Religion and Political Theory Part 1


When the well-known
political theorist Leo
Strauss introduced the
topic of politics and
religion in his
reflections, he
presented it as a
problem—the
“theologico-political
problem” he called it
[1](Strauss 1997). The
problem, says Strauss,
is primarily one about
authority: Is political
authority to be
grounded in the claims
of revelation or
reason, Jerusalem or
Athens? In so
characterizing the
problem, Strauss was
tapping into currents of
thought deep in the
history of political
reflection in the west,
ones about the nature,
extent, and
justification of political
authority. Do
monarchies owe their
authority to divine
right? Has God
delegated to secular
rulers such as kings
and emperors the
authority to wage war
in order to achieve
religious aims? Do
secular rulers have
the authority to
suppress heretics?
What authority does
the state retain when
its principles conflict
with God’s? Is the
authority of the natural
law ultimately grounded
in divine law? These
and other questions
animated much of the
discussion among
medieval and modern
philosophers alike.
With the emergence of
liberal democracy in the
modern west, however,
the types of questions
that philosophers
asked about the
interrelation between
religion and political
authority began to
shift, in large measure
because the following
three-fold dynamic was
at work. In the first
place, divine-
authorization accounts
of political authority
had lost the day to
consent-based
approaches. Political
authority in a liberal
democracy, most
prominent defenders of
liberal democracy
claimed, is grounded in
the consent of the
people to be ruled
rather than in God’s act
of authorization.
Second, the effects of
the Protestant
Reformation had made
themselves felt
acutely, as the broadly
homogenous religious
character of Western
Europe had
disintegrated. The
population of Western
Europe and the United
States were now not
only considerably more
religiously diverse, but
also deeply wary of the
sort of bloodshed
occasioned by the so-
called religious wars.
And, finally,
secularization had
begun to take hold.
Both the effects of
religious diversity and
prominent attacks on
the legitimacy of
religious belief ensured
that one could no
longer assume in
political discussion that
one’s fellow citizens
were religious, let
alone members of one’s
own religious tradition.
For citizens of
contemporary liberal
democracies, this
three-fold dynamic has
yielded a curious
situation. On the one
hand, most take it for
granted that the
authority of the state
is located in the
people, that the people
are religiously diverse,
and that important
segments of people
doubt the rationality of
religious belief and
practice of any sort. On
the other hand,
contrary to the
predictions of many
advocates of
secularization theory,
such as Karl Marx,
Max Weber, and (at
one time) Peter Berger,
this mix of democracy,
religious diversity, and
religious criticism has
not resulted in the
disappearance or
privatization of
religion. Religion,
especially in liberal
democracies such as
the United States, is
alive and well, shaping
political culture in
numerous ways.
Consequently, there
very much remains a
theologico-political
problem. The problem,
moreover, still
concerns political
authority, though now
reframed by the
transition to liberal
democracy. If recent
reflection on the issue
is any guide, the most
pressing problem to
address is this: Given
that state-authorized
coercion needs to be
justified, and that the
justification of state
coercion requires the
consent of the people,
what role may religious
reasons play in
justifying state
coercion? More
specifically, in a
religiously pluralistic
context such as one
finds in contemporary
liberal democracies,
are religious reasons
sufficient to justify a
coercive law for which
reasonable agents
cannot find an
adequate secular
rationale?

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