Wolterstorff and Volf on Religious Persons in Liberal Democracy

Current Dominant Position: Public Policy should be based on “secular morality” or “public reasons” on important matters

John Rawls’ “Political Liberalism” position:

  • One of the core principles of the liberal democracy is that all persons are to treat each others as free and equal.
  • Almost all legislation is coercive in one way or another
  • The reasons that I have for a piece of coercive legislation should be the reasons that you also can accept. If I support it for my reasons and you can’t, then I am not treating you as free and equal. I’m viewing my position for it as more important than yours and this violates the “free and equal” value or ideal.
  • In our religiously pluralistic society religious reasons by their nature are disqualified from this.
  • What’s left then would be reasons that we can all accept. Public reasons, those inherent in the consensus of liberal democracy would be the only reasons we could appeal to when debating important matters. Another terms for this would be “secular morality”.

Wolterstorff’s Three Objections

1. Idealized people vs. Actual People: There’s a deep paradox in this position. Of the actual people who are supposed to be participating in this process we only know a few of them and therefore only a few of their reasons. Moreover we also know that some of these people have really poor or lousy reasons for things (our judgment of course). Everybody who holds this position notes that we have to add some sort of qualifier to it or we’d be stymied when we tried to actually arrive at some legislation.

We add some idealizing conditions like “offer reasons that if citizens were rational or well informed would accept…”

If you think that there are reasons they would accept and on the basis of this you pass this coercive legislation then in fact you are coercing these ACTUAL people (who are not the idealized ones who were the basis of which you acted upon) [pvk: What you’ve done then is violated your “free and equal” value.]

Book by Robert Jones “Liberalism’s Troubled Search for Equality” on the debate that preceded the passage in favor of physician assisted suicide. He notes that the debate was highly argued, not just sound bytes, and what he discovers is that there is no such thing as “secular morality” there are “secular moralitIES”. Some of the people were utilitarians, some were Ayn Rand’s egoists, some were romantic expressivists, a whole bunch of religious moralities, some natural law theorists, others Protestant divine command, nobody saying anything so flat-footed saying “God told me assisted suicide was wrong so I’m against it…”

There isn’t anything like a shared morality or there aren’t enough.

You aren’t going to get to the answer on physician assisted suicide from the idea of liberal democracy. If I thought there was such a thing as a thick enough public morality or a shared public reason, use it whenever possible but there isn’t such a thing.

2. A religious person ought to have a right to express their point of view and be a religious person in their own way. A religious person can’t think about important matters of public policy without thinking in these terms and a foundational aspect of liberal democracy is affording all peoples the opportunity to express themselves and engage in the public discussion. To silence people on the basis of their religious commitments would be to violate this tenet of liberal democracy.

3. A public good argument (as compared to #2 which was a rights argument) Is there a social value to allow people to express this? (Volf)

(W) Yes, two things happen when they do it in the right way.

a. When I listen to something from another religious perspective I learn something that I couldn’t learn if I had asked them to communicate it only in a secular way.

MLK Jr.’s speeches were typically Christian, lots of people were inspired by them without converting to Christianity. If we muffle the distinct takes we’ve seriously impoverished ourselves.

b. Allowing these other voices into the public debate forces them also to not just shout, but to think through their positions with greater care, to articulate it. There was a process in Oregon. The first statements were pretty primitive but the process helped the different sides improve their own arguments and positions.

What Conditions are Necessary to host Wolterstorff’s vision of the process? (Volf’s question)

(Volf) If you let the religious people speak their minds are you risking violence and war? What conditions do we need for this to be a fruitful process?

(Wolterstorff) Democracy is a richer concept than just voting. A curious feature of the Rawl’s position is that they talk very little about votes. The goal is consensus because only consensus would legitimate liberal democracy. Why? Because absent consensus someone is being coerced and in that case you’re violating “free and equal”.

W thinks a fair vote is the essence of democracy. Then what’s essential is that the losers are willing to live with losing the vote. They aren’t deeply angry. They don’t try to upset the process. They’re willing to lose the vote on the assumption that they won’t lose every vote.

Tolerance is key. They will continue to work with the others on the project of their liberal democracy.

“When I watch Iraq from a distance it looks like it is constantly teetering on the edge of the losers not willing to lose the vote.” Always the threat of pulling out. That’s the deepest menace to a democracy.

(Volf) So there has to be sense in the general public that we have a stake in the democratic process. If you have a deeply divided context could you still have this robust public voice?

(Wolterstorff) Probably not. The history of how liberal democracy emerged in the west is that “it will take too much blood to continue the current policy”, in other words without this we’re endlessly slaughtering each other. Western Europeans began to say “what else?”

(Volf) They had practical reasons to embrace it. Could it also be true that if religious voices are not allowed to be heard the tendency might be turn into politically aggressive fundamentalists?

(Volf) To what degree is this dependent upon the soil it had in order to thrive? Is it transportable?

(W) I don’t think any of us know the answer to this question? Is there something peculiar to Judeo-Christian tradition? It’s not clear that democracy can’t flourish in another context.

1. It did in fact emerge in a crisis situation where Europe was full of slaughter.

2. US liberal democracy is most articulate by the highly articulate founders here. Here it is a rights based democracy. Lots of good historians have sown that the idea of natural rights were articulated in the canon law (church law) lawyers in the 12th century. They began talking about the rights of aliens, the rights of the poor, etc.

Suppose you have a culture that does not think in terms of rights, does not think on terms of “violating somebody”, there are moral cultures where rights plays no role. Would it be possible for liberal democracy to emerge in a culture where the idea of “rights” is absent.

The Africaaners in the 70s refused to talk in terms of rights. They only wanted to talk about charity… How can you have liberal democracy when you’re thinking along those lines?

Islam in fact has all the potential for a system of rights.

What about Exclusivist Claims Within Religions?

(V) What might need to happen to a religious faith so that it has a faith in liberal democracy? How do you think about exclusivist religious claims and the need for pluralism as a political project?

(W) Most religions of course think that they have it right, naturally. You can say that and say that it’s profoundly wrong to say that we need to put other religious peoples under coercion or to keep them as second class citizens then no matter what religion they happen to hold then I can’t do bad things to them without violating my own relationship with God if they are image bearers.

(V) A certain sense of religious transformation that needs to happen that is authentically religious.

(W) For everyone at least in the Abrahamic religions that human beings are, one and all, beloved by God and created in the image of God. That’s not an alien view to the religion but are within your own religion.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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3 Responses to Wolterstorff and Volf on Religious Persons in Liberal Democracy

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