Tuesday, November 1, 2011

John Perry's "The Pretenses of Loyalty"

John Perry is McDonald Fellow for Christian Ethics & Public Life at the University of Oxford. His Ph.D. is from the University of Notre Dame and he has published articles in the Journal of Religious Ethics, Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, and Scottish Journal of Theology, and elsewhere.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology, and reported the following:
The Pretenses of Loyalty is about the way we relate religion to politics. One of the best-known bits of this story is that we’ve been influenced by John Locke (1632-1704). Prior to his time, the government regulated specific details of religious life, and members of disfavored religions were persecuted (Jews, Catholics, Muslims, and certain Protestants). After Locke’s time, this was essentially—though not entirely—abandoned throughout the West. Locke is particularly influential in America. At the time of the Revolution, he was among the most-read authors in the American colonies (second only to the Bible, apparently). What most people don’t know is that Locke actually began his career as an opponent of religious freedom. How did he come to be one of its great advocates? That is the story of The Pretenses of Loyalty.

The central section explores why he changed his mind so completely, and this is where page 99 falls. On that page, I quote a letter written by Locke when he was still an opponent of religious freedom. He closes with a curious phrase: “leaving nothing to doubt but whether [toleration] now be practicable.” He’s saying that he now realizes religious freedom is desirable, but he just thinks it won’t work. Why not? Because people will take advantage of it.

The two ways in which it will be taken advantage of are (1) the Pretense of Loyalty to God (in which believers avoid legitimate civic duties with spurious religious claims) and (2) the Pretense of Loyalty to the Common Good (where religious bigotry is justified by pretending civic order is at risk). Examples of the first include not paying taxes because an angel told you not to and (true story) the British youth who hid his face with a hood, against a grocery store’s shoplifting policy, because he is a Jedi. An example of the second pretense is the French argument for banning yarmulkes in public schools because they threaten public order. The remainder of the book tells the story of how Locke thinks we can guard against these pretenses, because only once we have, can we form a safe society committed to religious freedom.
Learn more about The Pretenses of Loyalty at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue