Religion and the Divided American Republic: Rawls' Fault?

Scales of justice image

R. Ward Holder
St. Anselm College

Peter Josephson
St. Anselm College

Date: Monday, October 7, 2019
Time: 12 - 1:15pm
Location: Boisi Center 


Religion in America is almost as divided as the country is polarized. Children are removed from their families and kept in cages. African-American congresswomen are told to go back where they came from. Environmental regulations are slashed. But the divisions, especially among Christians, are as broad as the polarization of the nation’s politics. The Trump administration’s policies have raised the question – what does the religious believer do in the face of such actions? For every mainline Christian or liberal Catholic blogging about the Beatitudes, there is an evangelical Protestant or conservative Catholic singing the praises of the president’s policies. How did we get here?

Politics is about how members of a community manage their differences in public life. It presumes the persistence of difference and faction. John Rawls, the preeminent liberal political thinker of the past generation, believed that two moral powers were essential. Rawls describes these as a capacity for a sense of justice or fairness toward others, and a capacity for one’s own private conception of the good. Yet, where Rawls would address this political problem by developing a thin conception of politics in which the citizen’s deepest values are distinguished from a surface political agreement that enables society to function, Reinhold Niebuhr offers a competing model: the two-fold test of toleration. The test requires citizens to tolerate a diversity of beliefs quite different from their own, while also committing to their own beliefs. Niebuhr’s two-fold test has the explicit purpose of joining contemplation and action, theory and practice, and of developing a shared (and thicker) concept of justice. In this presentation, we discuss how Rawls’ theory of overlapping consensus failed the American experiment – and how Niebuhr’s theory offers a stronger possibility for bridging some of the gaps without eschewing our most deeply held beliefs.

Speaker Bios

R. Ward Holder

R. Ward Holder is a historical and political theologian, and professor of theology at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. He writes on the Reformation, biblical interpretation, and the manner in which religious convictions shape modern politics and political theory. Among other works, he has authored John Calvin and the Grounding of Interpretation: Calvin’s First Commentaries, (Brill, 2006); and has edited A Companion to Paul in the Reformation, (Brill, 2009); and John Calvin in Context, (Cambridge, 2019). Among his political theological efforts he has co-authored, with Peter B. Josephson, The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft (Ashgate, 2012) and Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century, (Lexington, 2018).

Peter Josephson

Peter Josephson is a professor of politics in the department of politics at Saint Anselm College. From 2012 to 2015 he held the Richard L. Bready Chair in Ethics, Economics, and the Common Good. Josephson is the author of The Great Art of Government: Locke's Use of Consent (University Press of Kansas, 2002), and with R. Ward Holder, the co-author of The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr, and the Problem of Christian Statecraft (Ashgate, 2012) and Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century (Lexington, 2018). Josephson’s articles and book chapters include work on Hobbes and Locke, theories of political economy, the political philosophy of Henry Kissinger, as well as works on politics and popular culture. His current research returns to the works of John Locke to explore the relation between philosophy and politics in the liberal regime.

Event Photos

R. Ward Holder and Peter Josephson

R. Ward Holder (left) and Peter Josephson (right) of St. Anselm's College speak about Niebuhr, Rawls, and the American Republic.

Boisi Center event
Boisi Center event
Boisi Center event

Photos by MTS Photography

Event Recap

On October 7, R. Ward Holder and Peter Josephson, both of St. Anselm College and professors of politics and theology, respectively, joined the Boisi Center for a luncheon colloquium to present a talk entitled “Religion and the Divided American Republic: Rawls’ Fault?”

They began their discussion by outlining the two moral principles Rawls believed to be central to a just society: the capacity for a sense of justice and the capacity to hold one’s own private ideas of the good. They outlined the Rawlsian society in which individuals maintain private conceptions of the good that need not impact the expedient politics pursued in public life. Holder and Josephson argued that this understanding of public life is inadequate, in part because it draws a kind of disembodied and ahistorical image of humanity. In Reinhold Niebuhr they find an alternative.

Central to their conception of Niebuhr’s superior proposal for an approach to religion in public life is the two-fold test of toleration. According to this test, one Holds their own individual beliefs while also accepting and listening to those of others. This test’s guidance emphasizes the idea that one should both understand the importance of individual moral convictions and be aware of the individual’s capacity for fallibility. Josephson and Holder argued that this understanding of public engagement is persuasive because it leaves space for religious thought and speech in the public sphere—as distinct from the necessary separation that flows from Rawls—and encourages open dialogue.

At the conclusion of the presentation, a number of insightful questions facilitated the expansion of the audience’s understanding of Niebuhr. Attention was drawn, for example, to the fact that Niebuhr’s two-fold test is one of his more earnest ideas and that in his other works he also possesses a certain pessimistic pragmatism. Additionally, questions explored the meaning and possibility of a true pluralistic democracy as well as the nuances and difficulties of applying Niebuhr’s principles to our current political environment.

Read More


Holder, R. Ward and Peter B. Josephson. The Irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr and the Problem of Christian Statecraft. Surrey, UK: Ashgate, 2012.

Holder, R. Ward and Peter B. Josephson. Reinhold Niebuhr in Theory and Practice: Christian Realism and Democracy in America in the Twenty-First Century. Lexington Books, 2018. 

Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Harvard University Press, 2009. 

Pogge, Thomas W. John Rawls: His Life and Theory of Justice. Oxford University Press, 2007. 

Niebuhr, Reinhold.  Moral Man and Immoral Society.  Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2013.

Sifton, Elisabeth, ed. Reinhold Niebuhr: Major Works on Religion and Politics. New York: Library of America, 2015. 

McKeogh, Colm. The Political Realism of Reinhold Neibuhr: A Pragmatic Approach to Just War. Springer, 2016.


Bok, P. Mackenzie. “To the Mountaintop Again: The Early Rawls and Post-Protestant Ethics in Postwar America”. Modern Intellectual History 14, no. 1 (Spring 2017): 153-185. 

Carcieri, Martin. “Rawls and Reparations.” Michigan Journal of Race and Law 15, no. 2 (Spring 2010): 267-316.

Cavanaugh, William T. “A Nation with the Church’s Soul: Richard John Neuhaus and Reinhold Niebuhr on Church and Politics.” Political Theology 14, no. 4 (January 1, 2013): 386-396.

Li, Zhuoyao. “The Public Conception of Morality in John Rawls’ Political Liberalism.” Ethics & Global Politics 9, no. 1 (January 1, 2016).

Simmons, Aaron J. and Kevin Carnahan. “When Liberalism Is Not Enough: Political Theology after Reinhold Niebuhr and Emmanuel Levinas”. Religions 10, no. 7 (Spring 2019): 439.

In the News

Today, division in the socio-political sphere is more present than ever.  Any number of headlines seen today illustrate this. Income disparity is reaching all-time highs.  Foreign-born families are suffering from immigration policies that have led to a shockingly low influx of migrants. And in September, Congress launched an impeachment inquiry against the president.  As the chasm widens, the philosophies of John Rawls and Reinhold Neibhur are especially relevant to help us navigate this difficult, morally-confusing time.  Join us Monday, October 7th for a conversation on these thinkers and their lasting insights as the Boisi Center hosts St. Anselm College’s R. Ward Holder and Peter Josephson for a luncheon colloquium on the topic.