How large a role does God play in Locke’s political thinking?
Introduction: John Locke (1632–1704) has been universally acclaimed by scholars as one of the greatest philosophers of our time because of his beliefs and writings on freedom and the respect of human rights (Marshall, 2006). The central theme of Locke’s philosophy is the theory of natural rights and natural laws which hold on to the idea that humans adhere to some moral principles that are similar to divine teachings (Ryan, 1965). The concept of natural law had been around for some time even before Locke appeared on the philosophical scene. The main idea of the concept of natural rights is that there are some moral standards expected from every human being irrespective of his race, sex, age or location (Goldie, 1983). Locke’s belief suggests that there were two kinds of rights; rights which we enjoy by virtue of the fact that we have been born into this world otherwise known as natural rights. There are also rights that are given to us by the state and only apply to a particular group of people within a specified geographical location (Colman, 1983). Similarly, there are also divine laws and divine laws. Natural law is different from divine law for the fact it does not come from God even though it teaches us to respect one another (Marshall, 2006). Divine laws are those which come from God and have been sent through the prophets. At the same time, natural laws are similar to divine laws in the sense that they also promote divine virtues. In this light, Locke’s thinking is largely influenced by God (Simpson, 2005). Modern states are based on Locke philosophy which suggests that rulers are elected by the people to protect their rights and freedoms (Armitage, 2004). God expects the same from our rulers. And when a government seizes to do so, that government no longer works in the interest of the people and needs to be voted out of office. This essay would set out to analyse John Locke’s political thinking and the role that God plays in this thinking.
Body: Most political thinkers who support liberal democracy and the respect for human rights tend to be suspicious of religion because they believe that religion erodes some freedoms (Herzog, 1985). An example of such a thinker is John Rawls, who is amongst the influential thinkers in the global Anglophone community. His views on religion seem to have shifted a little over the years, though his underlying principles remained the same all through his career. In most liberal democracies, people share certain beliefs with regards to the nature of persons and the need for freedoms (Simpson, 2005). Most of these beliefs, especially on freedoms, are challenged by religion because many of them go against the teachings of religion and the divine laws handed down to the prophet in the form of the ten commandments of God (Herzog, 1985). In liberal democracies such as the US and UK, one thing is common; freedom is taking its toll on morals (Armitage, 2004). These democracies tend to value freedom over every other aspect of human life. Unfortunately, the two do not go together. The more freedom grows, the more do moral values contract. This is because moral values require some restrictions about life (Simpson, 2005). For example, gay marriages are being legalised in many liberal democracies today. This is against religious teachings from Islam through Buddhism and Christianity. However, because these countries believe that freedom is more important than all the other values of life, religion is being traded in an attempt to favour liberalism. The same is true about other aspects of life such as premarital sex, divorce etc The Muslim world is highly critical against liberal democracy because they know that as time goes on, it would kill the power of religion and the moral values which acted as guiding principles decades ago. This notion is best explained in the US where there is a decline in Christian population as freedom continues to spread in the country. This is not to say that people should be forced to do what is right according to Christianity as a remedy to the situation. It is just to depict the reality on the ground because most of these moral values were first lost in the USA were teenage sex, same sex marriages are no longer considered wrong.
John Locke is different from many other thinkers because he has a different way of looking at religion and Christianity (Marshall, 2006). His thinking was influenced by religion. Locke is without any doubts amongst the most influential thinkers of his time when it comes to individual liberty (Herzog, 1985). Locke’s theory of human rights is the cornerstone for Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence in the USA, which has today become the mother of all liberal democracies around the world (Simpson, 2005). Right up till date, Locke’s teachings continue to influence scholars when it comes to the study and research on individual rights. Locke’s thinking is echoed in documents such as the Universal Charter of Human Rights, national constitutions in UK, USA, France, Germany, Australia and most western nations (Chappell, 1994) . Meanwhile Locke’s teachings on individual rights and liberties is enough reason to study him, another important aspect that makes him different from most other thinkers is the fact that Locke was a Christian.
Simpson (2005) writes that, “Locke was not only a liberal, he was a Christian. In fact, he was a liberal because he was a Christian. What I mean is that his theory of human rights and the political philosophy that follows from it are based on his views about God and God’s relationship to humanity. This is significant because it shows that there is something overly simplistic in the supposed incompatibility of religion and liberty. At very least it proves that there is no inherent contradiction between religious commitment and liberal politics. Locke’s philosophy suggests that people like Rawls and Qutb are both wrong. Liberals have no necessary reason to fear the influence of religion on politics, and similarly those interested in religion and religious morality need not be opposed to liberalism. I would like first to show how Locke’s liberalism follows from his Christian beliefs, and then to discuss some consequences of his theory for the current conversation on religion and human rights.”
Contrary to the popular notion that freedom erodes the moral values of society, the fact that Locke was Christian made him more liberal in his thinking (Simpson, 2005). This is to say that he did not just look at life from the philosophical point of view like most of his colleagues did. This gave him a balanced view of things because he believed in the existence of God. For this reason, his philosophical views were also framed by his believe in God and the way God relates to humanity (Arneil, 1996). On the contrary, most of Locke’s fellow thinker colleagues were non-Christians. This made it difficult for them to consider religion while looking at society. In this light, it is right to say that Locke’s philosophy was objective and fair because it took into consideration the views expressed by liberal thinkers and Christianity at the same time (Arneil, 1996). Unlike the other thinkers, Locke has made scholars to give a second thought to the reasoning upheld by John Rawls above which states that freedom helps to erode the moral values of society (Marshall, 2006). Locke is proving that both religion and freedom can go together and as such, there is a need for peaceful co-existence between the two concepts. Considering the above, it is accurate to say that John Locke’s thinking is largely influence by God.
Locke’s thinking suggests that it is wrong to believe that freedom and religion cannot go together. Some political analysts believe that freedom perpetrators do not have anything to worry about the influence of religion on the political life of a country (Grant, 1987). On the other hand, those interested in religion need not be scared about the influence of politics on religion. In reality, it is difficult to separate religion from politics (Roover & Balagangadhara, 2008). This is because religious worship occurs within a country and the political leaders of a country have the right to design policies that govern every one in the country including Christians and non-Christians alike. For this reason, it is important for both to complement each other (Grant, 1987). This is because the teachings on human rights respect fall in line with Locke’s religious beliefs. Christianity teaches us to love and respect out neighbours. If we truly love and respect our neighbour, then we shall not oppress them. In this light therefore, Locke’s thinking when it comes to human rights are also influenced by his religious beliefs (Chappell, 1994). Religion advocates virtues that are required for the development and progress of Christianity in particular, and to an extent, society in general (Roover & Balagangadhara, 2008). That is what Locke set out to do in his thinking. His thinking was aimed at making society a better place to live in. The fact that he himself was a Christian is enough reason to conclude that his thinking was largely influence by the doctrine of Christianity and his personal believe in God (Roover & Balagangadhara, 2008). In this respect, it is right to conclude that his philosophy is largely influenced by God. Otherwise, Locke would be contradicting himself by thinking outside of his Christian sphere. It is also important to note here that politics and religion can co-exist if people do understand the limits of each of them the way John Locke did.
When freedoms do not have a limit, it becomes risky to society. This is because these freedoms tend to inflict pain to others at one point. When Locke states that we are born equal and need to respect human rights, he makes society to know that it has to be accountable and held responsible for the well being of one another (Marshall, 2006). For example, meanwhile Locke believes in freedom of expression, which means that people should be allowed to air out their feelings, it does not mean to say that people should be allowed to make “hate speeches” that inflict pain on others. This is because that would not be respecting the victim’s right to peace and tranquillity (Goldie, 1983). In most advanced democracies, it is not uncommon to see children speaking rudely to their parents and elders. This is because the children have been brainwashed in school about the importance of their rights to freely express what they feel. This is not to say that it is wrong to educate children on their rights. On the contrary, it is a good idea otherwise; these children would have their rights trampled by others. However, it is also important to give these children good lessons as to what it takes to respect other people’s right. This is because their teachers, parents and other elders also have the right to be respected. Most liberal democracies are making the mistake of putting more emphasis on the rights of the children and saying less about the need for the children to respect the rights of other people in society (Simpson, 2005). Locke’s teachings were influenced by religion to a great deal. That helps to explain why he placed equal focus on both the rights to freedom and why it is important to respect the rights of others. His thinking was as source of liberation as he made it clear that people were not born subjected to monarchs, a wrong notion that prevailed prior to his thinking (Goldie, 1983). This thinking was revealed in his writing on equality which leads us to the next reason why his work was influenced by God.
Locke believed that all human beings are equal (Dunn, 1969). This is the basis of his thinking on the respect for human rights as an important concept for the progress of society. This notion also falls in line with the Christian teachings on equality and respect for one’s neighbours. Christianity teaches that everyone is born in the “image and likeness” of God the supreme creator (Dunn, 1969). No human has more sovereignty or power over the other irrespective of the fact that some people might be richer, taller, and shorter or be in leadership positions (Marshall, 2006). In the eyes of God, all these people are equal children of God with one body and one soul. Still on equality, Locke states that there is a natural law that protects every human being. This again is thinking on equality. The law states that every human has a natural right to life. That means the fact that someone has been born into this world automatically gives that person the guarantee to enjoy life (Dunn, 1969). No one has the right to take away that person’s life. Again, there is no exception to the rule. Else, Locke would have specified those persons who should enjoy the natural right to life. He believes that all these human are equal and as such, there is no need for one human to harm another or make another uncomfortable with life (Roover & Balagangadhara, 2008). This is very consistent with Christian teachings. In this light, it is right to state that because John Locke was a Christian; his thinking was influenced by God and his Christian doctrine. People have the right to remain unharmed, feel free and not be subjected to suffering imposed by other human beings (Dunn, 1969). The government should not be considered as an oppressing force. Instead, it should be a contract between the people and their leaders to ensure that they are protected from harm (Grant, 1987). This is because without the government and the rule of law, it is possible that some unscrupulous human beings would want to exploit others. The government should therefore act as a moderating force to ensure that people are treated equally like modern laws do, and to make sure that their rights are respected both by the states and other individuals within the country (Pitkin, 1965). There is nothing contradictory to religious doctrine in all the above mentioned vies expressed by Locke.
Locke believes that natural rights come from the will of God (Harris, 1994). This can be explained, to an extent, by the fact that natural rights are based on God’s expectations from the human race (Harris, 1994). This goes to confirm the fact that Locke’s thinking is largely influenced by his religious doctrine as a Christian. He also strongly believes that the purpose of the state is to protect the rights and freedoms of the people (Simpson, 2005). The state is not expected to enforce any particular religion of morality on the people it governs. This is because doing this would be tantamount to usurping the people’s freedom. He believes in religious toleration and general toleration in life (Simpson, 2005). Even though Locke is a Christian, he does not let this to narrow down his thinking. That is why he believes that people should be allowed to worship where they want. Christian doctrine encourages people to spread the word of God, but not to force it unto people. That is why Christ, the idol of the Christianity told his Apostles that if they go to a town to preach the word, and the people reject them, they should shake off the dust from their feet and leaves the town to continue their mission elsewhere. He did not tell them to wage a war or remain there to force the people to believe. This again shows the role of God in the thinking of Locke. God does not force people to follow His ways. All He has done is shown people the way. It is their choice to do what they want. This means that individual liberty is consistent with divine values. If Locke’s thinking promoted individual liberty, it is right to say that it was influenced by his Christian doctrine.
In conclusion, John Locke remains one of most influential philosophical thinkers of his time. His work is visible in most major international conventions of human rights. Modern states are based on Locke philosophy which suggests that rulers are elected by the people to protect their rights and freedoms (Armitage, 2004). Not only does his work promote the respect for human rights, but it also helps to bring out the role of freedom in our world (Ashcraft, 1987). Amongst all the political thinkers, Locke is different for the fact that his thinking was influenced by religion. Contrary to many thinkers who believe that freedom erodes moral values, Locke’s thinking suggests that it is possible for freedom and religion to co-exist. This is because the fact that he was Christian did not prevent him from thinking about politics and how it can make society better. Locke challenges the claim that God had made all people naturally subjected to a monarch by birth (Farr, 2008). This thinking had been around for a long time and helped to empower monarchs around the world since people believed it was of God’s making and they were naturally expected to respect the monarchs. Disobedience to the monarchy was likened to disobedience to God at the time. This made things difficult for the people who were left with no choice but to respect the monarchs even when they went wrong. Locke “humanised” the monarchs by preaching that people were not naturally born to be subjected to the king (Creppell, 1996). Instead, he believed that all men were born equal and as such, they all have natural rights. Although he was a Christian, Locke was never in support of the fact that churches should have power over its followers (Pitkin, 1965). This is because he believed that would be jeopardising their freedom. The difference between Locke and the other thinkers is that he knew were to draw the line between religion and politics.
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