gall and gumption

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Let's Wallow In It

Tom posted this in the comments to my last post.

I'm entirely in sympathy with yr drift. Here's the thing: We know all sorts of cartoons that cannot be presented in US media, for various reasons - none of them really having to do with actual tolerance. Selective tolerance might not be honest or noble, but that doesn't enable even the most open society to wean itself from a self protecting sense of obligation to practice it, nearly all the time. It's where tolerance shades into manners, courtesy, respect, and where these things shade into repression, inhibition, prohibition, that matters get damn murky, I fear. And yes, Steyn is a waste of pixelage.

Let's separate out a few things.

Let's begin with toleration as a principle of government. We should start with John Locke's Letter Concerning Toleration. I'm going to bold some of the good bits so you can skim, but the whole passage, indeed the whole book, is worth reading, it's not very long and it is in that lovely 17th-century prose that was beginning to be a little bit less lumpy.

The commonwealth seems to me to be a society of men constituted only for the procuring, preserving, and advancing their own civil interests.

Civil interests I call life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.

It is the duty of the civil magistrate, by the impartial execution of equal laws, to secure unto all the people in general and to every one of his subjects in particular the just possession of these things belonging to this life. If anyone presume to violate the laws of public justice and equity, established for the preservation of those things, his presumption is to be checked by the fear of punishment, consisting of the deprivation or diminution of those civil interests, or goods, which otherwise he might and ought to enjoy. But seeing no man does willingly suffer himself to be punished by the deprivation of any part of his goods, and much less of his liberty or life, therefore, is the magistrate armed with the force and strength of all his subjects, in order to the punishment of those that violate any other man's rights.

Now that the whole jurisdiction of the magistrate reaches only to these civil concernments, and that all civil power, right and dominion, is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things; and that it neither can nor ought in any manner to be extended to the salvation of souls, these following considerations seem unto me abundantly to demonstrate.

First, because the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate, any more than to other men. It is not committed unto him, I say, by God; because it appears not that God has ever given any such authority to one man over another as to compel anyone to his religion. Nor can any such power be vested in the magistrate by the consent of the people, because no man can so far abandon the care of his own salvation as blindly to leave to the choice of any other, whether prince or subject, to prescribe to him what faith or worship he shall embrace. For no man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consist in the inward and full persuasion of the mind; and faith is not faith without believing. Whatever profession we make, to whatever outward worship we conform, if we are not fully satisfied in our own mind that the one is true and the other well pleasing unto God, such profession and such practice, far from being any furtherance, are indeed great obstacles to our salvation. For in this manner, instead of expiating other sins by the exercise of religion, I say, in offering thus unto God Almighty such a worship as we esteem to be displeasing unto Him, we add unto the number of our other sins those also of hypocrisy and contempt of His Divine Majesty.

In the second place, the care of souls cannot belong to the civil magistrate, because his power consists only in outward force; but true and saving religion consists in the inward persuasion of the mind, without which nothing can be acceptable to God. And such is the nature of the understanding, that it cannot be compelled to the belief of anything by outward force. Confiscation of estate, imprisonment, torments, nothing of that nature can have any such efficacy as to make men change the inward judgement that they have framed of things.

It may indeed be alleged that the magistrate may make use of arguments, and, thereby; draw the heterodox into the way of truth, and procure their salvation. I grant it; but this is common to him with other men. In teaching, instructing, and redressing the erroneous by reason, he may certainly do what becomes any good man to do. Magistracy does not oblige him to put off either humanity or Christianity; but it is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with penalties. This civil power alone has a right to do; to the other, goodwill is authority enough. Every man has commission to admonish, exhort, convince another of error, and, by reasoning, to draw him into truth; but to give laws, receive obedience, and compel with the sword, belongs to none but the magistrate. And, upon this ground, I affirm that the magistrate's power extends not to the establishing of any articles of faith, or forms of worship, by the force of his laws. For laws are of no force at all without penalties, and penalties in this case are absolutely impertinent, because they are not proper to convince the mind. Neither the profession of any articles of faith, nor the conformity to any outward form of worship (as has been already said), can be available to the salvation of souls, unless the truth of the one and the acceptableness of the other unto God be thoroughly believed by those that so profess and practise. But penalties are no way capable to produce such belief. It is only light and evidence that can work a change in men's opinions; which light can in no manner proceed from corporal sufferings, or any other outward penalties.

Underlying this is a great optimism about the human spirit, the belief that each person could be trusted to seek his or her own relation with God based on a subjective experience of the rightness of their faith. It is optimistic and it is, of course, very Protestant. And this could all be debated, for instance whether people should be trusted with their own beliefs when we consider that 65 million people are reading the Left Behind books.

But here Locke makes the strongest case to be made for toleration as a matter of governance. You will notice that toleration here is a defense of religion. The separation of church and state is a civic good that is shared and sustained by all, a prudent measure that will allow diversity of religious conviction to flourish. By its nature, Locke maintains, religious conviction is diverse.

This idea of toleration, which I think is rather nice, came out of the dissenting Protestant tradition - well, in so far, at least, as Locke himself did, anyway. It is sort of weird to think that the people who complain the loudest about the separation of church and state are the descendants of this same tradition, or at least so they claim. You just can't help but feel that they don't get it, they don't get the essential point of it at all.

They were nuts, but they had courage. When England got too hot for them, they set out across the Atlantic to a strange country where they would be away from everything they had ever known, where they would have to live in a possibly dangerous climate, and build societies for themselves, starting with little more than their faith.

He cast (of which we rather boast)
The Gospel's pearl upon our coast; 30
And in these rocks for us did frame
A temple where to sound His name.
O let our voice His praise exalt
Till it arrive at Heaven's vault,
Which then perhaps rebounding may 35
Echo beyond the Mexique bay!"
Thus sang they in the English boat
A holy and a cheerful note:
And all the way, to guide their chime,
With falling oars they kept the time. 40

When I speak of Locke's optimism I don't mean it to seem naive. He published this Letter in 1689, a year after James II was bundled out of England in the Bloodless Revolution that the English had so that they would not have to repeat the first, bloody revolution. Locke was born in 1632, which means that he lived through the English Civil War and the smaller skirmishes between the Church of England and the Dissenters that pretty much filled up the second half of the 17th century. Not to mention all the hell that was raising across the Channel.

Locke was optimistic in believing that people were best trusted with their own souls, but there was all the pessimism of experience in his equal conviction that they should not be trusted with other people's souls, except by the freely given consent of those souls. Now, some people might feel that their souls or their spirits are in one religious practice rather than the others because of the law of God or Nature, or because they feel a compelling sense of duty to that practice or creed for whatever reason. But the principle of toleration, as a civic principle, does not allow them to make this decision for anyone else. You can stand on a street corner and tell me I'm going to hell, but if you lay a hand on me in the name of Jesus, I can call the police. You are not deprived of something that belongs to me, viz., my right to my religious convictions or, more accurately, my right not to have any religious convictions, or, even more accurately, my right not to have your convictions.

I put this here because I wanted, when thinking about toleration, to put before us the best case for it in relation to government, so that we could sort of refer to it and then just leave it alone, but have it handy.

Next: beliefs, customs, comfort, appropriateness, repressions, etc. Maybe not all at once but whatever I can manage. I feel like Tristram Shandy promising to get to his .


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