In this series I set out the doctrine of religious restraint, the idea that in a pluralistic, liberal, society religious beliefs should not be utilised in the formation of public policy. I note that this doctrine entails an asymmetrical treatment of religious and secular beliefs, which appears to conflict with the central notion of liberal democracy that all people are equal and that the state should be neutral in respect to different conceptions of the good. I examine several key arguments in support of the doctrine and some defences of this asymmetry. I argue these arguments are subject to numerous difficulties and the asymmetry appears arbitrary and unjustified.
As far back as the birth of liberal democracy commentators have proposed various forms of epistemological restraint on the nature and extent of the justifications offered for coercive laws. Justification is important because central to the concept of liberal democracy is the notion that all people are free and equal. Broadly speaking, the state must accord equal protection to all who come within its territory. Public policy must allow people equal freedom to live their lives as they see fit. Every adult must have an equal voice in the governance of society through the democratic process. Charles Larmore sums this up,
The familiar constitutional rights of free-expression, property, and political participation, though no doubt serving to promote the goal of democratic self-rule, also have an independent rationale. They draw upon that most fundamental of individual rights, which is the right [of every person] to equal respect.
A diversity of beliefs, views and religions flourishes as people avail themselves of these liberties and come to different understandings about life, the world they live in, the meanings and purposes thereof. The fact of this plurality invites an important corollary to the concept of liberal democracy, typically formulated as the idea that the state must remain neutral with respect to the different religions and comprehensive viewpoints present within society.
This is not to say that the state must hold that all views are equally true, just or good. Likewise, it is not a requirement that the state must adopt the incoherent stance of affirming (as a truth) that there is no such thing as truth. Nor that it should not concern itself with injustice or deleterious conduct. What is meant by this requirement is that, as a body that exists to serve the people, it is not the state’s role to rule on what is or is not the correct philosophy, worldview or religion; each person must be free to determine this. The state being neutral in this way shows equal respect for the freedom of all people.
When state neutrality is conjoined with the concepts of all people being free, equal and worthy of respect, it follows that coercive legislation needs justification. If people are worthy of respect then there exists a prima facie presumption against state coercion. A commitment to state neutrality entails that justification must be drawn from neutral grounds. I will refer to this view of liberal democracy as “the standard view.”
Common to almost all versions of the standard view is some form of restraint on religious reasons being offered as a form of justification. Richard Rorty, alluding to Jefferson’s famous reference to a wall of separation, describes this as 
the happy, Jeffersonian compromise that the Enlightenment reached with the religious. This compromise consists in privatizing religion — keeping it out of … “the public square,” making it seem bad taste to bring religion into discussions of public policy.
The doctrine is more than just a restraint on religious reasons; Nicholas Wolterstorff expounds further;
Definitive of the position is a negation at this point: citizens (and officials) are not to base their decisions and/or debates concerning political issues on their religious convictions. When it comes to such activities, they are to allow their religious convictions to idle. They are to base their political decisions and their political debate in the public space on the principles yielded by some source independent of any and all of the religious perspectives to be found in society. … The source must be such that it is fair to insist that everybody base his or her political decisions, as well as public political debates, on the principles yielded by that source.
Paul Rishworth writes, “some have contended that the nature of religious belief is such that, while it may be integral to individual autonomy and development, it has no proper role in public policy debates and that these ought to be conducted exclusively in secular terms that are equally accessible to all.”
Christopher Eberle and Terence Cuneo refer to this position as the doctrine of religious restraint (DRR) that they define canonically as
The DRR: a citizen of a liberal democracy may support the implementation of a coercive law L just in case he reasonably believes himself to have a plausible secular justification for L, which he is prepared to offer in political discussion. [Emphasis original]
Eberle and Cuneo explain the implications of the DRR, “if a citizen is trying to determine whether or not she should support some coercive law, and if she believes that there is no plausible secular rationale for that law, then she may not support it.”
I The Doctrine of Religious Restraint
As Wolterstorff identifies in the quotes above, the restraint is negative; justifications for coercive laws must not be religious. The extent and nature of the independent source that acceptable justifications may be drawn from varies depending on which advocate one reads; all agree that a coercive law must be able to be justified by a plausible secular justification if it is to be neutral.
Defenders of the DRR claim that it need not be codified. It is a moral requirement upon people regardless of their role within society; some form of censure rather than legal stricture is what is suggested. Rorty reflects this when he refers to it being “bad taste” to bring religion into the public square. Stephen Carter puts it clearly;
One good way to end a conversation – or start an argument – is to tell a group of well educated professionals that you hold a political position (preferably a controversial one such as being against abortion or pornography) because it is required by your understanding of God’s will. In the unlikely event that anyone hangs around to talk with you about it, chances are that you will be challenged on the ground that you are intent on imposing your religious beliefs on other people. And in contemporary political and legal culture, nothing is worse.
There is an asymmetry present in most versions of the DRR; state coercion can be justified by some secular justifications but it can never be justified by religious justifications. In reviewing a definitive defence of the DRR advanced by Robert Audi, Philip Quinn observes;
These principles impose burdens on religious people that Audi nowhere suggests imposing on nonreligious people. … Audi does not propose that nonreligious people must be sufficiently motivated by adequate religious reason for their advocacy or support of restrictive laws or politicise. The lack of symmetry is striking.
Eberle and Cuneo, in their discussion of the DRR, note the same asymmetry;
There is an important asymmetry between religious and secular reasons in the following respect: some secular reasons can themselves justify state coercion but no religious reason can. This asymmetry between the justificatory potential of religious and secular reasons, it is further claimed, should shape the political practice of religious believers. According to advocates of the standard view, citizens should not support coercive laws for which they believe there is no plausible secular rationale, although they may support coercive laws for which they believe there is only a secular rationale.
Not surprisingly, the DRR is controversial despite its current orthodoxy. Religious believers are required to omit beliefs they understand to be true or hold as important when they grapple with public policy. Stephen Carter captures the sentiment well when he labels this “the separation of church and self.” Yet defenders of the DRR maintain that some form of religious restraint is not only in accord with the notion of liberal democracy but essential to it, as Rorty puts it, “we shall not be able to keep a democratic political community going unless the religious believers remain willing to trade privatization for a guarantee of religious liberty.”
For the DRR to be as pervasively held in the literature, in society generally and within religious-freedom jurisprudence there must exist good reasons as to how the DRR does uphold the concepts of equal protection, freedom, voice and neutrality in spite of the charges critics level against it.
In my next posts in this series, Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part II, I will look at some of the arguments for the doctrine of religious restraint. These are mostly variants of appeals to respect (such as the golden rule, epistemic inaccessibility) or arguments around the dangers of religion.
 Charles Larmore quoted in Michael J Perry Under God? Religious Faith and Liberal Democracy (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003) 36.
 Richard Rorty “Religion as a Conversation-Stopper” (1994) 3:1 Common Knowledge 1, 2.
 Nicholas Wolterstorff “The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issues” in Nicholas Wolterstorff & Robert Audi (eds) Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers Inc, Lanham Md, 1997) 67-120, 73.
 Paul Rishworth “Freedom of Thought, Conscience, and Religion” in Paul Rishworth, Grant Hushcroft, Scott Optican and Richard Mahoney (eds) The New Zealand Bill of Rights (Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2003) 277-307, 279.
 Christopher J. Eberle and Terence Cuneo “Religion and Political Theory” (2008) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (at 9 August 2009).
 Stephen Carter The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialise Religious Devotion (Basic Books, New York, 1993) 23-24.
 Philip Quinn “Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate” (2000) 60:2 Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 486, 487 (book review).
 Eberle and Cuneo, above n 5.
 Carter, above n 7, 1.
 Rorty, above n 2, 3.
This series was written as a supervised research paper in pursuit of my LLB. I am very grateful to a number of people who personally encouraged me, gave feedback, recommended resources or were good enough to supply me with their own – particularly my supervisor, Paul Rishworth; philosophers: Glenn Peoples, Lydia McGrew, Alexander Pruss, Francis J Beckwith, Nicholas Wolterstorff and my husband, Matthew Flannagan.
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part II
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part III
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part IV
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part V
Religious Restraint and Public Policy: Part VI
Tags: Christopher Eberle · Doctrine of Religious Restraint · Freedom of Religion · Jurisprudence · Law Studies · Nicholas Wolterstorff · Philip Quinn · Philosophy of Religion · Political Philosophy · Public Policy · Religion in Public Life · Stephen Carter · Terence Cuneo31 Comments