Merciful over all his works, with good
Still overcoming evil, and by small
Accomplishing great things, by things deemed weak
Subverting worldly strong
—John Milton, Paradise Lost
This book can be read as an extended commentary on a single phrase from the Letter concerning Toleration, one hidden in plain sight but usually overlooked: “that none may impose either upon himself or others by the pretences of loyalty.” We usually notice only the words that complete the sentence, where Locke writes, “I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other.” The liberal trajectory that runs from Locke to Rawls characteristically reads these words as if they stand alone, as if the first half of the sentence did not exist. My argument has been that this tendency—reading the latter phrase while ignoring the former—contributes to liberalism’s ongoing inability to justly relate religion and public life. My goal in the following pages is to draw together what I have said so far and to briefly describe some of the consequences.
This overlooked phrase is important because it captures something obscured by the liberal tradition that we have inherited. We take for granted that one of government’s tasks is “the drawing of just bounds”