Religious Commitment and Political Argument

Why Religion and John Rawls Aren’t the Enemies We’re Told They Are


Those with an interest in political philosophy and ethics have likely heard that John Rawls’ much discussed theory — political liberalism — requires that people translate religious justifications for public policy into secular ones. Wading through the prolific writing about this topic yields a variety of think pieces and books lambasting Rawls for demanding that citizens with theological commitments bracket their beliefs when they enter the public sphere.

The problem: this simply isn’t true.

Rawls makes it quite clear that his framework for deliberation, which he calls public reason, isn’t actually secular at all — it’s a democratic principle. He purposefully designed it as a political conception, free from either secular or religious doctrines.

This does mean that when individuals justify a governmental policy concerning basic rights and liberties, they should use “reasons that might be shared by all citizens as free and equal.” But public reason can easily work alongside religious doctrines, not in place of them. Rawls does not advocate for a single restriction on religious reasoning in the public square. His framework only requires that doctrinal justifications have corresponding democratic principles if constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice are at stake.

Rawls himself was familiar with the misconception that public reason was somehow secular and in responding wrote:

“…a central feature of political liberalism is that it views [secular] arguments the same way it views religious ones, and therefore secular philosophical doctrines do not provide public reasons. Secular concepts and reasoning of this kind belong first to philosophy and moral doctrine, and fall outside of the domain of the political.”

So, why does this myth of a staunchly secular Rawls persist? Some might be confusing him with Jürgen Habermas, a philosopher who eventually came to share many similarities with Rawls, but who ultimately offers a very European understanding of what “secular” means. Others with a New Atheist streak might be purposefully misusing public reason for anti-religious ends. And it’s also likely that many people have only read Rawls’ first book “A Theory of Justice,” which admittedly fails to take the importance of religion into account.

However, I believe the largest contributor is that most people are introduced to Rawls through other thinkers’ critiques of him. They read passages from religious scholars like Jeffrey Stout or legal scholar Steven D. Smith, who unfortunately do not provide an accurate reading of Rawls throughout their work. In Smith’s book he writes that “Rawlsian public reason filters appeals to religion or other comprehensive doctrines out of public deliberation.” This simply isn’t the case.

Cartoonist Steve Kelley’s take on the Indiana Religious Freedom Restoration Act controversy

We can also see the results of this unfortunate misconception in just about every public debate we have today. In last year’s Hobby Lobby Supreme Court case and recent state RFRA debates, it was easy to find secular liberals attempting to discount conservative evangelicals’ “personal religious beliefs” on the grounds that they don’t belong in public. You don’t have to agree with the politics or theology of the Christian right to understand that this form of criticism only serves to thwart any worthwhile conversation.

It matters that Rawls’ theory has been misunderstood and misused. Religious people and religion scholars alike have often written off Rawls because they’re told he doesn’t understand religion. Secularists regularly misuse Rawls in order to chastise religious people for using sacred justifications in the public sphere, ignoring the overwhelming amount of instances where they work within the framework of public reason. This widens the gap between conservatives and liberals — the religious and nonreligious on both sides — and results in individuals and groups completely talking past one another.

Public reason is such a powerful tool because the language of democracy is not neutral. It is thick enough to hold us together even when we espouse other irreconcilable beliefs. American religions and moral philosophies alike are steeped in the democratic tradition. Public reason, when properly understood, offers the best framework for reconciling religious and secular discourse within democratic deliberation. This is not some utopian ideal where we will all come to an agreement. Rawls only wants us to begin from a common universe of discourse, not end up at the same conclusions.

Rawls even argues that including religious discourse in the public political forum has decisively beneficial results. Though the media often tends to elevate the conflicts caused by religious groups, Rawls reminds us that we cannot forget about the history of the abolitionists and the civil rights movement or the power of a speech like the Gettysburg Address. Each of these used religious principles and corresponding democratic principles to great effect.

Ethicist Michael Walzer eloquently elaborates upon the perils of excluding religion from the public sphere when he writes:

“The risks of politics… cannot be avoided altogether, unless one gives up the hope for great achievements. And that is exactly what happens, I think, when conviction and passion, reason and enthusiasm, are radically split and when this dichotomy is locked onto the dichotomy of the holding center and the chaos of dissolution. The result is an ideology of risk-avoidance, which is also, willy-nilly, a defense of the status quo from all political demands from below.”

It is certainly true that religion will be used by some toward unjust ends. But the best way to include the prophetic voice essential to social criticism while still adhering to democratic principles is through the framework of public reason.

Rawls went to great lengths in his writings to demonstrate the extent to which public reason and religiosity are compatible. To use his work in an attempt to scrub religion from the public forum is as absurd as it is problematic. As Rawls simply puts it, “There is, or need be, no war between religion and democracy.” I would add that there also is, or need be, no war between those who wish to voice their religious doctrines in the public political sphere and John Rawls.

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