Category Archives: Morality & Ethics

Religious Tolerance: John Locke

John Locke’s “The Reasonableness of Christianity,” is the unification of enlightenment era idealism with traditional Christian thought. Locke’s assertion of the freedom of the individual believer and his call for tolerance in doctrinal differences lead to a uniquely modern interpretation of the Holy Scriptures. Deemed by many to be a defense of Christianity, “The Reasonableness of Christianity” comes across to this reader as Locke’s attempt to reconcile his own philosophical views with his personal religious faith.

Locke advocates the individual freedom of the believer in non-essential matters of religious conviction: “The law of faith … is for everyone to believe what God requires him to believe as a condition of the covenant he makes with him.” [1]. To Locke, the Christian faith consisted of the acknowledgement of fundamental precepts that were necessary for the attainment of eternal security, and of supplemental spiritual truths in which we are only regulated by the revelation we are given. This allows for a certain amount of freedom of belief within Christianity.

Locke’s evaluation of the Bible is that only the direct instruction of Christ and the apostles, contained in the Gospels and Acts, are to be trusted as the necessary components of salvation. Locke makes a distinction between the “fundamental articles” of faith revealed in the Gospels and the instructions to the Christian community contained in the epistles to the churches. [2]. For lack of a term provided by Locke, I will label these primary, and secondary teachings. The primary doctrines which Locke deems necessary for salvation are faith in the eternal God of scripture, as evidenced by repentance and a return to morality, and belief in the messiahship and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The secondary teachings are those moral precepts that are espoused by Paul and the other early church fathers through their instructions to the infant churches. Locke values these teachings as useful truths to the observance of the Christian faith, but unnecessary for entering into the covenant of salvation with God. [3].

According to Locke, salvation is a restoration of the immortality and state of bliss that was lost to humanity by the fall of Adam: “as Adam was turned out of paradise, so all his posterity were born out of it, out of the reach of the tree of life; all, like their father Adam in a state of morality, void of the tranquility and bliss of paradise.” [4]. Locke acknowledges that this original act of disobedience tainted humanity, but contends that the penalty enacted upon future generations was not a state of guilt, but a state of mortality. [5]. The idea that God would impose a penalty upon Adam’s posterity for an act they did not commit offends Locke‘s notion of divine justice. This is where I believe that Locke’s theology breaks down. His argument presupposes that eternal damnation is the consequence of a penalty imposed, rather than a state of separation which exists between God and humanity. It can be reasonably argued that humanity is not so much penalized, but rather voluntarily removes itself from God’s providence and protection, returning us to the original state of chaos which existed prior to the act of creation.

Whichever state existed after the fall, Locke conjectures that Jesus Christ was the Messiah promised by scripture, whose purpose was to restore the original condition of humanity. Locke argues that belief in this restoration is a fundamental requirement of “saving faith,” reasoning that this is the only requirement for salvation set forth by “Our Savior and his apostles.” [6]. Locke asserts a “threefold declaration of the Messiah” through the miracles performed by Christ, his fulfillment of the prophecies, and his proclamation of the doctrine of the Messiah. [7]. This provides Locke with sufficient proof of the identity of Jesus, and the validity of his teachings. Locke’s dependence on the use of scripture to validate scripture is an obvious shortcoming in his contention that the truth of Christianity can be attained objectively through human reason.

The innovation of “The Reasonableness of Christianity” is in Locke’s supposition that humanity would be incapable of constructing an equitable system of morality without the aid of divine revelation. Locke reproves previous religions for their failure to instill virtue, maintaining that prior to the advent of Christianity, organized religion did little more than advocate proper observance of rituals. Locke also faults philosophy for its unsuccessful attempts to produce an organization of ethics comparable to the teachings of Jesus Christ. Locke finds Christian morality to be the most substantive and comprehensive system ever proposed to humanity.

Locke’s theological essay serves as a testament to the influence of the Age of Reason upon traditional Christian beliefs. Its success lies not in Locke’s defense of traditional Christian beliefs, but in its call for theological reform. It is a challenge to reassess traditional Christian values to accommodate the enlightened ideals of freedom, individuality and tolerance.

By Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2008)

Some Rights Reserved

Bibliography

[1]. John Locke. 1695. “The Reasonableness of Christianity.” (Stanford University Press: Stanford, CA): 32.

[2]. Ibid., 32, 43-44.

[3]. Ibid., 43.

[4]. Ibid., 27.

[5]. Ibid., 26-27.

[6]. Ibid., 43.

[7]. Ibid., 37.

The Evolution of Equality

A Comparative Analysis Between the Lincoln and Jeffersonian View of Racial Equality

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” [1].

With these words, Abraham Lincoln impressed his vision of racial equality upon the American political landscape, effectively supplanting the limited Jeffersonian concept of human equality based on natural right and the utility of “moral sense.” [2].

Lincoln envisioned an equality of the races, both, politically and socially, which ventured far beyond Jefferson’s simple premise of equal treatment under the law. Lincoln understood racial equality to be based upon natural, as well as, sacred right. [3]. He attributed the intellectual differences among men to be due to the “doctrine of necessity”– men’s intellect being guided “by some power,” outside of their control [4], rather than strictly being the product of biology or education.

For Lincoln, all men are created equal meant all of mankind, not just Whites of European descent. Thus, Lincoln’s sense of equality was more inclusive than Jefferson’s. While Lincoln was careful not to denigrate Negros as necessarily being physically, mentally, nor morally deficient, he was also careful not to enrage the dominant class by publicly conceding racial equality, acknowledging “he is not my equal in many respects – certainly not in color, perhaps not in moral or intellectual endowments.” [5].

Lincoln saw Negros as being capable of making an intellectual contribution to society. In a private letter to Michael Hahn, Governor of Louisiana, Lincoln wrote:

Now you are about to have a Convention which, among other things, will probably define the elective franchise. I barely suggest, for your private consideration, whether some of the colored people may not be let in-as, for instance, the very intelligent, and especially those who have fought gallantly in our ranks. They would probably help, in some trying time to come, to keep the jewel of liberty within the family of freedom. [6].

Jefferson felt otherwise; he conceded that Negros might be morally equal to the Whites, but saw them as physically and intellectually inferior. According to Jefferson, nature had provided “distinctions” between the races; besides the physiological differences, blacks lacked “forethought,” proper “reason,” and were “much inferior” in intellect. [7]. For these reasons, Negros, if emancipated, were to be segregated to prevent a “mixing of the races.” [8]. Jefferson was victimized by the poor science of his day, the prevailing European theory of Phrenology posited that Negros had a smaller brain mass than Whites.

Jefferson’s equality was contingent on natural rights. All men were not “created equal” with natural attributes; each was endowed with differing degrees of “talent” and “virtue,” – thus, each was afforded the right to pursue prosperity on an equal footing, but were unequal in their ability to attain the same level of achievement. [9]. Nevertheless, all men were equal in their natural right to procure “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and they shared a common “moral sense,” of “right and wrong” provided by nature. [10]. Jefferson upheld that by exercising this intrinsic quality, through education, all men were capable of coming to a consensus on “self-evident” truths such as these.

Lincoln’s views on morality differed, in that they were based on his doctrine of necessity, rather than the Jeffersonian understanding of an internal moral sense. For Lincoln, educated men could come to opposing positions on the same issue, for “the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control.” [11]. Lincoln’s later writings support the notion that he may have believed this vague external force to be the result of God exercising his sovereign will in different circumstances to meet His divine plans and purposes. [12].

One of the great moral truths both, Lincoln, and Jefferson, could agree on was the injustice of the subjugation of the African race. Jefferson wrote:

The love of justice and the love of country plead equally the cause of these people, and it is a moral reproach to us that they should have pleaded it so long in vain, and should have produced not a single effort, nay fear not much serious willingness to relieve them and ourselves from our present condition of moral and political reprobation. [13].

Lincoln echoed these sentiments:

The monstrous injustice of slavery itself . . . Deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites- causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty. [14].

Where Lincoln veered from Jefferson was on the source of the natural right to equality. Lincoln appealed to the common humanity of the Negro, in His assertion that “it is your own sense of justice, and human sympathy, telling you, that the Negro has some natural right to himself … will you ask us to deny the humanity of the slave?” [15]. Lincoln also contended slavery was a transgression of the natural right to self-governance “according to our ancient faith,” and that “the just powers of governments are derived from the consent of the governed.” [16]. He agreed that this was intrinsically understood, not by nature, but by divine ordinance. Furthermore, Lincoln argued that “the relation of masters and slaves is Protanto, a total violation of this principle.” [17].

Jefferson and Lincoln concurred on the premise of a slave’s right to equal treatment under the law. Jefferson asserted that “whatever be their degree of talent it is no measure of their rights” [18], while holding onto the future hope for the Negro’s “re-establishment on an equal footing with the other colors of the human family.” [19]. Lincoln was even bolder in his stance, asserting “there is no reason in the world why the Negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence.” [20]. Lincoln avowed that the Negro, “in the right to eat bread, without the leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns… is my equal… and the equal of every living man.” [21].

Lincoln’s greatest innovation was in transforming Jefferson’s abstract intellectual principle of equality into a concrete moral imperative. While treading lightly, Lincoln sought to replace Jefferson’s equality of nature, with an equality of status. In Lincoln’s opinion, the question was not “can any of us imagine better?” but rather, “can we do better?” [22]. Lincoln’s major obstacle was that “the great mass of white people” was reluctant to embrace the ideal of social and political equality between the races. Despite his lack of public support, Lincoln endured, and patiently nurtured the seeds of racial equality that Jefferson had so carefully sown. However, it would take another one hundred years before those seeds would begin to bear fruit.

Lawrence Christopher Skufca (2007)

Some Rights Reserved

Bibliography

[1]  Lincoln, Abraham. Address Delivered at the Dedication of the Cemetery at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 735.

[2]  Jefferson, Thomas. Moral Sense. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 72.

[3]  Lincoln, Abraham. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Propriety of its Restoration: Speech at Peoria, Illinois, In Reply to Senator Douglas. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 302-304.

[4]  Lincoln, Abraham. Religious Views: Letter to the Editor of the Illinois Gazette. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 187-188.

[5]  Lincoln, Abraham. First Debate, at Ottawa, Illinois, August 21,1858. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 445.

[6]  Lincoln, Abraham. Letter to Governor Michael Hahn, March 13,1864. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 745.

[7]  Jefferson, Thomas. Notes on the State of Virginia, queries XIV and XVIII. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 48-49. Stable URL: http://press-pubs.uchicago.edu/founders/documents/v1ch15s28.html

[8]  Ibid., p. 50.

[9]  Jefferson, Thomas. The Natural Aristocracy. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 75-79.

[10] Jefferson, Thomas. Moral Sense. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 72.

[11] Lincoln, Abraham. Religious Views: Letter to the Editor of the Illinois Gazette. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 187-188.

[12] Lincoln, Abraham. Meditation on the Divine Will. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 655.

[13] Jefferson, Thomas. Emancipation and the Younger Generation. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 91-92.

[14] Lincoln, Abraham. The Repeal of the Missouri Compromise and the Propriety of its Restoration: Speech at Peoria, Illinois, In Reply to Senator Douglas. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 291.

[15] Ibid., pp. 302-303.

[16] Ibid., p. 304.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Jefferson, Thomas. The Negro Race. Coursepack. Greenville: LAD Custom Publishing, Inc. 2007: 61.

[19] Ibid.

[20] Lincoln, Abraham. First Debate, at Ottawa, Illinois, August 21,1858. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: 445.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Lincoln, Abraham. Message to Congress, 1862. Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings. Editor: Roy P. Basler. Cleveland and New York: The World Publishing Co., 1946: