How are Christians to View Government?: Lessons from Church History, Part 6

JohnLockeProtestant Political Theory

As we have seen in previous articles, two political concepts arose during the Protestant Reformation that would have a powerful impact on history. The first, Protestant resistance theory, states that though government is established by God, should the king violate the people’s fundamental rights, they have the right to resist him. Most political theorists followed Luther in arguing that such resistance must be led by lesser magistrates, who are themselves ordained by God to govern and protect the people.

The second important idea was Calvinist social contract theory. This argued that God vested people with the authority to govern themselves, which they then delegated to the government. If the government fails in its duty to protect the people, they have the right to take power back and delegate it to a new government. Most who held this view argued that this action should be led by the lesser magistrates.

Most, but not all. A few theologians, particularly among the English and the Scots, argued for a more general right of resistance by the people directly, not led by the lesser magistrates. During the English Civil War, still more radical groups such as the Levelers emerged who put even more emphasis on individual liberty and equality.

From the English Civil War to the Glorious Revolution

The English Civil War culminated in the execution of King Charles I and the founding of the Commonwealth under Oliver Cromwell. After Cromwell’s death, Charles I’s son Charles II was invited to take the throne, an event known as the Restoration (1660). The Restoration government suppressed Puritan ideas and enforced strict adherence to the officially approved Church of England.

When Charles II died, he was succeeded by his younger brother James II (1685-1688). James was Catholic and, like his brother, had married a Catholic princess while in exile in France. The English may have turned their backs on Puritanism, but they did not like or trust Catholics: A century of anti-Spanish and later anti-French propaganda had firmly embedded the idea that Catholicism was the same as tyranny. James II was suspected of being pro-French and wanting to establish an absolute monarchy. Then in 1688 he had a son. With a Catholic king and a Catholic heir waiting in the wings, the English acted: They invited James II’s Protestant daughter Mary and her husband, William of Orange, to come from the Netherlands and take the throne of England in the Glorious Revolution (1688).

Shortly after taking the throne, William and Mary issued the English Bill of Rights (1689), which limited the power of the monarchy, guaranteed Parliamentary prerogatives, and established a number of civil rights for the population; this was rapidly followed by the Act of Toleration (1689), which guaranteed Trinitarian Protestants freedom of religion.

John Locke

The political theorist behind the Glorious Revolution, the English Bill of Rights, and the Act of Toleration was John Locke. Locke had been a Puritan but moved away from theologically conservative Christianity as a result of early Enlightenment biblical criticism. For our purposes here, he is important for his political and psychological theories.

Politically, Locke’s thought systematized and unified many earlier ideas about government and individual rights. Building on the Calvinist tradition, Locke argued that political authority comes from God to the people, who then establish a contract with the government to protect their unalienable rights. Locke identified three of these rights: life, liberty, and property.

Unalienable Rights

These rights require a certain amount of explanation. All of them ultimately derive from medieval theologians’ reflections on the creation of humanity in Genesis 1-2. These specific rights are unalienable—meaning that government cannot arbitrarily take them from us—because they were given by God to humanity prior to the establishment of human government. They precede government and thus are beyond the reach of government.

The right to life is simple to understand: God gave us life, and so government cannot take it from us except through proper judicial procedures for serious crimes.

Liberty is more complex. We often equate liberty with freedom, but the two are not quite the same. Liberty is the freedom to pursue a good life, meaning a life of virtue. It is fundamentally freedom for something. The opposite of liberty is license, meaning the freedom to live a life of vice. It is freedom from restraint. Today, when we talk of freedom most often we mean license: I have the right to do whatever I want. No political theorist in Locke’s day believed we had a natural right to license, however. Rather, they believed we had a natural right to liberty, based on the nature of the freedom God gave to Adam and Eve in the Garden.

Property also derives from the Garden of Eden in Locke’s thought. God told Adam and Eve to tend the garden and gave them the right to eat the fruit of any tree (except one); in other words, they literally had the right to the fruit of their labors. In other words, production gives right of possession. This is known as the labor theory of property, and it provided the justification in Locke’s work for the protection of private property from arbitrary confiscation by the government.

The Right to Revolution

According to Locke, should the government attempt to deprive the people of any of these rights, the people have the right to overthrow the government and establish a new one. This right is lodged in the people themselves, not in lesser magistrates. Locke thus incorporated not only mainstream Protestant resistance theory, but some of the more specifically English and Scottish ideas that permitted revolt by the people, not just the lesser magistrates.

How did Locke’s thinking apply to the Glorious Revolution? Since, to his mind, Catholicism meant tyranny, a Catholic monarch with a Catholic heir was an implicit threat to liberty. The English people thus had a right to remove James II from the throne and establish a new (Protestant) government that would act to protect liberty and the other unalienable rights listed in the Bill of Rights.

The Act of Toleration was directly influenced by Locke as well. Locke believed that religion was outside of the legitimate scope of government unless it disrupted the social order or attempted to impose beliefs by force. The English believed that Catholics did both of these: Spain had had its Inquisition, and France had outlawed Protestantism in 1685. As a result, the Act of Toleration allowed Protestantism but not Catholicism.

Lockean Psychology

Along with his political theory, Locke was well known for his ideas about psychology. Locke believed that we were born tabula rasa, that is, blank slates. In other words, we have no innate ideas or structures within our minds, and everything we know and think comes from accumulated experience which the mind sorts out and organizes. We now know this is not true, but it was a powerful idea that remains influential to this day.

Much can be said about Lockean psychology, but for our purposes two points are particularly important. First, since direct experience is the only influence on our behavior, we do not inherit any ideas or tendencies from our parents, and thus there is no original sin. Second, Locke believed that if you set up experiences appropriately, virtuous living automatically follows. In politics, this means that if you carefully design a system of government with checks and balances and restrictions on what the government officials can and cannot do, it will prevent the government from becoming corrupt.

Both of these ideas stand in marked contrast to the entire Western political tradition since St. Augustine, as well as with the American Founding Fathers nearly a century after Locke, who as heirs to the Puritans were very aware of the pervasive power of sin in our lives.

Despite these differences, however, Locke had a profound influence on the American Revolution and the United States Constitution. We will turn to these in the next article.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.



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