Summary of text
In Eberle and Cuneo's "Religion and Political Theory," the authors seek to explore the role of religion in an increasingly liberal democratic, secular political world. At the same time, religion seems to be increasing in scope and influence in the political spectrum, with religious pluralism instead of strict atheism driving political decisions. The relationship between three distinct groups in the political world is explored - the standard view of politics, the liberal perspective, and the advocates of a philosophy known as New Traditionalism.
In the standard view of politics, religion drives many political decisions. According to political theorists, "religious reasons can play only a limited role in justifying coercive laws, as coercive laws that require a religious rationale lack moral legitimacy." (Eberle and Cuneo, 2008). This view is defined by the Doctrine of Religious Restraint, in which coercive laws are not advocated or preferred if they have no secular reason for existing.
Despite this comparatively reasoned view of religion and politics, there are some critics of this particular philosophy. In the liberal view of politics, there is somewhat more of a allowance between religion and politics - at the very least, religious pluralism allows for no one single philosophy to take hold and dictate decisions over others. However, a liberal view of politics would allow more room for religious reasons to be justified in the creation of coercive laws. While they do not have a laissez-faire approach to approving coercive laws, they believe that there should be a few constraints on the way these laws are supported and approved. Namely, the right of religious freedom should be upheld, and that the only laws that should be supported are ones that the individual citizens believe contribute to the common good. "So long as a citizen is firmly committed to basic liberal rights, she may coherently and without impropriety do so even though she regards these laws as having no plausible secular justification" (Eberle and Cuneo, 2008).
In the New Traditionalist stance on politics, however, both the standard and liberal view of politics are eschewed in favor of the idea of liberal democracy and religious orthodoxy being anathema to each other - there is no way they can coexist peacefully. This is a somewhat radical position, as they reject liberal democracy as a whole in favor of religious orthodoxy. Liberal democracy, on the whole, is said to be somewhat of a cancer, the narrative of the New Traditionalists pointing out its failings and the decline of society as a result.
In conclusion, the authors state that there are many factors to be considered in the implementation of laws that have a religious basis. The Doctrine of Religious Restraint is the standard perspective on this issue, but the liberal and New Traditionalist views conflict with that for different reasons. The authors do not reach a consensus on which perspective is most just, nor do they wish to advocate a particular position. They simply wish to point out the reasoning and arguments between all three perspectives, and denote that "the task at hand is to articulate ways in which citizens of a deeply pluralistic liberal democracy can conduct their behavior in manners that are not only faithful to whatever religious identities they may have, but are also just and contribute to the common good" (Eberle and Cuneo, 2008).
Assessment of Text
In the article itself, the authors take a very even-handed and nonjudgmental approach in their final conclusions regarding the relationship between religion and politics. They do not seek to advocate a particular position, but instead bring up these three distinct viewpoints merely as evidence of the need to exercise caution and put others' considerations in mind when dictating public policy or deciding the value of a liberal democracy. This is not an argumentative essay, but instead an anthology or reader on the major viewpoints surrounding the issue. A number of theorists are examined, and critiques of each perspective are presented with an even hand and fair appraisal.
That being said, there are aspects of the work that can be considered to be somewhat biased in favor of the Doctrine of Religious Restraint. One troubling aspect of the article that does permit some sort of bias on the part of the authors is the reference of the Doctrine of Religious Restraint as the "standard" view. In this use of language, standard would equal "normal," and thus would be implicitly advocated as the ideal perspective to take. While it is not explicit that this is the view that is being advocated, the structuring of the essay itself, with the liberal and New Traditionalist viewpoints being framed as critiques of the "standard" view, places the standard view in the position of power and authority. The liberal and New Traditionalists are still treated with fair analysis of their pros and cons, with distinct summaries of the principles behind the two oppositions.
The language used in the introduction is very conducive to advancing this kind of perspective that favors the standard view. In the beginning segment, the standard view is painted as the normal, default view of the relationship between government and religion. "On the one hand, most take it for granted that the authority of the state is located in the people, that the people are religiously diverse, and that important segments of people doubt the rationality of religious belief and practice of any sort" (Eberle and Cuneo, 2008). By placing this perspective first, the other two ideas are presented as oppositions to this main central idea; by not placing either of those ideas above another in terms of importance or validity, the paper becomes not about a rightful critique handling a flawed system, but of a rightful system defending itself against two equally strong critiques.
The Doctrine of Religious Restraint is given much more time in the article than the other two positions, as it is the default position implicitly taken by the writers. Three substantial arguments are given for this standard view; however, they allow the liberal critics' positions to be heard in each argument. For example, the first argument dictates that the Doctrine of Religious Restraint makes religious believers "exercise restraint when deliberating about the implementation of coercive laws" (Eberle and Cuneo, 2008). This is then contrasted with the liberal critics, who note their objections to that argument through the philosophies of John Locke and others. That being said, there are a substantial number of theorists whose perspectives are given fairly reasoned summaries and analyses within the text.
However, the critiques to the DRR are treated with a much greater degree of distance than the proponents of the standard view, cementing the idea that this is the perspective that the authors agree with. The authors, through their language, are subconsciously alluding as much in their writing while still purporting to be an impartial as possible about the differing subjects. Liberal critics always "claim" and "maintain" their perspectives, which can be somewhat loaded language meant to distance the author's perspectives from those of the critics'. Liberal views are always described as "their" view, not "our" view, though the authors do admittedly remove themselves from the proceedings completely - for example, the DRR is not considered "our" view. This language does not wholly dominate the proceedings, thankfully, but it is still present enough to become an issue. In many cases, the liberal critics' perspective is still downplayed due to its apparent lack of clarity. "In particular, if the liberal critics are correct, it is not clear whether requiring citizens to obey the DRR would result in less overall frustration, anger, and division than would not requiring them to do so" (Eberly and Cuneo, 2008).
The authors take a very conversational, informal route to explaining these varying criticisms, inviting them into the conversation. Rhetorical questions are asked, and the reader is frequently called to action on numerous occasions. Theoreticals are often posited to the reader, which are then followed by questions that the reader is forced to think about. They then offer answers in the form of one or more theorists' perspectives, offering to show both sides of the issue. For example, the third argument (The Argument from Respect) is countered with this idea: "Now consider a coercive law that protects fundamental liberal commitments, such as the right to exercise religious freedom. Is this law justified to each citizens of a liberal democracy?" (Eberle and Cuneo, 2008). This type of hypothetical is used as a prelude to noting either the standard view or liberal critics' perspective on the issue, providing an array of opinions on what people think of the issue. This is an effective way to get the message across, and allows for substantial constructive thought on complex problems.
In conclusion, Eberle and Cuneo offer an intriguing and fairly even-handed perspective on the role of religion in politics and the legislation of behavior. Coercive laws and their relationship to religious doctrine are explored through the lens of the Doctrine of Religious Restraint, liberal critics of the DRR, and the fairly radical New Traditionalist perspectives. Substantial amounts of religious and political theory are used to answer hypotheticals and explain the logic behind each decision clearly. Despite the fact that the authors' language use and structure of the argument can lead some to believe that they favor the 'standard' or DRR view of the issue, they present substantial evidence for each side of the debate to make their point clear. The authors offer no concrete answer; instead, they wish to encourage further debate by making sure these unique perspectives are heard.
Eberle, Chris and Cuneo, Terence, "Religion and Political Theory", The Stanford Encyclopedia
of Philosophy (Winter 2008 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL =