Religion and Politics

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Is it morally appropriate for citizens in a liberal democracy like the United States to support or oppose public policies solely for religious reasons? Although regularly serving as grist for the mill of political theorists, that question is not the familiar fare of ordinary political discussion. It's not a question about, or at least directly about, which laws our government ought to enforce. We're all too familiar with such questionsabout the moral propriety and practical wisdom of abolishing the death penalty, legalizing abortion, declaring war on Afghanistan, and so on. Rather, it is a question about the kinds of justifications citizens should or should not have for their political commitments.

The most common position on this issue calls for a general constraint on the political use of religious reasons. Proponents of this constraint argue that citizens must support public policies for secular reasons and therefore that they morally ought to restrain themselves from supporting public policies solely for religious reasons. So, for example, they argue that a citizen who lacks any secular reason to criminalize abortion or discourage homosexuality ought to refrain from supporting any such policy.

This entry presents the main lines of argument for and against this view that citizens should obey the doctrine of restraint : that they ought to restrain themselves from supporting or opposing public policies solely for religious reasons.

Liberal Democracy, Religious Pluralism, and the Doctrine of Restraint

In order to understand why a given philosophical commitment is significant, it's helpful to identify the problem that that commitment is supposed to solve. This is true of the doctrine of restraint: It is significant because it claims to solve a problem that naturally arises from the institutionalization of a liberal democracy's deepest normative commitments. What is that problem?

At the very least, a liberal democracy is a form of government that affirms and protects a citizen's rightsto private property, to freedom of association, to freedom of conscience, and so on. The most fundamental of these rights, both morally and historically, is the right to religious freedom: Citizens are entitled to decide which religious creed or practice, if any, they wish to pursue. So a liberal democracy just is a kind of political system that provides citizens with considerable leeway to decide for themselves what they are to believe regarding religious matters.

Protection of the right to religious freedom has far-reaching social consequences, the most important of which is religious pluralism: A society that assiduously protects each citizen's right to religious freedom will find its citizens disagreeing among themselves as to which religion is true, how to please God, and so on. What explains this close connection between religious freedom and religious pluralism? Because our rational capacities are not powerful enough to produce widely convincing proofs (or refutations) of religious truth claims, even the flawless employment of our rational capacities will lead to disagreements about such matters. From this claim about the limited powers of our rational capacities, it follows that citizens who are free to decide which religious tradition to affirm will embrace a diversity of religious traditions. So, then, since well-functioning liberal democracies effectively protect the right to religious freedom, and since the effective protection of religious freedom results in a citizenry that is rationally committed to divergent religious traditions, it follows that well-functioning liberal democracies will be characterized by a citizenry that is rationally committed to divergent religious traditions.

This fact of religious pluralism raises a question of enormous moral and practical import: How are the multifariously committed citizens of a liberal democracy to make collective decisions about the laws with which each citizen must comply? For advocates of the doctrine of restraint, the pervasive pluralism of a liberal democracy renders obedience to the doctrine of restraint imperative: The morally appropriate response of citizens to religious pluralism is to refrain from resolving public matters solely for sectarian, and therefore for religious, reasons.

The Doctrine of Restraint

Although agreed on a core prohibition of exclusively religious support for public policies, advocates of the doctrine of restraint diverge in their formulations of this doctrine. Some have argued that it constrains all political actors, including citizens, legislators, judges, and other public officials; others limit its scope to public officials. Some have argued that the doctrine enjoins restraint with respect to all public policies, whereas others have limited its scope to coercive public policies; others further delimit its scope to laws of fundamental and structural importance. Some have argued that the doctrine of restraint applies only to public political advocacy, whereas others contend that it should also apply to political decision-making the decision as to whether to vote for some candidate, for example.

A more important variation is between the inclusive formulation of the doctrine of restraint on which this entry focuses and a more demanding but less plausible cousin with which the inclusive version is sometimes confused. The inclusive version of the doctrine of restraint has been most effectively advocated by Robert Audi (2000), who insists that citizens should include secular arguments in their political practice, not that they should exclude religious reasons. According to Audi, citizens may support only those public policies for which they have secular reasons they regard as sufficiently weighty that they would continue to support the relevant policies absent corroborating religious reasons. But as long as citizens have, and are motivated by, adequate secular reasons for a given public policy, they are free to appeal to religious reasons as well. So inclusivists such as Audi advocate a kind of limited privatization: Citizens are free to rely on religious reasons for public policies so long as they have correlative secular reasons but must refrain from supporting public policies for which they have only religious reasons

Other advocates of the doctrine of restraint have demanded a complete privatization of religious reasons. This exclusive version of the doctrine of restraint, advocated by Richard Rorty (1994), demands that citizens refrain entirely from relying on religious reasons when supporting or opposing public policies. Its advocates expect that the real business of politics will be conducted exclusively on the basis of secular argument. But this complete privatization of religious reasons is gratuitously exclusionary: There is no good reason to stigmatize citizens who support a given public policy on religious grounds if those citizens also have and are sufficiently motivated by plausible secular reasons. Any serious evaluation of the doctrine of restraint, therefore, will pay due regard to the more moderate, inclusive version articulated by Audi.

Against the Doctrine of Restraint

Critics of the doctrine of restraint reject even its inclusive formulation. According to Eberle, (2002), Perry (2003), and Audi and Wolterstorff (1997), citizens need not be morally criticizable in any respect for supporting public policies for religious reasonseven solely for religious reasons. These critics of the doctrine of restraint need not and do not typically license an "anything goes" approach. They may advocate substantive constraints on the reasons citizens have for their favored public policiesfor example, they might argue that citizens ought not appeal to reasons that deny the dignity of their fellow citizens. They may also advocate epistemic constraints on the manner in which citizens support public policies, arguing, for example, that citizens should engage in critical reflection on their reasons. They may even argue that citizens should try to articulate secular reasons for their favored political commitments: Citizens ought to do what's within their power to speak to their fellow citizens in ways that their fellow citizens can take seriously and so ought to do what's in their power to articulate reasons that speak to their secular compatriotspresumably these will be secular reasons. Critics of the doctrine of restraint argue, however, that none of these constraints provide an adequate basis for a general constraint on religious reasons; so long as a citizen satisfies the appropriate substantive and epistemic constraints, and so long as he or she genuinely searches for a plausible secular rationale, then a citizen has no good reason not to support a given public policy solely for religious reasons.

These critics argue that advocates of restraint must discharge a heavy burden of proof: Absent sufficiently powerful reasons in favor of the doctrine of restraint, citizens may refuse without compunction to comply with that doctrine. The argument for this distribution of the burden of proof is short, direct, and powerful. We surely want and expect citizens to treat their compatriots as conscience dictates: A citizen ought to support or oppose public policies on the basis of what he or she sincerely and responsibly believes to be the just and decent thing to do. And sometimes what a citizen sincerely takes to be the just and decent thing to do will depend solely on religious beliefs. And in that case, the heavy presumption in favor of acting in accord with conscience translates into a heavy presumption permitting a citizen to decide, solely on religious grounds, to support or oppose some public policy. Consider, for example, a Christian pacifist who, after sober and competent reflection on the morality of war, concludes that the life and teachings Jesus Christ forbid the lethal use of force. In this case, our conviction that citizens should support those public policies that they actually believe to be morally correct should lead us to expectindeed, encourageChristian pacifists to oppose war, even though they have an exclusively religious rationale for that policy.

So critics of the doctrine of restraint will appeal to the very great good of a citizen's acting in accord with her conscience to establish a heavy presumption in favor of the moral propriety of that citizen's making political decisions solely on religious grounds. But that there is a presumption against the doctrine of restraint by no means implies that that doctrine is false. After all, presumptions can be overridden, and the burden of proof can be metso long as advocates of the doctrine of restraint can marshal sufficiently powerful arguments.

The Argument from Respect

Some advocates of the doctrine of restraint have argued that citizens should obey the doctrine of restraint out of respect for their compatriots. When a citizen supports a public policy, she is complicit in authorizing the government to coerce citizens. But her compatriots aren't mere playthings who may be forced to satisfy her whims; rather, they're rational persons who are fully capable and desirous of deciding for themselves how they will live their lives on the basis of reasons they find acceptable. And so if she is to respect her compatriots as persons, she must be committed to providing them with reasons that they find, or at least can find, acceptable. That requires a search for some common ground, premises that one might share with one's compatriots. Given the pervasive religious pluralism of a well-functioning democracy, this common ground will most likely be secular, not religious in content. On this view, advocated by Charles Larmore (1987), it is respect for the dignity and autonomy of our fellow citizens that requires us to abide by the doctrine of restraint.

The argument from respect is both popular and controversial. Critics have expressed doubt that reliance on religious reasonseven exclusive reliancenecessarily involves disrespect for other persons. Some argue that it is unclear why any disrespect can be imputed to citizens who affirm their compatriots' dignity, who are willing to engage in critical analysis of their favored public policies, and who provide their fellow citizens with sincerely held and carefully elaborated reasons that are, nevertheless, based on religious doctrines. Consider again the Christian pacifist: There is every reason to believe that her opposition to war is based on the kind of moral commitment that putatively underlies the doctrine of restraint: respect for all other persons. The argument from respect seems an entirely unpromising rationale for requiring a Christian Pacifist to exercise restraintthereby casting doubt on the doctrine of restraint insofar as it constrains on religious reasons generally.

The Argument from Religious Warfare

Religious wars have played a defining role in the history of liberal democracies; the commitment to religious freedom was formulated and defended in reaction to a century and a half of wars fought to "resolve" religious disagreements. The specter of religious warfare lingers on, and in some cases, that wariness motivates the argument from religious warfare.

Here is one way to formulate that argument. Religious wars are morally abhorrent: Military conflicts guided by religious aims are purely destructive, extraordinarily vicious, and utterly without redeeming value. If large numbers of citizens rely solely on religious reasons to direct state coercion, there is a glaring temptation to enlist the power of the state to force conversion and persecute heretics, thereby provoking armed conflict; hence only a policy of religious restraint can ward off the specter of sectarian bloodshed. In short, that citizens firmly commit to supporting only those public policies for which they have an adequate secular rationale is a crucial bulwark protecting us from confessional conflict.

It is, however, reasonable to deny that there is a realistic prospect that segments of the population of the United States will enter into armed conflict over religious matters. Religious warfare is not a realistic prospect in the contemporary United States because we have learned how to prevent it and have taken the appropriate measures: The proper preventive for religiously generated strife is constitutional and cultural, viz., effective protection of religious freedom on the part of the government and commitment to religious freedom on the part of citizens. This point has direct implications for the idea that obedience to the doctrine of restraint is necessary to prevent religious war. For it implies that what's essential in preventing religious war is that citizens are fully committed to religious freedom, not that they refrain from making use of that right to support public policies solely for religious reasons. So long as citizens are firmly committed to religious freedom, their willingness to support public policies solely for religious reasons has no realistic prospect of engendering religious warfare.

The Argument from Public Discourse

A third argument for the doctrine of restraint, advocated by Daniel Conkle (19931994) hinges on the following two claims: (1) that healthy public discussion of public policies is a great moral and political good and (2) that that good would be threatened by the refusal of large numbers of citizens to abide by the doctrine of restraint. On this view citizens should not support public policies without reflecting on those policies with their compatriots; as an implicit acknowledgment of human fallibility, the pursuit of such political discourse invites our compatriots to challenge our mistaken assumptions and inherited prejudices. Moreover, a commitment to public discourse about public policies affords those who hold a minority view the opportunity to convince other citizens of good will that their minority position is in fact correct. Hence this kind of public discourse is advanced as an important moral good.

In order to secure that good, citizens must abide by a number of constraints, especially that which requires citizens to support public policies on the basis of reasons open to rational evaluation and debate. Religious reasons, by contrast, are not subject to rational analysis and thus require a nonrational, subjective act of faith that can only be experienced, not rationally analyzed or debated. On this view compliance with the doctrine of restraint is a prerequisite for healthy discourse about public policies.

Critics have pointed to a number of problems in the argument from public discourse. Insofar as advocates of the doctrine of restraint depend heavily on the argument from public discourse, they seem to rely on controversial claims about the epistemic status of religious reasons. If religious reasons are not amenable to rational criticism by others, then it follows that religious reasons lack what many regard as an important epistemic desideratum. But this demotion of the epistemic status of religious reasons likely to trouble religious citizens. As this entry noted at the outset, the primary significance of the doctrine of restraint is that it putatively provides a morally attractive guideline for a pluralistically committed citizenry to follow when supporting public policies. This implies that the doctrine of restraint should be acceptable not just to secular citizens, but to all citizens and therefore to the religious citizens who are expected to comply with that doctrine. But many religious believers are likely to regard the epistemic assessment of religious claims that underpins the argument from public discourse as thoroughly objectionable; after all, it's dubious that we should place our trust in claims, whatever their content, that aren't amenable to rational criticism by others. So the argument from public discourse recommends that religious believers exercise restraint, but on grounds that many religious believers will find deeply objectionable. It seems likely, then, that the best argument advocates of the doctrine of restraint can muster will be anathema to the very citizens who are expected to comply with that doctrine, thus emptying the doctrine of restraint of its primary significance.


The literature on the proper role of religious reasons in liberal politics is voluminous. And so as one might expect, the preceding discussion is far from definitive (or exhaustive for that matter). But this should hardly be surprising: The problem to which the doctrine of restraint responds rests on a pluralistic social reality that results from the successful implementation of a liberal democracy's defining commitments. That social reality is here to stay, as are the problems that it engenders, and so reflective people will continue to advocate for and criticize proposed solutions to those problems. The doctrine of restraint, and its critics, will be with us for the foreseeable future

See also Democracy; Liberalism; Philosophy of Religion, History of; Political Philosophy, History of; Rawls, John; Social and Political Philosophy.


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Christopher J. Eberle (2005)