Rawls versus Habermas on Religion, Politics, and War

Dr. Timothy L. Challans

School of Advanced Military Studies (SAMS)

International Symposium on Military Ethics (ISME) 2007


Three days ago, on Monday, January 22, 2007, the American people witnessed the March for Life in Washington, D.C.  This widely covered demonstration was more than an act of communication among free and equal citizens in a liberal democracy.  It was disconcerting enough that the spirit of the event was threatening and militant—the anger, hostility, vitriol, and contempt directed at those whose opinions may differ dripped from the tongues of the speakers.  But what should be even more disconcerting was that it demonstrated political entanglement, featuring speakers from Congress, a live telephone message of endorsement from President Bush, with the march having a destination of the Supreme Court building in order to at least symbolically target potentially sympathetic justices in the hope of someday soon reversing through redress the decision in the landmark decision of Roe v. Wade, made on January 22, 1973.  Those who agree with the pro-life marchers could defend the event by invoking freedom of speech as an essential feature of a liberal democracy.  Those who disagree with their position have every reason to worry, not over the issue of the freedom to express their views but because this religiously motivated group has influenced and involved every branch of government:  the Congress, the Presidency, and the Judiciary.  This group does not recognize any conception of a separation of church and state.

What should be the role of religion in relation to politics?  Currently, the argument as it’s carried out by the participants, as well as the coverage by the punditry (which in turn helps to reinforce the stagnation of the argument), rarely gets beyond the usual shibboleths on either side—the rhetorical coded bumper sticker sound bites—keeping the argument stuck in false dilemmas such as the public / private distinction.  Perhaps we can enhance the dialogue by looking at the philosophical debate on the issue between two of the most important philosophers of the last century, John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas.  I am going to present my own narrative of their argument based on my interpretation and evaluation of comparing differences one with the other and comparing similarities one to the other.  For those who want to follow their argument directly, making their own interpretation and evaluation, the basic texts are as follows:  Rawls’s mature view on the subject is expressed in his Political Liberalism, published in 1993.  Habermas responded to this piece when he wrote in 1995, “Reconciliation through the Public Use of Reason:  Remarks on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism.”  Also in 1995 Rawls wrote a “Reply to Habermas,” which is in the later editions of Political Liberalism.  The last expression by John Rawls on the subject was “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” written in 1997 and also contained in the most recent edition of Political Liberalism.  Habermas has continued the dialogue in a 2006 article entitled, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” even though Rawls has recently, and regrettably, passed away.[1]

This conversation between Rawls and Habermas, lasting several years, is representative of philosophical dialogue at its best, for we can see two great minds at work as they come to understand each other even as they occasionally misunderstand each other.  Pertinently, the frameworks from within which they work and the distinctions they draw can help to answer the question about the relationship between religion and politics, even if we consider only a few modest distinctions from within their theories.  Each of them theorizes about public and private space, drawing distinctions that help us to understand different kinds of space.  Each of them is a neo-Kantian, modernizing and preserving in their own way basic notions of morality found in Kant’s work while at the same time jettisoning Kant’s metaphysics.  Each of them also draws upon and expands in their own way the important Hegelian distinction between civil society and the state, two very different kinds of public space.  This distinction is important, because when religionists typically talk about reclaiming the “public square,” they ambiguously move back and forth between referring to these two very different kinds of public space.  Let’s begin the inquiry by examining their notions of public space.

Rawls makes a distinction between the public forum and the background culture, two different kinds of public space, fully understanding the potentiality of using “public” ambiguously.  In order to signify the political nature of the public forum, he formally calls it the political public forum and will informally drop the “political,” usually just calling it the public forum.  In order to preserve the political nature of the word “public,” he refers to the background culture as non-public space (even though there are people interacting in this space, they are doing so in a non-political way).  It is important for him to emphasize the political nature of the public forum because the political realm is a coercive realm.  His theory is unique because he develops a method by which people with different comprehensive doctrines—whether these doctrines are religious, philosophical, or moral—work to agree upon the principles by which they will be coerced (through legislation, enforcement of that legislation, or adjudication of that legislation).  Rawls’s public forum and the background culture roughly approximate the state and civil society for Hegel.  The public forum is the space that is occupied by what Rawls calls the basic structure of society, as he explains:  “By the basic structure I mean a society’s main political, social, and economic institutions, and how they fit together into one unified system of social cooperation from one generation to the next.”[2]  The background culture is free from state coercion because this is the space in which people form free, voluntary associations.  For Rawls, religion properly resides freely in the background culture yet has some restrictions within the political realm of the public forum.

Habermas theorizes that the public sphere is a historical development that resides somewhere between the Hegelian categories of civil society and the state.  Habermas views civil society as a private realm, including both the private sphere of the family and the economic realm of commodity exchange and social labor.  He sees the state as the sphere of public authority, including different governmental functions.  The public sphere emerges for Habermas as the space in which discourse occurs, the public exchange of ideas within what we would call both popular and literary culture (this distinction is not so evident in Europe as it is in America).  Discourse signifies much more than communication or even dialogue.  Discourse requires what is called problematization.  Problematization is in many ways the opposite of problem solving, which is the activity of attempting to fix some perceived problem given a certain set of circumstances within a given structure.  Problematization begins by challenging that which is given, finding or even creating problems within the given structures, conditions, and circumstances.  For example, the church has always worked to solve the problem of poverty through varied and imaginative acts and systems of charity.  And while they may communicate and even engage in dialogue while engaged in problem solving, they are not engaged in discourse.  Discourse would involve problematizing that which is given—the structures and conditions.  In other words, poverty is only a symptom of a deeper problem, and that deeper problem is a systemic problem that can be addressed only by problematizing the whole system.  Discourse about poverty would be an exchange of ideas that centered around changing economic systems within the civil society as well as governmental structures within the state.  Religionists and secularists alike appropriately exchange ideas in Habermas’s public sphere with the reciprocal hermeneutic burden of translation between those with different world views.  However, the discursive problematization that occurs within the public sphere has a natural secularizing tendency precisely because religion is not discursive, since discourse begins by challenging that which is given and by challenging authority, which is generally anathema to religion.  Habermas takes for granted that religious pretext will give way to modernity over time within the public sphere.

Rawls calls for public reason to be the mode of communication in the public forum.  Rawls continuously revised his theoretical framework, addressing certain issues arising from his earlier expressions.  His conception of political liberalism grew out of the critique that his theory of justice was a comprehensive moral doctrine, perhaps just one among many.  In order to address the political reality of people having irreconcilable comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines, he fashioned what he called a reasonable political conception in which a society could engage in the political public forum, ideally without coercion, or practically b minimizing it in a mutually agreeable way.  They would do so by using public reason.  “Public reason in PL [Political Liberalism] is the reasoning of legislators, executives (presidents, for example), and judges (especially those of a supreme court, if there is one).  It includes also the reasoning of candidates in political elections and of party leaders and others who work in their campaigns, as well as the reasoning of citizens when they vote on constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice.”[3]  Public reason entails the duty of civility, a duty that requires observing the principle of reciprocity.  Reciprocity is the notion that people would justify their reasons when dealing with constitutional essentials within the basic structure using rationale that all parties could accept.

He still employs the device of representation known as the original position, an idealized position where members engage in public reason behind a veil of ignorance.  The veil removes their self-interest by inviting the participants to imagine they know everything relevant about the situation except for who they are and where they may fit in society once the principles are established and the veil is lifted.  When participants indulge Rawls’s device of representation, they are making what I call possible choices rather than actual choices, actual choices being those they would make if they maintained their own identity, thereby maintaining their self-interest.  His neo-Kantianism shows when we remember Kant’s moral theory holds that morality cannot be based upon self-interest.  Following the principle of reciprocity, and hence the duty of civility, would allow people to make claims from reasonable comprehensive doctrines as long as they observe the proviso, which is the provision that they then justify these claims with reasoning that other participants could in principle accept (not actually accept, but possibly accept).  One way to think of it is to imagine that both secularists and religionists in the original position would understand the vocabulary and concepts of the comprehensive doctrines; they just would not know which group they would be in once they stepped back out from behind the veil of ignorance.  If the comprehensive doctrinal claims can be justified using public reason in this way, then they would be acceptable.  Many comprehensive philosophical and moral doctrines are justifiable through public reason.  Most religious comprehensive claims are not justifiable.  Public reason would not entertain religious claims that lack justifiable reasoning, and Rawls’s framework excludes these unjustifiable claims from the public forum.

It may at first appear that Habermas is more inclusive than Rawls, since Habermas allows religious rationale in the public sphere while Rawls does not allow it in the public forum.  However, Rawls considers their respective terms to be different; indeed, he says that what Habermas refers to as the public sphere is like Rawls’s background culture rather than his public forum.  Public reason is not necessary within the background culture, since this part of social life is free and voluntary and wouldn’t be coercive.  So Rawls and Habermas have each carved out a social space in which every kind of expression is free.  And similarly, where Rawls wants to restrict religious rationale in the public forum when dealing with the basic structures, Habermas, too, wants to restrict religious rationale when it comes to matters of state.  “This strict demand [to justify political statements] can only be laid at the door of politicians, who within state institutions are subject to the obligation to remain neutral in the face of competing world views; in other words it [a Rawlsian proviso] can only be made of anyone who holds a public office or is a candidate for such.”[4]

Both Rawls and Habermas are very concerned about the proper relationship of morality to politics in general and specifically about the influence of religiously motivated moral viewpoints in politics.  Many religionists when referring to the rule of law are interested in influencing the law so that it reflects their particular moral beliefs.  Take the example of the marchers for life.  They want the law to embody and reflect their religious beliefs.  When one hears the rhetoric of pro-lifers about the sanctity of life, one has to wonder why they are so adamant about stopping abortions but not equally concerned about stopping war or stopping the death penalty.  Wouldn’t the logical and reasonable principle of consistency matter here?  Once in a while, though, religionists will qualify their regard for the sanctity of life by stipulating that it must be innocent life about which they, and the law, must be concerned.  While the qualification of concern only for innocent life makes the argument of the religionist more consistent, it makes it less compelling.  The religiously charged concept of innocence has done much harm in history, because it reinforces an immature, even adolescent, understanding of morality, particularly when it comes to war, dividing people into naïve dual camps:  innocent / guilty; friend / foe; good / evil; us / them.  The term “innocent” within just war theory is a vestige of the religious roots of just war theory.  We should ask why the religious voice both outside and within the military has been overwhelmingly unable to critique the Iraq war.  The philosophical voice has been much more consistent in its critique, even when they’ve resorted to just war theory (although it is both just and unjust according to just war theory).  Is there any purely theologically rationale that can cogently critique the war, without resorting to other, usually philosophical, reasons?  I argued that just war theory is in need of wholesale revision precisely because of its incoherence, largely due to its religious roots, in my 2004 JSCOPE paper, “Worthy and Unworthy Wars.”

Habermas helpfully makes the distinction between negative and positive freedom in his article on religion in the public sphere.  Basically, negative freedom is the freedom from constraints, and positive freedom is the freedom to act according to one’s own ideas.  Living in a liberal democracy entails being willing to restrict our positive freedom (acting the way we want) so that we can maximize our negative freedom (having constraints, infringements, and impediments to acting removed).  The Enlightenment founders of democracies privileged negative over positive freedom.  The U.S. Bill of Rights (last in our Constitution but first in almost every other constitution) focuses on protections that are liberties of the negative kind.  However, when religionists want to have their own view of morality imposed on the rest of society, they are attempting to maximize their own positive liberty in the public forum at the expense of the negative liberty of others in the background culture.  The principles that ground the religionist view on this subject (listed on the March for Life website) rests on rationale that non-believers have no reason to accept, such as their idea that life begins at conception or that every embryo is ensouled.  The religionists already right now have negative liberty because nobody is forcing them to have abortions—they already can lead religiously integrated lives—and they have positive liberty as well because they can choose not to have abortions themselves.  If they were to reverse Roe v. Wade, on the other hand, they would threaten the negative liberty of others, constraining others who may want to make their own choice, thereby depriving others of leading integrated lives.  I do not expect that religionists will accept this distinction, but if they do not then that helps to explain why the logic of the stare decisis in this matter escapes them.  Both Rawls and Habermas argue strongly that religion and state should be separated.  Rawls says:  “The reasons for the separation of church and sate are these, among others:  It protects religion from the state and the state from religion; it protects citizens from their churches and citizens from one another.  It does this by protecting the freedom to change one’s faith.  Heresy and apostasy are not crimes.”[5]  And Habermas says in essence when considering what some advocate as religious competition in the state, that “it is unclear why under this premise the political community should not at any time be in danger simply of disintegrating into religious struggle.”[6]

            What should we think about the relationship between religion and politics in today’s world?  There is little doubt that there is a strong relationship between the two—religion and politics—given the actual strong hold that religion has on the world.  But the important question here is what the relationship ought to be, not necessarily what it actually is.  Religiously motivated terrorism has over the past couple of decades raised our consciousness so that we are now aware of the potential danger of horrific violence brought about when religious fundamentalism animates political action, on the part of both state and non-state actors.  Conditions exist in which a dangerous proliferation of non-state and non-church actors has emerged on the world scene.  We are also very concerned about state-sponsored religion in certain parts of the world as well.  For example, we worry that the Iraqi constitution cannot separate itself from a religious foundation, just as we worry about the same reality in Iran.

But if we can worry about the influence of religion on politics in other parts of the world, why are we not similarly worried about the influence of religion on politics at home.  We used to think about the relationship between church and state, and the debate used to be about whether or not they should be separated.  With the advent of the Enlightenment, church and state were separated, at least in the West, and reason rather than religion suffused politics and political theory so much so that the sociologist Max Weber gave this kind of modernization the name of Occidental Rationalism.[7]  This debate over the separation between church and state has never been more relevant precisely because of the more dangerous forms of violence on the part of religiously motivated non-state actors who act for political goals while representing neither church nor state power.  After all, those who flew airplanes into buildings were men of faith with a political agenda, but they were sponsored neither by a church nor by a state.  The putative legitimacy of religiously motivated political action on the part of the state helps to legitimate the religiously motivated political action on the part of non-state actors.  And so our acceptance of religion entering the political dimension of the state indirectly helps to legitimate religion entering the political motivation of non-state actors.  This connection is analogous to the one Sam Harris makes in The End of Faith that our toleration of religiously motivated rationale on the part of religious moderates in politics helps to legitimate or at least empower the religiously motivated rationale on the part of religious extremists.  We have an external threat, to be sure, but we also have an issue to deal with inside our borders as well.

So, we should also be concerned about the religious influence in the political arena at home.  Religion’s influence on politics in America is so strong today that the question may no longer even be literally couched as the relationship between church and state, first because religion’s grasp far exceeds the institutional organization of any church, and second because not only does religion reach throughout state structures but also has its fingers into the internal and external non-state activities that cross boundaries of all types—sustained by a growing number of what we could call religionists without borders.  Has the metaphor of the “wall of separation” been completely dismantled?  Every branch of government falls under the influence of the religionists.  For while no church as an institution has been established in the United States, religion has become embedded throughout the structures of the state, not only in the background culture but also in the public forum.  While some may deny that this relationship amounts to establishment, it would be hard to deny that there is entanglement.  In order to evaluate this relationship and then to establish what it should be, it may be helpful to look to the debate between the two philosophers on this issue, John Rawls and Jürgen Habermas—we could use some finer distinctions.



[1] John Rawls, Political Liberalism (New York:  Columbia University Press, 1993).  Jürgen Habermas, “Reconciliation Through the Public Use of Reason:  Remarks on John Rawls’s Political Liberalism,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 92, No. 3.  (Mar., 1995), pp. 109-131.  John Rawls, “Reply to Habermas,” The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 92, No. 3.  (Mar., 1995), pp. 109-131, reprinted in Political Liberalism (New York:  Columbia University Press, 2005).  John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited (1997),” reprinted in Political Liberalism (2005).  Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” European Journal of Philosophy 14:1 (Polity, 2006).

[2] John Rawls, Political Liberalism, p. 11.

[3] John Rawls, “Reply to Habermas,” Political Liberalism (2005), p. 382.

[4] Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” p. 9.

[5] John Rawls, “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited,” Political Liberalism (2005), p. 476.

[6] Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” p. 12.

[7] “The European States appear to keep moving forward alone on that path which, ever since the two constitutional revolutions of the late 18th century, they had trodden side by side with the United States.  The significance of religions used for political ends has meanwhile grown the world over.  Against this background, the split within the West is rather perceived as if Europe were isolating itself from the rest of the world.  Seen in terms of world history, Max Weber’s ‘Occidental Rationalism’ now appears to be the actual deviation.”  Jürgen Habermas, “Religion in the Public Sphere,” p. 2.