Religion and Public Reason: Notes from the Commonweal Interview with John Rawls

In September 1998, the liberal Catholic magazine Commonweal published an interview with John Rawls by Bernard G. Prusak. Below are my notes about that interview.

My notes are from the re-print of interview found in Rawls’ Collected Papers. All block quotes are direct quotes from Rawls.

In response to a question about why religion has become a central theme in Rawls’ later work, notably Political Liberalism:

I think the basic explanation is that I’m concern about the survival, historically, of constitutional democracy. I live in a country where 95 of 90 percent of the people profess to be religious, and maybe that are religious, though my experience suggests that very few people are actually religious in more than a conventional sense. Still, religious faith is an important aspect of American culture and a fact of American political life. So the question is: in a constitutional democracy, how can religious and secular doctrines of all kinds get on together and cooperate in a running a reasonably just and effective government? What assumptions would you have to make about religious and secular doctrines, and the political sphere, for these to work together (616)

Asked to clarify the distinction between and comprehensive doctrine and a political conception:

A comprehensive doctrine, either religious or secular, aspires to cover all of life. I mean, if it’s a religious doctrine, it talks about our relation to God and the universe; it has an ordering of all virtues, not only political virtues but moral virtues as well, including the virtues of private life, and the rest. Now we may feel philosophically that it doesn’t really cover everything, but it aims to cover everything, and a secular doctrine does also. But a political conception, as I use the term, has a narrower range: it just applies to the basic structure of a society, its institutions, constitutional essentials, matters of basic justice and property, and so on. It covers the right to vote, the political virtues, and the good of political life, but it doesn’t intend to cover anything else. (617)

Public reason is about the type of argument, not the content of those arguments:

…the idea of public reason has to do with how questions should be decided, but it doesn’t tell you what are the good reasons or correct decisions. (618-619)

Public reason arguments can be good or bad just like other arguments.(619)

There are many arguments within public reason, something he mentions that he did not sufficiently emphasize in Political Liberalism.

About the “proviso” which allows for appeals to relgion and religious texts in the public sphere, but which also requires and appeal to public reason:

…any comprehensive doctrine, religious or secular, can be introduced into any political argument at any time, but I argue that people who do this should also present what they believe are public reasons for their argument. So their opinion is no longer just that of one particular party, but an opinion that all members of a society might agree to, not necessarily that they would agree to. What’s important is that people give the kinds of reasons that can be understood and appraised apart from their particular comprehensive doctrines. So the idea of public reason isn’t about the right answers to all these questions, but about the kinds of reasons that they ought to be answered by. (619)

Is political liberalism/public reason a veiled argument for secularism?

…I emphatically deny it. Suppose I said it is not a veiled argument for secularism any more than it is a veiled argument for religion. Consider: there are two kinds of comprehensive doctrines, religious and secular. Those of religious faith will say I give a veiled argument for secularism, and the latter will say I give a veiled argument for religion. I deny both. Each side presumes the basic ideas of a constitutional democracy, so my suggestion is that we can make our political arguments in terms of public reason. Then we stand on common ground. That is how we can understand each other and cooperate. (619-620)

Does public reason put people in the position of renouncing “truth as I know it”?:

No, you’re not ask to renounce it! Of course not. The question is, we have a particular problem. How many religions are there in the United States? How are they going to get on together? One way, which has been the usual way historically, is to fight it out, as in France in the 16th century. That’s a possibility. But how do you avoid that? (620)

People can make arguments from the Bible if they want to. But I want them to see that they should also give arguments that all reasonable citizens might agree to. Again, what is the alternative? How are we going to get along in a constitutional regime with all these other comprehensive doctrines? And just put it in those terms. (620)

From the interviewer: “Can religion flourish, can religion survive in this kind of society?”

I would say the answer is clear: the answer’s yes. If you compare the United States with Europe, my view is that what happened in Europe is that the church became deeply distrusted by people, because it sided with the monarchs. In instituted the Inquisition and became part of the repressive state apparatus. That never happened here. We don’t have that history. Our history confirms, if anything does, that the answer’s yes. I give a historical answer; but I think you can ask whether Catholicism, for example, flourishes better here than in Brazil, or in France. Tocqueville says the same thing. He traveled around this country and talked to a lot of Catholic Priests, who were then very much in the minority. We he asked them why they fought religion was so free and flourishing in this country, they told him because of the separation of church and state. (621)

On the distinction between “stability of the right reasons” and Modus vivendi:

Peace is surely a good reason, yes. But there are other reasons too. I already mentioned the good of political life: the good of free and equal citizens recognizing the duty of civility to one another and supporting the institutions of a constitutional regime. I assume that, in line with Vatican II, Roman Catholics, affirm these political institutions. So do many Protestants, Jews, and Muslims. (621)

Commonweal:” It sounds like really you’re arguing for for the dignity of the individual. I’ll turn it back: it almost sound like, in another way, a religious argument.”

“All right. Why should I deny that? If you want to that come down from the sacredness of the individual in the Bible, fine, I don’t have to deny that. (621)

Liberal constitutional democracy is supposed to ensure that each citizen is free and equal and protected by basic rights and liberties. You see, I don’t use other arguments since for my purposes I don’t really need them and it would cause division from the start. Citizens can have their own ground in their comprehensive doctrines, whatever they happen to be. I make a point in Political Liberalism of really not discussing anything, as far as I can help it, that will put me at odds with any theologian or any philosopher. (621-622)

Rawls, John, and Samuel Freeman Richard. Collected Papers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.


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  1. It probably comes as no surprise to you, Chris, that I am no more a Rawlsian than I am a Habermasian. I do, however, have just as difficult a time pin-pointing where I disagree with him as I do the latter.

    I’m suspicious of public reason because it just seems so convenient that those most strongly defend it tend to be those who are most empowered by it. I see no small coincidence when philosophers – those who are most trained at wielding public reason – insist that same public reason to govern public decisions.

    The flip side of this same coin is that such an emphasis on public reason alienates those parts of society (aka revealed and prophetic religion) who see no need to legitimize belief by way of reason-giving and thus are not so skilled at using such intellectual tools to their advantage.

    Finally, even though Rawls does not see himself as rejecting religious beliefs (and I see no reason to doubt this) he is encouraging a practice within society that in the long-run will undermine religious belief. Just because Rawls is able to see the limits of legitimate appeals to public reason is no reason that a popularized version of these same values spread throughout and unreflectively echoed by society at large will not.

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