John Perry’s remarkable recent book, Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology draws attention with remarkable precision and clarity to the fundamental problem of early modern political theology—what remains, in fact, the central and recurrent problem in defining the relation of religion and politics, church and state. How are conflicting loyalties to be harmonized? How are believers to be sure that their allegiance to God will not conflict with their responsibility to serve the common good?
Perry’s thesis is quite simple, and repeated so frequently throughout his book that the reader cannot fail to grasp it and never loses track of it as the orientating point of the narrative and argument. Perry argues that modern liberal theory, following (as it supposes) Locke, has been preoccupied with the idea that it is possible to delineate the just bounds of politics and religion, of public and private claims. The hostilities between these two in principle should be readily resolvable. And yet, no matter how hard liberal theorists try, the tensions continue to elude resolution. Why? Perry argues that modern liberal theorists have in fact ignored an important part of Locke’s project. Although Locke spoke of the need to “distinguish exactly” between the business of government and religion, he did not think it was that simple. Locke himself realized what recent communitarian theorists have come to realize; that there is in fact a clash of loyalties going on. Loyalty to God makes claims on people that appear to contradict the claims that loyalty to the common good makes upon them. The first thing that must be achieved, then, is a harmonization of loyalties, which, if it is to be persuasive for religious believers, must have a theological foundation. Locke understood that if he was going to convince Protestants (of which he was one) that obeying God was not in conflict with their duty to be good citizens, he would have to provide a theological argument about what obeying God entailed, rightly understood.
Perry goes on to do a beautiful job of ascertaining and outlining the theological shape of Locke’s political argument—in his early work and finally in his famous Letter concerning Toleration. This book’s tightness of focus, however, is its weakness as well as its strength. What Perry does not sufficiently realize is that the set of issues that Locke was wrestling with and seeking to resolve were nothing new; on the contrary, Locke was simply the latest dialogue partner in a discussion going back to the Reformation. It would be false to accuse Perry of wholesale ignorance on this front, though it is common enough in literature on Locke. Perry does indeed recognize that there is a backstory, and that Locke must be read against that backstory; it’s just that he doesn’t know that backstory well enough to realize just how important it actually is. This becomes particularly clear when he comes to discuss the issue of adiaphora, which he sees as being central to Locke’s early work, The First Tract on Government.
Although he has briefly treated the issue of toleration as far back as Calvin, his discussion of debates over adiaphora begins after the Restoration (1660). After the Restoration, the Anglicans were keen to crack down on nonconformity, and their argument centered around the concept of adiaphora, “matters indifferent to salvation”; such matters fell legitimately under the oversight of the civil authorities. Now, Perry notes that both Anglicans and Puritans believed that there were some things in themselves indifferent, and both were keen to avoid falling into superstition in thier use of adiaphorous rites. “However, they disagreed about what sort of rites crossed the line into legalism or superstition and whether practices inherently indifferent could be made conditionally essential. For example, could the bishop or ruler require kneeling for communion as a practical matter?” Was it legitimate for things in themselves indifferent to become necessary by virtue of the command of an authority? The nonconfomist Edward Bagshaw argued in his The Great Question Concerning Things Indifferent that it was not.
Bagshaw argues for the principle of adiaphora on the standard Reformation bases of sola gratia and sola fide—works must not be necessary to salvation. He goes on to distinguish, more sharply and clearly perhaps than most nonconformists, but far from uniquely, “between two types of indifferent acts: on the one hand, acts that are ‘purely’ indifferent, such as time and place, which are “so very indifferent” that he does not concern himself with them, and on the other hand, acts that would otherwise be indifferent ‘but by abuse have become occasions of superstition, such as are, bowing at the name of Jesus, the [sign of ] the cross in baptism, pictures in churches, surplices in preaching, kneeling at the sacrament.’”
Now, Perry goes on to say that Bagshaw went on to make a unique new argument:
“Part of what makes Bagshaw unique is how he argues against uniformity not strictly on the grounds of freedom of practice but by claiming that once an act is required, it automatically becomes so tainted by superstition that it therefore moves from being indifferent to forbidden. An act is indifferent until it is required, in which case it becomes prohibited. This logic is plain where he writes, ‘So long as a thing is left Indifferent, though there be some suspicion of superstition in it, we may lawfully practice it, as Paul did circumcision. But when any shall take upon them to make it Necessary then the thing so imposed presently loses not its Liberty only, but likewise its Lawfulness; and we may not without breach of the Apostles’ Precept submit to it. So long as there is no rule as to whether I must kneel to receive communion, I may kneel or stand. However, once kneeling is required, I must stand, lest my obedience to the rule become a “work of the law.”’”
In other words, adiaphora are not merely those things which have as a matter of fact been left free to individual conscience, but are such that they must continue to be left free. Now, this is all very fascinating; the problem is that it is not remotely new. The same arguments can be seen in the exact same context (the imposition of the Book of Common Prayer in the Church of England) a century before. Nor are they a uniquely English problem. They are a Protestant problem. Wherever the doctrine of Christian liberty was preached, it engendered two rival interpretations: the one just mentioned, and the view that adiaphora have been left free to human decision, which means that they may be disposed of by human authority, so as not to leave the individual free with respect to them any longer. One finds Bagshaw’s argument spelled out at least as early as Matthias Flacius’s 1548 On True and False Adiaphora.
Because Perry does not realize how far back this particular debate goes, neither does he realize the extent to which Locke’s response to it (for Locke was originally an apologist for conformity and uniformity in religion) is part of an ongoing tradition of Protestant political theology. So Perry writes,
“What set Locke’s argument apart from others that supported uniformity in adiaphora is how thoroughly political it is. It is not an argument that uniformity of practice most pleases God but that uniformity most inclines to civil peace. He naturally offers supporting arguments to show that there is no theological obstacle to uniformity, but these are decisively secondary.”
He then quotes Jacqueline Rose (who, from her article, appears to have a much more nuanced understanding of debates about adiaphora than Perry appears to):
“What has vanished [from the debate when we turn to] the Tracts is the concept of any distinction between ‘indifferent things of civil as well as religious concernment’…Locke was the sole writer in this Restoration period who sought to provide an explicit theory behind the analogy [of civil and religious law] rather than merely employing it.”
Now perhaps Locke really is the sole writer of the Restoration period to do so, but he is merely treading ground that Hooker and others had not merely trodden, but virtually paved before him. In the 16th century, conformists had repeatedly understood the question of adiaphora to be a political one, and had argued for the parallel between indifferent civil actions and indifferent religious actions, and the need for order and decency in both. It was because indifferent religious actions could in fact be understood as a kind of civil action that they could be regulated by civil authority for the sake of civil peace without any religious claim being thereby made. In most writers, admittedly, this argument was underdeveloped, but it is developed with elaborate systematic support by Hooker.
It is on the basis of this understanding of adiaphora that the early Locke opposes toleration. Again, Perry finds it significant that toleration is opposed here not on theological grounds—because God cannot abide heretics, or whatever—but on civil grounds: if religious conformity is not insisted upon in things that are indifferent, and hence the proper province of the civil magistrate, then strife and disorder will prevail. “He professes to be a great lover of liberty but concedes, ‘I find that a general freedom is but a general bondage.’ Without uniformity in adiaphora, the only liberty we would achieve is ‘liberty for contention, censure and persecution [turning loose] the tyranny of religious rage; were every indifferent thing left unlimited nothing would be lawful.’” In other words, precisely by legislating conformity in adiaphora, the authorities ensure that they remain adiaphora. If Puritans were left free to decide about them as they chose, they would become bones of contention, as different parties argued for stricter or looser practice and accused the other of being unbiblical or superstitious, etc. This fear was clearly not without good cause, given the tendency of the Puritan left (in England, Scotland, and America) to splinter into ever-stricter sects. Locke also argues that those with other seditious agendas will use religious scruples as the basis for their protest (as indeed we see today with the way Tea Party Christians use religious rhetoric to oppose political and economic policies they disagree with and endorse tax rebellion). Accordingly, Locke argues, the ruler has legitimate authority to command the outward actions of his subjects in all things indifferent; he cannot command their hearts, he cannot trample on the realm of things essential to salvation. The only question, then, is where we draw the line of what constitutes adiaphora. Hobbes could, with reasonable Protestant precedents behind him (certain statements of Luther, incidentally), count anything beyond faith alone adiaphorous; Hooker was rather more careful and nuanced. Locke, in any case, did not have to deal with this question in the Tract, because Bagshaw had granted the matters in dispute to be adiaphorous.
Now, Perry goes on to show how the transition from Locke’s early anti-toleration to his later pro-toleration position is thus smoother than one would expect. Locke never argues that toleration is illegitimate in principle, but that, empirically speaking, too much discord and rebellion will ensue if the magistrate does not keep tight reins on religious practice in his realm. Could Locke be shown that it was possible for sects differing in their practice of adiaphora to coexist peacefully with one another, and in subordination to their ruler on all other matters, he would be fine with toleration. As it turns out, he is so convinced, by a series of circumstances, over the next twenty years; indeed, he comes to the conclusion (which we almost all share today) that so hard do people find it to treat adiaphora as genuinely indifferent, so earnestly do they cling to their convictions regarding them, that enforced conformity creates more strife than it solves. So he reaches the new conclusion that government can, indeed ought, to tolerate diversity in religious adiaphora; and since indeed this was the only aspect of religion over which government could have ever claimed jurisdiction (since it cannot rule the realm of faith), Locke now argues that government should stay out of all matters that are objects of religious loyalty.
To make this argument, though, as Perry shows, Locke must make another theological argument, not dissimilar in overall shape to his original argument. For how can believers be shown that their religious loyalty, their allegiance to God, does not require them to be intolerant? The objective of his argument now, then, is not to establish an area of adiaphora over which Christians should let the authorities make decisions, but to establish an area of adiaphora over which they should be happy to let other individuals and communities make their own decisions. As just seen, Locke originally believed, as did many others of his time and before him, that strife was more likely to ensue from people being unable to tolerate their neighbors’ diverse religious practices than from the government simply opting not to tolerate any diversity. Now he has reached the opposite conclusion, but still recognizes there is a potential for strife that must be defused. He must convince believers that proper loyalty to God does not entail attempting to vindicate his honor by opposing or attacking all those deemed to be unfaithful. God asks us, rather, to exercise charity, and reserves vengeance to himself. From this perspective, even the core teachings of the Christian faith are adiaphora—not when it comes to myself, for my own salvation is at stake in my beliefs, but when it comes to other people. Other people’s beliefs and practices need have no effect on my own salvation, therefore there is no reason why I should be bothered about them one way or another. Needless to say, Locke’s argument at this point entails a massive break from the kind of corporate, communal mindset that had continued to dominate even most Protestants up through the early modern period. Where Calvin would have feared the judgment that God would send down on the community as a whole for its toleration of godlessness in its midst, Locke offers us a hyper-Protestant “every man for himself” political theology.
Of course, allowing toleration of religious adiaphora requires Locke to come up with some principle for determining the realm of strictly civil concern over which the monarch still has the right to command, and differentiating clearly from legitimate religious obligation. (E.g., religious obligation cannot be claimed as a basis for tax evasion.) It was his earlier conviction that such a criterion was impossible that led him to argue for civil control over all adiaphora. He accomplishes this by another theological argument and by a philosophical argument. The theological argument involves radicalizing early Protestant emphases on the invisibility, inwardness, and otherworldliness of the order of salvation, so that he will deny that the Church has any this-worldly ends or requires this-worldly means. The philosophical argument is his rejection of the natural law tradition, which Hooker would have used to determine the proper scope of civil jurisdiction, and replacement of it with his massively influential doctrine of natural rights. The task of civil government, then, can now be understood as oriented solely toward the securing and protecting of “natural rights,” rather than the promotion of the common good more generally, which would naturally include religious matters.
The last couple paragraphs have been an extremely cursory overview of what Locke is up to in his Letter concerning Toleration, which is analyzed with great care and clarity by Perry in chapter five of his book. Perry does an excellent job of flagging the tensions and weaknesses in Locke’s argument, and the extent to which it depends upon sharing his theological premises. It is this fact, Perry argues, that accounts for the ongoing struggles of Lockean liberalism to achieve a harmony of religion and politics. Locke’s solution required a theological argument, specifically a very Protestant kind of theological argument, in order to render it coherent. That worked fine, as it turned out, because his original audience by and large shared the theological premises. But clearly, the solution, although intended for a situation of pluralism, finds itself subject to diminishing returns the more pluralist a setting it finds itself in. This problem has been compounded by the fact that modern theorists have forgotten that there was a theological argument in back of Locke’s political philosophy to begin with. Perry traces all this in Part III of his book, “John Locke’s America.”
But for now, I will just fast-forward to the conclusion, where Perry offers some tentative (and rather Hookerian, I would say) proposals—not solutions, mind you—as to how to address these problems.
Perry suggests that liberalism has developed too great a skepticism of rhetoric, of persuasive speech ordered toward the particular situation and presuppositions of one’s audience. Liberal public discourse must neutralize difference in advance, and thus argue from what claims to be a mere abstract rationality that anyone should share. If they do not in fact share it, then we’re suddenly at an impasse—our opponent must just be being irrational, and the calm reasoned discussion degenerates into a shouting match. What we need is a recognition that we do not in fact all share the same presuppositions of what is to count as rational, what ends are appropriate for human beings and for society. We must regain faith in the possibility of public debates in which such conflicting visions of the good are made explicit, faith that the disagreements need not remain wholly incommensurable. This requires, in the end, faith in the natural virtues—confidence that, outside of Christian belief, we will find fellow citizens imbued with a certain sense of virtue and a shared desire for truth. And it requires a willingness to accept the penultimacy of political life; the renunciation of the quest for a final solution like Locke’s that would establish the “just bounds” of rival loyalties for all time.