Focusing on current efforts to persuade the public to comply with COVID-19 best practices, this essay examines what role appeals to religious reasons should (or should not) play in leaders’ attempts to secure followers’ acceptance of group policies in contexts of religious and moral pluralism. While appeals to followers’ religious commitments can be helpful in promoting desirable public health outcomes, they also raise moral concerns when made in the contexts of secular institutions with religiously diverse participants. In these contexts, leaders who appeal to religious reasons as bases of justification for imposing COVID policies may seem to fail to show respect for the autonomy of those who lack the relevant religious commitments, and—especially when a leader herself rejects the religious commitments she makes reference to to persuade others—her appeals to religious reasons may seem to constitute ethically problematic exercises of manipulation. This essay draws on the resources of contemporary political philosophy to analyze and respond to these concerns and concludes that they are not sufficiently well-founded. To the contrary, it contends that there are good moral grounds for leaders to appeal to religious reasons as (partial) bases of justification for why followers should accept COVID policies. In the course of the argument, this essay also highlights how contemporary political theory can enrich discussions about the distinctions between coercion, manipulation, and leadership. It thereby give insight not only into the ethics of leadership but also—at least by the lights of central theories of leadership like that of James MacGregor Burns (1978)—into whether and how appeals to religious reasons can figure into genuine exercises of leadership, in contrast with mere instances of the wielding of social power.

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