On June 15, several dozen academics, students, church leaders and other interested parties met to participate in a one-day seminar entitled “Religious Liberalism and Public Reason” hosted by the Institute for Christian Studies in Toronto. As an organization grounded in the Reform tradition that offers a host of graduate- level programs to future Christian leaders and academics, the seminar was timed in conjunction with a summer course entitled “Religion and Other Crimes Against Civility, Dilemmas of Toleration in a Liberal Democracy.” Paul Weithman, professor of philosophy at Notre Dame and Nicholas Wolterstorff, professor emeritus of the philosophy of religion at Yale, presented their observations on the strengths and weaknesses of the theory of “public reason” put forward by Professor John Rawls of Harvard University, perhaps the most influential liberal theorist in American academic circles today. In his desire to establish a balance between the free exercise of one’s personal religious beliefs (or comprehensive worldview) and the rights of other members of a pluralistic liberal democracy, Rawls’ theory of “public reason” attempts to establish a reasoned, rational framework for determining which of our values and beliefs have a place in public debate versus those that belong solely to one’s private sphere of practice. Rawls’ immense influence upon the opinions of the judiciary in both Canada and the United States, particularly on the areas of abortion and religious liberty, warrant the attention given to him at the seminar.
While both keynote lecturers expressed sympathy for Rawls’ desire to establish rules for the social harmony and peace between the many diverse groups of people that constitute the society of our modern democratic regime, they questioned his criteria for what constitutes public verses private reason. Rawls’ supposition that religious convictions can play into public debate only when they accord with a broader, secular consensus concerning desirable ends, but are illegitimate when they raise more controversial questions, especially if they seem to be rooted in the particular, comprehensive world view of the people raising them, invariably leads to their being judged by a secular liberal standard that is similarly comprehensive and presumptuous of its own righteousness. As Professor Wiethman pointed out near the end of his lecture, it may be reasonable for one to reject Rawls criteria of reasonableness in public discourse if one’s idea of human flourishing requires a transcendent, comprehensive world view. After all, many people form the basis of their belief in the rights so cherished in our democratic society by their correspondence to religiously inspired notions of justice, whether rooted in some understanding of sacred texts or of a transcendent natural law. Belief in such an antecedently given moral order may even instill in the believer the psychological prerequisites of liberal citizenship. Professor Wolterstorff added the critique that Rawls’ theory operates around the concept of fully rational persons and the assumption that they’ll agree about secular morality and the principles of justice, detached from any comprehensive view. Rather, he noted that our comprehensive world view (whether religious or secular) shapes our judgments about rationality, whether or not we claim to be grounding a particular argument from its principles. Liberal theorists of Rawls’ persuasion presuppose a theory of rationality that is largely taken for granted as superior to those of their opponents, frequently leading to a very paternal attitude towards those who disagree with them.