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Religion, and not just Religious Reasons, in the Public Square: A Consideration of Robert Audi’s and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Religion in the Public Square

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For the last several decades, philosophers have wrestled with the proper place of religion in liberal societies. Usually, the debates among these philosophers have started with the articulation of various conceptions of liberalism and then proceeded to locate religion in the context of these conceptions. In the process, however, too little attention has been paid to the way religion is conceived. Drawing on the work of Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff, two scholars who are often read as holding opposing views on these issues, I argue that, for the purposes of their argument about liberalism, both have implicitly accepted a concept of religion that has come under severe attack in recent work on the subject. Namely, they have accepted a concept of religion that identifies religion primarily with belief, ritual practice, and ecclesial institutions. Following recent scholarship, I suggest that religion is better conceived as a kind of culture. To conclude the essay, I gesture toward what the beginnings of a re-visioned debate about religion and liberal society might look like if one started from this revised conception of religion.

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  1. For other examples in the contemporary debate, see, for instance, Eberle 2002; Clanton 2009.

  2. Audi elsewhere specifies some of the notions of religion (viz., “functionalist,” “existentialist,” and “comprehensive”) that he rejects. He does not argue for the conception of religion that he is using, but rather suggests that “these three notions of religion are all too broad to provide a reasonable basis for taking secular reason to play an essential role in civic virtue” (Audi 2000, pp.277–8). See also Audi’s comments on the definition of religion (2008, pp.429–50).

  3. I am more impressed by the challenge posed by the descriptive inadequacy of the concept of religion than I am by the point that the concept of religion has a social history (See Lincoln 2006, pp.1–3; Schilbrack 2010).

  4. I began my introduction to religion class this year by asking students: “In the twentieth century were more people killed in “religious” conflict or in conflicts between states?” The majority of students responded that religious conflict must have the higher body count. This stands for me as shocking, even if anecdotal, evidence of the extent to which the myth of religious violence has become dominant in our society.

  5. “The only business of the Church is the salvation of souls, and it no way concerns the commonwealth, or any member of it, that this or the other ceremony be there made use of. Neither the use nor the omission of any ceremonies in those religious assemblies does either advantage or prejudice the life, liberty, or estate of any man” (Locke 2005, p.163).

  6. I do not mean to suggest that Lutheran theology is the only source of this idea. Developing as it did as a form of counter-culture against the Roman Empire, Christianity provided fertile ground for the development of conceptual division of labor between the Church and the Political Magistrate. See, for instance, “Gelatius” (O’Donovan 1999, pp.177–80). Recent scholarship has done well in uncovering many of the ways that contemporary Western “secularism” arises from the context of Christian culture (Taylor 2007; Smith 2010).

  7. Luther was not consistent in this stance, but it is the position articulated in his most well-known treatise on politics. See “Temporal Authority: To What Extent It Should be Obeyed,” (Luther 2005, pp.429–59).

  8. The above is intended as a thought experiment, and not as a set of claims about reality. In reality, and I say this as a United Methodist, United Methodists are rarely able to agree amongst themselves on anything. I am also not claiming that my accounts of the grounding of these denomination’s positions on alcohol are either sufficient or entirely accurate.

  9. I am thankful to Robert Audi for the phrasing here. The sketch provided here is not intended to stand as a fully developed position, much less the rigorous defense that would be necessary for such a position.

  10. I am grateful to Nicholas Wolterstorff for suggesting the first alternative here in his response to an earlier draft of this paper.

  11. In raising the concept of an “overlapping consensus” I am drawing terminology from John Rawls (2005), but I should not be read as suggesting other ideas (such as “reasonableness” or “free standing conceptions of justice”) from his philosophy. A great deal of work remains here in providing an account of what should count as a sufficient variety of different cultures.


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Correspondence to Kevin Carnahan.

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Carnahan, K. Religion, and not just Religious Reasons, in the Public Square: A Consideration of Robert Audi’s and Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Religion in the Public Square . Philosophia 41, 397–409 (2013).

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