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(Un)Civil Religion? Thomas Paine, John Locke, and the Role of the Churches in Liberal Society
Unformatted Document Text:  5 eager to use religion to “seek impunity for their libertinism and licentiousness.” 11 In order to help correct this problem, Locke announces his intention to distinguish the bounds of religion and civil government and to enumerate proper powers of each. In order to end destructive religious persecution, he must convince men that toleration is the central Christian virtue and that the Church has no business meddling with civil government. Locke contends that civil government is established to defend civil interests: life, liberty, and property. The magistrate must limit himself to the protection of these goods. Because he denies that God has granted men the power to compel belief, Locke denies the magistrate—or, more importantly, any church—is vested with the power to care for another’s salvation. Since “the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind,” only faith that is freely professed aids in man’s salvation. 12 Locke therefore describes the true Church as a “free and voluntary society.” 13 This feature of the liberal church, taken with Locke’s statement that “everyone is orthodox unto himself,” signals that Locke expects expressed religious opinion to vary widely in liberal society. 14 Thus liberal society frees man, …whose thoughts are more than the sands, and wider than the ocean, where fancy and passion must needs run him into strange courses, if reason, which is his only star and compass, be not that he steers by. The imagination is always restless, and suggests variety of thoughts, and the will, reason being laid aside, is ready for every extravagant project; and in this state, he that goes farthest out of the way, is thought fittest to lead, and is sure of most followers: and when fashion hath once established what folly or craft began, custom makes it sacred, and it will be thought impudence, or madness, to contradict or question it. He that will 11 Letter 25-26. 12 Locke writes that if men were obliged to follow the religion of their civil magistrate, their salvation would depend on where they had been born; he reflects that this consideration only “heightens the absurdity [of civil religions], and very ill suits the notion of a Deity.” Letter 28. 13 Letter 28. 14 Letter 1.

Authors: Parsons, William.
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5
eager to use religion to “seek impunity for their libertinism and licentiousness.”
11
In
order to help correct this problem, Locke announces his intention to distinguish the
bounds of religion and civil government and to enumerate proper powers of each. In
order to end destructive religious persecution, he must convince men that toleration is the
central Christian virtue and that the Church has no business meddling with civil
government.
Locke contends that civil government is established to defend civil interests: life,
liberty, and property. The magistrate must limit himself to the protection of these goods.
Because he denies that God has granted men the power to compel belief, Locke denies
the magistrate—or, more importantly, any church—is vested with the power to care for
another’s salvation. Since “the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and
full persuasion of the mind,” only faith that is freely professed aids in man’s salvation.
12
Locke therefore describes the true Church as a “free and voluntary society.”
13
This
feature of the liberal church, taken with Locke’s statement that “everyone is orthodox
unto himself,” signals that Locke expects expressed religious opinion to vary widely in
liberal society.
14
Thus liberal society frees man,
…whose thoughts are more than the sands, and wider than the ocean,
where fancy and passion must needs run him into strange courses, if
reason, which is his only star and compass, be not that he steers by. The
imagination is always restless, and suggests variety of thoughts, and the
will, reason being laid aside, is ready for every extravagant project; and in
this state, he that goes farthest out of the way, is thought fittest to lead, and
is sure of most followers: and when fashion hath once established what
folly or craft began, custom makes it sacred, and it will be thought
impudence, or madness, to contradict or question it. He that will
11
Letter 25-26.
12
Locke writes that if men were obliged to follow the religion of their civil magistrate, their salvation
would depend on where they had been born; he reflects that this consideration only “heightens the
absurdity [of civil religions], and very ill suits the notion of a Deity.” Letter 28.
13
Letter 28.
14
Letter 1.


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