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(Un)Civil Religion? Thomas Paine, John Locke, and the Role of the Churches in Liberal Society
Unformatted Document Text:  2 liberal society. 2 Yet Paine’s opinions on religion depart widely from his liberal brethren’s—especially those of John Locke. Locke, like Paine, is not particularly friendly to the Christian churches. Yet in the Letter Concerning Toleration Locke employs a vastly different rhetorical strategy against them than does Paine; moreover, Locke intends to effect a different result. While Paine aims to abolish the Churches entirely, Locke seeks merely to reduce their power in civil society. Because Locke’s system aims to secure man’s freedom rather than facilitate his enlightenment, he does not join Paine in boldly rejecting Christianity; so long as Christians practice religious toleration and the Churches remain subordinate to civil society, Locke seems content to encourage their multifarious proliferation. Whereas Paine conscientiously proclaims his radical liberal critique of religion, Locke prefers to disarm religious authority more quietly. This article reveals, however, that the difference in the strategies that Paine and Locke employ does not reflect a fundamental difference between the two thinkers regarding the truth of revealed religion; rather, it results from Paine’s unique conviction that the Abrahamic religions perniciously affect the human soul, as well as political life. It my intention to elucidate the main features of Paine’s radical critique by comparing his thoughts on religion to Locke’s, as expressed in his Letter Concerning Toleration. 3 2 Paine also critiques Islam and Judaism; I will, however, limit my examination to Paine’s consideration of Christianity. 3 Obviously, Locke’s Letter is not his only, or perhaps even his most profound, statement on the subject of Christianity. I have tried to limit my study of Locke to his opinion of the effect the Churches have on society. The Reasonableness of Christianity and the Essay Concerning Human Understanding are two important sources for any author purporting to represent Locke’s comprehensive thoughts on Christianity. For two helpful accounts of the former work see Michael S. Rabieh, “The Reasonableness of Locke, or the Questionableness of Christianity” The Journal of Politics, 53.4, (Nov. 1991) 933-957 and Michael P. Zuckert, “Locke and the Problem of Civil Religion: Locke on Christianity,” Launching Liberalism: On Lockean Political Philosophy, (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2002) 147-168.

Authors: Parsons, William.
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2
liberal society.
2
Yet Paine’s opinions on religion depart widely from his liberal
brethren’s—especially those of John Locke.
Locke, like Paine, is not particularly friendly to the Christian churches. Yet in the
Letter Concerning Toleration Locke employs a vastly different rhetorical strategy against
them than does Paine; moreover, Locke intends to effect a different result. While Paine
aims to abolish the Churches entirely, Locke seeks merely to reduce their power in civil
society. Because Locke’s system aims to secure man’s freedom rather than facilitate his
enlightenment, he does not join Paine in boldly rejecting Christianity; so long as
Christians practice religious toleration and the Churches remain subordinate to civil
society, Locke seems content to encourage their multifarious proliferation.
Whereas Paine conscientiously proclaims his radical liberal critique of religion,
Locke prefers to disarm religious authority more quietly. This article reveals, however,
that the difference in the strategies that Paine and Locke employ does not reflect a
fundamental difference between the two thinkers regarding the truth of revealed religion;
rather, it results from Paine’s unique conviction that the Abrahamic religions perniciously
affect the human soul, as well as political life. It my intention to elucidate the main
features of Paine’s radical critique by comparing his thoughts on religion to Locke’s, as
expressed in his Letter Concerning Toleration.
3
2
Paine also critiques Islam and Judaism; I will, however, limit my examination to Paine’s consideration of
Christianity.
3
Obviously, Locke’s Letter is not his only, or perhaps even his most profound, statement on the subject of
Christianity. I have tried to limit my study of Locke to his opinion of the effect the Churches have on
society. The Reasonableness of Christianity and the Essay Concerning Human Understanding are two
important sources for any author purporting to represent Locke’s comprehensive thoughts on Christianity.
For two helpful accounts of the former work see Michael S. Rabieh, “The Reasonableness of Locke, or the
Questionableness of Christianity” The Journal of Politics, 53.4, (Nov. 1991) 933-957 and Michael P.
Zuckert, “Locke and the Problem of Civil Religion: Locke on Christianity,” Launching Liberalism: On
Lockean Political Philosophy
, (Lawrence: University of Kansas, 2002) 147-168.


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