Almost everyone in the intellectual debate over the future of American conservatism these days seems to recognize that the 17th-century English philosopher John Locke is key to its resolution.
At one time, Locke was the unquestioned inspiration for the ideals behind America’s Declaration of Independence, supporting both its justifying “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Late 19th- and early 20th-century progressivism changed the thinking on Locke radically, finding him to confuse nature and God. But it was not until a very important 1953 book titled Natural Right and History by the modern philosopher Leo Strauss that Locke’s whole moral position was seriously challenged.
Strauss made the apparently compelling argument that Locke’s presumed confusion in seeming to support traditional Christian morality and God’s revelation was the result of his “secret writing” manipulated to deceive the religious majority of his day and hide his true rationalist hedonistic utilitarianism. Strauss created a purely rationalistic Lockean “partial law of nature” to represent Locke’s true beliefs but that left the Declaration without an obvious moral support.
This representation of Locke as a skeptic changed intellectual if not popular opinion about Locke especially in the U.S. throughout the 1960-1990s. In 1969, Cambridge’s John Dunn did find Locke a Calvinist fundamentalist but mostly irrelevant to today’s secular world. Yet mainline conservative intellectuals like Willmoore Kendall, and even the very influential Eric Voegelin, endorsed Strauss’ views, with a few fellow holdouts. After initially finding Locke’s reasoning not religiously consequential, Cambridge’s Jeffrey Waldron’s 2002 God, Locke and Equality dramatically revised his prior belief to conclude that Locke and his support of political equality could not even be understood without acknowledging it was also Christian-based.
Leo Strauss’s representation of Locke as a skeptic changed intellectual if not popular opinion about Locke especially in the U.S. throughout the 1960-1990s.
By 2005, Princeton’s Paul E. Sigmund could claim that Waldron’s “turn in Locke scholarship” had made Locke’s religiosity intellectually respectable. By then, there were at least two opinions on this among conservative intellectuals, with Ronald Reagan’s mainline “fusionist” libertarian-conservatism adopting a religious and rationalist Locke. But with Donald Trump’s presidency and its perceived rejection of Reaganism, rightist intellectuals searching for an explanation focused on fusionism’s regard for Locke. Reviving Strauss’ critique, Locke’s philosophy was targeted as the source of a secular liberalism underlying Reaganism that caused its repudiation.
A mostly overlooked 2014 book by Joseph Loconte titled God, Locke and Liberty, however, should have ended any post-Waldron doubt that Locke might be secretly secularist. Part of the reason for the neglect was that Loconte did not directly confront Strauss since his scholarship came from an English rather than U.S. perspective where Strauss was not as influential. Indeed, Loconte’s King’s College London professor John Dunn’s magnum opus even dismissed Strauss as “incoherent.”
Rather than a fundamentalist, Loconte presented Locke as what he called a “Christian humanist” in the tradition of Desiderius Erasmus. Locke was influenced by Dutch Remonstrants while in exile and the English Latitudinarians of his homeland, resulting in a synthesis of Whig freedom and Christian morality. Loconte’s book presents humanist and contemporary writings as well as Locke’s own to demonstrate that he, like them, was religious but also rational and tolerant. Planned or not, focusing on primary sources and on those who associated with him was an effective way to challenge Strauss’ thesis that Locke was hiding his true beliefs.
Locke’s views on tolerance were a major part of Loconte’s goal of proving Locke was religious but latitudinarian. Locke first wrote a modest Essay on Tolerance in 1667 and published a more fulsome Letter Concerning Tolerance in 1689 that under Loconte’s careful research makes the case for Locke’s religious humanism. He emphasized this group’s pro-Reformation orientation, although many were Catholic, including of course Erasmus. While criticizing both Protestants and Catholics as intolerant, Locke’s Protestantism was deemed essential to his thinking, although Loconte shows in a later piece that Locke’s tolerance included Catholics.
Loconte indeed conceded that the Glorious Revolution only set the “seeds” of toleration rather than advancing it directly. Although relegated to a footnote from its England-focused perspective, the fact is that a large part of English toleration was not in England. Its most lasting results were in America, in its colonies. Roger Williams, Lord Baltimore, and William Penn (interestingly, all rejecting the designation Protestant) were chartered by the bad proto-Catholic kings Charles I, Charles II, and James II. Catholic Baltimore even produced history’s first formal Act of Toleration in 1639.
Now as a Heritage Foundation scholar, Loconte has recently reported significant additional research supporting Locke’s religiosity as sincere and important to his thinking generally.
As far as today’s debate among conservative intellectuals is concerned, it is important to remember that Strauss’s critique rejects synthesis like Locke’s on principle, concedes his Locke-representation is “partial,” and it is based on assumptions about secret behavior. Whether coming from a secular or religious perspective, those looking to define a future conservatism must understand its past. And that requires recognizing that Waldron’s “turn in Locke scholarship” and the great body of research before and since goes beyond any reasonable doubt in concluding that Locke was religious and that that greatly influenced what he wrote and taught.
Donald Devine is senior scholar at the Fund for American Studies. He is the author of The Enduring Tension: Capitalism and the Moral Order, new from Encounter Books; America’s Way Back: Reclaiming Freedom, Tradition, and Constitution; and Political Management of the Bureaucracy. He served as President Reagan’s director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management during his first term and can be followed on Twitter @donalddevineco1.