Locke describes natural rights this way: “Men being by nature all free, equal and independent, no one can be put out of this estate and subjected to the political power of another without his own consent.” But men do not meet each other as free, equal, and independent in the real world. They must be brought to a state of freedom, equality, and independence.
John Locke also turned to scripture, but for different reasons. Some readers find in Locke a liberal theorist more compatible with inherited Christian understandings of society. Unlike Thomas Hobbes before him or John Stuart Mill later, he seems to acknowledge God’s sovereignty. He even affirms belief in the Resurrection. But Locke’s reading of the Bible is a curious one. God’s sovereignty is established because for Locke human beings are “the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise Maker — all the servants of one sovereign master, sent into the world by his order, and about his business — they are his property whose workmanship they are, made to last during his, not one another’s pleasure.” Instead of being made in the image and likeness of a Heavenly Father, we have the Divine Whig, a property owner whose unchallengeable judgments are to remain undisturbed. Locke would have, instead of right living and worship, human strife ended by the flowering of a civil society “the chief end whereof is the preservation of property.”
Locke recognized that this society needed to be held together by morality, but his elaboration on Christian teaching degrades the status of individual churches in favor of a mere Christian morality. Liberalism was not just a political project but a theological one. And, across his essays A Letter concerning Toleration and The Reasonableness of Christianity and his commentaries on the Pauline epistles, Locke takes up the task to diminish the controversies between Protestant sects with his own position that the only doctrine to believe is that Christ is the Messiah — all other titles for Christ are reduced to this in his reading. And the only thing to be done is to live according to the moral precepts derived from reason or taught commonly in scripture. “The preaching of our Savior and his apostles has sufficiently taught us what is necessary to be proposed to every man, to make him a Christian,” he writes. “He that believes him to be the promised Messiah, takes Jesus for his King, and repenting of his former sins, sincerely resolves to live, for the future in obedience to his laws, is a subject of his kingdom, is a Christian.”
In Locke’s reading, the miracle stories and the histories are not expositions and revelations of the character of God but rather over-awing demonstrations of power to the vulgar masses who cannot, like a philosopher, divine morality from pure reason. “It is too hard a task for unassisted reason to establish morality in all its parts upon its true foundation with a clear and convincing light,” Locke writes. “And it is at least a surer and shorter way, to the apprehensions of the vulgar, and mass of mankind, that one manifestly sent from God, and coming with visible authority from him, should, as a king and law-maker, tell them their duties and require their obedience, than to leave it to the long, and sometimes intricate deductions of reason, to be made out to them.”
Locke’s entire approach to scripture is to reduce the doctrinal controversies among Christians to mere “speculative opinions and divine worship” on one side, whereas moral teaching and his minimal creed are the parts that matter to supporting public morality and the life of the state. For Locke, immorality is a more grave offense against his true, “reasonable” Church, than “any conscientious Dissent from Ecclesiastical Decisions, or Separation from Publick Worship, whilst accompanied with Innocency of Life.” Consequently, his form of toleration excludes Catholics, not because their nations had not proven themselves bastions of liberty but because Catholic morality could not be separated from the teaching authority of the Church itself — namely, its ecclesiastical claim to define matters of faith and morals.
But the link between morality and authority is a feature not only of Catholicism. Most Christians understand that morality depends on doctrine and cannot be separated from it. And therefore tolerance, but not for Catholics, becomes generalized: tolerance, but not for “the intolerant.” Not for those who would impose on others “a concept of existence” and “speculative opinions.” It’s important to note that this generalization was predicted at the time by Locke’s contemporaries. In a heated attack on Reasonableness, Anglican divine John Edwards criticized Locke for his minimalism. “This Gentleman and his fellows are resolved to be Unitarians,” Edwards wrote. “They are for One Article of Faith, as well as One Person in the Godhead,” and when Christianity is “thus brought down to One Single Article, it will soon be reduced to none: the Unit will dwindle into a Cypher.” And yet we must make laws that point to and implicate truths. Lincoln sought to “impose a concept of existence” on his hearers and on his nation: that Negroes were men. Laws will reflect theological commitments about the world, even if they pretend not to do so. The purpose of classical conservatism is to be clear-eyed and wise about this point, to engage in the world in an undeluded way. Liberal arrangements may be tolerable and even well suited toward a people, but conservatives will not presume that that is owing to the nature of man. The presumption that men are “free, equal and independent” by nature is wrong. They can be made so by the nurture of family, community, nation, and faith.
The Bible’s political lessons offer almost nothing to support John Locke’s natural individualism, but there may be a scriptural type useful for understanding or at least seeing liberalism’s predicament, the contradiction born in John Locke’s theology ...: the idea that there can be a common morality with no common creed, a common law without a common life. ...We see above is an accurate description of Locke's theology peppered with Dougherty's more conservative critical analysis. But Locke was indeed central to the American founding in certain ways. Statistically, his sentiments were cited more during the revolutionary period than that of the framing and ratifying of the Constitution.
And ironically Locke was often cited from the pulpit along with the Bible in sermons. So even if the Bible doesn't offer support to Locke's ideas, ministers were still promoting them.