Self-Ownership vs. Divine Ownership: A Lockean Solution to a Liberal Democratic Dilemma


  • Earlier versions of this article were presented at the 2009 annual meeting of the Midwest Political Science Association, the 2008 annual meeting of the Southwest Political Science Association, and a 2008 meeting of the University of Notre Dame Political Theory Colloquium. The author would like to thank Michael Zuckert, the editor and anonymous reviewers at AJPS, as well as the numerous participants in these meetings, for highly instructive comments and discussions throughout the writing process.

S. Adam Seagrave is Notre Dame Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow, The Tocqueville Program, University of Notre Dame, 217 O'Shaughnessy Hall, Notre Dame, IN 46556 (


While the role of religion in the public life of contemporary liberal democracies constitutes a significant and ongoing topic of debate in political theory, scholars have thus far stopped short of addressing the root of this contentious issue in the apparent contradiction between self-ownership and Divine ownership. I argue that a hitherto unnoticed and persuasive means of resolving this contradiction is implicit in the thought of John Locke. In fact, one of the more controversial issues in recent Lockean scholarship concerns the manner in which Locke's assertions of human self-ownership cohere with his prominent theological commitments. These two sides of Locke's thought may be reconciled, and a potential pathway through the liberal democratic dilemma illumined, by elaborating upon a sophisticated theory of ownership that is implicitly present in Locke's Two Treatises of Government and his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding.