There are times when we need to look to the past for guidance today. If there is anything we as a nation need, it is to restore a commitment to tolerance for a diverse society like ours.
Before the founding of America, the 17th century English philosopher John Locke challenged the British political system on the issues of religious and civil rights. He wrote the pamphlet “A Letter Concerning Toleration.” In it, he challenged the British government’s effort to use the Anglican Church of England to suppress religious expression of minority viewpoints. He wrote the letter in Holland after escaping Britain after participating in a failed plot to assassinate King Charles of England.
Locke understood how government - in this case the English monarchy - used religion as an instrument of power over the people and to stifle freedom of speech and religious practice. His revolutionary idea then was to separate the business of government from the work of religion.
Locke’s letter of toleration was used as a basis for the development of the French and American constitutions. Locke not only set in motion the idea of civil liberties but also of religious liberties to enable citizens of a nation to criticize the government and to practice their respective religions unfettered by the ruling administration.
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From Locke’s perspective, civil and religious liberties were part of the true meaning of his Christian faith. He felt that the church had to stand up for that freedom and that it applied to all faith traditions. So one can see in America how important Locke was to the foundation of our civilization and political system as well as to the flourishing of religious diversity a century later when America wrote its first Constitution and Bill of Rights.
“The Business of True Religion is not instituted in order to the erecting of an external Pomp, nor to the obtaining of Ecclesiastical dominion nor to the exercising of compulsive Force; but to the regulating of Men’s Lives according to the rules of virtue and Piety,” Locke wrote.
These ideas were considered revolutionary and threatening to the status quo of the English monarchical rule at that time. Many of England’s persecuted Christian minority religions came to the colonies to pursue freedom and escape the Church of England as well as the monarchy who used the established state religion against them.
Surely we have been the beneficiaries of John Locke’s letter to this very day.
Many say America is a Christian nation. Yet we have such diverse viewpoints on religion, how do we reconcile them?
Locke wrote, “If a Roman Catholic believes that to be really called the body of Christ and another man calls Bread, he does no injury thereby to his Neighbor. If a Jew does not believe the New Testament to be the Word of God, he does not thereby alter any thing in mens Civil Rights. If a Heathen doubt of both Testaments, he is not therefore to be punished as a pernicious Citizen. The Power of the Magistrate (the Government), and the Estates of the People, may be equally secure, whether any man believe these things or no. I readily grant, that these Opinions are false and absurd. But the business of Laws is not to provide for the Truth of Opinions, but for the Safety and Security of the Commonwealth, and of every particular man’s Goods and Person. And so it ought to be.”
This is what makes our country unique and an example to the world. By separating church and state - and not having one religion as the official state religion - we were able to create an American tent that shelters and embraces the diversity which has made us a great country.
Religions do not have to agree with each other but what they must do is to join together to remember we all benefit from our independence. We need to reinforce the respect principle which says diverse religious views and practices enrich America and do not diminish it.
I am a believer in the democratic process which encourages us to express our opinions not only about candidates for elected office but also about the critical issues of the day. This especially applies even more now with the presidential elections before us.
The passionate debate about civil and religious liberties which represent completely different world views can happen in America without threatening a breakdown of our society because of ideas like those of John Locke.
Yet, let’s not forget the underlying principle that makes us an enduring nation: the unprecedented balance of religious and civil liberties will never be for sale in America. If that happens then our nation is truly at risk.
John Locke opened the door long ago to help us see that it was possible to establish separate realms of existence for civil and religious liberties. We owe Locke a debt of gratitude.
We also owe him our best effort to preserve that fragile balance between civil and religious liberties.