John Locke (1632-1704)

Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. Romans 13:1

I pushed this post up my queue because of the US Senate confirmation hearing of Amy Coney Barrett for the US Supreme Court.  Forty years ago, a confirmation of a nominee for the Supreme Court was pretty ho hum.  That changed with the Robert Bork nomination by President Reagan, and it has deteriorated since into harsh partisan rhetoric.

Our Constitution specifically prohibits a “religious test” for any federal employee (a Supreme Court Justice is one of these). Nonetheless, questions of a nominee’s religion have risen on more than one occasion. When Barrett, a devout Catholic, was confirmed to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, Senator Diane Feinstein wondered whether “The dogma [of Catholicism] lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern”. 

As I write this, Barrett is going through her nominating process before the Senate Judiciary Committee. Whether senators choose to follow Feinstein’s lead and inquire into her Catholic faith remains to be seen. But the very fact that it came up in an earlier confirmation hearing bears taking note.

The reason? Well, today, many (including Senators) gets it totally wrong about the role of faith in public life.  The Feinstein question brings about an opposite question. What if the candidate was an activist atheist who has no grounding of moral right and wrong? Would that disqualify them?  

The beginnings of our nation started with settlers who emigrated to avoid religious persecution.  Our framers were very careful to create a democracy based on Christian principles, but at the same time, they kept religion separate from government.

John Locke, an influential political thinker to the founders of our country, navigated through the thicket of religion and government. While this country has strong Christian roots, it was never founded as purely a Christian nation. Nor was it a product of the secular Enlightenment where science and reason replaced God.

To Locke, “the role of faith in public life is [still] misunderstood” by both sides. In A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), Locke wrote: “Toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”  He continues: “It seems monstrous for men to be so blind” as to not tolerate others. 

Locke was actually a critic of religious authoritarianism, and he said: “There is no such thing as a Christian commonwealth”.  Instead, he emphasized that the “spiritual obligations that God’s love and mercy placed on every person”.  

In The Reasonableness of Christianity, Locke maintained that it’s not enough to believe in Jesus “unless we obey his laws and take him to be our king and reign over us.” As individuals, we are to be examples of Jesus for others to imitate. That was true then as it is today.

While Locke was worried about theocracy, he was more more concerned of the threat of atheism. “The taking away of God, even in thought, dissolves all.” 

 As Zachery Rogers writes, “Atheists who deny God remove one of prime reasons men obey the law, keep their word, and comply with contracts—fear of God’s punishment and eternal damnation”.

Locke’s approach was generous to religion. It resulted in the Bill of Rights’ protection of religious liberty and in the prohibition in the Constitution of religious tests for public office.   Our founders created an ethos of “freedom, pluralism and equal justice” and it has lasted 230 years.

Locke wrote “how happy” he would be and “how great the fruit” in both church and state, “if the pulpits everywhere sounded with this doctrine of peace and toleration.”  It was his inspiration that helped our nation turn religious diversity into “a source of cultural strength and renewal” which has been unmatched anywhere else in the world. 

To Locke, the Church is responsible for saving souls whereas the state (government) is responsible for preserving natural rights which includes the preservation of life and property (or as Locke said: “the just Possession of these things belonging to his life.”

As an aside, as we watch our cities being looted and burned, and over 30 people have lost their lives from “mostly peaceful protests”, it is very sobering to see that Locke was adamant that the government not only protect life but also man’s possessions. 

The John Locke Foundation was formed in 1990 in North Carolina. It is dedicated to using the principles of John Locke in “creating strong families and successful communities committed to individual liberty and limited, constitutional government”. The website has a useful pull-down menu of “Explore Issues” which advances Locke’s principles on many public policy issues. 

The challenge here is that the next generation is largely ignorant of civics and the principles of our founding fathers or even those that inspired them like John Locke. Without that context, they have great difficulty in navigating today’s issues. 

MENTOR TAKEAWAY:  Your mentee is likely to have a deficit in understanding Civics due to a lack of emphasis on this topic in schools. It’s important for them to know how and why this country was founded, and a mentor can be a resource to that end.

FUTHER READING:  The No Religious Test Clause [of the Constitution]

John Locke and the Fight over Judge Barrett’s Catholicism – NR

John Locke on the “Reasonableness of Christianity” – Riano

When the Dogma Lives Loudly – Chaput

John Locke Foundation – Explore Issues

How Robert Bork’s Nomination led to a Changed Supreme Court

WORSHIP:  Amazing Grace (My Chains are Gone)  – Thomlin

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