John Locke was a pioneer for toleration. Today we know that toleration can be only a halfway house to real religious freedom. Yet his views were central to establishing a hitherto-unknown religious freedom. His mature view on toleration in A Letter Concerning Toleration was written at the end of a century or more of religious conflict. Having experienced both intolerance as well as tolerance through his own exile in Holland and through his friendships with French Protestant refugees he met there, and his observation of Catholics, Calvinists, and Lutherans coexisting peacefully in Cleves, Locke came to see tolerance as the solution to political strife caused by religious differences.
Locke argued that no one was more certain or infallible than anybody else, and therefore it is safest to leave religion to individual conscience. Locke argued that we all believe our opinions to be correct, and we all know that other people believe the same about their opinions. We do not want opinions we do not agree with to be forced upon us, and therefore we should not force our opinions upon others. Furthermore, Locke distinguished the church from the state by their respective roles.
The state, according to Locke, was only to serve civil interests, including life, liberty, health, and indolence of body, money, land, and so on; civil authorities can exercise their power because they have the power to impose penalties, but penalties cannot convince the mind that which is essential for genuine religious belief.
A church, on the other hand, according to Locke, is a voluntary society of people for the purpose of public worship of God, in a manner as they judge acceptable to God, and effectual to the salvation of their souls. Because of the inherent nature of religion, faith is required, but faith cannot be compelled by force, coerced worship is therefore ineffectual, because it "obliges men to dissemble, and tell lies both to God and man."
Despite Locke's support for toleration, he also set limits on how far toleration can go. He treated conduct, whether religious or not, indiscriminately, measured against the law. If certain nonreligious conducts are permitted by law, then it should not be punished by law if it were motivated by religion. Locke's theory of toleration has affected much over the centuries; however most people have only observed its impact on governments. Churches have also learned what it is to be tolerable.
Jefferson's ideas were shaped by Locke's writings, as shown in his taking extensive notes on Locke's Letter on Toleration in 1776. While Locke sought to reduce greatly the influence of religion in political affairs, he did not wish to establish completely secular political systems. Instead he thought that free societies require widespread religious belief in order to foster moral values. Jefferson's argument for establishing religious freedom and the separation between church and state is similar to Locke's arguments, and he too believed that the establishment of religious freedom and the separation of church and state are essential to the founding and perpetuation of free governments.
For both Jefferson and Locke, political power comes from the people rather than from God, and earthly governments are to protect temporal interests, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness or estate. Clergy who have assumed dominion over the faith of others have not served the cause of faith, but have established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time. In contrast to Locke, however, Jefferson did not believe that religion was the prerequisite for morality. The impact of Locke and Jefferson can be seen in today's interactions between the state and the church in America.
A question arises, though: Is America really secular? That is a meaningful question especially when America is compared with Europe. The state and the church are two separate institutions, and no formal dominance or relationship exists between them. The constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion has allowed a maximum level of toleration of religion in America. This forms a huge contrast to Europe in the Middle Ages, when religious persecution was the norm, during which a single form of religion could exert institutional power over all other religions. Therefore, despite the high degree of religious involvement by its citizens, America is a secular state, and it is America's secularism that has contributed to the expansion of religion. Furthermore, in the 1950s, tertiary-educated Americans were more likely to be involved with organized religions; but since the 1970s the same demographics became less likely to be involved with organized religions, except that evangelical Protestantism expanded among tertiary-educated Americans during the same period.
There have also been claims that religion in America has become trivialized, and "made into a hobby," and that it has exited the public square. However, such claims cannot be substantiated. The rise of the Religious Right in the 1970s through to the recent electoral success of the Tea Party has illustrated that although religion has no institutional role in the public square, it exerts great influence. It is a product of the largely laissez-faire religious free market that is based upon toleration. There is no compulsion for people to be religious, neither is there compulsion for people to be irreligious, and America's secularism allows people to express their religion publicly.
The situation in America can be compared to that in France. The dichotomy between America and France can be explained by discussing two forms of secularism: state-directed assertive secularism, and laissez-faire, passive secularism. France has adopted the former, and America has adopted the latter. Ahmet Kuru's World Politics article "Passive and Assertive Secularism: Historical Conditions, Ideological Struggles, and State Policies toward Religion," hypothosizes that Both America and France ban public prayers in public schools, but their reasons are different. In France the ban is because of its commitment to the principle of secularism; whereas in America it is because school prayer implies a "psychological coercion" over students with minority religious beliefs. America does not fund religious schools, but France does, provided that they accept some degree of state control. Passive secularism requires the secular state to play a passive role in avoiding the establishment of any religion, and allows for the public visibility of religion. Assertive secularism means the state excludes religion from the public sphere and plays an assertive role as the agent of a social engineering project that confines religion to the private domain.*
America never had a dominant national church that exercised great power and provoked great reaction, and no single church there "has ever occupied anything like the place of the Catholic Church in France". In his World Politics article Kuru posits that the founding secular rationalists were influenced by the Enlightenment, while the evangelicals were affected by the Great Awakening. The former were not antireligion, and the latter were open to church-state separation. They also had a common ground based on Locke's liberalism and the thoughts of some Protestant thinkers such as Roger Williams, John Witherspoon, and Isaac Backus, who favored church-state separation. That consensus led the dominance of passive secularism in America.
Tolerance also means the equal status of different religious persuasions in America, where a free market of religious persuasions exists, and religion is largely unrestricted, thus forming a secular state that also has a highly religious society. Under America's passive secularism, religion thrives, whereas under France's assertive secularism, religion is often kept out of the public square. Toleration has contributed to a passive secularism, in which the state and the church are not dependent upon each other, and it could aid the growth of religion.
However, toleration seems less compatible with assertive secularism, because religion is seen as something to be tamed. Although both America and France are secular states, their paths to secularization and secularism, as displayed in the two countries, have been vastly different, as a result of their different history and philosophical foundations upon which their secularization developed.
* A. Kuru, "Passive and Assertive Secularism: Historical Conditions, Ideological Struggles, and State Policies toward Religion," World Politics 59, no. 4
(2007). Liberty regrets that Dr. Kuru was not properly attributed in the print version of this article.
C. Eisgruber, "Secularization, Religiosity, and the United States Constitution, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 13, no. 2 (2006).
S. Kessler, "Locke's Influence on Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom," Journal of Church and State 25, no. 2 (1983).
D. Laycock, "Church and State in the United States: Competing Conception and Historic Changes," Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies 13, no. 2 (2006).
J. Perry, " Locke's Accidental Church: The Letter Concerning Toleration and the Church's Witness to the State," Journal of Church and State 47, no. 2 (2005).