On liberalism, liberty of conscience, and toleration: some historical and theoretical reflections

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This chapter offers some historical and theoretical reflections on the relationship between liberalism and toleration. It is shown that the terms of that relationship as assumed in the minds of liberal commentators were established quite early, in the eighteenth century, and reproduced down to the present day in multiple versions of a grand narrative in which the liberal tradition originates in conscientious Protestant resistance to Catholic and Catholic-style persecution which, in 1688, would deliver limited government and religious liberty to all. A habitual equation between toleration and liberty of conscience is shown to be operative, legitimated by a reading of Locke which presents him as the intellectual mastermind of 1688, a founder of the liberal tradition, and an exponent of liberty of conscience. It is suggested that hidden within the folds of this reading is an old idea, that progressive thinkers like Locke educate elites who in their turn restrain and re-educate the popular instinct to persecute. History is used to problematize the equation of toleration and liberty of conscience and to give grounds for thinking that the old idea is alive and well in Rawlsian writing about liberalism, its history, and its relation to toleration.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationToleration and the Challenges to Liberalism
EditorsJohannes Drerup, Gottfried Schweiger
Place of PublicationLondon and New York
Number of pages24
ISBN (Print)9780367612511
Publication statusPublished - 2021

Publication series

NameRoutledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy

Bibliographical note

This is an author-produced version of the published paper. Uploaded in accordance with the publisher’s self-archiving policy. Further copying may not be permitted; contact the publisher for details.


  • liberalism
  • liberty of conscience
  • toleration
  • whig historiography
  • civil rights
  • The Levellers

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