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The Gospel Coalition: Review of “God, Locke, and Liberty”


Greg Forster recently reviewed my new book, God, Locke, and Liberty for The Gospel Coalition.

Religious freedom is one of the most important developments in history. How we handle this issue, more than any other, is the key to success or failure for modern social orders. Every major public crisis of our time—political, military, economic, familial, religious—grows from our continuing struggle to figure out how people who don’t share a faith can share a society. Renewing religious freedom for our time is perhaps our most urgent task, both as Christians and also as citizens of our communities.

In God, Locke, and Liberty: The Struggle for Religious Freedom in the West, Joseph Loconte, associate professor of history at The King’s College in New York CIty, has made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of where religious freedom came from and how we can help renew it. God, Locke, and Liberty traces the history of religious freedom’s emergence in the early modern period. Loconte deftly combines intellectual, religious, and political history to weave a story that will keep you reading.

Pivotal Champion

Loconte’s great passion, which comes through in the pages of the book, is to lay out the full story of religious freedom for ordinary citizens, most of whom have only been told bits and pieces of it. But Loconte is careful with the facts, and scholars of this history will find much to inform their research as well.

Loconte rightly looks at English philosopher John Locke as the most pivotal champion of religious freedom. But this is not really a book about Locke; it’s a book about the larger story within which Locke was a main character. Loconte does a service to both Locke scholarship and also broader intellectual history by acknowledging Locke’s central place while keeping him embedded in the larger story rather than isolating him from his context.

One of the most important contributions of the book is its analysis of “Christian humanism.” Loconte insists that we will misunderstand not only Locke, but also the whole history of religious freedom, if we do not recover this tradition of Christian social ethics. Knowing the history of Christian humanism helps us see a different story in the emergence of religious freedom.

Wars of Religion

The wars of religion in the 16th and 17th centuries were a pivotal turning point. Because of the interdependence of church and state in the Christendom social model, the division of religious authority in Western Europe during the Reformation caused divisions in political authority as well. This division fueled two centuries of warfare and unrest, which ended only with the rise of religious freedom.

Too often, this history is oversimplified. In the conventional story, religious freedom appears only as a moral response to the wars of religion; people decided that they wanted an end to war more than they wanted the triumph of their religious views. This version is essentially a story of secularization. Religion is required to abandon its central role in the life of society for the sake of peace. When the great works of the era, such as Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration, are read in isolation from historical context, this story can seem plausible.

However, there has always been another way of reading this history—one in which religious freedom is understood as a deeply religious response to the wars of religion. Granting all people the same political and civil status regardless of their religious affiliation and bringing an end to wars of religion was not only the moral thing to do but also the Christian thing to do. Later, as religious freedom created space for other voices, it was also acknowledged as the Jewish thing to do, the Buddhist thing to do, and so forth. In this story, religious freedom did not reduce the social importance of religion.

New Support

God, Locke, and Liberty lends important new support to the religious reading of religious freedom. It places the early modern champions of religious freedom, like Locke, within the context of a much older strain of Christian thought. As Loconte shows, the Christendom model of legal enforcement for religious orthodoxy had long been criticized by Christian humanists. The rise of religious freedom in the early modern era can thus be interpreted as the triumph of Christian humanism over Christendom.

And yet, Loconte’s answer to earlier oversimplifications is not simply another oversimplification. As he writes in this fine passage, he has no desire to add yet another artificial, two-dimensional portrait of Locke to the large supply of cardboard cutouts already available:

There is the Puritan Locke, whose moral sensibilities prevent him from conceiving of anything like a truly tolerant society. There is the Socinian Locke, whose rejection of Christian orthodoxy demonstrates his skepticism about the claims of biblical religion. There is the Calvinist Locke, whose anxieties about eternal life render him irrelevant to modern debates over religion, the rights of conscience, and political authority. There is the Rationalist Locke, whose elevation of reason subjugates religious belief to the realm of personal opinion. There is the Revolutionary Locke, whose Whig sympathies and associations reveal his political extremism. And there is the Enlightenment Locke, whose radical individualism underwrites the liberal conception of human rights and the separation of church and state.

None of these portraits does justice to the personality that produced the forceful and principled defense of religious liberty which distinguishes A Letter Concerning Toleration. My intention, however, has not been to offer a simple alternative—i.e., Locke the Christian Humanist. There is a complexity to human beings, like the societies that help shape them, which discourages the use of convenient categories.

This is a wonderful book that laypeople and scholars alike will benefit from reading. At a time when the foundations of our freedom strain under the weight of both religious and secular forms of fanaticism, Loconte points us back to the simple yet powerful idea that Locke expressed so eloquently: “The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it.” Monstrous as it may seem, religious and irreligious people are once again growing blind to the rights of their neighbors. This book will help reopen eyes.

Greg Forster (PhD, Yale University) is the editor of Hang Together and the author of six books, including Joy for the World. His scholarly and popular writing covers theology, economics, political philosophy, and education policy.

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