Rawls and the Challenge of Theocracy to Freedom
Thigpen, Robert B., Downing, Lyle A., Journal of Church and State
Theocracy is a major alternative to the liberal political order in the world today, as it was during the period that gave birth to liberalism. Any doubt about the danger in the United States from the threat of theocracy probably flows from uncertainty as to how far some are willing to go in promoting religious goals with state power.1 We focus not on practical aspects of the theocratic challenge to liberal institutions, but rather on the theocratic challenge to liberal political theory. We deal specifically with the theory of John Rawls, not only because of his preeminence as a liberal theorist but also because he has repeatedly referred to the theocratic challenge.2
Rawls insists that the principles of a liberal political order must not embody a particular philosophical or religious position about the good life. Such controversial beliefs, which he had earlier termed "metaphysical"3 and now calls "comprehensive doctrines,"4 must be avoided because a liberal order must guarantee the right of people to choose their own conceptions of the good life.5 When people freely choose the good, there will not be agreement on "ultimate ends or a comprehensive set of moral values governing all of our lives."6 Therefore, by locating what Bruce Ackerman7 calls the "Big Questions" of metaphysics and epistemology in a zone of privacy, Rawls hopes to protect the right of persons to hold different beliefs about these matters. He thus appeals to "a political conception of justice to distinguish between those questions that can be reasonably removed from the political agenda and those that cannot."8
Rawls recognizes that while a liberal political order must tolerate different choices about the human good, there must also be some agreement on political principles. In Political Liberalism (1993), which brings together the reformulation of his theory since A Theory of Justice (1971), he writes: "The problem of political liberalism is to work out a conception of political justice for a constitutional democratic regime that the plurality of reasonable doctrines-always a feature of the culture of a free democratic regime-might endorse."9 Because "reasonable" people want to live in a social world in which "they, as free and equal, can cooperate with others on terms all can accept,"10 they recognize that it would be illegitimate to impose their ideas of the good on others. The principles of political liberalism thus constitute an "overlapping consensus" that is supported for different reasons by reasonable proponents of various comprehensive doctrines with distinctive understandings of human fulfillment.
Different religious comprehensive doctrines are among the most important divergent views of the human good in contemporary society. Indeed, agreeing with Perry Anderson, George Klosko states that "the only substantial conflicting comprehensive views in existing society are religious in nature."11 Stephen Mulhall and Adam Swift point out that Rawls faces a serious problem when he imagines himself confronting the claims of an "unreasonable" religious person.12 She declares that because there is no salvation outside her church, "a constitutional regime, with its guarantees of freedom of religion, cannot be accepted unless it is unavoidable."13 We do not call this person a "theocrat" because she believes that all persons have a moral or spiritual obligation to submit to the authority of a church (say, Roman Catholicism) or a holy book (say, Protestant fundamentalism). Rather, she is a theocrat because she thinks that the overriding purpose of the political order is to enforce her sectarian orthodoxy. Making claims about what is necessary for salvation, she insists that the protection of religious freedom from state coercion would guarantee that large numbers of people would never be saved from damnation.
Some might accuse Rawls of erecting a straw person when he mentions the unreasonable religious individual, because …
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Publication information: Article title: Rawls and the Challenge of Theocracy to Freedom. Contributors: Thigpen, Robert B. - Author, Downing, Lyle A. - Author. Journal title: Journal of Church and State. Volume: 40. Issue: 4 Publication date: Autumn 1998. Page number: 757+. © 1999 J.M. Dawson Studies in Church and State. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.