Skip to main content

Secondary navigation:

Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religion and the Divided American Republic: Rawls' Fault?

luncheon colloquium

bronze statue lady justice

R. Ward Holder, St. Anselm College
Peter Josephson, St. Anselm College

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

RSVP required. Click here to register.  WAIT LIST ONLY


Abstract: 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.


photo of 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).

headshot of 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.

readmore buttonreadmore button
audio buttonaudio
photos buttonPhotos




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.