Religion, Uncategorized

Donald Trump, John Locke, and Religious Toleration

Donald Trump has recently said, in a variety of forums and using a a variety of verbal saltados, that people who believe in Allah, the Muslim version of God, should not be allowed to enter the U.S. He has apparently slathered onto this steaming dish the claim that even American citizens who travel abroad in Muslim countries should not be readmitted.


One could argue, as Justin Wolfers has done in the NYTimes, that we shouldn’t focus so much on the “noise,” but rather recognize the signal.  Maybe, but words have meaning, and arguments have consequences.  Could any reasonable person take Trump seriously?  Is there an argument here other than simple religious bigotry?

I recently encountered (or reread, but noticed for the first time, perhaps because of recent events) a portion of Locke’s Letter Concerning Toleration.  Here is the relevant passage (emphasis added) :

[T]he magistrate ought not to forbid the preaching or professing of any speculative opinions in any Church because they have no manner of relation to the civil rights of the subjects. If a Roman Catholic believe that to be really the body of Christ which another man calls bread, he does no injury thereby to his neighbour. If a Jew do not believe the New Testament to be the Word of God, he does not thereby alter anything in men’s civil rights. If a heathen doubt of both Testaments, he is not therefore to be punished as a pernicious citizen. The power of the magistrate and the estates of the people may be equally secure whether any man believe these things or no. I readily grant that these opinions are false and absurd. But the business of laws is not to provide for the truth of opinions, but for the safety and security of the commonwealth and of every particular man’s goods and person. And so it ought to be. For the truth certainly would do well enough if she were once left to shift for herself. She seldom has received and, I fear, never will receive much assistance from the power of great men, to whom she is but rarely known and more rarely welcome. She is not taught by laws, nor has she any need of force to procure her entrance into the minds of men. Errors, indeed, prevail by the assistance of foreign and borrowed succours.

Later, Locke elaborates (and again emphasis added):

That Church can have no right to be tolerated by the magistrate which is constituted upon such a bottom that all those who enter into it do thereby ipso facto deliver themselves up to the protection and service of another prince. For by this means the magistrate would give way to the settling of a foreign jurisdiction in his own country and suffer his own people to be listed, as it were, for soldiers against his own Government. Nor does the frivolous and fallacious distinction between the Court and the Church afford any remedy to this inconvenience; especially when both the one and the other are equally subject to the absolute authority of the same person, who has not only power to persuade the members of his Church to whatsoever he lists, either as purely religious, or in order thereunto, but can also enjoin it them on pain of eternal fire. It is ridiculous for any one to profess himself to be a Mahometan only in his religion, but in everything else a faithful subject to a Christian magistrate, whilst at the same time he acknowledges himself bound to yield blind obedience to the Mufti of Constantinople, who himself is entirely obedient to the Ottoman Emperor and frames the feigned oracles of that religion according to his pleasure. But this Mahometan living amongst Christians would yet more apparently renounce their government if he acknowledged the same person to be head of his Church who is the supreme magistrate in the state.

Now, Locke is taking a shot at Catholics here, with the “Mufti” playing the role of the Pope in Rome.  To be clear, Locke thought that openly Catholic citizens were in fact a problem.  Not because of the religious doctrine they held, though he thought that doctrine to be absurd.  The problem was that a consequence of honest faith in Catholicism meant that one rejected the law, and sovereignty, of the civil authorities in England in favor of a civil, not just religious but civil, authority in Rome.  This point has been noted elsewhere, and on it I will say no more.

The relevant question for present purposes is whether one can, and perhaps should, understand Trump’s point in the same context.  That is, the claim is not that religious freedom should be limited.  Rather, Trump’s claim is the same as Locke’s:  any religion that ipso facto requires loyalty to a foreign power,  or requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.  Locke’s experience was that Catholic and Protestant could not coexist peacefully.  Is there anything in American experience that could say that US government and laws cannot coexist with domestic radical Islam?

My own view is that Trump has this wrong.  But I’m not as sure that Trump has this wrong as I was before I reread Locke.

  • Craig J. Bolton

    Sigh. We take a shortcoming in Locke and make it a qualified justification for Trump. Philosophy at its best.

  • Noam Beefheart

    “…any religion that…requires that an honest believer reject the civil authority and its
    laws, is a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.”

    I know quite a few Christians you could say this about. Hell, I know plenty of people you could say this about. If government is a necessary evil then it’s a given that some of its parts are rightly rejected. This would mean that many beliefs are inconsistent with the subservience required to be a “law-abiding” member of society, the same society that kills tens of thousands of people abroad and jails just as many at home for ridiculous reasons. In this case it appears that merely having a conscience would constitute “that an honest believer reject the civil authority” and in so doing becomes “a political threat and an overt incitement to violence and revolution.”

    • j_m_h

      My comment here is clearly a tangent from the overall issue (and I think Levy’s response, and Bolton’s comment, rather insightful – or for Levy’s cases well presented) but I always find this the type of problem such a suggest amusing. One one had you have people and the formal church demanding certain type of behaviour. On the other you have the quote from Jesus about “render unto Caesar …” which certainly seems to suggest usurping a secular power, or possible even another religion, in the name of god is questionable at best.

    • Farstrider

      “Rejecting civil authority” can take many forms, at least two of which are relevant here.
      Type 1, we’ll call it, is crashing planes into buildings and shooting up government offices. There is no reason why any government should tolerate someone who adheres to Type 1.
      Type 2 consists of speech, protests, running for office and other political activities. The government should tolerate this kind of “rejection” because it is essential not only to human flourishing but to a stronger government in the first place.
      The problem, of course, is that it is difficult to decide who is Type 1 and who is Type 2. It is surely incorrect for Trump to assert or assume that all Muslims are Type 2 or that only Muslims are Type 2. Obviously that is incorrect. Since “Muslim” is both over and underdeterminate, it is not a useful measure and should be disregarded.

  • mungowitz

    I’m not sure y’all read the piece. As I said, I think Trump is wrong. That may just be because Locke was wrong. The question is whether it is possible, in principle, that a religious doctrine precludes civil obedience. I was surprised, when I was a guest worker in Germany, that I had to swear a statement that I was not a Scientologist. I’m not sure that by just harrumphing, and dismissing Trump, we are doing “philosophy.” We need to give reasons, folks.

    • Sean II

      “I’m not sure that by just harrumphing, and dismissing Trump, we are doing “philosophy.” We need to give reasons, folks.”

      Well, I at least knew what you were getting at, even if I don’t so much like where it leads.

      Something to consider: the whole Trump phenomenon exists precisely because reasonable people with better arguments got “harrumphed and dismissed” out of the conversation.

      In a political climate where many reasonable things cannot be said with forfeiting one’s respectability, you’re eventually gonna get a market for loud ass clowns who don’t care about being respectable.

    • Farstrider

      It is certainly true that some belief systems are incompatible with a Western-style secular civil government. That is probably true of most religions, if they are followed fanatically and to the letter – all secular civil governments force you to yield your religious principles in favor of secular concerns at some point.

      The problem is that a lot of people don’t follow their religions fanatically and to the letter in the first place, and instead have reached an accommodation between their religions and secular civil society. Fanatics who cannot reach such an accommodation are anathema and we should exclude them from our society. The problem is that we have no tool for reliably identifying and excluding the fanatics. Simply excluding all Muslims is both over and underinclusive.

  • Sean II

    This reminds me of something your pal Russ Roberts tweeted awhile back, in response to the concern that immigration might change our culture. He said “very old fear, never materializes”.

    In context it was pretty obvious he had something like this example in mind. You know the drill: “Oh, bosh! They used to say that about the Catholics – can you imagine! – and now we can all see how wrong they were.”

    Two problems with this:

    1) Even if that fear did turn out to be unfounded with Catholics in particular, we still don’t know whether it will turn out to be unfounded with some other group. That last is clearly an empirical matter, with the coexist-ability of each faith being an open question, to be answered on its merits. To say “liberalism survived the Catholics” does not get us anywhere near a general rule that says “liberalism will always survive any faith or faction you throw at it.”

    2) It’s historically ignorant. Catholics did change American society, mostly for the worse. They did provide a haven for things like organized crime and machine politics. They did create little islands of oppression here, with especially cruel torments inflicted on the young. They did turn American politics in a more statist direction, playing a key role in the ongoing disaster of the New Deal. They did fight desperately against the right of exit from marriage and against reproductive freedom, and if they hadn’t lost those fights, the crucial second wave of feminism would never have succeeded.

    The truth about Catholics in America is: we gambled, and while not winning, we didn’t lose that bad.

    How good of an argument is that for rolling the dice again?

    • Jay Baldwin

      Not to mention the Church’s direct impact on cultural production via the Production Code Administration. Decades of films Pope-approved for public viewing.

      • Sean II

        Very good example. The Church controlled a faction big enough to scare movie producers into self-censorship, but the end result was that everyone in America got stuck watching films made to Catholic moral specifications.

        Even my beloved Kubrick was forced to compromise in the face of their goon squads. Point being: nobody suspects the Spanish Inquisition, but maybe we should?

        And just in case anyone has forgotten what we’re really talking about here: those sex-hating Catholics censors will look like avant-garde libertines if the fellas in the Paris suburbs ever get the upper hand, culturally speaking.

      • King Goat

        I could see your Production Code (and you don’t think Protestants of the time didn’t and wouldn’t have objected strongly to the same content) and counter with Prohibition, which Catholics generally opposed and Protestants generally pushed. The urban Catholic areas of the US were certainly more libertine than the rural Protestant ones.

        • Sean II

          1) “…you don’t think Protestants of the time didn’t and wouldn’t have objected strongly to the same content.”

          Yes, but not nearly as much, and thanks to the fractured nature of Protestantism, not with such potent voting block uniformity.

          Degree matters.

          In fact, sometimes it’s the only thing that does.

          2) “The urban Catholic areas of the US were certainly more libertine than the rural Protestant ones.”

          This is just false.

          • King Goat

            As I said, Protestantism was ascendant in rural areas, Catholicism in the urban areas. It was clear culturally which was more culturally free. cf. Mencken and Bryant.

          • Sean II

            What matters is not how the cities were in their non-Catholic parts.

            What matters is: “how liberal were things in the Catholic sections of those cities”.

            To put it simply: you can’t argue that Hell’s Kitchen was liberal because Greenwich Village is liberal, and hey look, they’re both in a CITY!”

            Doesn’t work like that. To make this point you’d need to find three things: 1) liberalism in the Catholic sections, and 2) among the Catholic residents, and 3) while they’re still actually practicing Catholicism.

            Good luck there.

          • King Goat

            So the overwhelmingly Protestant rural areas were less tolerant of drinking, drugs, theater, evolutionary theory, etc., the much more Catholic cities were more so, but it was the Protestants in the cities that did that.

            That’s an interesting way to think about those facts.

          • King Goat

            I mean, it’s a totally silly argument to make if one knows anything about the history of Protestantism and Catholicism, culturally. Protestants were known for their marked austerity in cultural matters. You know, the Protestant work ethic and such, the frowning on ‘idle pleasures’ such as theater or playing cards or drinking alcohol.

          • Sean II

            “I mean, it’s a totally silly argument to make if one knows anything about the history of Protestantism and Catholicism”

            Sure, and that’s why modern liberal democracy started in Spain, not England; that’s why economic freedom as we know it took off in Italy, not Holland.

            How could I forget these things, almost as though they didn’t happen?

          • King Goat

            You’ll note, perhaps, that I said “culturally. Protestants were known for their marked austerity in cultural matters.” Not political matters. Not the same thing.

            Take the Puritans as an example. They did a lot to advance the idea of ‘liberal democracy’ by challenging a sitting monarch, the state religion, and affirming the power of Parliament. But they have also become synonymous with enforced cultural austerity.

          • M S

            I think you’ve been incorrectly conflating Puritanism with Protestantism in this thread. For instance, you credit Protestants with tossing a sitting king out on his ear and giving more power to Parliament. Assuming you mean England, they actually did this twice. The first time, the Puritans took charge and ran a straight religious dictatorship. In no way can Oliver Cromwell’s reign as Lord Protector be considered any kind of “liberal democracy”. He was so terrible that after he died the country demanded that the Catholic son of the king they had just executed come back and take over. The second time the Protestants tossed out their Catholic king, they invited a non-Puritan Protestant to take his place, and England got its liberal(er) democracy.

            The point is, you can’t just say talk about the benefits of Protestantism and the problems of puritanism and claim they are a package deal. It’s not at all incoherent to say that the Protestants living in cities were of the “I don’t give a shit about religion” variety, while those living in rural areas were a lot more puritan.

          • King Goat

            I gave the Puritans as an example of Protestantism (“Take the Puritans as an example”). I never said the Puritans led a liberal democracy, I said “They did a lot to advance the idea of ‘liberal democracy’ by challenging
            a sitting monarch, the state religion, and affirming the power of
            Parliament.” You credit the Glorious Revolution, but without the precedent of the Puritan Revolution would that have happened?
            And I never said it was incoherent “to say that the Protestants living in cities
            were of the “I don’t give a shit about religion” variety, while those
            living in rural areas were a lot more puritan.” What I said was that if you’ve got an area that’s overwhelmingly Protestant and very puritan, and an area where there are far, far less Protestants and more Catholics which is much less Protestant, that it would be odd indeed to conclude that it was the Protestants in the second area that made it much less puritan. Of course, I don’t have to leave it at that oddity, I can also just point to what we know about Protestant and Catholic historically and theologically, that the former often had major hang ups with drinking, gambling, dancing, theater, etc., that the latter did not. Culturally, with the exception of reproductive matters, the Catholics were more ‘libertarian’ than the Protestants in this country.

        • j_m_h

          Perhaps the real problem here is not group affiliation but rather individual character that will then leverage whatever group they’ve identified with or were brought up within to impost on others.

          Messy maybe but applying the group filter doesn’t solve the problem.

    • daniilgorbatenko

      When you say in (2) that Catholics mostly changed the US society for the worse, you seem to be ignoring the most important impact immigrants have. Their arrival means more people, and more people means more ideas, and more ideas means economic more economic growth. Ultimately, it is this what matters.

      Also, your success of feminism point is frankly bizarre because it flies in the face of predominantly Catholic European countries like France where feminism has succeeded as much as in the US.

      • Sean II

        France is a well-known anomaly within the Catholic sphere. That’s basic “History of Europe from 1400 to 1900”.

        Plus, it’s one country. Remind me: how is feminism doing in the Catholic sphere overall? More importantly, how is it doing in the most devout Catholic countries?

        • daniilgorbatenko

          Mmm, what major troubles does feminism face in Spain? Or in Italy? And how about Ireland’s recent legalization of gay marriage?

          As far as I know these countries are little different from France in this respect and whatever differences there may remain are on the way out because of the beliefs of the younger generation.

          • Sean II

            “What major troubles does feminism face in Spain? Or in Italy?

            Quite a few, actually. Spain and Italy are obvious laggards in terms realized feminism, when stood beside their Protestant neighbors. One need only visit to notice the difference in how women there live, in contrast to the U.S., U.K. Germany, Sweden, etc.

            Also, you show great chutzpah (a word acquired during my Irish Catholic upbringing) to mention Ireland as an example in your favor. Clearly, it is not. May I suggest a somewhat less costly visit to the wikipedia page for “divorce laws by country”.

            Also, you are conspicuous in ignoring an entire continent, probably because it wounds your argument fatally. C’mon, you know the one! It’s the best place to start out in a game or Risk, but not so wonderful a place to risk starting out life as a woman.

          • King Goat

            South America? There might be, I dunno, some pretty big differences to control there for. How is feminism doing in most non-1st world countries, Catholic or not?

          • Sean II

            King, if you want to argue that most third world countries are hostile to feminism, you’ll get no argument from ME.

            I’m just not sure how this gets you or anyone else to a position where increased immigration from the feminist hating third world is somehow a good thing.

          • King Goat

            I’m talking about your claim re: Catholicism and feminism. If you’re going to point to South America as your evidence I’d say developmental status is a pretty big intervening variable.

          • Sean II

            Just to be clear Goat:

            If you find women being treated unequally, and in the very same place you find devotion to a religion that for 2,000 years said “treat women unequally”…

            …the thought that pops into your head is “obviously this has something to do with the economy”.

            Okay, then. You’re determined.

          • King Goat

            When I find that women in places with that devotion but first world economies to be quite free and women in third world countries regardless of the religion there, yeah, I do think it might have something more to do with whether the country is a first or third world country than the history of devotion to that faith.

          • Sean II

            The thing you’re ignoring is: those people in the first world are not actually very devoted.

            Measure this any way you like: church attendance, church collections, % of kids in Catholic schools who actually are Catholic, birthrate, etc.

            The more obvious explanation here is: part of what makes the first world first is: it’s full of people who don’t take organized religion very seriously.

          • King Goat

            That’s a nice way to achieve non-falsification. Any nation of people that is ostensibly Catholic but which doesn’t fit your theory can be dismissed as ‘not really Catholic.’ Yes, I think first world status mediates things like faith, that’s exactly my point! The difference is you take any example of that and say ‘ah, they’re not *really* Catholic.” But they say they are. It’s like you won’t allow for a counterexample that doesn’t fit your theory:

          • Sean II

            Tell me Goat: if some Catholics are NOT less devoted than other Catholics, why do Catholics themselves uses phrases like “cafeteria Catholic” or “lapsed Catholics”.

            I mean, what are they trying to describe there…if, as you suggest, every Catholic is equal in Catholicism to every other?

          • King Goat

            Cafeteria Catholic is something more conservative Catholics call less conservative ones. But there’s no reason to take the ideals of the conservative Catholic as the ideal type for Catholicism. Religions change, even highly organized ones like Catholicism. To Mel Gibson’s dad Catholics who have the Mass not in Latin are probably ‘lapsed Catholics.’

            I see this neat trick pulled with Islam all the time. People will say ‘Islam is not compatible with modernity.’ Someone answers: ‘but what about the millions of Muslims in the world who seem to be living comfortably with modernity?’ ‘Oh, they’re not really Muslims, or not really devout ones.’ Of course if you start with the assumption that what it means to be a devout Muslim is to be anti-modern then I guess it’s easy to ‘prove’ Islam is incompatible with modernity.

          • Farstrider

            “The more obvious explanation here is: part of what makes the first world first is: it’s full of people who just don’t take organized religion very seriously.”

            Truest thing Sean has ever written. It’s called the “Enlightenment.” Perhaps Goat should read about that too while he is browsing Wikipedia.

          • daniilgorbatenko

            In what sense is feminism less realized in Spain than in Germany?

            For instance, we can take a relatively objective indicator – labor force participation rate for women. It’s 54% in Germany and 53% in Spain.

            In the case of Italy, the cultural specificity of the South needs to be taken in consideration. It probably has little directly to do with Catholicism.

          • Sean II

            Labor force participation is one thing among many. So what? Like I said, go visit sometime. In some respects you’ll feel like you’ve walked into an episode of Mad Men.

          • daniilgorbatenko

            I visited Rome and I noticed nothing of the sort.

        • daniilgorbatenko

          As for Ireland, there are relics of the past like divorce laws but the fact that they allowed gay marriage on a referendum suggests that those are just relics.

          I’d also add that if you use personal impressions as evidence, I can use my impressions from contacts with lots of students from all over Western Europe at my university town. I can only say that I’ve noticed no significant cultural differences whatsoever whether the students came from Spain, Italy, France, Germany or Ireland. Only superficial stuff.

          • Sean II

            “As for Ireland, there are relics of the past like divorce laws…”

            Yes, 1995, an antediluvian time of “relics”.

  • Christopher Ritchie

    So, just to be clear, the argument being made here, to recast it, is that the Peoples Republic of China is right to persecute various Tibetan Buddhist, Chinese Catholics and so forth, if those religions preclude obedience to the secular state? I suspect very few liberals, let alone libertarians would accept such a pronouncement, but than I find many arguments of this kind sort of collapse when the particulars are not ‘us vs. them’ and become ‘them vs. them’.

    Because what Locke is saying here is precisely the argument the PRC makes with regards Catholicism. Which conversely of course is not really applicable to modern Muslims, who have no central temporal authority. Trumps position is to pander to people who have seen their position and sense of security eroded by several decades of free-trade, globalization, and so forth. People who think it’s a bad deal that cheap iPhones come at the apparent costs of their kids not having access to good manufacturing jobs for example.


    Is there anything in American experience that could say that US government and laws cannot coexist with domestic radical Islam?

    I suggest an experiment. Widely publicize and hold a Draw Muhammad Contest. Offer a $100,000 prize for the most insulting entry. Observe the results.

  • stevenjohnson2

    Can the local governments “coexist with domestic radical” Christians like the Lord’s Resistance Army, the Anti-balaka or the Phalange? Most people seem to agree that the IRA is intolerable, and a few even add that the UVF and the UDA (and a bare handful note the activities of the RUC and British soldiers during the Troubles.)

    Spinoza, not Locke!

  • I knew about that statement of John Locke for a long time. I am surprised that any one else noticed it. To me it carries a lot of weight.

  • jtlevy
  • Theresa Klein

    Are we seriously having a discussion of whether Catholics or Protestants are better in this thread? With Sean II leading the anti-Catholic contingent? Next thing, we’re going to find out he’s a royalist.

    • Sean II

      Better a Shah than an Ayatollah.

    • Sergio Méndez

      Well, at least they show their true racist, xenophobic, bigoted colours…since islamophobia is fashionable and tolerated, I wonder if the old anti catholic canard can be tolerated also…next he will be calling to expel out all irish and italian descendents in the US.

  • martinbrock

    You snuck “radical” in there. The scale certainly differs, but the U.S. only recently released Jonathon Pollard from prison to a foreign state to which he was more loyal on religious grounds. He wasn’t violent, but he was disloyal and dangerous according to U.S. courts.

    We also have many Christian (according to them) radicals loyal to an authority in opposition to the United States, if not to an existing foreign state. Some commit terrorist acts.

    Secular radicals do too. “Propaganda of the deed” was the hysteria of our grandfathers, and the radical bogeymen were atheists.

    So maybe your problem is with radicalism and associated disrespect for the civil authority, including violence against it, rather than with radical Islam per se, but you can’t argue that Trump paints with so narrow a brush.

    • Nailed it. This was a very sneaky post of Munger’s IMO.

  • There’s an obvious and intentional sleight-of-hand being committed here. Munger’s conclusion refers to “domestic radical Islam,” but Munger’s description of Trump’s position refers to all Muslims. So which group is Munger referring to? That makes all the difference here, because without specifying, then Munger is simply implying-without-openly-stating that all Muslims can be potentially “radicalized” and made to swear an oath of loyalty to a foreign king. I just can’t take that kind of opinion seriously.

  • Pingback: SMH at BHL: Munger on Trump, Locke, and Religious Toleration | Policy of Truth()

  • David Lilley

    Whilst it is good to bring up Locke and the Christian world’s equivalent of the current Shia v Sunni civil wars (Catholic v protestant) we should always view past philosophers as stepping stones. We should only stand on the shoulders of giants and see further and not be scholars on past thinkers.