The Light of Nature: John Locke, Natural Rights, and the Origins of American Religious Liberty
70 Pages Posted: 22 Sep 2017 Last revised: 20 May 2018
Date Written: May 18, 2018
This Article explores John Locke’s theory of religious liberty, which deeply influenced the adoption of the First Amendment and the first state bills of rights. Locke sharply criticized the religious and political order of Restoration England—a regime in which the king claimed to hold absolute power by divine right and in which individuals were required by law to conform to the established church.
In opposition to this regime, Locke developed a powerful theory of human beings as rational creatures who were entitled to think for themselves, to direct their own actions, and to pursue their own happiness within the bounds of the law of nature. He then used this view to give a new account of political and religious life. To promote their happiness in this world, rational individuals would agree to give up some of their natural freedom and to enter into a civil society for the protection of their natural rights or “civil interests” of life, liberty, and property. By contrast, Locke argued that, when they made the social contract, rational individuals would not surrender any of their religious freedom, for they could reasonably hope to attain eternal happiness or salvation only if they used their minds to seek the truth about God and the path he desired them to follow. For Locke, the most basic precepts of religion could be known by the light of nature and reason, while others were matters of faith.
Locke’s conception of human beings as rational creatures provided the basis not only for individual rights but also for duties toward others. Reason required one to recognize that other individuals were entitled to the same rights one claimed for oneself. It followed that all members of society were obligated to respect both the religious freedom and the civil rights of those who differed with them in matters of religion.
In addition to defending religious freedom, Locke advocated a strict separation of church and state. Because liberty of conscience was an inalienable right, individuals would not grant the state any authority over spiritual matters. Instead, those matters were reserved for the individuals themselves as well as for the religious societies or churches that they voluntarily formed to promote their salvation.
In these ways, Locke sought not only to protect the inherent rights of individuals but also to dissolve the dangerous unity between church and state that characterized the Restoration. At the same time, he sought to transform the nature of those institutions in a profound way: instead of being rooted in any notion of a hierarchy ordained by God or nature, both church and state should be founded on the consent of free and equal individuals and should respect their nature as rational beings. Understood in this way, religion would be an ally rather than a threat to human liberty. After exploring Locke’s theory, this Article sketches some of the ways that it contributed to the eighteenth-century American view of religious liberty that was embodied in the First Amendment.
Keywords: First Amendment, Free Exercise, Establishment, Religious Liberty, Religious Freedom, Religious Toleration, Liberty of Conscience, Locke, Natural Law, Natural Right, Faith, Reason, Rationality, Religion, Theology, Natural Religion, Natural Theology, Church and State, Social Contract, Civil Rights
JEL Classification: K10, Z12
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation