Front Page Titles (by Subject) Locke\'s Tolerance: Prudence or Right? - Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4
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Locke's Tolerance: Prudence or Right? - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, Winter 1980, vol. 3, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Locke's Tolerance: Prudence or Right?
“John Locke: From Absolutism to Toleration.” The American Political Science Review 74(March 1980):53–69.
What accounts for Locke's transition from secular absolutism (in which the state imposes an arbitrary uniformity for the sake of civil peace) to liberal toleration (in which the state disestablishes religion altogether and confines itself to protecting civil interests? Contemporary scholars have either denied that Locke's early writings are absolutist or denied that there is any necessary connection between Locke's early authoritarian views and his subsequent appeal for toleration.
But Locke in his Two Tracts on Government (1660) was more of an absolutist than Hobbes, and the connection between his early and latter views represent a change in strategy rather than a change in basic principles. Both strategies Locke defended by an appeal to what is required for civil peace. Toleration and absolutism differ only as strategies in the political management of religion.
In Locke's early writings, religious sectarian warfare is seen as the fundamental problem of politics, a problem that can be controlled by either absolutism to be a better strategy, since sectarian warfare occurs either when the state is obligated to uphold a “true religion” or when the state allows total freedom to follow one's own conscience.
But in the Essay on Toleration (1667), Locke advocates toleration on prudential grounds. Presumably, he came to believe that the acceptance of an imposed uniformity, even a uniformity that did not claim “truth”, would go against Christian conscience. It isn't that people have a right to freedom of conscience, it is simply that man's pride in his opinions will cause him to resist all attempts to change his beliefs by forceful means. If it is inevitable that people will believe that their opinions are necessary, and if it is impossible to change necessary beliefs by force, then liberty of conscience must be allowed. This liberty will not upset civil peace because worship is a private matter and because following one form of worship is not necessary for salvation.
Finally, in the Letter on Toleration (1689), toleration is defended as the right principle as well as the better policy. By presenting the disestablishment of religion and the right of conscience as principles, Locke minimizes the possibilities for political intervention. And by raising moral doubts about any authorities who proclaim the “true way”, Locke hopes to encourage citizens to leave each other alone. However, sincere belief is not necessarily true belief and Locke gives no principle for judging freedom of conscience to be a right. Instead, we are left with a prudential accomodation to the political turmoil that results from man's pride in his reason. Absolutism and toleration remain justified by the same principle, and liberalism is left resting insecurely on prudence and a general distrust of religious and moral authorities.