Is It OK for Christians to Like Locke?
John Locke: Philosopher of American Liberty by Mary-Elaine Swanson
(Nordskog Publishing, Ventura, CA: 2012) Reviewed by Lee Duigon
John Locke, the philosopher who gave the world the formula of "life, liberty, and property"; adviser to noblemen and to a king; sometime political refugee; hailed as the inspiration for the Declaration of Independence-
Was he a Christian, or a deist?
Was he really the godfather of American independence, or a blind guide leading other blind men into a ditch?
In this meaty volume, the late Mary-Elaine Swanson (d. 2011) applied deep, extensive, and tightly-focused scholarship to demonstrate "how important Locke's political ideas were-and still are-to a free people" (p. 5). The book is also a yeoman effort to rehabilitate Locke in the eyes of Christians with whom he has fallen out of favor.
Notable among those was R. J. Rushdoony. Let's get down to business, and try to decide whether Ms. Swanson has adequately answered his objections.
A Classical Liberal?
For Rushdoony, Locke was a "classical liberal" who, in common with others of his kind, shared certain beliefs. Rushdoony summed them up: belief "in the absolute value of human personality and the spiritual equality of all individuals ... in the autonomy of individual will ... in the essential rationality and goodness of man," and in men's possession of "inalienable rights ... by virtue of their humanity"; a belief that "the state comes into existence by mutual consent for the sole purpose of preserving and protecting those rights," including a right to revolt against a government that violates its compact with the governed; a belief that law is better than command; that the least government is the best government; a belief in individual freedom in all spheres of human life; and a faith that transcendent truth is accessible to human reason.1
This set of beliefs would surely strike many Americans as familiar and comfortable. But Rushdoony continues:
In the classical liberalism [of Locke and others], the divine order and God are in the remote background as the insurance agency for man and society, but the real power has been transferred to autonomous man and to nature. Autonomous reason is lord of creation, and autonomous reason finds its liberal law written into the very being of Nature. God may be in the background as creator, but He is no longer the sustainer of the universe: natural law prevails. The universe is a self-sufficient law-realm, and the divine decree and predestination give way steadily to a natural decree and materialistic determinism. Classical liberalism is still prevalent as the political philosophy of non-Christian conservatism or libertarianism. But, with Darwin's hypothesis accepted, this position has become an anachronism.2
If it was an anachronism in 1979, by now it's practically a fossil.
Swanson argues, at great length, that Locke himself never meant to move God to the background, and that his use of such terms as "Nature" and "the Law of Nature" no longer mean to us what they meant to him. Our understanding of those words has been colored by Darwin's use of them. As for "reason," she would answer that Locke always maintained that human reason, unaided by God's Word, would never suffice for an understanding of the truth.
Rushdoony's criticisms of "classical liberalism" are compelling. Liberalism smacks of deism, which features a watchmaker God who designs the universe to sustain itself and hasn't much more to do with it. When was the last time you heard a secular conservative or a libertarian say, "We must do this because God commands it, and not do that because God forbids it?"
Can Locke establish his credentials as a Christian? Here is a long but telling quote from Locke's Second Treatise on Government, from Paragraph 6 of his chapter on "the State of Nature":
The state of Nature has a law of Nature to govern it, which obliges everyone, and reason, which is that law, teaches all mankind who will but consult it, that being all equal and independent, no one ought to harm another in his life, health, liberty or possessions; for men being all the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker; all the servants of one sovereign Master, sent into the world by His order and about His business; they are His property, whose workmanship they are made to last during His, not one another's pleasure.3
From these words it would seem that, for Locke, human rights, or any individual's rights, are actually God's rights-because we all belong to Him: we are His property, the sheep of His pasture. Would any deist say this?
The Limits of Reason
Ms. Swanson gives us another quote, this from a letter John Locke wrote to the Bishop of Worcester:
The Holy Scripture is to me, and always will be, the constant guide of my assent; and I will always hearken to it, as containing the infallible truth relating to things of highest concernment. And I wish I could say there were no mysteries in it; I acknowledge there are to me, and I fear there always will be. But where I want the evidence of things, there is yet ground enough for me to believe because God has said it [emphasis added]; and I will presently condemn and quit any opinion of mine, as soon as I am shown that it is contrary to any revelation in Holy Scripture. (p. 37)
Deists like Thomas Jefferson, while rejecting the divinity of Christ and refusing to believe in His miracles, nevertheless claimed that Jesus' teachings, and the whole moral system promulgated in the New Testament, were superior to any other system known to man. Locke would certainly agree. But would any deist agree with Locke, who confessed that he would believe a thing "because God has said it"?
As for Locke as a worshipper of autonomous human reason, Swanson wrote,
Locke was always convinced that there was much that lay beyond man's reason. Indeed, what prompted Locke to write the Essay [on Human Understanding] was his desire to discover what God had put within the range of his comprehension and what, on the other hand, must be forever beyond the power of human understanding-unless enlightened by Divine Revelation ... [Locke thought] it was wise for men to content themselves with the variety and beauty God had put within the range of their understanding and not to [quoting Locke], "quarrel with their own constitution, and throw away the blessing that their hands are filled with, because they are not big enough to grasp every thing." (pp. 36-37)
The Blank Page
Nothing hurt Locke more in Rushdoony's opinion than his contention that the human mind, at birth, is a "blank slate."
"The image in a fallen world," Rushdoony wrote, "reveals the fact of corruption also. Central to that corruption is the fact of original sin [emphasis added], the desire to be as god, autonomous and self-determining."4
Surely it's impossible for a human being born with original sin to come into being with his mind a blank slate!
Men, however, have been unwilling to admit the truth about themselves ... philosophy has attempted to deny the fact of original sin and to ascribe to man's reason and experience powers independent of sin ...
This is, of course, the same psychology revived in the modern era by John Locke and made basic to modern education. If the mind is a blank piece of white paper [and here is where the mischief creeps in, ed.] then the educator is in a position of rare power. By conditioning, he can make the child into whatever he chooses. As a result, conditioning has become a concept basic to modern education and also to politics, as witness Pavlov and Marxism.5
Men may not like the revivalism of Wesley, but they will readily agree to the more favorable view of man held by Aristotle, Aquinas, Locke, and Wesley. In this view, men gain varying degrees of ostensible independence from God by denying in varying degrees their guilt and their responsibility before God. By freeing their minds from original sin, men constitute their minds into supposedly impartial and objective judges over God and His word.
But independence from God is gained at the price of dependence on men.6
Poor Locke! A champion of human liberty, his concept of the mind as a blank page, upon which anything might be written, has empowered those who would devour liberty.
But based on what he actually said, just how blank is Locke's blank page? Ms. Swanson answers,
Locke's view was that although man was not born with innate ideas, he was born with faculties which God had given him to evaluate experience-faculties such as thinking, willing, judging, memorizing ... In fact, despite Locke's denial that God had gifted men with an innate, ready-made set of ideas, he affirmed that they were endowed with the faculty of reason with which to understand God and the universe, at least to the degree that God had given man the wisdom to understand His will. (p. 36, emphasis added)
And Locke also believed that God had endowed man with the Bible as an absolutely authoritative source providing access to understanding the truth beyond the scope of unaided human reason.
It's a subtle point: if truth were innate in the human mind, would it need to be written in the Bible? If we could know it innately, what need would we have of written scriptures?
For the human mind to be a blank page as believed by humanist social engineers and brainwashers, Locke's combination of a God-given faculty of reason, plus the Holy Scriptures as an authoritative source of knowledge, would have to be discarded. And discard it they did-which is why their prescriptions, as acted on during the French Revolution and by communist states since then, never achieved anything but misery and bloodshed. As they were working from a false, ungodly premise, it could hardly be otherwise.
It's Swanson's thesis that it was Locke's philosophy, correctly understood and correctly applied, that informed the American Revolution. She develops it in a long chapter entitled, "The American Revolution: Locke Adopted." The title sums it up precisely, as does the title of the succeeding chapter, "The French Revolution: Locke Abandoned."
Swanson's major contribution is to acquaint her readers with Locke's life as he led it. Some of us thought we'd learned all about John Locke in college. This is the material we didn't learn, and it sheds much light on Locke's ideas.
In Locke's father's time, England went through a long and bloody civil war, and the execution of a king. Locke saw the king's son, Charles II, restored to the throne and succeeded by his brother, James II. Like the Pilgrims, Locke had to flee to Holland as a political refugee. Another upheaval ousted James, replacing him with a Dutch prince, William of Orange, whose legitimacy rested on his approval by Parliament and his marriage to Princess Mary, James II's daughter. These confusing dynastic politics arose from the implacably violent contention in England between Protestants and Catholics.
It's hard for us to imagine the agony of the English people through the reigns of Henry VIII, his daughters, Queen Elizabeth I and Bloody Mary, James I, Charles I, the civil war and Glorious Revolution under Oliver Cromwell, and renewed turmoil under Charles II and James II. Catholic monarchs persecuted Protestants, and Protestant monarchs persecuted Catholics. Men and women were publicly drawn and quartered, beheaded, or burned alive. The religious affiliation that made a man safe in one monarch's reign made him the prey and target of the next monarch. And if that were not enough, there was Parliament's long and finally victorious struggle to wrest sovereignty from monarchs who claimed to rule by divine right. It was against this frightful background that John Locke lived his life and developed his ideas.
Is it any wonder, then, that Locke became an advocate of wide religious tolerance, and sought to free the churches from manipulation by the state? That he embraced Arminian Holland, where Christians of various sects lived in peace with one another instead of constantly trying to exterminate each other? That he feared the exercise of raw political power, and sought for a way to establish a commonwealth by rule of law, and by individual rights and liberties conferred by God and not alienable to any worldly power?
To understand Locke's thought may be as simple as imagining the political circumstances under which he lived most of his life, and then imagining their opposite.
But if Locke were really a Christian, one might ask, and true to his Puritan heritage, why did he even bother with extra-Biblical (or para-Biblical) concepts like "the Law of Nature"? Swanson puts the question plainly: "Why not rely exclusively on Biblical law?" (p. 344) After all, many of the first Puritan settlers in America tried to do just that.
It would seem that the reason Locke relied heavily on the Law of Nature and natural rights in his political writing was, quite simply, because he had seen the often misguided efforts of the members of Parliament after the execution of Charles I during the period known as "the Interregnum." Right before his eyes Locke saw the sad results of parliamentary debates between contending religious groups, each claiming to have the "right" interpretation of Biblical law but often citing it outside the Biblical context. (p. 344-345)
Locke knew from English and European history, some of it during his own lifetime, how savage Christians can be toward one another. Which sect does not believe it has the right understanding of the Bible, and all of the others are wrong? How easy is it to ignite sectarian violence? Locke feared the consequences of allowing the state, and power politicians, to interpret God's Word authoritatively. Nor did he have any confidence in churchmen to wield political power without becoming tyrants.
As early as 1669 (he died in 1723), when he was helping to draft "The Fundamental Constitutions of Carolina," Locke put his stamp on the articles pertaining to religion. After disqualifying from citizenship persons who refused to believe in God, Locke wrote: "[A]ny seven or more persons, agreeing in any religion, shall constitute a church or profession" (p. 30). This was far ahead of its time! Over Locke's objections, the Carolina colony's proprietors added a provision to recognize the Church of England as "the only true and orthodox" church, and to support it with public funds. Locke's vision of religious freedom, protected from interference by the state, would not be realized in the world until the adoption of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States.
Do We Still Need Locke?
Speaking for myself, I find Ms. Swanson's book reasonably answers modern Christians' misgivings about Locke, and certainly explains how he came to believe as he did. The biographical information will be new to most readers.
Convincingly, she shows the Declaration of Independence to be a very Lockean document, with some passages matching Locke's writings almost verbatim. Its signers, our country's founders, were intimately familiar with Locke's essays, which enjoyed a great reputation in eighteenth-century America. This can hardly be disputed.
Today, Ms. Swanson concludes, America could use a refresher course in Locke. A rogues' gallery of humanist, statist judges has led us toward a "living Constitution" whose ever-fluid "meaning" means no meaning at all (p. 328). We are threatened by schemes to establish international law and world government to the detriment of our constitutionally-enumerated rights (p. 332), and by federal judges who dabble in social engineering (pp. 350-355). These developments are wide departures from our country's Lockean tradition, and our founders would be appalled and enraged by them.
It's hardly an exaggeration to say that events today move faster than one can analyze and write about them. Ms. Swanson didn't live long enough to write about Obamacare and the Health and Human Services "mandate" ordering religious organizations to fund abortions, the abuses of "human rights" commissions in various states, executive orders empowering the president to usurp the powers of the legislature ... It's a fallen world that keeps on falling.
John Locke understood that, and did his level best to cope with it.
1. R. J. Rushdoony, Politics of Guilt and Pity (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books,  1995), 313-314.
2. Ibid., 315.
4. R. J. Rushdoony, Revolt Against Maturity (Vallecito, CA: Ross House Books,  1987), 124.
6. Revolt Against Maturity, 125.
- Lee Duigon
Lee is the author of the Bell Mountain Series of novels and a contributing editor for our Faith for All of Life magazine. Lee provides commentary on cultural trends and relevant issues to Christians, along with providing cogent book and media reviews.
Lee has his own blog at www.leeduigon.com.