Jason Brennan and Kevin Vallier

Jason Brennan (left) and Kevin Vallier (right) on political liberalism and religion.

According to some prominent versions of political liberalism, coercive political force is illegitimate unless it is justifiable from every reasonable point of view. But there are many reasonable points of view from which religious beliefs cannot be justified. This seems to mean that religious political convictions are in conflict with political liberalism. However, Vallier resists that conclusion; he thinks that religious reasoning can have a legitimate role in political discourse. In this episode, Brennan and Vallier discuss Vallier’s argument.

Related works

by Brennan:
The Ethics of Voting (2011)
“The Right to a Competent Electorate” (forthcoming)

by Vallier:
“Liberalism, Religion, and Integrity” (forthcoming)
“Convergence and Consensus in Public Reason” (forthcoming)
with Gerald Gaus: “The Roles of Religious Conviction in a Publicly Justified Polity: The Implications of Convergence, Asymmetry and Political Institutions” (2009)


8 comments to Jason Brennan and Kevin Vallier

  • Brennan at one point near the beginning says something like liberal values are an extension of religious values of equality. I’m not a historian of ideas but that seems to me to be false. In some sense wasn’t the opposite the truth? Liberalism was a reaction towards the state imposing religious values on people against their choices.

  • David Hamstra


    One of my former profs did a dissertation at Notre Dame on the topic of Protestant influences on freedom of religion (see his synopsis here). That would be one instance of a liberal value coming from a religious one.

  • David Hamstra,

    I’m still unconvinced. I have no doubt that the history of liberalism was inspired at some points by certain religious influences but liberalism as a philosophical conception and political ideal seem to have been started in reaction to religious oppression (especially imposed by the state).


    “Liberalism started as a major doctrine and intellectual endeavour in response to the religious wars gripping Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, although the historical context for the ascendancy of liberalism goes back to the Middle Ages.”

    I’m no expert here but it does make sense that liberalism the main goal of which seeks to protect the individual from the state often by means of institutions of rights protection, was developed in reaction to religious oppression by the state.

  • Jason Brennan


    Check out historian Perez Zagorin’s How the Idea of Toleration Came to the West (Princeton UP, 2003).

  • I will try to check out Zagorin’s book when I have some time. The reason why I was so incredulous at the claim is that almost all of the fathers of liberalism, namely, Hobbes, Voltaire, Spinoza the American founding fathers were not religious at all and in fact, many were quite anti-religion and often especially anti-Christian. Even Locke, the only religious one of the bunch held beliefs that were decidedly unorthodox Christian. His arguments for liberalism are, as far as I know, wholly secular, not from his religious beliefs. So liberalism seems to be by its conception, ideological nature, an limitation of the state’s religious powers. This is understandable as the times these early liberals lived in and perhaps even their personal experiences would suggest that they would be for limitations on the state’s powers of coerced religious indoctrination.

    Now it may be that early and modern liberals used the language of Christianity to further their position as selling points. But this co-opting of Christian themes seems to be mere rhetorical devices to convince the Christian masses and the powers that be. It’s hard for me to even fathom why anti-religious people would be convinced of liberalisms virtues mainly through religious themes when they had so much motivation to do so on completely secular grounds (such as the ones they gave in their philosophical works).

    I found the talk on convergence interesting as it seems to be relevant to the way liberalism has been accepted by western society when so many early liberals used secular reasoning to argue among themselves for liberalism but co-opted Christian themes to persuade and come points of agreement with those they had so many differences.

  • Patrick Mayer

    Hobbes was often accused of being an atheist, but he certainly said of himself that he was a religious believer. He was accused of atheism mainly because of his endorsement of materialism, but while that means he was out of step with orthodox Christianity about the nature of God, it certainly didn’t make him an atheist. It is true that his arguments for his preferred state are entirely secular (or at least can be run without any religious assumptions without any loss of force) but it strikes me as bizarre to think he is a father of liberalism. His preferred state has no personal freedoms (as we understand that term) or rights other than the right to defend yourself against someone trying to kill you. Hobbes was a proponent of one of the most radically anti-liberal political doctrines ever put forward. He is sometimes given credit for starting the social contract tradition, but that just isn’t true.

    Locke makes explicit and, it seems to me anyway, essential reference to the law of nature in the Second Treatise on Government, and the natural law is just the law God hands down according to Locke (though its content is discoverable by reason alone, it really seems as though its authority depends on its divine nature), so I don’t see how to defend the claim that he gives an entirely secular argument for personal and political liberty. As for Voltaire and Spinoza, this is the first time I have ever heard of someone treating them as founding fathers of liberalism (Voltaire because he came along rather late in the game and didn’t contribute any significant novel ideas and Spinoza because he is, while an interesting philosopher, seemingly a marginal figure as far as historical influence.) As for the Founding Fathers in America, they instituted a relatively liberal state (though remember that until the 14th amendment and the incorporation cases the Constitution allowed the individual states to establish churches), but I don’t see how any of them can count as contributing much to the philosophy of liberalism. I can’t think of any arguments or insights in the writings of Madison, Jefferson, Franklin, etc. that wasn’t already in Locke or Montesquieu. Liberalism already existed in a very well worked out form by the time the American Revolution started.

    It might be true that anti-religious people would not accept liberalism on religious grounds, but what does that have to do with the question of where the doctrine came from? After all the non-religious were an extremely small and marginal minority in the time period when liberalism was originally developed. They were by and large neither the intended audience of its canonical works, nor the original developers of its characteristic doctrines.

  • CLinning

    I too am concerned by the assertion that liberalism is an extension of religious values of equality. Through my education and reading, I understand the historical development of liberalism to be grounded in the desire to create conceptions of morality and justice removed from ecclesiastical argument. Rather, reason lay at the heart of the Enlightenment movement. Some philosophers of this era still employed some religious tone – Locke’s chapter on property immediately springs to mind. And each philosopher would have been informed by their particular context and set of personal beliefs. This may have led to a religious influence on the Enlightenment. However, at the heart of the Enlightenment was the creation of secular arguments. David Hume is a prime example of this tradition, and, to an extent, Thomas Hobbes, although Leviathan seemed to me to be a pragmatic solution driven by the threat of the monarch’s extinction in English civic life. As such the lack of religious tone/argument should be read in this context – the creation of a sovereign who does not derive his power from divine right. Also, as Patrick Mayer notes above, Hobbes’ writings do not sit well with the greater body of liberalism. However, his state was constructed with an eye to justice and the well being of the citizen, principles that lie at the heart of the liberal tradition.

    Simply, I am not convinced that the influence of religion on the Enlightenment philosophers necessarily compels a liberalism grounded in religious values of equality. Liberalism was set up in such a way so as to be removed from such reasoning. That is not to say that there cannot exist parallels, but that the conclusions reach emerge from distinct forms of reasoning. Or perhaps I am just missing the point?

  • To Patrick Mayer,

    My reading of liberalism is very rudimentary and I simply looked up liberalism in the wikipedia. It lists Hobbes as one of the originators of that tradition (presumably for the social contract tradition he helped to establish or contributed to).


    Also, many of the philosophers claiming they were “religious” during the early founding of liberalism actually seemed to be simply deists (as they held that god was a material being and/or that he was not a personal god) but that would also seem to establish liberalism’s secular roots if that were the case because deism do not claim religious foundations for morality and political theory. Additionally, I wouldn’t put much on their self-professed claims of being religious as there was so much religious persecution (and philosophers were all to often made victims of that) and intolerance.