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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Religion and the Divided American Republic: Rawls' Fault?


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.