The Myth of Public Reason

By Reno, R. R. | First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life, April 2012 | Go to article overview

The Myth of Public Reason


Reno, R. R., First Things; A Monthly Journal of Religion and Public Life


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. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

The Myth of Public Reason
Settings

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Help
Full screen
Items saved from this article
  • Highlights & Notes
  • Citations
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Style
    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA 8, MLA 7, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Search by... Author
    Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

    Oops!

    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.