On the Proper Roles of Secular Reason and Religious Reason in a Liberal Democracy

  • James F. Harris
Part of the Studies in Philosophy and Religion book series (STPAR, volume 25)


In recent years, a growing controversy has developed concerning the kind of reasons that a person might legitimately appeal to in the political arena in a liberal democracy to promote or oppose coercive or restrictive governmental policies or legislation. As the lines have been recently drawn, on one side of this debate are such people as John Rawls and Robert Audi, defending political liberalism, and, on the other side, are such figures as Nicholas Wolterstorff and Philip Quinn attacking it. Although there are several other participants in this debate, I will concentrate on these figures in order to limit the scope of this paper and to sharpen the focus of the main issues of the debate. I shall sketch out the positions of Rawls and Audi, raise the objections voiced by Wolterstorff and Quinn from a religious perspective, and then defend Rawls, Audi, and liberalism against these objections.


Religious Belief Liberal Democracy Public Reason Religious Commitment Political Liberalism 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971) and Political Liberalism (New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993). Political Liberalism is a volume of essays from as early as 1980; however, Lecture VI, “The Idea of Public Reason,” the primary relevant section for current purposes, is new to the volume.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Political Liberalism, xx. Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Ibid., 213–14.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Audi has written a number of articles that address this fundamental issues in various ways. See, for example, Robert Audi, “The Separation of Church and State and the obligations of Citizenship,” Philosophy & Public Affairs, 18, 3, 1989 and “The Place of Religious Argument in a Free and Democratic Society,” San Diego Law Review, 30, 4, 1993. His latest work is Religious Commitment and Secular Reason (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000). It is this latest work, which represents Audi’s most completely developed view, upon which I will rely.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Religious Commitment and Secular Reason, 100–03.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    It can also be argued, contra Audi, that this characteristic gives rise to all of the other damaging characteristics of religious reasons that he identifies.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    Ibid., 100–01.Google Scholar
  8. 8.
    Ibid., 174.Google Scholar
  9. 9.
    Ibid., 86.Google Scholar
  10. 10.
    Ibid., 96.Google Scholar
  11. 11.
    Ibid., 89.Google Scholar
  12. 12.
    See Nicholas Wolterstorff, “Why We should Reject What Liberalism Tells Us about Speaking and Acting in Public for Religious Reasons,” and Philip L. Quinn, “Political Liberalisms and Their Exclusions of the Religious,” in Religion and Contemporary Liberalism, edited by Paul J. Weithman (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997).Google Scholar
  13. 13.
    Rawls, Political Liberalism, 213.Google Scholar
  14. 14.
    Ibid., 224–25.Google Scholar
  15. 15.
    Quinn accuses Audi of being inconsistent on this point by not considering that some secular beliefs should be excluded on the same grounds on which he excludes religious beliefs. See Quinn, “Political Liberalisms and Their Exclusions of the religious,” 145. I address this point below. Since, for purposes of the present discussion, I take it that there is no substantial difference between Rawl’s use of public reason and Audi’s use of the notion of secular reason so far as an appeal to religious reason is concerned, and since the phrase ‘secular reason’ puts the contrast with ‘religious reason’ more sharply, I shall, for the most part, use Audi’s notion of secular reason for the remainder of this paper.Google Scholar
  16. 16.
    Rawls, Political Liberalism, 213.Google Scholar
  17. 17.
    Audi, Religious Commitment and Secular Reason, 85. It should be noted that if citizens have such obligations but also have the right not follow these principles, then a political theory based solely on the notion of rights cannot account for such obligations.Google Scholar
  18. 18.
    To avoid unnecessary repeated qualifications, I will assume for the remainder of this paper that the debate concerning the appropriate use of secular versus religious reason takes place within a religiously pluralistic democracy. Furthermore, I will assume that such religious pluralism is to be regarded as a permanent condition of the society.Google Scholar
  19. 19.
    In fact, Audi indicates that part of the motivation behind his book is to make this normative commitment of liberalism explicit. See Audi, Religious Commitment and Secular Reason, 27.Google Scholar
  20. 20.
    I am not referring here to the dispute surrounding the question of Rawls’ use of a particular metaphysical view of the self in his development of the original position and the veil of ignorance. I address this issue below.Google Scholar
  21. 21.
    I do not mean that there was a single theory of human nature amongst Enlightenment figures. Arguably, Locke and Kant were much more heavily influenced in their views by Christian theology than were Voltaire or Diderot. I do mean that there were certain common elements in these difference views of human nature that persist in modern day political liberalism.Google Scholar
  22. 22.
    Rawls, Political Liberalism, 214.Google Scholar
  23. 23.
    Ibid., 227.Google Scholar
  24. 24.
    Wolterstorff, “Why We Should Reject What Liberalism Tells Us about Speaking and Acting in Public for Religious Reasons,” 176–77.Google Scholar
  25. 25.
    Ibid., 175–76.Google Scholar
  26. 26.
    In fact, Wolterstorff apparently believes that the basic political notions of freedom and equalityGoogle Scholar
  27. were religious in their origin. See ibid., 167–68. 27Ibid., 162.Google Scholar
  28. 28.
    Although Wolterstorff explicitly notes that Rawls limits the appeal to public reason to the constitutional level and although Rawls is his primary adversary, much of his discussion involves actual political debate within contemporary American society on the legislative level.Google Scholar
  29. 29.
    Ibid., 180–81. were religious in their origin. See ibid., 167–68.Google Scholar
  30. 30.
    Of course, a citizen might use religious reasons to prevent unfair or unequal treatment of others, but there is no way of guaranteeing or insisting upon such a provision using the Principle of Inclusion.Google Scholar
  31. 31.
    Rawls, Political Liberalism, xviii. Google Scholar
  32. 32.
    A major issue involves whether the notion of human agency to which Rawls appeals in the original position behind the veil of ignorance to derive the two principles of justice based on reason alone is rich enough.Google Scholar
  33. 33.
    The Principle of Inclusion itself may be regarded as a secular reason, but as such, it is a reason justifying the kinds of reasons regarded as permissible for citizens. The Principle of Inclusion does not provide a rationale or a motivation for the support of or opposition to any particularGoogle Scholar
  34. coercive or restrictive legislation or policy. 34 Quinn, “Political Liberalisms and Their Exclusions of the Religious,” 141 coercive or restrictive legislation or policy.Google Scholar
  35. 35.
  36. 36.
    Ibid., 142. Google Scholar
  37. 37.
    Ibid., 142–43 and 159.Google Scholar
  38. 38.
    Ibid., 143.Google Scholar
  39. 39.
    Such a suggestion is obviously completely unworkable on the constitutional level.Google Scholar
  40. 40.
    Wolterstorff, “Why We should Reject What Liberalism Tells Us about Speaking and Acting in Public for Religious Reasons,” 167.Google Scholar
  41. 41.
    These examples are all drawn loosely upon actual news events and are thus not just fanciful creations of my imagination. I do not present these cases as proof that religious reason can easily be intractable and dangerously divisive, but as illustrations of how that feature of religious reason operates.Google Scholar
  42. 42.
    I must at least acknowledge the possibility that there might be an argument from natural theology that might be an argument for God’s existence that also provides enough detail about the substance of God’s will for human moral and political endeavors that it might appeal to all citizens on the basis of reason alone. Needless to say, given the history of natural theology, I am not optimistic about the success of such an argument, and this is not the basis of Wolterstorff’s and Quinn’s objections to the Principle of Exclusion in any case.Google Scholar
  43. 43.
    Wolterstorff, “Why We Should Reject What Liberalism Tells Us about Speaking and Acting in Public for Religious Reasons,” 180.Google Scholar
  44. 44.
    Rawls later suggests that religious reason might be allowed in the public arena so long as it is accompanied by an appeal to public reason; however, even this more generous restriction would not be acceptable to Wolterstorff or Quinn. See John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” University of Chicago Law Review, 64, 3, 1997, 784. Requiring religious reason to be accompanied by secular reason also promotes what Audi calls theo-ethical equilibrium— the integration of religious and secular moral beliefs. See , Religious Commitment and Secular Reason, 130–33.Google Scholar
  45. 45.
    Quinn, “Political Liberalisms and Their Exclusions of the Religious,’ 142, 143. Likewise, Wolterstorff claims that there is nothing wrong with his public advocacy on behalf of the poor in the political arena solely on the grounds of religious belief and that such an appeal to religious reason is preferable to the exclusion of such advocacy. See Wolterstorff, “Why We Should Reject What Liberalism Tells Us about Speaking and Acting in Public for Religious Reasons,” 175.Google Scholar
  46. 46.
    Such a comparison raises the question of how to adjudicate between legitimate and illegitimate religions. I have discussed at length the difficulties of trying to make such a distinction in James F. Harris, Analytic Philosophy of Religion (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2002), 161ff and 402ff.Google Scholar
  47. 47.
    See Wolterstorff, ibid., 179, and Quinn, ibid., 157.Google Scholar
  48. 48.
    Quinn, ibid., 156. Also see Michael J. Perry, “Religious Morality and Political Choice: Further Thoughts — and Second Thoughts — on Love and Power,” San Diego Law Review, 30, 1993, 713. The reference is Michael J. Perry, Love and Power: The Role of Religion and Morality in American Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991).Google Scholar
  49. 49.
    See Audi, Religious Commitment and Secular Reason, 139ff. I have discussed the matter of the autonomy of ethics at length in James F. Harris, Analytic Philosophy ofReligion, 336ff. Also see A. C. Ewing, “The Autonomy of Ethics,” Perspectives for Metaphysics, edited by Ian T. Ramsey (New York: York (Philosophical Library, 1961). Reprinted in Divine Command Morality: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, edited by Janine Marie Idziak (New York: Edwin Mellen Press, 1979), 224–30.Google Scholar
  50. 50.
    Audi, ibid 139. Many of the ideas in this paper originated from my commentary on a provocative paper by Philip Quinn entitled, “Religion and Politics, Fear and Duty,” at the Philosophy of Religion at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century Conference at the University of South Carolina, April 5–6, 2002. I have benefitted greatly from the comments and suggestions made by colleagues Max de Gaynesford, Laura Ekstrom, Alan Goldman, and George Harris.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • James F. Harris

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations