The Idea(l) of Public Reason: Religion in Rawls’s Political Liberalism

  • Jonas Brandt


The political philosopher John Rawls presupposes that Western societies are religiously and politically diverse, and advocates for a formal structure of public discourse that can produce an “overlapping consensus” among an array of competing comprehensive doctrines. Rawls therefore claims that an idea of public reason is necessary for mediating political debate, as the most reasonable solutions to social problems will naturally be accepted by the majority. However, a closer reading of Rawls reveals that underlying this neutral “idea” of public reason is a more stringent “ideal” of public reason, which I claim attempts to neutralize those public religious voices whose political message is grounded in the particularity of their faith tradition. I consider Martin Luther King, Jr. as an exemplar who uses irreducibly religious language in advocating for the democratic principle of equality, thus problematizing Rawls’s thesis that emptying the public sphere of religion is beneficial for a more just society.