Political Theory (Loosely Interpreted): September 2008 Archives

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).

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