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Religiously Conservative Citizens and the Ideal of Conscientious Engagement: A Comment on Wolterstorff and Eberle

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Nicholas Wolterstorff and Christopher J. Eberle have defended the view that the ethics of liberal citizenship allows citizens to publicly support the passage of coercive laws based solely on their religious convictions. They also develop positive conceptions of virtuous citizenship that place moral limits on how citizens may appeal to their religion. The question I address in this essay is whether the limits they impose on citizens’ appeals to their religion are adequate. Since Eberle’s “ideal of conscientious engagement” provides us with the most extensive statement of these limits, it is the primary focus of my attention here. My conclusion is that in its current form, Eberle’s ideal is not constraining enough. In the first section, I argue that Eberle’s ideal does not require citizens to be self-critical enough about their religious and political commitments. In the second section, I highlight a conflict between Eberle’s ideal and the need for citizens to respect the religious freedom of their fellow citizens. I argue that the way to resolve this conflict is to adopt a more fine-grained conception of religious reasons and to hold that citizens should not rely on religious reasons of certain kinds. In the final section, I argue that laws punishing or discouraging homosexual conduct (which Eberle’s ideal would apparently allow) violate what Wolterstorff calls “the Idea of liberal democracy” and so are not the kind of proposal that virtuous citizens can defend.

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  1. Colorado’s Amendment 2 was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in Romer v. Evans (1996) as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause.

  2. “On careful reflection, we can see that it is a necessity for evangelicals to interpret the problem [of race] at the individual level. To do otherwise would challenge the very basis of their world, both their faith and the American way of life. They accept and support individualism, relationalism [an emphasis on personal relationships], and anti-structuralism. Suggesting social causes of the race problem challenges the cultural elements with which they construct their lives” (Emerson and Smith 2000, p.89).

  3. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled a similar law to be an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment right to religious free exercise in Church of Lukumi Babalu Aye v. City of Hialeah (1993).

  4. The Idea of liberal democracy refers to “that mode of governance that grants to all people within the territory of its governance equal protection under law, that grants to its citizens equal freedom in law to live out their lives as they see fit, and that requires of the state that it be neutral as among all the religions and comprehensive perspectives represented in society. Equal protection under law for all people, equal freedom in law for all citizens, and neutrality on the part of the state with respect to the diversity of religions and comprehensive perspectives—those are the core ideas” (Audi and Wolterstorff 1997, p.70). Eberle likewise assumes that “a responsible citizen in a liberal democracy adheres to characteristic liberal institutions and practices” (Eberle 2002, p.59).

  5. One such liberal critic is Martha Nussbaum, who writes “Romer shows us a lot about how majority social attitudes put pressure on minorities. Amendment 2 was a classic example of Devlinesque politics: the indignation and disgust of the average person enabled the law, and a vulnerable minority was deprived, in a sweeping way, of privileges and entitlements that are the ordinary stuff of democratic politics” (Nussbaum 2010, pp.122–3).

  6. That one’s sexual beliefs, choices, and practices are central expressions of one’s conscience and tightly bound up with one’s broader religious and philosophical convictions has recently been stressed by Nussbaum (2010) and David A. J. Richards (2005) among others.

  7. Wolterstorff appears to agree with this point since he lists that “homosexuals should enjoy equal freedom under law to live their lives as they see fit” as one of the conclusions that clearly follows from the Idea of liberal democracy (Audi and Wolterstorff 1997, p.97).

  8. Nussbaum gives a negative answer to this question. She writes that the state should not “‘establish’ a particular sexual style as the privileged one” and “it would be a lot better, as a matter of both political theory and public policy, if the state withdrew from the marrying business” leaving the endorsement and promotion of marriage “to the religions and to other private groups” (Nussbaum 2010, pp.41, 132). On the other side, perfectionists like George (1995) and Ball (1997) give an affirmative answer to the question of whether the state can promote some preferred model of intimate relationships. Nussbaum concedes that her proposal for the state to “get out of the marriage business” does not yet “command a consensus either in public life or in the law” (Nussbaum 2010, p.41).

  9. I have begun the process of arguing for this claim by trying to refute the contrary view advocated by the thinkers collectively known New Natural Lawyers (Anderson 2012).


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Anderson, E.A. Religiously Conservative Citizens and the Ideal of Conscientious Engagement: A Comment on Wolterstorff and Eberle. Philosophia 41, 411–427 (2013).

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