I generally agree with Jonathan Rowe on the issue of whether the American founding is “Christian.” But in his recent post on John Locke, I do see something I would correct. Locke did base his theories at least in part on Christian teachers, most notably Richard Hooker. What’s important about Locke isn’t that he wasn’t Christian—he was—but that his version of Christianity adopted Aristotelian and Protestant notions into what became classical liberalism. This was what we today would call “putting a spin” on Christianity. Locke wasn’t anti-Christian, he was anti-Pauline, and anti-Platonic. (Of course, if you think Paul and his Platonisms are “real Christianity,” then you’ll think Locke was anti-Christian.)
Rowe writes that “Locke posited the notion of ‘self-ownership.’ If ever there were an anti-Christian (that is, the traditional orthodox understanding) doctrine, it is that.” Well, it’s true that that is an anti-Christian notion, but Locke, technically speaking, did not posit self-ownership. He argued that the individual owned himself in life estate, not in fee simple. And he was not original in saying this. In the final book of Paradise Lost, John Milton, my favorite Christian libertarian, has Adam say to the Archangel Michael (speaking of Nimrod)
O execrable Son so to aspire
Above his Brethren, to himself assuming
Authoritie usurpt, from God not giv’n:
He gave us onely over Beast, Fish, Fowl
Dominion absolute; that right we hold
By his donation; but Man over men
He made not Lord; such title to himself
Reserving, human left from human free.
This is the Christian libertarian version of self-ownership: the individual belongs to himself only during his life. Slavery is therefore a form of theft from god; but so, too, is self-destruction. This is why the rights to life, liberty, and so forth are inalienable. They don’t, at bottom, belong to the individual, so the individual cannot sell himself into slavery, or commit suicide, or use drugs.
Obviously, this is not a view to which I subscribe. What undermines the Claremont argument—and Locke’s argument—and all Christian libertarianism, in my view—is that reason is not compatible with “revelation,” or, more precisely with the emotional outbursts, hallucinations, myths, and aspirations that we politely call “revelation.” I suppose a Straussian might argue that Locke was consciously trying to transvalue Christianity by describing it “exoterically” in terms of reason, but I think that’s a bit silly. The fact is, Locke and others either 1) seriously thought a belief in God was reasonable—which is understandable in the days before Darwin, or 2) were subject to coercion so that they tried as hard as they could to rationalize their views in Christian terms, not as a conscious effort of esotericism, but just as we all from time to time try to smash incompatible ideas together in our heads.