Religion, Liberalism, and Virtue

RELIGION, LIBERALISM, AND VIRTUE (Harvard Divinity School, Spring 2005)

In the aftermath of the recent American presidential election, much speculation centered on the triumph of conservative “values voters” and the question of whether liberal politics and liberal religious traditions “get it” when it comes to morality and virtue.  This course will take up this challenge to the liberal tradition of religion and politics, serving as both an introduction to liberal strands of Western Christian philosophical, theological, political, and social thought and an invitation to those with some background in ethics to inquire into the role of religion and virtue in the liberal tradition.  In the past, while much has been written on liberal theories of justice and the good, less has been written on the religious underpinnings of liberalism and on liberal theories of virtue.  Indeed, liberalism has been widely characterized, or caricatured, as antithetical to religion and lacking a robust, normative conception of the good.  In this course, we will survey some of the classics of liberal political theory—Locke, Hume, Smith, Kant, Mill, and the early liberal feminists Astell and Wollstonecraft–to examine their liberal understandings of religion and virtue.   We will also examine some earlier antecedents of the liberal tradition in Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, and, interestingly, Hobbes, along with the uniquely American perspectives of Jefferson, Madison, Tocqueville, Dewey, and Murray for what these have to say about the role of religion and virtue in liberalism.  In the contemporary context, we will visit some of the debates around the now classic liberal theory of Rawls, including communitarian, feminist, and other critiques of liberalism, as well as some recent attempts at a revised understanding of the relationship of religion, liberalism, and virtue.  The primary objective of the course will be to retrieve these understandings of religion and virtue at the heart of the liberal tradition in a consideration, and possibly a reconstruction, of liberal religion and liberal politics today.


 “This course was sorely needed at HDS and wonderfully taught. Professor Green has great passion for her material and yet at the same time seems the embodiment of scholarly discipline and even-handed approach. She brought us fantastic sources, come classic and some under-examined, and always tried to make us aware of the depth and breadth of the field. I have not become a PhD-level expert in this material overnight, but sometimes I am made to feel like one because of how well she prepared us.”

 ”The main body of the course seems essential for a liberal education.  Foundational course, just like I would recommend a course on the history of Western Christianity. You could throw the word secularism in the title and then people might realize why it is relevant.”

 “Learned more about classical thinkers that one should know. Liberalism is an important subject that I want to learn more about.”

 “Very useful. It provided the necessary background for liberal ethics!”

  “Fresh insights into important classical texts. Reading classical philosophical and theological texts as background for discussion of contemporary ethics/religion is vital for any intelligent and progressive movement. This course gave students a good intro into how one accesses these ongoing traditions.”

 “Professor Green revealed the relevance of the writers studied to today’s political environment. The works studied provide tools to enable one to engage today’s events.”