Throughout the seventeenth century, European civilisation was tortured by religious conflict. Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and other political thinkers of the time wrote against a background of terrible dislocations: the wars of religion, religion-tinged political struggles between great European dynasties, and the ruinous conflict between the British Crown and parliament. The troubled times provided an occasion to rethink the proper relationship between the claims of religion and the operation of worldly (or secular) political power.
Although Hobbes's greatest single work, Leviathan (1651), consists largely of theological analysis to defend his model of the state, its most important line of argument uses entirely secular reasoning. That is, Hobbes analyses the function and operation of the state in terms of human beings' worldly interests. For Hobbes, the state should aim at limited secular goals, such as peace and security, and the kind of material prosperity that these facilitate. It should view religious rivalries as just one more threat to peace. However, he thought, the secular ruler cannot be merely indifferent to religious matters. To ensure that the peace is maintained, the ruler must suppress outward expressions of all religions except one - no rivalry of doctrines can be allowed.
Other seventeenth-century thinkers moved decisively in a more liberal direction. Among these, Locke was enormously influential. In A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), he accepts the Hobbesian analysis, insofar as he sees the state as the result of a social contract and defines its role in entirely secular terms. But he draws totally different practical conclusions. On Locke's account, men and women enter into social arrangements for mutual assistance and defence - against, for example, rapine, fraud and foreign invasions. It is the role of the state to protect citizens from these things.
At this point, his main line of argument identifies a distinction between the proper aims of secular government and those of spiritual teaching. For Locke, the apparatus of the state is directed toward our "civil interests," which he defines as "Life, Liberty, Health, and Indolency of the Body; and the possession of outward things such as Money, Lands, Houses, Furniture, and the like." It is the duty of the secular ruler to provide protection for "these things belonging to this Life." The ruler's remit should not "be extended to the Salvation of Souls."
Locke reached these conclusions from within Protestant Christianity, and his stated reasons for limiting the role of the secular ruler to protecting worldly things include a mix of secular and theological concerns. All the same, the Hobbesian analysis of the state lay in the background, and with it the argument that the essential point of the state is peace and security, and the worldly goods they allow, rather than any spiritual transformation.
By contrast with the state, Locke thought, a church is a free and voluntary society aimed at worship of God and the salvation of those involved. Its only power is of teaching and excommunication, and it has no jurisdiction over those who do not belong to it. Perhaps Locke over-simplifies here, but his main point is a plausible one: religious organisations are focused on otherworldly doctrines and are ill-adapted for the exercise of secular power.
On Locke's account, it looks as if the state apparatus can do a reasonably effective job of maintaining order, protecting citizens and advancing ordinary human flourishing. By contrast, it has no expertise in any otherworldly order of things, in identifying goods that transcend human flourishing, or in assisting with whatever transformations are needed to obtain these transcendent goods. It has no business with the salvation of souls, or anything analogous. Rather than favouring the views of one or other religion, the state should allow them all to pursue their own goals, as long as they don't produce civil harms.
Thus, Locke proposed a functional separation of religion and the apparatus of the state. The state should act for entirely secular reasons, based on knowledge that pertains solely to the order of this world. It should place no reliance on the doctrines of one or another religion. The different religious sects, cults and churches, in turn, should not pursue political power or influence in an attempt to impose their doctrines on the citizenry.
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