How Religious Belief Can Play a Role in Politics

A noted philosopher’s critique of one of liberalism’s most treasured theories clears room for a conception of politics informed by Judaism.

Lenn Goodman.

Lenn Goodman.

Feb. 8 2018
About the author

Isaac Inkeles, an editorial assistant at Mosaic, holds an MPhil in political thought and intellectual history from Cambridge and an A.B. in government from Harvard.

What role, if any, should moral and religious beliefs play in the arena of politics? The question is a perennial one and will likely remain so, especially in a polity as religiously diverse as the United States and as internally divided on issues from abortion and religious liberty to, more abstractly, the proper role of fairness in economic decision-making and of compassion in criminal justice and immigration reform. All of these matters are rendered still more difficult to address given that some deny the relevance of moral concerns altogether, insisting that political questions can be resolved pragmatically, without reference to notions of good, bad, or ideal.

Lenn E. Goodman, a professor of philosophy at Vanderbilt University and a noted scholar of Jewish and Islamic thought, has pondered and written about these matters for nearly a half-century. By learning and temperament, he is exceptionally well equipped not only to consider in what ways religion can or ought to inform public debate, but also to flesh out what a religiously informed politics might look like.

This is exactly what Goodman does, sequentially, in his two most recent books, Religious Pluralism and Values in the Public Sphere (2014) and Judaism (2016). The former volume lays the ground for a pluralistic conception of politics responsive to moral and religious arguments; the latter embodies that conception in a specific example.


In his defense of pluralism, Goodman focuses on religious pluralism in particular because “it is in religions that the values we hold most precious are most elaborately articulated.” The book advances two main arguments. The positive argument, advanced in chapters 1 and 3, shows what an approach to politics that is open and non-dogmatic yet informed by religion might look like. Chapters 2 and 4, devoted to the negative argument, is largely a critique of the liberal theory of justice advanced in the second half of the 20th century by John Rawls.

Since Judaism, which we’ll get to later, offers an extended elaboration of the positive argument, let’s focus first on Rawls’s influential theory—which forms the foundation of much contemporary political thought and of many contemporary political attitudes—and Goodman’s critique of it.

For Rawls, the question of “What is a fair and just society?” has to be reframed. The question, rather, should be: “What sort of society would be agreed to under fair and just conditions?” In order to answer that question, Rawls defines “fair and just conditions” from the perspective of what he calls the “original position.” Thus, he invites us to imagine a group of prospective citizens who, behind a veil of ignorance, are blind to such “arbitrary” facts as their and their fellows’ race, religion, gender, age, physical or cognitive abilities, or the political or economic system into which they intend to enter. In such ideal circumstances, Rawls contends, reasonable people will agree to rank liberty above other goods and values (he calls this the liberty principle), and they will tolerate inequality only insofar as, relative to other schemes, it offers the greatest advantages to the least well-off (the difference principle).

Goodman’s chief critique of this scheme is that it begs the question. By rigidly constricting the set of pre-existing factors that one is allowed to consider behind the veil of ignorance, limiting them to such basic intuitions about reality as that individuals will entertain different worldviews and that societies will exhibit various kinds of scarcity, Rawls guarantees that people in the “original position” will think of justice only in the way he wants them to. In truth, however, Goodman writes, for persons stripped of beliefs, values, and experiences, it would be impossible to decide on “fair and just” principles in the first place:

It is . . . not clear that rational persons deprived of knowledge of their future levels of altruism, or risk-aversion, or sense of community . . . would have any idea how to . . . reach agreement about such things—or even what to count as a basic good.

In brief, one’s particular worldview, including one’s moral and religious worldview, cannot but inform one’s conception of justice—and there is, and should be, nothing troubling about that.


If the purpose of Religious Pluralism is to demolish the arguments that wall off politics from religion, the purpose of Judaism is to build up a basic connection between the two by exploring the ethical and political implications of the (or a) Jewish conception of God. What Goodman offers is emphatically not a prototype of a Jewish constitution, or a guide for Jewish lawmakers. Nor does he turn Judaism into a monolith. Rather, his is simply a view of religion that sees itself as having something to say about politics and morality.

Goodman begins by investigating the Jewish insight that it is the nature of God to reveal His goodness and its coherence with reason. From there he proceeds to examine the political and ethical lessons that can be gleaned by applying this insight to seminal Jewish texts and practices. The book’s structure moves from the abstract to the specific.

“The world need not have been,” Goodman writes in an opening chapter. “God’s work stands before us. Genesis invites us not to take it for granted.” Since God could have created the universe in any way He pleased, He must have intended something by creating it in the way He did. That “something’ is the inherent goodness of the universe. God declares light to be “good,” for example, before anything has existed for which light would prove useful; its goodness is an intrinsic quality, not a byproduct of its utility. And the same goes for the rest of creation: the natural order of things, a product of God’s wisdom, is good.

This is complemented by a second insight—communicated, in this case, by the biblical episode in which God reveals His “name” to Moses: “I am that I am” (Exodus 3:14). This, Goodman argues à la Maimonides, is not truly to be understood as a name but rather as another succinct statement about the nature of God: the most real thing, the thing that exists more so than anything else. Moreover, since this episode occurs within the larger narrative of the exodus from Egypt—“I am that I am” being a signal to the Israelites that Moses has in fact been sent by God to free them from bondage—the lesson it conveys is that God’s reality is not only intrinsically good but also liberating. A different way of putting this might be that when one says “God is good,” one is saying something more than that God and the good are coterminous; one is saying that God made the good, and embedded it in nature.

Concluding these preliminary thoughts, Goodman observes that from God there issues an objective human good, which can be verified through reason and experience and which in turn suggests an ethical and political order. The rest of Judaism extends and deepens this observation. A chapter titled “Mosaic Liberalism,” for example, expounds a Jewish vision of justice in which positive liberty (one’s freedom to do something) and negative liberty (one’s freedom from the interference of others) are—despite the views of a host of political theorists—actually complementary. Reviewing elements of Mosaic law that articulate this unified liberty, Goodman drives home the point that the Torah presupposes a world in which values cohere and complement each other, implicitly rejecting the idea that humans by their nature need be torn, tragically, between competing goods.

And so it goes in following chapters. In “Holiness,” Goodman uses the episode of the binding of Isaac to combat the notion that tragedy is an unavoidable feature of life, either personal or political. To the contrary, the angel’s lesson to Abraham is that he “can dispel the delusion that the greatest God must ask the greatest sacrifice.” Here, too, we see that “values, biblically, are not set at odds with one another but conciliated,” with “the uniformity of justice reflect[ing] the unity of the divine.”

Similarly, in “Lovers,” an extended meditation on the Song of Songs, Goodman invokes the rabbis’ interpretation of this drama of two separated and yearning lovers as a dialogue between God and Israel. Longing is only possible, he writes, when there is a desire to be together, which is the natural state of lovers. In like manner,  evil is only possible when there is an expectation of good, and when that expectation has been frustrated. The practical import is that God does not call upon the Jews to suffer or be martyred—two fates at odds with His goodness—but to live lives that seek and expect goodness.

In his final chapter, Goodman urges today’s Jews to reexamine their religion as a source of spiritual, moral, intellectual, and political unity. Although Jews the world over share a family resemblance through language, DNA, history, and ritual practices, their true oneness comes from and depends upon the Jewish religion.


On its own terms, Goodman’s project in these two books succeeds strikingly. Religious Pluralism does the leg work by arguing that a politics bereft of religious or moral considerations not only fails to respond coherently to the demands of government but misses the point of government altogether. By contrast, religious traditions instantiate values that touch usefully on political issues, and religious arguments can provide stable grounds on which to make political claims. At the same time, as the word “pluralism” in Religious Pluralism stresses, Goodman is not arguing for a one-size-fits-all approach; he thus steers clear of a central danger to his enterprise, namely, unwittingly wandering into theocracy.

This becomes all the clearer when one reads the two books together. For Judaism’s underlying premise, inherited from Religious Pluralism, is that a politics open to all sorts of religious and moral arguments respects its people more than other political arrangements do—and is also the likeliest to produce positive outcomes. In spelling out one appropriate politics, moreover, Judaism does not deny the possibility of others; nor does it prescribe specific dictates, but rather proposes a mode of thought and certain principles in whose light political and ethical goals can be understood and realized.

Often, contemporary works of philosophy tend to be either too stringently analytical or too sprawling and inexact. Goodman skillfully avoids both poles, particularly in Judaism, where pitfalls proliferate. He makes parallel arguments in the areas of both theory and practice, not leaning too heavily on either. He embraces what is distinctive about Judaism while showing how those particularities complement universal values. And he demonstrates how a “Mosaic liberalism” would work not by arguing that it is the logical demand of abstract justice but by putting forth a host of philosophical, historical, and rhetorical arguments and examples, all working together to point toward a whole.

A final strength is the subtlety with which Judaism advances its basic claims. There are no passages explicitly directed toward the uncommitted Jew, or the moral relativist. Nevertheless, to show how well a system coheres, how well it holds up to rigorous examination, and how in practice it flourishes, is to make a quiet yet unmistakable argument in its favor.

On that ground, indeed, one might wish that Goodman had been more explicit about one matter in particular. As I’ve noted, neither Religious Pluralism nor Judaism is theocratic; but the latter book does complicate the former on both a practical and a theoretical level. If objective good exists, to what extent can reasonable people disagree over it? How much disagreement can be tolerated? Can certain repudiations of the good or embraces of objective harms be coercively rejected? What is to be said about values being incompatible?

None of these questions is unanswerable, and Goodman hints at responses. But sensitive readers, especially those inclined toward his position that religion has something to say about politics, will intuit some of the more potentially fraught implications of his findings, and he would have been well served to address them.

Finally, I should caution that neither book is likely to be wholly accessible to readers lacking some familiarity with basic philosophical or theological terms and concepts, from ontology to felix culpa. This is not to say that either volume is obscure, though occasional recourse to Google may be needed. One of the virtues of Goodman’s writing style is that he does not belabor points, which at times makes for clean and elegant prose but at others leaves some heavy lifting to the reader.

Still, even if reading these two books may require labor, it is by no means of the exhausting sort. Goodman’s ambitious project, the care with which it is pursued, and its rich fruits amply repay the effort.

More about: History & Ideas, Jewish Thought, Liberalism, Philosophy, Pluralism