But he’s not willing to claim that the private conscience is always right.  I may think that a certain law passed by the legislature and verified by the judiciary is wrong.  That doesn’t necessarily mean that it is.  I could be wrong.  Even if I am honestly trying to follow my conscience, my judgment may not be right.  In an earlier reading Kant said our “conscience is an instinct to pass judgment upon ourselves in accordance with moral laws.”  Let’s say the legislature passes a law I think is not only wrong, it’s immoral.  Should I obey it anyway?  My conscience passes judgment and says no.  The church (in the form of my conscience) has made its judgment.  The state (in the form of the legislature and judiciary) has made its judgment.  The separation of church and state has been breached and there’s an open conflict.  Now what?  Locke asks “who shall be judge between them?  I answer, God alone.” 
God alone is judge, that’s clear enough.  To the state belongs the things that are Caesar’s; to the church belongs the things that are God’s.  Locke tries to make a distinct separation of powers when he says “the political society is instituted for no other end, but only to secure every man’s possession of the things of this life.  The care of each man’s soul, and of the things of heaven, which neither does belong to the commonwealth nor can be subjected to it, is left entirely to every man’s self.”  The things of this life belong to the state; the things of heaven belong to God.  We shouldn’t confuse the two.  And Locke does try to make a clean distinction between political freedom and freedom of religion.  He says “I mean for their religion which, whether it be true or false, does no prejudice to the worldly concerns of their fellow-subjects.”  Locke sets boundaries to limit the power of government over both the political and religious freedom of citizens.  The government cannot, and should not, try to determine what is true or false in the realm of religion.  But it can, and should, determine the public good in the realm of the state.  If my religious belief is in conflict with the government’s determination of the public good, then we have a problem.  What should I do then?  Which is more important, my own peace of mind or the public peace?  This is a question Sophocles explores more deeply in Antigone, our next reading.  (Preview: Locke thinks Antigone was right.  He says “the principal and chief care of every one ought to be of his own soul first, and, in the next place, of the public peace.”)   


Post a Comment

<< Home