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(Un)Civil Religion? Thomas Paine, John Locke, and the Role of the Churches in Liberal Society
Unformatted Document Text:  9 long as they persist in their belief. This Lockean liberalization of religion means that churches must compete for parishioners in the same way that businesses compete for customers: they must advertise. The success of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration thus entails a considerable diminution of religious authority—and a corresponding increase in freedom—that Locke thinks is necessary to his liberal political project. Importantly, neither the Letter nor Locke’s other works on religion ever imagine a civil society in which the Christian Churches disappear entirely. 24 Locke stresses in the Letter that the problem presented by the Churches is their mixture with government, for which the “immoderate Ambition of Magistrates” appears more to blame than the feuding among the various religious leaders. 25 While the careful reader detects the un-Biblical character of his arguments, Locke insists that he is writing to purify religious practice by freeing it from the miasma of political life. For Locke, the religious problem is an extension of the political problem, and unsurprisingly, Locke formulates a political solution to that problem in the Letter: religious practice and religious debates will occur in the private sphere, where each will continue indefinitely, free of the magistrate’s interference. Paine’s Early Thoughts on Religion In his political works, Paine remains surprisingly silent on the issue of religion. In Common Sense he exhibits only a mild brand of religious liberalism that seems derivative from Locke’s Letter. He opines that it is the duty of government to protect all conscientious professors of religion, suggesting that “were we all of one way of thinking, 24 Michael Zuckert’s article on the subject of civil religion in Locke’s political philosophy, cited above, is especially helpful. 25 Letter 55.

Authors: Parsons, William.
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long as they persist in their belief. This Lockean liberalization of religion means that
churches must compete for parishioners in the same way that businesses compete for
customers: they must advertise. The success of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration
thus entails a considerable diminution of religious authority—and a corresponding
increase in freedom—that Locke thinks is necessary to his liberal political project.
Importantly, neither the Letter nor Locke’s other works on religion ever imagine a
civil society in which the Christian Churches disappear entirely.
24
Locke stresses in the
Letter that the problem presented by the Churches is their mixture with government, for
which the “immoderate Ambition of Magistrates” appears more to blame than the feuding
among the various religious leaders.
25
While the careful reader detects the un-Biblical
character of his arguments, Locke insists that he is writing to purify religious practice by
freeing it from the miasma of political life. For Locke, the religious problem is an
extension of the political problem, and unsurprisingly, Locke formulates a political
solution to that problem in the Letter: religious practice and religious debates will occur
in the private sphere, where each will continue indefinitely, free of the magistrate’s
interference.
Paine’s Early Thoughts on Religion
In his political works, Paine remains surprisingly silent on the issue of religion.
In Common Sense he exhibits only a mild brand of religious liberalism that seems
derivative from Locke’s Letter. He opines that it is the duty of government to protect all
conscientious professors of religion, suggesting that “were we all of one way of thinking,
24
Michael Zuckert’s article on the subject of civil religion in Locke’s political philosophy, cited above, is
especially helpful.
25
Letter 55.


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