Religious Motivations in Politics

| | Comments (0)

This is the seventh and, as it turned out, last post from my Right Reason series on Augustine, faith, social philosophy, and political participation that I've been re-posting here due to the demise of Right Reason. At the end I write about the next intended post in the series, but I never wrote it. When I sat down to think about what I'd say, I didn't think I had a lot to say that was very interesting. It's possible that I'll continue this now, but I don't have any strong intentions to do this.

So far in my Christianity and Politics series, I've discussed some principles I find in Augustine's socio-political thought that I generally agree with and explained why, based on those principles, I think Christians have a moral obligation to participate in political matters in a setting something like the one I find myself in in the contemporary U.S. context. Because of the moral requirement to love one's neighbor, the privileges and responsibilities assigned to a citizen of my nation require me to use those privileges and meet those political responsibilities in a way that best seeks the interests of my neighbor, i.e. everyone else in this nation. This is so even, as I believe, if my primary citizenship is in heaven.

But that just explains why a Christian would be motivated to seek the good and why Christian views about what is good will be at least part of that motivation. It doesn't provide a motivation for why secular citizens, citizens of other religions, or other Christians who have different views of what is good to go along with the particular policy proposals that I would support. It's fairly common nowadays to hear someone complaining that it's wrong to enforce religious convictions by means of law when other people who don't agree with them shouldn't have to follow them. Several questions arise. First, is it morally ok to have religious justification for one's political views? Is it morally ok for a society to allow people to use such justifications? Then there are also the legal questions about whether this sort of thing is currently legal under a particular system of law, in my case under the U.S. Constitution, which includes the First Amendment's famous Establishment Clause and Free Exercise Clause. I'm tackling the moral issues in this post, and the legal issues will follow in a separate post.

The main argument I've heard against religious motivations amounts to fear at how such a practice could be abused. If we allow people to use religious reasons to support laws and policies, then they may use religion to support really bad laws and policies. That's true. But people can also use really bad secular arguments to support really bad laws and policies, so it doesn't prevent that sort of thing to require people to use secular arguments. So I don't find that argument very convincing. Perhaps we could require really good reasoning for any argument supporting a law or policy, but how do you require that by law, and who is going to enforce it? If we're going to do that, we'll need some experts on good arguments who are making the call, and that would take something like Plato's ideal government as presented in the Republic, which even he admitted was impossible (partly because no one who isn't an expert could ever identify who the experts are, because they aren't the experts and can't make such distinctions).

Perhaps a more sophisticated version of the argument is available, however. Maybe it's morally wrong to rely on religious views for public policies but that it would also be wrong to prohibit such reasoning as the basis of a voter's selection of candidates or a politicians vote for or against a piece of legislation. It's completely unworkable to prohibit such reasoning, but that doesn't mean it's good to rely on it. After all, isn't religious conviction the kind of thing we shouldn't be sure of? Isn't that what faith is all about? So, in good Cliffordian fashion, we shouldn't rely on religious beliefs for anything of any import. We need good, secular arguments to support any proposition we put forth in support of a law or policy. Even if legal restrictions on such arguments would be bad, it would still be wrong to use such religious support. Even if that conclusion is true, it undermines the whole basis of the Christian's political participation, so I need to have something to say to it. Simply arguing for a reason why such arguments shouldn't be prohibited isn't enough to rescue the view I've been defending.

There are lots of reasons why I don't accept this line of reasoning. First, I don't see faith and reason as contraries. Faith is a kind of knowledge. It's not knowledge from empirical sources, and it's not knowledge that's as immediately available to those who aren't interacting with God through study of God's word, prayer, and a life of trusting God and living in community with other followers of God. But that doesn't mean it's not knowledge. If God is real, and God does interact with people by such means, then on a reliabilist account of knowledge, a fairly common one in contemporary epistemology, I could reliably gain true beliefs by means of my trust in God. Thus my faith is knowledge. Now I don't claim to have shown that I do have knowledge, but I have given an account of how faith can be knowledge, and that means the argument against the possibility of faith as a legitimate source of information fails. (For those who are unfamiliar with these issues in religious epistemology, I would direct you to my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series at my own blog. The sections entitled Knowledge and Religious Knowledge treat these issues in much greater depth.

Another reason I can't accept this kind of reasoning is that you can raise epistemological doubts about any kind of knowledge. Political and moral knowledge seems to me to be one of the prime candidates. Why is it that pro-choice views on abortion are supposed to be true? Well, women have rights to do what they want with their body, and fetuses have no rights to life. Why think those things? You have to base it in some theory of what rights are and why we have them. Perhaps it has something to do with being rational and having developed to a certain degree of complexity. But why should rights have to do with that? Maybe it's because those who can make moral decisions have moral rights. But why should that be? Eventually you come to some moral conviction that can't be defended against those who resist it. This goes for the claim that fetuses have moral rights as well as for the claim that they don't. Some premise the other side wouldn't agree with is going to be necessary to support the claim.

This is another question I've discussed before, at my own blog and at Philosophy, et cetera. Those are cross-postings of the same post, but the comment threads are very different at each location, and both I think turned out to be very helpful discussions, particularly the latter. My conclusion is that any moral or political premise ultimately goes back to an undefended assumption. So why are religious arguments singled out? The same will be true of secular arguments for moral or political conclusions.

But that may be a bit fast. There still is one purported difference between secular and religious arguments. Secular arguments can appeal to anyone, whereas religious arguments can appeal only to the adherents of the religion in question. But that's actually not true. Secular arguments can appeal only to those who accept the premise. Those who are convinced that a fetus is not a person and thus has no moral rights is actually accepting two controversial theses, at least one of which would have no appeal to those inclined toward a different view on the moral status of fetuses. They have to assume either that moral status is tied to personhood or that personhood is a property tied up with features only present later in human development. I'm not sure I agree with either assumption, and I know a great many people whose gut inclination is to deny at least one of the two. These gut inclinations don't seem to me to be any worse on secular grounds than the gut inclinations behind the opposite assumptions.

So how are secular arguments supposed to be better, then? They don't really assume non-controversial premises, as this argument claim they do. What's worse is that it's also not true that religious arguments are unavailable to people who don't follow the same religion. I'm an evangelical, and if I accepted the fundamental premises of the pro-life argument on religious grounds and then presented the same argument to a Mormon, the Mormon might just as easily accept the premises and then follow them through to the conclusion. So too might a Buddhist. So too might an atheist, for that matter. I have a religious motivation for a fundamental premise that I can't argue on neutral grounds. But someone else might have a basic belief in the same fundamental premise. Perhaps they have religious motivations as well but from a different religion. Perhaps it just seems morally right to them. But the fact that my motivation is purely religious does not in itself mean that no one else could accept the same argument, even from the same premises, without that religious motivation. Someone may easily do so.

I'll address one final argument. Isn't it immoral to impose my views on someone else? This is sometimes expressed in terms of the very tired expression "you can't legislate morality". One thing people mean by this is obviously true, but it's irrelevant. You can't force people to be of good moral character just by making certain actions illegal. But that's not to the point, since the goal here is to try to seek what's good for people. This is motivated by love of neighbor. So any laws of policies motivated by love of neighbor that are based on religious premises will not force mere behavior when mere behavior doesn't also contribute to someone's good or to the good of the whole. But in fact most controversial religiously-motivated laws are framed in such terms. Laws against gay marriage are supported by the premise that gay marriage would be bad for society. Laws against gay sex are supported by the premise that gay sex is in itself bad for the people engaging in it. Laws against abortion are supported by the premise that abortion is bad for the fetus (primarilly) and the mother (to a much lesser degree). But if you hold that being immoral is bad for you, then protecting people from their own immorality is consistent with this kind of ban on legislating morality.

But I think what most people mean by legislating morality is forcing people to do something that you consider wrong that they don't consider wrong. Is this a better argument? I don't think so. Of course you can legislate morality. We do it all the time. We outlaw murder, for instance, and the reason we do it is that it's wrong to murder people, and we therefore don't want people murdering other people. We hold them accountable for their actions if they do such immoral things. That's legislating morality. It's a little ironic that this line often comes from the mouths of people who believe in forcing people to rent to gay couples of unmarried couples when their religious convictions lead them to see such a thing as contributing toward a moral wrong, who believe in forcing people to avoid certain offensive language, and so on. Isn't that legislating morality?

So we all believe in legislating morality. A much more careful reason against religious motives for restrictive policies is that certain kinds of legislating morality are ok, while others are bad. I've already dismissed one way of doing this, which is to distinguish between morality as supported by secular reasoning and morality as supported by religious reasoning. But another distinction may be more helpful. Certain kinds of morality can be agreed upon by a larger group as being wrong, and other kinds of morality are not as easy to get enough people behind to support. Assume gay sex is immoral. If the majority of the populace disagrees, and they vote accordingly, then we wouldn't get laws prohibiting gay sex even if it is wrong. Maybe we could use that kind of thing as a test. If some sort of cooperative evaluation of the action in question would lead to general agreement that it's wrong, then prohibit it. But if only certain views lead to its being wrong, perhaps we shouldn't outlaw it.

In a sense, this is actually what Augustine had in mind. He says the City of God and the earthly city are compromising by seeking peace for different reasons. The earthly city has self-interested reasons, and the City of God does so out of love for neighbor. But both seek peace. Both may have different views of what peace constitutes, and Augustine's conviction that we should go along with the government's ability to provide peace even if it's not the best peace we should have leads him to suggest that Christians not seek to go against what they can't change but should seek to change what they can. If there's a change of making gay sex illegal, and it really is wrong, then it might be ok to do so if there's a good chance of getting enough people to go along with it. There might not be, of course, and in that case it's pointless to pursue it.

But this is all presuming it's a good law in other senses as well, and in this case it's probably not. After all, it's pretty unenforceable, isn't it? You might get the stray case when you catch someone in the act, but otherwise what Justice Thomas said in his dissent to Lawrence v. Texas is worth considering. While he didn't think the anti-sodomy law in Texas that was under consideration was unconstitutional (as I don't). he did think it was a stupid law (as I do). I wonder if this won't be true of a lot of laws. Plenty of things that are uncontroversially wrong are not worth outlawing. This includes breaking promises, lying, being mean, and even just not being nice. Once these kinds of distinctions are clear, I think many of the kinds of laws that I'd disagree with that legislate morality would be ruled out, while lots that are still controversial would remain. But whatever else is true, it may still be perfectly fine to outlaw behavior that some, perhaps even many people like to engage in, and whether the reason someone might have to do so is religiously-based doesn't seem to me to be the primary issue in evaluating whether such a law would be good.

Those are the moral issues that I can think of. I'm sure there are objections I haven't thought of or that I'm just forgetting, so please remind me of any I've missed. I'll turn to the legal issues in a subsequent post, since this is plenty long as it is.


Another reason why it won't do to say that religious arguments don't appeal to everyone is that most well-established religions have a well-developed apologetic framework which provides argumentation for the religious premises. Thus, while a religious argument against the morality of pre-marital sex might rely on the assumption that the Qu'ran is true, nonetheless the assumption that the Qu'ran is true is one that Islamic apologetics offers arguments for, arguments not based on religious premises.

One might counter that these apologetic arguments do not appeal to everyone. But that is using "appeal" in a success sense that cannot be what the objector means when she says that religious arguments do not appeal to everyone. The success sense of "appeal" is that an argument appeals to x provided x is at least moved in the direction of the conclusion by the argument. But if the requirement is that public policy arguments "appeal" to everyone, then no public policy argument, secular or religious, is admissible. One might restrict this: perhaps arguments should appeal, in the success sense, to all who are rational. But unless one understands "rational" in a sense in which very few educated and intelligent people count as "rational", very few arguments pass muster. And if one relaxes the "all" restriction, requiring only that the argument appeal to most people, or most rational people, then the apologetic arguments for at least some religions are apt to qualify.

Posted by: Alexander R Pruss | August 14, 2007 7:49 PM

Would you care to elaborate on the point that murder is legislating morality? One could be morally neutral towards the act of murder, but strongly opposed to the consequence of death, and thus outlaw murder on utilitarian grounds. This, as far as I know, is why we have laws against murder, arson, and assault: it's not that firing a gun, lighting a fire, or swinging a fist is bad; the results of doing so in certain contexts are.

To say otherwise smacks of moral Marxism: pretending that isolated acts and nebulous motives will always lead to certain results.

Posted by: Byrne | August 15, 2007 10:37 AM

Interesting discussion, Jeremy. I'm an internalist and an anti-reliabilist, so I just want to throw in here that I don't think it's at all necessary to take a reliabilist stance to hold that religious motivation is fine in political participation.

One interesting question is this: Is it possible to disentangle the impulse to regard religious motivation in politics as illegitimate from the impulse to regard irrationality in politics as illegitimate? I think it isn't. That is, I think that the correct thing to say is not, "It is illegitimate to impose your religiously-motivated laws on others" but rather "It is illegitimate to impose your irrational views on others." I think there is a tacit assumption that if a given view on public policy is religiously motivated, it is irrationally held. Then the idea is, "Well, it's bad enough to be irrational. But it's even _worse_ to make other people kow-tow to your irrationality." I sympathize with that. I just deny the premise that every public policy proposal one might be motivated to make on religious grounds is ipso facto irrational.

In fact, I'd say that the pro-life position is _not_ essentially religious. Some particular person might in fact believe that the unborn child is a human being and that killing him is wrong because that is what he has been taught religiously. But it's perfectly possible (as you imply) for a secular person to believe that killing unborn children is wrong, just as it's perfectly possible for a secular person to believe that killing born children is wrong, or to believe any of many other moral propositions, without any reference to any religion. Once the Christian realizes this, I'm not sure why he needs to call his own pro-life views "religious" anymore, either.

Posted by: Lydia | August 15, 2007 2:30 PM

In an open society (especially one that expressly protects religious expression and belief), the burden to show that religiously motivated political activism is illegitimate, should rest squarely on the one proposing this prohibition. A lot of the points above can be summed up by rhetorically asking, "why should an argument sounding in religious belief be less legitimate than one originating from a secular viewpoint or some other source?" My first assertion is also supported by the reality that our democracy has a long and fruitful history of religiously motivated activism (see civil rights movement as one example). And of course religiously motivated political arguments should not be less legitimate, with one caveat - that they can be advanced using reason also. Reason should be required because it is the language of human understanding, and it represents a common denominator that can be shared irrespective of religious faith. Also because religious Truth can always be supported by reason. For example, the Biblical admonition not to have sex outside of marriage serves the good by protecting people from sexually transmitted diseases and many other unfortunate hardships. Our laws, which are of course ALL moral laws, are based on reason. Reason--that unique human property--is what allows human beings to conform their conduct to laws (which is the purpose of laws). This is true of all real laws. A rule that is not based on reason such that it cannot be understood, let alone followed, could be called alternatively, either a bad law, or now law at all. My definition of a law is a rule of reason promulgated by some (law-giving) authority to which human conduct can be conformed.

I am amazed that otherwise educated people still will claim that we can't or shouldn't legislate morality or impose our beliefs on others. This is the purpose of law and every law does it. Jeremy, I would even take issue with your assertions that laws cannot make people be good. Indeed over time, they can have this very effect. Haven't civil rights laws (granted among other social forces) actually shaped and changed societal views so that far fewer Americans are racially bigoted than they once were? If laws regarding seat belts, the draft, jury duty, and even taxes are followed--even begrudgingly, one could argue they have caused people to do that which is right and good. And we do have laws that in some cases prohibit the breaking of promises and lying (fraud and contract laws). So while typically the internal process causes outward action, the opposite can also be true over time. I ceded the point that there are moral rules that we do not, cannot (and in some cases should not) legislate. This shows that morality is not exactly the same thing as law and begs the question of where does morality come from and what is it? My overly simplistic answer is that there is something common in the minds of human beings, where, by reason, we know most of the major things that are right and wrong and have the capacity to learn the rest. That is my conception of the natural law that is written on our hearts, which we "can't not know." Some of these notions--especially this last one require me to give credit to two books that discuss these issues: What You Can't Not Know by J. Budziszewski and Legislating Morality by Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, both highly recommended.

Posted by: Mr. Pug | August 15, 2007 5:55 PM

I don't think I asserted that laws can't make someone good. What I said is that you can't force someone to have a good character just by making laws against certain actions. I do think laws can eventually have an effect of making it more likely that people will be in circumstances that might help shape them to be better people. That's why I accept the statecraft-as-soulcraft model (at least to a point and probably only in certain contexts).

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | August 15, 2007 10:46 PM

Would you care to elaborate on the point that murder is legislating morality? One could be morally neutral towards the act of murder, but strongly opposed to the consequence of death, and thus outlaw murder on utilitarian grounds.

Isn't utilitarianism a moral theory?

I didn't say that to oppose murder you must do so on moral grounds. What I said is that we do oppose murder on moral grounds, and that is why there are laws against it. This is unproblematic for most people, including most of those who say we shouldn't legislate morality. If a few of them are moral nihilists and have no moral convictions whatsoever but for self-interested reasons want laws against murder, then they are exceptions. But I don't think anyone is really a moral nihilist anyway, even if some claim to be. But utilitarianism isn't moral nihilism however you slice it, even if a lot of popular pundits can't tell the difference between utilitarianism, relativism, and nihilism.

I think there is a tacit assumption that if a given view on public policy is religiously motivated, it is irrationally held.

Yes, for most people who say this sort of thing that's exactly what they're assuming. Some of them would be happy to say it explicitly. Others are looking for some way to pretend they don't think that but get the same result. But I think you're right that it does lie behind much of this sort of thing.

One of the things I was trying to argue in the post I linked to above (at my blog and Philosophy, etc.) is that the pro-life positions need not be religious in any meaningful sense but may simply depend on a philosophical view that isn't shared by most philosophers.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce | August 16, 2007 1:56 PM

Even if one does support homicide laws merely on utilitarian grounds, (as we might imagine that an economist might for example), there is still a moral dimension behind the reasoning. One might ask why the person is "strongly opposed to the consequence of death"? The utilitarian might answer because it does not maximize social good or because it is inefficient. It doesn't matter what the answer is really because the Socratic questioner needs only to continue to keep asking the question, "but why?" Why are you against things that hinder social good or the amount of "utils," whatever that is? Or why does your desire to maximize social good cause you to oppose murder? At some point the honest utilitarian (if such exists) would have to answer in the language of morality by saying that something is bad or good. Either murder is bad or reducing social utility is bad. Or maximizing social utility or efficiency is good. The point is that one can't even get started critiquing a law without describing it in terms of morality, saying it is right or wrong or good or bad. The very use of--indeed the ability to understand--this language reveals the speaker's intuitive understanding of the moral nature of law.

Recently, plenty of authors have explicitly said that arguments based on religious beliefs are irrational. A long line of books has recently decried the religiously-minded as nuts. Chris Hitchens' hatchet job and Richard Dawkins' pseudo-intellectual God Delusion are only a couple of the most prominent ones. I think I saw that Bill Maher is getting ready to do a documentary on "The Absurdity of Religion." Even Christine Amanpour has a special on CNN called God's Warriors, which appears that it will be comparing Christianity, Judaism and Islam in terms of their adherents' tendencies to advance their respective world views using politics and conquest. I'll withhold judgment on the CNN 3-part series (to being Aug. 21), but Maher and others represent the mainstreaming of the culture of attacking religion as some sort of dangerous superstition in an attempt to render its followers as second-class citizens.

Posted by: Mr. Pug | August 17, 2007 10:37 AM

Leave a comment


    The Parablemen are: , , and .



Books I'm Reading

Fiction I've Finished Recently

Non-Fiction I've Finished Recently

Books I've Been Referring To

I've Been Listening To

Games I've Been Playing

Other Stuff


    thinking blogger
    thinking blogger

    Dr. Seuss Pro

    Search or read the Bible

    Example: John 1 or love one another (ESV)

  • Link Policy
Powered by Movable Type 5.04