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Locke, Toleration, and Religious Freedom

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Locke, Toleration, and Religious Freedom

It has been a common practice throughout history for religious actors and political authorities to form symbiotic alliances in order to mutually enhance their respective powers. Among other benefits, religious actors who grant power to political authorities enjoy the protection of the state in reciprocation for their blessing, which has often led to politically-enforced state religions. Meanwhile, political authorities have often drawn upon religious power for license and impetus to erect authoritarian governments and inflict nearly incomprehensible levels of violence, brutality, and human suffering upon any who stand in their way. For the purpose of understanding modern politics, perhaps the most relevant examples of religions allying themselves with governments are those of Islam and Christianity. From the jihads of Mohammed, a man who played the roles of prophet and warlord simultaneously, to the later crusades of the Popes, to the still later violent power struggles of the Catholics and the Protestants, religion has played a major role in many of the bloodiest and most bitter political conflicts around the world for millennia. More recently, global unrest is brewing again with the rise of Islamic-fueled terrorism, Donald Trump’s election to the Presidency of the United States by what is considered to be the primarily Christian Republican Party, and Trump’s subsequent ban on immigrants from seven predominately Muslim countries, a ban many believe is motivated by a religious bias. It was for moments of enormous turmoil and religious discrimination such as these that John Locke wrote his 1689 treatise, A Letter Concerning Toleration.

In his letter, Locke calls for an end to religious violence in favor of tolerance. In particular, he addresses and admonishes Christians who seek to use political power to forcibly convert those who hold opposing religious views. While he spoke directly to Christians, Locke’s arguments that governments and societies should practice religious tolerance hold true in any culture regardless of its predominant religion. As Locke observes, “If infidels were to be converted by force, if those that are either blind or obstinate were to be drawn off from their errors by armed soldiers, we know very well that it was much more easy for [Christ] to do it with armies of heavenly legions than for any son of the Church, how potent soever, with all his dragoons.” In Locke’s estimation, any man who claims religious zeal while using political power to inflict religious persecution is merely disguising a secret political ambition, for, “he plainly demonstrates by his actions that it is another kingdom he aims at and not the advancement of the kingdom of God.” Later in his letter, Locke warns that when a ruler allies himself with a religion, religious actors gain an imbalanced proportion of political authority to wield, for when a



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