Religion And Political Theory: The Standard View

1. The Standard
The standard view
among political
theorists, such as
Robert Audi, Jürgen
Habermas, Charles
Larmore, Steven
Macedo, Martha
Nussbaum, and John
Rawls is that religious
reasons can play only
a limited role in
justifying coercive
laws, as coercive laws
that require a religious
rationale lack moral
[2]legitimacy. If the
standard view is
correct, there is an
important asymmetry
between religious and
secular reasons in the
following respect: some
secular reasons can
themselves justify
state coercion but no
religious reason can.
This asymmetry
between the
justificatory potential
of religious and secular
reasons, it is further
claimed, should shape
the political practice of
religious believers.
According to advocates
of the standard view,
citizens should not
support coercive laws
for which they believe
there is no plausible
secular rationale,
although they may
support coercive laws
for which they believe
there is only a secular
rationale. We can refer
to this injunction to
exercise restraint as
The Doctrine of
Religious Restraint (or
[3]the DRR, for short).
This abstract
characteization of the
DRR will require some
refinements, which we’ll
provide in sections 2
and 3. For the time
being, however, we
can get a better feel
for the character of the
DRR by considering the
following case.
2. The Doctrine of
Religious Restraint
Rick is a politically
engaged citizen who
intends to vote in a
referendum on a
measure that would
criminalize homosexual
relations. As he
evaluates the relevant
considerations, he
concludes that the only
persuasive rationale
for that measure
includes as a crucial
premise the claim that
homosexual relations
are contrary to a God-
established natural
order. Although he
finds that rationale
compelling, he realizes
that many others do
not. But because he
takes himself to have a
general moral
obligation to make
those political decisions
that, as best he can
tell, are both just and
good, he decides to
vote in favor of
Moreover, he tries to
persuade his
compatriots to vote
with him. In so doing,
he offers relevantly
different arguments to
different audiences. He
tries to convince like-
minded citizens by
appealing to the
theistic natural law
argument that he finds
persuasive. But he
realizes that many of
his fellow citizens are
unpersuaded by the
natural law argument
that convinces him. So
he articulates a variety
of other arguments—
some secular, some
religious—that he
hopes will leverage
those who don’t share
his natural law theism
into supporting his
position. He does so
even though he doubts
that any of those
leveraging arguments
are cogent, realizes
that many of those to
whom he addresses
them will have
comparable doubts
about their cogency,
and so believes that
many coerced by the
law he supports have
no good reason, from
their perspective, to
affirm that law.
Advocates of the
standard view will be
troubled by Rick’s
behavior. The
relevantly troubling
feature of Rick’s
behavior is not
primarily his decision to
support this particular
policy. Rather, it is his
decision to support a
policy that he believes
others have no good
reason, from their
perspective, to
endorse. After all, Rick
votes to enact a law
that authorizes state
coercion even though
he believes that the
only plausible rationale
for that decision
includes religious
claims that many of his
compatriots find utterly
unpersuasive. In so
doing, Rick violates a
normative constraint at
the heart of the
standard view, viz.,
that citizens in a
pluralistic liberal
democracy ought to
refrain from using their
political influence to
authorize coercive
laws that, to the best
of their knowledge, can
be justified only on
religious grounds and
so lack a plausible
[4]secular rationale.
Or, otherwise put, Rick
violates the DRR. For
the DRR tells us that, if
a citizen is trying to
determine whether or
not she should support
some coercive law, and
if she believes that
there is no plausible
secular rationale for
that law, then she may
not support it.
The DRR is a negative
constraint; it identifies
a kind of reason that
cannot itself justify a
coercive law and so a
kind of reason on
which citizens may not
exclusively rely when
supporting a coercive
law. But this negative
constraint implies a
permission: although
citizens may not
support coercive laws
for which they believe
themselves to have
only a religious
rationale, they may
support coercive laws
for which they believe
there is only a
plausible secular
rationale. As we’ll see
in a moment, advocates
of the DRR furnish
reasons to believe that
religious and secular
reasons have this
justificatory role.
2.1 Core
Components of the
Doctrine of
Religious Restraint
The standard view has
often been
typically by associating
the DRR with claims its
advocates are free to
deny. It will therefore
be helpful to dissociate
the DRR from various
[7]or utilitarianism.
Accordingly, the
standard view does
not commit itself to a
position according to
which secular reasons
must be included or
otherwise grounded in
a neutral source—a set
of principles regarding
justice and the common
good such that
everybody has good
reason, apart from his
own or any other
religious or
perspective, to find
acceptable. Somewhat
more specifically,
advocates of the
standard view needn’t
claim that secular
reasons must be found
in what Rawls calls
“public reason,” which
(roughly speaking) is a
fund of shared
principles about justice
and the common good
constructed from the
shared political culture
of a liberal democracy.
That having been said,
it is worth stressing
that some prominent
advocates of the
standard view adopt a
broadly Rawlsian
account of the DRR,
according to which
coercive laws must be
justified by appeal to
public reason (see
Gutmann and Thompson
1996, Larmore 1987,
Macedo 1990, and
Nussbaum 2008). We
shall have more to say
about this view in
section 6.
Fourth, the DRR itself
has no determinate
policy implications; it is
a constraint not on
legislation itself, but on
the configuration of
reasons to which
agents may appeal
when supporting
coercive legislation. So,
for example, it forbids
Rick to support the
criminalization of
homosexuality when he
believes that there are
no plausible secular
reasons to criminalize
it. As such, the moral
propriety of the DRR
has nothing directly to
do with its usefulness
in furthering, or
discouraging, particular
policy aims.
The DRR, then, is a
norm that is supposed
to provide guidance for
how citizens of a liberal
democracy should
conduct themselves
when deliberating
about the
implementation of
coercive laws. For our
purposes, it will be
helpful to work with a
canonical formulation of
it. Let us, then,
formulate the DRR as
The DRR: a
citizen of a
democracy may
support the
of a coercive
law L just in
case he
believes himself
to have a
justification for
L, which he is
prepared to
offer in political
About this formulation
of the DRR, let us make
two points. First, in
what follows, we will
remain largely
noncommittal about
what the qualifier
“plausible” means, as
advocates of the
standard view
understand it in
different ways. For
present purposes, we
will simply assume that
a plausible rationale is
one that epistemically
and morally competent
peers will take
seriously as a basis
for supporting a
coercive law. Second,
according to this
formulation of the DRR,
a citizen can comply
with the DRR even if he
himself is not
persuaded to support
a coercive law for any
secular reason. What
matters is that he
believes that he has
and can offer a secular
rationale that his
secular cohorts can
take seriously.
Suppose, then, we
have an adequate
working conception of
the DRR. The question
naturally arises: Why
do advocates of the
standard view maintain
that we should conform
to the DRR? For
several reasons, most
prominent of which are
the following three


1,302 thoughts on “Religion And Political Theory: The Standard View

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