The Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology

The Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology

The Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology

The Pretenses of Loyalty: Locke, Liberal Theory, and American Political Theology


In the face of ongoing religious conflicts and unending culture wars, what are we to make of liberalism's promise that it alone can arbitrate between church and state? In this wide-ranging study, John Perry examines the roots of our thinking on religion and politics, placing the early-modern founders of liberalism in conversation with today's theologians and political philosophers.

From the story of Antigone to debates about homosexuality and bans on religious attire, it is clear that liberalism's promise to solve all theo-political conflict is a false hope. The philosophy connecting John Locke to John Rawls seeks a world free of tragic dilemmas, where there can be no Antigones. Perry rejects this as an illusion. Disputes like the culture wars cannot be adequately comprehended as border encroachments presided over by an impartial judge. Instead, theo-political conflict must be considered a contest of loyalties within each citizen and believer. Drawing on critics of Rawls ranging from Michael Sandel to Stanley Hauerwas, Perry identifies what he calls a 'turn to loyalty' by those who recognize the inadequacy of our usual thinking on the public place of religion.The Pretenses of Loyaltyoffers groundbreaking analysis of the overlooked early work of Locke, where liberalism's founder himself opposed toleration.

Perry discovers that Locke made a turn to loyalty analogous to that of today's communitarian critics. Liberal toleration is thus more sophisticated, more theologically subtle, and ultimately more problematic than has been supposed. It demands not only governmental neutrality (as Rawls believed) but also a reworked political theology. Yet this must remain under suspicion for Christians because it places religion in the service of the state. Perry concludes by suggesting where we might turn next, looking beyond our usual boundaries to possibilities obscured by the liberalism we have inherited.


That none may impose either upon himself or others by the pretences
of loyalty …

— John Locke

1. John Rawls’s Antigone

In a file found on his computer after his death, John Rawls tells how he lost his Christian faith. “I don’t profess to understand at all why my beliefs changed, or believe it is possible fully to comprehend such changes. We can record what happened, tell stories and make guesses, but they must be taken as such. There may be something in them, but probably not.” He then movingly tells three stories, and the telling is unlike anything else he wrote. When the piece was finally published in 2009 (together with his undergraduate thesis, also on religion), the Jewish journal Tikkun praised his “religious passion and wisdom” with a clever, if backhanded, compliment: By comparison, all his other works “are as pareve … as could be.” Pareve refers to a type of kosher but is also the Yiddish word for neutral. The three stories, all set during World War II, are anything but pareve.

The first incident was a sermon Rawls heard at the end of the Battle of Leyte, a turning point in the Allied campaign for the Philippines. The army chaplain offered the predictable, but theologically suspect, platitudes that army chaplains probably feel bound to offer in wartime: God helped us defeat the Japanese, kept our bullets on target, redirected our enemies’ bullets, and so on. Rawls says, “I don’t know why this made me so angry, but it certainly . . .

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