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When God Commands Disobedience: Political Liberalism and Unreasonable Religions

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Some religiously devout individuals believe divine command can override an obligation to obey the law where the two are in conflict. At the extreme, some individuals believe that acts of violence that seek to change or punish a political community, or to prevent others from violating what they take to be God’s law, are morally justified. In the face of this apparent clash between religious and political commitments it might seem that modern versions of political morality—such as John Rawls’s political liberalism—that refuse to take a stance on controversial religious matters, or eschew appeal to perfectionist doctrines, are beset by a particularly acute version of this problem of religious disobedience. Whilst political liberalism follows this path so as to generate wide and stable support, it raises the question of how political liberals should respond to religiously motivated non-compliance with the norms of that liberal conception of justice. This article evaluates what resources are available to political liberalism to respond to this challenge. It examines whether anti-perfectionism can be sustained in the face of those whose religious beliefs are in conflict with the law. We argue that, under certain circumstances, political liberalism requires direct engagement with the religious views of the unreasonable, including offering religious arguments to show that their particular interpretation of their faith is mistaken. This view takes political liberalism away from its usual ambitions, but it is a position that is both anticipated by Rawls and consistent with his view. It does, however, require that political liberals give up the claim that the view is a wholly non-sectarian, purely political view, and accept that, under certain circumstances it is a partially comprehensive version of liberal theory.

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  1. For an early treatment of the issue of unreasonable religious views and political liberalism with regard to public schooling (particularly what should be said to, and done with, families who object to aspects of the curriculum that diverge from their unreasonable religious beliefs), see Macedo (1995).

  2. For discussion of ideal and non-ideal theory in Rawls’s conception, see Stemplowska and Swift (2013).

  3. This paragraph follows Quong (2011, p. 291).

  4. For this kind of misunderstanding of Rawls, see Friedman (2000).

  5. It should be noted that this is not, of course, a necessary implication of Quong’s position, and may not be one he endorses.

  6. As Dreben writes of the political liberal project: ‘What Rawls has primarily been doing for the last 20 years [since A Theory of Justice] is engage in a certain kind of very complex conceptual analysis, namely, he has been investigating the question, Is the notion of a constitutional liberal democracy internally consistent or coherent? Is it conceptually and logically possible to have as an ideal—it’s not even a question of how to bring it about…’ (Dreben 2003, p. 322).

  7. The following example and exposition is drawn from Quong’s discussion (2011, pp. 299–300).

  8. It is of course a further question as to whether that containment is justified, but that issue need not delay us here.

  9. Both examples are drawn from Quong (2011, pp. 301–305).

  10. For a recent view that defends the alternative claim that reason is applicable to these questions and supports the adoption of liberal ideals see Dworkin (2011).

  11. There are various complications here with respect to public reasons and what kinds or types of arguments may be offered in the public political arena on questions of constitutional essentials and basic justice. Whilst these are important aspects of where religion and politics intersect, and they overlap with our concerns here, they stand separately, hence we set them aside. We do return to consider some of them, however, in the last section.

  12. For a version of this reply applied to Rawls, see Sandel (1994). Whilst Sandel’s version is interesting as an early objection to political liberalism along these lines, it contains a number of problems and ambiguities of its own. For discussion of Sandel’s objections, see Dombrowski (2001, pp. 130–134).

  13. The circumstances under which a person is required by the duty of justice to engage with presently unreasonable fellow believers are complex and sensitive to a number of considerations, such as whether engagement conflicts with her religious duty and whether other fellow believers are willing to engage. And there are issues concerning how the costs of engagement are to be shared between different individuals or groups. For discussion of a parallel issue, see Clayton (2006, pp. 153–155).

  14. They may, however, be viewed as heretics (but that may well be the case anyway). There are further options of engagement, of course. A liberal state might facilitate the engagement of religious groups with those who are non-compliant through subsidies or other targeted resources, for example. The efficacy of that kind of strategy is an empirical question, but it seems, in principle, permissible.


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We are grateful to the participants at these events for their thoughts and advice, and to two referees for their comments. We thank, in particular, Peter Burnell, Thomas Christiano, David Estlund, Tim Fowler, Alon Harel, Mathew Humphrey, George Iordanou, Zoltan Miklosi, Andres Moles, Kieron O’Hara, Fabienne Peter, Zofia Stemplowska, Victor Tadros, Andrew Williams, Christopher Woodard, and Ekow Yankah.

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Correspondence to Matthew Clayton.

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Clayton, M., Stevens, D. When God Commands Disobedience: Political Liberalism and Unreasonable Religions. Res Publica 20, 65–84 (2014).

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