Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Myth of Public Reason

Magazine article First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life

The Myth of Public Reason

Article excerpt

In recent decades a consensus has emerged that religious ideas and theological notions are sectarian and private in character, and therefore they should not be offered in the public square. A genuine "public philosophy," to use the term of art, must appeal to principles of "public reason," another term of art, which are accessible to all citizens. It is therefore supposed that a public philosophy can't rely on the sorts of claims about God, providence, salvation, and morality that religious people make. Religious themes can be used for their rhetorical effect. Martin Luther King used a rich biblical imagery to promote civil rights, and his sermons and speeches are widely admired. But his core ideal of equality remains non-theological, or so it is claimed.

Religious people should not confuse good preaching with effective political witness. But some of the arguments against using religious beliefs as part of one's public philosophy are actually very weak, casting doubt on blanket claims that religious convictions and principles have no role in public debates.

Take the oldest one, the argument from controversy. Throughout the modern era it has been taken as self-evident that religious beliefs are uniquely controversial, tending toward social divisions and even sectarian violence. People point to the Wars of Religion in the past, Northern Ireland more recently, or Islamic terrorism and Sunni/Shiite Muslim conflict today.

John Rawls tried to avoid these conflicts by ruling them out of bounds. Public reason, he argued, should be "political" and not "metaphysical." He thought that theology (and, for that matter, most robust philosophies that have strong views of our moral purpose) should be kept out of the public square. They are "comprehensive doctrines" that by their very nature militate against the give-and-take of democratic discussion and compromise. St. Augustine is fine for the seminary, and Aristotle for the seminar room, but their overall vision of our nature and destiny should be kept out of the public square.

Most proponents of "public reason," Rawls included, secretly know that the argument from controversy is specious. In the first place, the idea that we ought to rule out "comprehensive doctrines" amounts to a "comprehensive doctrine" about the relation between politics and morality, and for that matter between politics and theology. And it's a controversial one, as the vigorous debates about Rawls and his theory indicate.

More importantly, nearly all the distinctive aspects of a modern liberal society were at some point profoundly controversial and divisive, from the question of universal suffrage, through abolition, to racial equality. Winning these battles was necessary for liberals like Rawls to endorse the argument from controversy. When your side has the upper hand, it's very tempting to define dissent as illegitimate.

But liberals can't help themselves. When Rick Santorum makes the altogether rational and sensible observation that racism involves moral judgments about skin color (an odd basis for moral judgments) while opposition to homosexual acts involves moral judgments about behavior (the usual basis for moral judgments), his views are labeled as "controversial." Meanwhile, proponents of gay marriage make arguments that are controversial and divisive, as the current political climate indicates, and yet are deemed acceptably "public." One cannot avoid the conclusion that a "controversial" stance largely means a policy, principle, or position that liberals oppose.

I'm not in favor of the conservative tendency to criticize liberals as imposing a double standard. It's better to argue that the main premise of the argument from controversy is mistaken. Controversy is the stuff of democratic politics. Instead of trying to determine the criteria of a "public reason" - and thus risk the temptation of defining as non-controversial what you believe ought to be widely accepted - the relevant question is whether partisans in public debates are willing to accept the constraints of civility and the rule of law. …

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