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Religion and political philosophy

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K083-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved July 16, 2024, from

Article Summary

Political philosophy began in Athens, but the large-scale impact of religion upon it had to await Christianity. Biblical Christianity portrays human beings as subjects of a kingdom of God, destined for a supernatural end and bound to love one another. This view is potentially in tension with the demands of the various political societies to which Christians belong. The requirement of devotion to God might conflict with the allegiance that temporal government demands; human beings’ attempts to attain their supernatural end can bring them into conflict with civil laws. The power and structure of the Church in the Middle Ages opened the possibility of tensions between the authority of the institutional Church and of various national states. These tensions, potential and actual, set much of political philosophy’s agenda from the fourth to the fourteenth century.

The tension between membership of the kingdom of God and of an earthly polity was forcefully described by Augustine. He likened faithful Christians to pilgrims journeying through the world, who avail themselves of the peace temporal authority provides. Political thinkers of the early Middle Ages examined the conditions under which war, regicide and disobedience were permissible, and queried whether the Pope had authority over temporal rulers. Thomas Aquinas elaborated a theory of natural law according to which valid human law cannot conflict with the dictates of morality. Temporal rulers, he argued, are responsible for promoting their subjects’ common good and eternal salvation.

Since the sixteenth century, political philosophy has been concerned with problems set by the religious developments that ushered in the modern period. The Reformation brought religious diversity to European nations on a large scale. It thereby raised questions about how policy could be set and unity maintained without a shared religion to provide common goals and social bonds. The seventeenth-century philosopher Thomas Hobbes opposed the toleration of religious diversity and argued that states could remain unified only if their religious unity were maintained by an absolute sovereign. John Locke, on the other hand, argued for the right to religious liberty. Locke and other liberals associated with the movement of thought known as the Enlightenment were opposed by classical conservatives such as Edmund Burke. Burke argued that human society depended upon willing adherence to traditional customs and social institutions, including an established national Church. More recently, liberalism has also been opposed by Marxism. Marxists argue that religion helps to maintain social stability under modern conditions by masking the exploitation of the working class.

Contemporary political philosophy in the English-speaking world is descended from the Enlightenment liberalism of Locke. John Rawls argues that social cooperation must be based only upon what citizens of liberal democracies can reasonably affirm under ideal conditions. Religious critics of contemporary liberalism argue that it unduly restricts religiously inspired political argument and activism.

Citing this article:
Weithman, Paul J.. Religion and political philosophy, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K083-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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