Mirror of Justice

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Wednesday, January 22, 2014

A review of "The Mighty and the Almighty"

Prof. Nicholas Wolterstorff's new book The Mighty and the Almighty:  An Essay in Political Theology, is a great read.  And, here is a helpful and insightful review, by Kristine Irwin (Biola), from Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.  Here's a bit:

Wolterstorff's conclusion is that "the state is to grant institutional autonomy to the church and to all other counterpart religious institutions, and it is to grant religious freedom to all citizens" (131). Once again, we have an argument "from above" -- that the very nature of the church requires this conception of the state -- and "from below" -- one that appeals to principles of justice and natural rights.[4] What this means is that Christians have a vested interest in advocating for the moral rights of all religious institutions: "I may think your religion is wrong; but I will defend your civil right to be free to practice it" (144). Indeed, Wolterstorff asserts that all social "institutions with authority structures have moral rights against the state" (162).

This is perhaps the most interesting, and most puzzling, aspect of Wolterstorff's excellent book. Why think that any social institution with an authority structure places "normative limits . . . on the authority of the state" (171)? Wolterstorff's appeal is, as usual, to natural rights: we have a natural right to form social entities to accomplish goals without consulting the state; therefore, "the authority inherent within the entities that we establish then places limits on the authority of the state" (171). So it is now not only the rights of individuals, or the rights of religious institutions, but the rights of any institution with a governance-authority structure that limits the authority of the state. This goes a good way towards the increasingly popular argument that there is nothing special about religion, as against other claims of conscience: either all claims of conscience ought to be tolerated, or none ought to be tolerated.[5] The structure of Wolterstorff's argument -- and particularly, the sufficiency of the "argument from below" -- leads me to believe that he would accept this implication. A further question emerges, though: Do Christians now have a vested interest in advocating for the moral rights of all claims of conscience that arise from all institutions with a governance-authority structure? This seems a bridge too far.


Garnett, Rick | Permalink