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Religious Arguments in the Public Sphere: Rethinking A Free Speech Controversy


The political philosopher John Rawls has argued for a principle of constraint upon the use of religious arguments in the public sphere. His model of public reason requires that we deliberate with one another only on a common set of terms that no citizen can reasonably reject, therefore excluding religious arguments from the domain of democratic discourse. Rawls later amended this position, allowing religious arguments in the public sphere, but only on the condition that they be supplemented by secular reasons. A number of critics, however, have challenged the argument for constraint. These critics argue that such constraint not only places an undue burden upon religious citizens, but that it also amounts to an assault on freedom of speech. They defend the right to invoke religious arguments in public moral discourse, even in the arena of formal deliberation. This paper reviews the controversy concerning the use of religious arguments in the public sphere. It argues that the disagreement between Rawls and his critics hinges on certain problematic assumptions, not least of which are Rawls’ concepts of freedom, religion, and truth. It further argues that what is needed is a rethinking of the problem itself.

Jason Hannan

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