In the summer of 1704, English philosopher John Locke began writing a response to a critic of his controversial treatise on religious freedom, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689). It was, in fact, the third letter from Locke addressed to Jonas Proast, a chaplain at Oxford University, who insisted that government coercion in religious matters was necessary to preserve social order. Locke fired back: “Men in all religions have equally strong persuasion, and every one must judge for himself,” he wrote. “Nor can any one judge for another, and you last of all for the magistrate.”
Locke died before finishing the letter, but his revolutionary voice is being heard once again. A manuscript titled “Reasons for Tolerating Papists Equally with Others,” written in Locke’s hand in 1667 or 1668, has just been published for the first time, in The Historical Journal of Cambridge University Press. The document challenges the conventional view that Locke shared the anti-Catholicism of his fellow Protestants. Instead, it offers a glimpse into the radical quality of his political liberalism, which so influenced the First Amendment and the American Founding. …
… If prejudice taints Locke’s political legacy, perhaps it is the prejudice of those who prefer false and comforting narratives to difficult moral and historical realities. Locke’s critics have blinded themselves to the bracing nature of his democratic vision: “But those whose doctrine is peaceable, and whose manners are pure and blameless, ought to be upon equal terms with their fellow-subjects.” Here is the only tenable solution to the challenge of religious diversity: equal justice under the law for people of all faith traditions.
No political doctrine has been more integral to the success of the United States, for no nation has been so determined to regard religious pluralism as a source of cultural strength. America’s experiment in human liberty and equality is profoundly Lockean. It is also, in some important respects, deeply Christian. Locke believed that the gospel message of divine mercy — intended for all — implied political liberalism. The founder of Christianity, he wrote, “opened the kingdom of heaven to all equally, who believed in him, without any the least distinction of nation, blood, profession, or religion.”
It would be hard to conceive of a better doctrine on which to build a more just and humane society.