Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy



Major Professor

David Reidy

Committee Members

E.J. Coffman, Adam Cureton, Anthony Nownes


This dissertation explores the conflict between religion and Rawls’s liberalism. Often Rawls’s critics contend that the idea of public reason is hostile to religion or unfriendly to citizens of faith. I argue that this concern is misguided. A careful analysis of Rawls’s work demonstrates that he is far more welcoming to religion than is sometimes claimed. To defend this thesis I put forward what I take to be the best interpretation of Rawls’s idea of public reason, one that I think is immune to most of the standard objections.

Nevertheless, there are some lingering challenges to public reason that need some attention. In particular, three types of objections deserve consideration—i.e., the fairness objection, the denial-of-truth objection and the integrity objection. In every case I contend that Rawls’s critics either misunderstand him or else exaggerate the harmful implications of public reason. Consequently, I think that public reason is not an appropriate target of attack.

This is not the end of the debate however. It is sometimes claimed that Rawls’s Political Liberalism is just another attempt at reducing religion to irrelevancy and elevating secularism within public life. For Christians, this is both an existential threat and a kind of humanistic hubris. At the heart of their complaint is the claim that Rawls’s liberalism crowds out some religious ways of life. I call this the problem of homogenization. I argue, however, that any political order will have homogenizing implications. So, this objection cannot stand on its own.

I think the real conflict between Rawls and some Christians is best explained by the spirit of their respective projects. In particular, Rawls shares an Enlightenment commitment to the possibility of progress, even the historical perfection of our natures without divine assistance. Whereas the spirit of many Christian faiths maintains that our nature is of its own corrupt and this world can be redeemed only through divine intervention. The distance between these presuppositions seems to make overlapping consensus questionable. Even if overlapping consensus is not forthcoming, I submit that a constitutional consensus is sufficient for fostering enough political stability and social unity between citizens.


Please note the following errors found by the author:

1. Due to an editing mistake an important part of footnote 93 was omitted from the uploaded version of this dissertation. The full footnote should read: See Neal 2009, pp. 159-60. Also see Vallier, Kevin, “Liberal Politics and Public Faith: A Philosophical Reconciliation.” PhD diss., University of Arizona, 2011. Both Neal and Vallier attempt to critically engage these objections. I draw on both these sources in addressing these challenges to public reason. I especially want to thank Vallier for bringing Neal’s work here to my attention.

2. Due to a formatting error, a footnote was excluded from the end of the first full paragraph on page 1. This note should say: Others have argued this point, though perhaps less forcefully than I hope to here. For example, see Sterba, James, P. “Rawls and Religion” in The Idea of Political Liberalism, edited by Victoria Davion and Clark Wolf. New York: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., pp. 34-45; and most notability Patrick Neal, “Is Public Reason Innocuous?” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy vol. 11 (2008), 131-152. See also his essay “Is Political Liberalism Hostile to Religion” in Reflections on Rawls, edited by Shaun P. Young. Burlington: Ashgate, (2009): 153 – 177. Neal 2008 and 2009 have been most helpful in developing what I think is the best interpretation of Rawls. I follow his approach to discussing this topic.

3. After Table 1 on page 15 a footnote was omitted when editing the table. It should say: Cf. Neal 2009, p. 154. I build on Neal’s work there.

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