RELIGIOUS AND MORAL TOLERATION
Because the theory and practice of sexual and of religious discipline had traditionally been so closely intertwined, the growth of religious liberty in the later seventeenth century raised obvious questions about moral liberty. To most observers, however, this was a deeply unwanted development. Indeed, the orthodox view amongst advocates of toleration was that freedom of religion was wholly different from other types of freedom. It did not imply a general liberty of thought or action. Still less could it be used to justify adultery, fornication, or any other kind of licentiousness. As the Presbyterian John Shower pointed out, even
the greatest sticklers for the most unlimited toleration, as to different senti-
ments about matters of faith, and worship; do yet all agree, that these
instances of immorality do properly come under the cognisance of the civil magistrate, as having a mighty influence upon public society, being very prejudicial to the welfare of it. So that no man can complain of persecution for his opinions, when he is punished for such gross immoralities against the laws of God and the land.1
This difference between spiritual and moral freedom was articulated most influentially by John Locke. There were, he maintained, two grounds on which it was reasonable to tolerate varying religious opinions. The first was that people’s innermost beliefs simply could not be changed by 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 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.2
Punishment was therefore useless.
The second fact was that the spiritual beliefs and practices of a person or a church were private matters. Their truth or error did not threaten the well-being of others, or of society as a whole; they were not, therefore, the business of civil government. Against this, Locke contrasted beliefs and practices which could not be safely allowed because they were not merely private, but impinged on the public good. Repeatedly, he raised the spectre of unbounded ‘adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness’, which were not tolerable even under the guise of religious freedom. What, asked Locke rhetorically, if a congregation felt itself spiritually inspired to
lustfully pollute themselves in promiscuous uncleanness, or practise any other such heinous enormities, is the magistrate obliged to tolerate them, because they are committed in a religious assembly? I answer, no. These things are not lawful in the ordinary course of life, nor in any private house; and therefore neither are they so in the worship of God, or in any religious meeting.
It was never, he stressed, his aim to advocate ‘the toleration of corrupt manners, and the debaucheries of life. . . but say it is properly the magistrate’s business, by punishments, to restrain and suppress them’.3
Given the traditional connection between spiritual and moral deviance, it was imperative to pre-empt the objection that freedom of conscience would imply a general licentiousness.
Yet this proved a tricky balancing act to sustain. Many contemporaries thought the distinction between moral and religious liberty difficult to justify. ‘It is no wonder’, scoffed one of Locke’s earliest critics, ‘that this author doth intersperse his discourse with the recommendation of love and unity, and declamation against scandalous vices of whoredom, etc. . . . these are but baits to cover the hook, and invite the licentious readers to swallow it the more greedily.’ If it was right to exempt religion from public oversight and leave it to conscience, objected an Oxford don, ‘perhaps other men may think it as reasonable to except some other things, which they have a kindness for. For instance: some perhaps may except arbitrary divorcing, others polygamy, others concubinacy, others simple fornication’, or even incest. One had but to think back to the Interregnum to see what the fruits of religious toleration were likely to be.4
The example of the 1640s and 1650s was indeed a telling one. Precisely the same arguments for and against liberty of conscience had been advanced forcefully then. Most sectarians and independents had claimed that it was impossible and indefensible to coerce beliefs, and that a limited toleration would lead to greater concord between Protestants, rather than the reverse. They also took for granted that any attempt to indulge immorality should be strictly punished: liberty of conscience could not extend to ideas or practices that were contrary to divine law or social order. John Milton, the Commonwealth’s most ambitious theorist of intellectual freedom, would nonetheless censor opinions defending sexual licence (as well as popery, which he believed encouraged it).5 The ‘only way to true liberty’, in his opinion, was ‘by innocence of life and sanctity of manners’. Even those, like William Walwyn, who were for a complete freedom of worship, extending to Muslims, heathens, and atheists, denounced the notion that this might provide ‘greater liberty to be vicious’. ‘Let the strictness and severity of law be multiplied tenfold against all manner of vice and enormity.’ Offenders against chastity, agreed Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, ‘ought not to be tolerated, but suppressed’.6
Yet in practice the events of the Interregnum appeared to confirm traditional views about the danger of even a limited toleration. The notion that religious freedom would foster peace and union was contradicted by political instability and the willingness of godly groups to persecute each other. To hostile observers its social consequences seemed equally pernicious. Milton’s own writings on divorce were held up as an example of how spiritual indulgence bred moral licentiousness; worse still were persistent reports of the supposed promiscuity of Ranters, Quakers, and other radical groups. The Levellers and Diggers similarly found their advocacy of religious and political liberty tainted by association with sexual freedom. Arresting the Leveller leader Richard Overton at his lodgings in March 1649, Lieutenant-Colonel Daniel Axtell was moved to abuse him repeatedly for practising ‘community of women’, and ‘gave it out in the court and street, amongst the soldiers and neighbours that it was a bawdy-house, and that all the women that lived in it were whores, and that he had taken me in bed with another man’s wife’.7 These fears and smears were largely baseless, but they stuck. After 1660, analogous associations between licentiousness, tyranny, and religious liberty (now especially for popery) remained topical and commonplace.8!
Locke’s separation of religious and moral matters was thus disputable on the grounds of recent experience. But the truth is also that his own views on the limits of personal freedom were somewhat precarious. On the one hand, he argued forcefully that every man had a liberty to do as he pleased with his goods, his self, and his soul. Laws and punishments should not extend to ‘the care of souls’, any more than they should presume to protect a person’s health or estate against his own ‘negligence or ill-husbandry’. Just as ‘nobody corrects a spendthrift for consuming his substance in taverns’, so ‘no man can be forced to be rich or healthful’, and equally ‘the care of each man’s salvation belongs only to himself’ – these were all private matters.9 Yet on the other hand, Locke also maintained, along traditional lines,
that it was proper and necessary to regulate personal conduct by punishing people for their vices. This was for their own good, for it brought them, as well as their society, closer to God. When faced with ‘drunkenness, lasciviousness, and all sorts of debauchery’, magistrates therefore
may and ought to interpose their power, and by severities. . . reduce the irregularities of men’s manners into order, and bring sobriety, peaceableness, industry and honesty into fashion. This is their proper business everywhere; and for this they have a commission from God, both by the light of nature and revelation.
In short, people should be ‘forced by the magistrate to live sober, honest and strict lives’, for ‘in men’s lives lies the main obstacle to right opinions in religion’.10
In short, it seems that pretty much every proponent of toleration before 1700 was keenly concerned not to weaken moral discipline. On the contrary, many wished to strengthen it. Yet this position was open to obvious objections. If people could rely on conscience for their ultimate salvation, why should it not guide them in lesser issues too? If compulsion could not change people’s minds about spiritual truth and error, why should it work any better against moral fail – mgs?11 Ultimately these were problems concerning not just the limits of private conscience and coercion, but the definition of true and false knowledge, the extent of free will, and the purpose of civil society. What exactly was the relationship between private morals and the public good? How far should a government intervene in the lives of its citizens? How free was anyone to hold or reject particular beliefs? To champion them? To act upon them?
None of these final questions was new. Indeed, each of them can be said to derive from the central problem of all political thought, that of obedience and authority. Yet no serious medieval or Renaissance theorist of freedom or justice would have thought it appropriate to apply them systematically to sexual conduct. The traditional definition of personal liberty was largely a political and legal one. It was only from the later seventeenth century onwards that its potential scope came to be seen as much wider, encompassing not just spiritual but, in due course, moral freedoms too.