John RawlsA mere 50 years
ago, many social changes would have seemed not just wrong, but literally
unthinkable. The latest one is same-sex marriage, which has been legalised in Massachusetts,
Iowa and Vermont as well as countries like the Netherlands and Portugal. The
argument is always the same: diversity and tolerance. But how did diversity and
tolerance supplant centuries of tradition, law, and religious belief?

If I had to point
the finger at one person, it would be John Rawls.

Rawls is widely
recognized as one of the leading political philosophers of the 20th century. He
was born in Baltimore in 1921 and went to Princeton as an undergraduate. He
considered entering the Episcopal priesthood, but lost his faith after his
experiences fighting in the Pacific theatre in World War II. Eventually he
ended up at Harvard where he taught for more than 30 years. Amongst his
students are some of the leading names in American philosophy — Martha
Nussbaum, Thomas Nagel, Onora O’Neill, Christine Korsgaard, and Susan Neiman.

Rawls’s incredibly
influential first book was A Theory of Justice published in 1971. Nearly 600 pages
long, it has been translated into 27 languages. Only ten years after its
publication a bibliography of articles on the author had more than 2500 entries.
Personally, he was a modest and unassuming man but he became a one-man academic

In A Theory of
, Rawls attempted to derive the fundamental principles of justice for a
liberal, democratic political order from nothing but “our own considered
judgments.” The first task he set himself was to express what the citizens of a
liberal democracy already believe implicitly. To do this we must imagine
ourselves deliberating under a “veil of ignorance,” that is, with no knowledge
of the individuating particulars of history and biology, no knowledge of the
age, sex, class, wealth, status, philosophical and religious views, etc. of our
deliberating partners.

In this “original
position,” we would discover the right principles of justice to which we could
consent as free and equal citizens in the society in which we live. 

Rawls’s critics
pointed out that this notion of justice was the product of a particular,
comprehensive worldview. Specifically, they discerned in his ideas a Kantian
conception of human rationality and moral autonomy which is not shared by all
citizens in today’s liberal democracies.

In his 1993
response, Political Liberalism, Rawls claimed to have articulated a theory of
justice which is genuinely universal and acceptable from our present,
pluralistic, political perspective. It is “political, not metaphysical,” that
is, absolutely detached from any particular comprehensive doctrine, religion or

The “new” Rawls contended
that the principles of justice governing the coercive force of the government
in a liberal democratic society like America must be based upon principles of
justice to which every citizen could freely consent.

Since we do not
agree about what the good for man is, these principles have to be derived from
a political and not from a metaphysical conception of justice. It would not be
a good for a powerful elite to establish utilitarianism, or Marxism, or
Judaism, or Protestantism, Catholicism or even secular humanism as the official
religion from which the principles of civil justice would flow.

appears to deal with the fact of religious pluralism fairly and
justly. Rawls assures us that it poses no threat to the integrity of religious
belief: “Political liberalism does not question that many political and moral
judgments of certain specified kinds are correct and it views many of them as
reasonable.  Nor does it question
the possible truth of affirmations of faith.  Above all, it does not argue that we should be hesitant and
uncertain, much less skeptical, about our own beliefs.”

However, despite
Rawls’s good intentions, his influence has been pernicious because it separates
justice in society from the truth about man. It is fundamentally an attempt to shape
an orderly society based on moral relativism. To show this let me examine the
three main features of Rawls’s system: the “priority of the right over the
good,” “reasonableness,” and “the inevitability of ideological pluralism.”
These ideas are now firmly ensconced in American politics and culture.

The priority of the right over the good

Here is what Rawls
means by the priority of the right over
the good: “We should not attempt to give form to our life by first looking
at the good independently defined… For the self is prior to the ends which are
affirmed by it… We should then reverse the relation between the right and the
good proposed by teleological doctrines and view the right as prior.”

If members of
society accept this, Rawls believes, the danger of religious persecution,
discrimination, or any other societal threat to one’s religious identity and
integrity vanishes.

However, this is
morally disastrous for individuals. Could one hold both the religious identity
of Christian (or Muslim or Jew) and also the moral identity of an autonomous
self who must “freely choose” the meaning of his existence? This would be a
kind of schizophrenia. Christians and Jews believe that God loved us first, and
so are morally obliged to respond to this love. They cannot choose otherwise
and still consider themselves good persons. The theist’s “self,” then, is not
chosen in arbitrary freedom, but recognized in grateful love.


The second major
component of Rawls’s system is what he calls “reasonableness.” This is the
primary public political virtue and the necessary complement to the primary,
private moral virtue of the “right over the good.” Rawls writes: “What
justifies a conception of justice is not its being true to an order antecedent
to and given by us, but its congruence with our deeper understanding of
ourselves and our aspirations, and our realization that, given our history and
the traditions embedded in our public life, it is the most reasonable doctrine
for us”.

Rawls admits that
there may very well be a God’s-eye view of things which is more ordered to
justice than our strictly political (not metaphysical) conception of justice. But
to establish this kind of revealed order in a religiously-pluralist society
would be “unreasonable.” Even if the vast majority of citizens believed in it,
it would still not be compatible with the political priority of the right. The
priority of the right over the good is a political non-negotiable.

persons, as Rawls puts it, “are not moved by the general good as such but the
desire for its own sake a social world in which they, as free and equal, can
cooperate with others on terms all can accept.” He continues: “A fundamental
difficulty is that since under reasonable pluralism the religious good of
salvation cannot be the common good of all citizens, the political conception
must employ, instead of that good,
political conceptions such as liberty and equality”.

What are we to
make of this? For a “reasonable” citizen it might seem virtuous to proclaim the
right of citizens to deny their religious faith, but vicious to proclaim the
absolute good of unwavering adherence to it. It would seem more courageous to
shout from the rooftops that the citizen who apostatises from his religion is
still “reasonable,” than to shout the truth that God exists! 

Rawls might
respond by saying that one is not required to hold the priority of the right
over the good in one’s private life but only in political life. Reasonableness is
required of a person a citizen, not as a religious believer. These values need
not have any place at all, let alone priority, in one’s sacred books or

Here is an even more
difficult question. Is a theist who believes that our nation should truly be
under God reasonable? A consistent follower of Rawls would probably say No. If
the right has priority over the good, a commitment to God’s commandments, in
both private and public life, is “unreasonable.”

The inevitability of ideological pluralism

In the Rawlsian
framework, the right-over-the-good is the irrefutable, theoretical first
principle; the desire for consensus is the hallmark of a secular saint; and a
belief in the inevitability of religious pluralism is the sign of the true

Rawls writes: “The
diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral
doctrines found in modern democratic societies is not a mere historical
condition that may soon pass away; it is a permanent feature of the public
culture of democracy… This pluralism is not seen as a disaster but rather as
the natural outcome of the activities of human reason under enduring free
institutions… A continuing shared understanding on one comprehensive religious,
philosophical, or moral doctrine can only be maintained by the oppressive use
of state power.”

Rawls is convinced
that religious pluralism is the inevitable condition of a society that is just,
that permits and promotes religious and political freedom. The absence of an
agreed truth is the touchstone of a just political order and the triumph of the
right over the good. To stay “reasonable” one would have to reject being “under
God” in any real way—past, present, and future. 

It seems to me
that it is difficult to square Rawlsian pluralism with Christianity.

Surely if the
Church could keep its members united on a specific conception of the good
without unjust coercion for 2,000 years, a political order, if constituted by a
vast majority of Christian citizens, could do the same. But once one denies a
priori the possibility of justly managed, societal religious unity in truth,
the historical fact of the Church’s religious unity begins to smell unjust. A
Christian Rawlsian would feel obliged to subvert this unity and to reject the traditional
Christian project of evangelisation.

A mirror of injustice

In a society which
is becoming increasingly diverse, intellectuals are grasping for a guide to
negotiate the reefs of potential conflict. For many of them, John Rawls serves
as a pilot. He is often quoted by politicians and lawyers, and even by judges. I
think that Judge Anthony Kennedy, a Catholic member of the United States
Supreme Court, gave a good example of Rawlsian thinking in public in his
opinion in Planned Parenthood vs. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the
right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe,
and of the mystery of human life.” American academic J. Judd Owen unmasks
Rawlsianism for what it really is: “The irony is that the proposal of the
so-called religiously-neutral state as the only way to deal with deep pluralism
itself establishes a religion and a set of values. This is the religion of

Thaddeus J.
Kozinski is assistant professor of humanities and philosophy at Wyoming
Catholic College and the author of The Political Problem of Religious
Pluralism: And Why Philosophers Can’t Solve It