University of Notre Dame

Religious Political Arguments, Accessibility, and Democratic Deliberation

June 16, 2023

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Paul Billingham*

Christian critics of liberalism, and especially of contemporary public-reason liberalism, often argue that it objectionably excludes religious voices form the public square, by requiring citizens to bracket their religious convictions when they engage in democratic deliberation.  In response, liberals often deny that their views have this implication.  Many public-reason liberal theorists are “inclusivists,” who permit religious contributions to deliberation.

Yet even inclusivists provide little reason to think that religious political arguments can be persuasive or fruitful.  After all, they tend to see religious reasons as inaccessible to others, due to relying on beliefs, values, and methods of reasoning that others do not share.  Other citizens are seemingly unable to assess their validity, critically engage with them, or be persuaded by them.

This Article challenges this view.  It seeks to show that other citizens can meaningfully engage with religious political arguments, such that those arguments can play a productive and persuasive role within public deliberation and in ways that can ultimately shape the content of laws.  All of this can be true even if religious arguments do not meet the standard of accessibility required to qualify as public reasons.  To make this case, I discuss two arguments from Christian theologians.

The Article speaks to two audiences.  First, it shows that liberals (including public-reason liberals) should positively welcome religious arguments within democratic deliberation.  Liberalism, on its own terms, should be more open to religious reasoning than is commonly assumed.  Second, this shows that Christian critics of liberalism can be answered, on this point at least.


     Christian critics of liberalism have long argued that it objectionably excludes religious voices from the public square, thus cutting politics off from a vital source of moral guidance, motivation, energy, and indeed truth.  It seeks a “naked public square,” divorcing public affairs “from the moral vitalities of the society.”1  It overlooks, or even actively undermines, the institutions that nurture virtues of character that are required for democratic citizenship.

In recent years these criticisms have been particularly focused on “public-reason liberalism,” according to which laws must be justified using reasons that all citizens can accept in order to be legitimate.  For the critics, public reason bypasses citizens’ moral traditions and identities, offering “us ‘reason’ as a pre-determined quantity, ready sliced and ready packaged . . . .  It does not invite us to a discursive engagement as human thinkers with other human thinkers on matters of common concern.”2  Instead, it demands that religious citizens “bracket” their religious convictions when they engage in democratic deliberation, and thus “severs many citizens’ deepest religious or moral commitments from their political deliberations and actions.”3  Further, compliance with a demand not to base one’s political advocacy and actions upon one’s religious convictions would itself violate the religious convictions of many, and thus undermine their integrity.4  After all, many believers “are inescapably entangled in the belief that the moral truths of religion have a universal and public validity.”5  Such a demand also threatens to close off vital paths to realized citizenship, by undercutting the role that churches play in providing information, civic skills, and motivation for active citizenship.6

A common response to these objections is to deny that liberalism excludes religion from public life in the way that they suppose.  For example, Patrick Neal carefully examines the various nuances of John Rawls’s position and concludes that his “doctrine of public reason places no real restriction” on the use of religious political arguments.7  As I explain further below, many public-reason theorists are “inclusivists,” who permit citizens to offer religious reasons within public deliberation.

But even those who permit religious contributions to democratic deliberation often provide little reason to think that they can be persuasive or fruitful.  After all, they tend to see religious reasons as inaccessible.  Religious reasons are based on beliefs and values that others do not share.  As a result, other citizens—whether nonreligious or adherents to other religions—are unable to assess their validity, critically engage with them, or see them as having normative force.  Religious reasons cannot advance debate or provide arguments that others can respond to, grapple with, or be persuaded by.  The strongest form of this claim, pressed by Richard Rorty, is that religious contributions to deliberation are “conversation-stopper[s].”8

The aim of this Article is to challenge this view.  I seek to show that nonreligious citizens (and those of other religions) can meaningfully and fruitfully engage with religious arguments.  Such arguments can play a productive role within public deliberation—and in ways that can ultimately shape the content of laws.  I make this case by considering two arguments from Christian theologians: Nigel Biggar’s argument against legalizing euthanasia and Luke Bretherton’s defense of a cap on interest rates on unsecured personal loans.  I argue that non-Christian citizens can understand these arguments, critically engage with them, and even be persuaded by them.  This can affect what laws are enacted, by influencing other citizens’ views and the policies they support.

This Article seeks to speak to two audiences.  First, Christian (and other) critics of liberalism.  I respond to those critics somewhat indirectly, by working within the liberal paradigm, in order to explore the extent to which it can be open to religious reasoning.  I argue that liberalism, on its own terms, can be much more open in this regard than is commonly assumed by its critics.  Indeed, liberals have reason to welcome the kinds of theologically grounded contributions to public life that Christians often wish to make.  This suggests that, on this point at least, the critics can be answered.  This builds on previous work in which I have explored the possibility of a rapprochement between Rawlsian political liberalism and Christian political theology.9

Second, liberal theorists.  Public-reason theorists often use accessibility as the standard for determining what qualifies as a “public reason”—and thus a reason that can permissibly be used within the justification of laws.  Even if this view is correct, and even if religious reasons are not accessible in the relevant sense, my argument shows that they can still play a positive role in deliberation, and even influence what laws are enacted, consistent with this public-reason view.  I thus offer a novel justification of an “inclusivist” position.  I expand upon these points in the next Part.

The argument also speaks to liberal theorists of democratic deliberation more generally, whether or not they endorse public-reason liberalism.  The question of what role religious reasons can play within deliberation and decisionmaking is relevant for all democratic theorists.  Even those who reject the requirements of public reason might still doubt that religious reasons can play a productive role, on the grounds that they are inaccessible.  My argument responds to those doubts.

Various other theorists have argued that citizens can, and even should, engage with one another’s comprehensive doctrines or conceptions of the good—including religious conceptions—within democratic deliberation.10  But they have not usually offered any detailed explanation of how this is actually possible or could be fruitful.  Again, the concern about the inaccessibility of religious arguments looms over these proposals.  I seek to fill this gap by examining in some detail the possibilities for engagement with, and persuasion by, Biggar’s and Bretherton’s arguments.

Three further introductory comments.  First, my argument is made from within political theory.  While I make empirical claims, I approach this topic as a political theorist, and thus am primarily interested in showing what is theoretically justifiable and possible.  The success (or otherwise) of my argument thus does not turn on showing that other citizens have in fact engaged with Biggar’s and Bretherton’s arguments in the ways that I discuss.  It turns on this being something that well-intentioned and motivated citizens could do—i.e., on the apparent inaccessibility of religious arguments not preventing this from happening.

Second, my strategy of making my argument by examining two specific examples of religious political argumentation obviously has limits.  Perhaps these two examples have particular features that enable the kind of engagement that I will discuss, which other religious arguments lack.  This is certainly possible, and something that might be explored in future research.  But absent some compelling reason to think otherwise, the examples I explore are illustrative of my broader claim regarding religious political arguments.  If nothing else, they are sufficient to show that religious arguments need not be conversation-stoppers.

Third, while I show that religious arguments can play a productive role within democratic deliberation, I do not mean to imply that religious citizens tend only to offer such arguments.  They often offer nonreligious argumentation, either alone or alongside religious arguments.11  And they can of course also accept, and engage with, nonreligious arguments.

The rest of this Article proceeds as follows.  Part I explains the place of the idea of accessibility within public-reason liberalism, and how my argument relates to that background.  Part II presents Biggar’s argument against euthanasia and identifies various ways that non-Christians could engage with, and be persuaded by, it.  Part III does the same for Bretherton’s argument concerning usury.  While those Parts primarily focus on interpersonal deliberation, Part IV considers the implications of my argument at the systemic level.  The Article then briefly concludes.

Continue reading in the print edition . . .

©2023 Paul Billingham.  Individuals and nonprofit institutions may reproduce and distribute copies of this Article in any format at or below cost, for educational purposes, so long as each copy identifies the author, provides a citation to the Notre Dame Law Review, and includes this provision in the copyright notice.

*Associate Professor of Political Theory, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.  This chapter draws on material from the book Does Faith Belong in Politics?: A Debate (forthcoming 2023), in which I debate the titular question with Marilie Coetsee.  I am grateful to Routledge for permission to use that material.  I also owe thanks to Jonathan Chaplin, Chris Eberle, David Frisch, James Hooks, Maxime Lepoutre, Nathan Chapman, Tom Simpson, Collis Tahzib, Tony Taylor, and Paul Weithman for helpful comments.  Special thanks to Henrik Kugelberg for invaluable research assistance and extensive feedback, and to Nicholas D’Andrea, Meghan Flanigen, Courtney Klaus, Julia Fissore-O’Leary, and the rest of the team at Notre Dame Law Review for their excellent work preparing the paper for publication.

1Richard John Neuhaus, The Vulnerability of the Naked Public Squarein The Ethics of Citizenship: Liberal Democracy and Religious Convictions 327, 336 (J. Caleb Clanton ed., 2009).

2Oliver O’Donovan, Judgment, Tradition and Reason: A Response, 9 Pol. Theology 395, 409 (2008).

3Jonathan Chaplin, Governing Diversity: “Public Judgment” and Religious Pluralityin The Authority of the Gospel: Explorations in Moral and Political Theology in Honor of Oliver O’Donovan 122, 122 (Robert Song & Brent Waters eds., 2015).

4The classic statement of this integrity objection is in Nicholas Wolterstorff, The Role of Religion in Decision and Discussion of Political Issuesin Religion in the Public Square: The Place of Religious Convictions in Political Debate 67, 105 (Robert Audi & Nicholas Wolterstorff eds., 1997).

5Neuhaus, supra note 1, at 336.

6See Paul J. Weithman, Religion and the Obligations of Citizenship 36–66 (2002).  While Weithman is critical of Rawls in this work, he has since become an advocate of the Rawlsian position.  See Paul Weithman, Why Political Liberalism?: On John Rawls’s Political Turn (2010).

7Patrick Neal, Is Political Liberalism Hostile to Religion?in Reflections on Rawls: An Assessment of His Legacy 153, 158 (Shaun P. Young ed., 2009).

8Richard Rorty, Religion as Conversation-Stopper, 3 Common Knowledge 1 (1994), reprinted in Philosophy and Social Hope 168, 171 (1999).

9Paul Billingham, Can Christians Join the Overlapping Consensus? Prospects and Pitfalls for a Christian Justification of Political Liberalism, 47 Soc. Theory & Prac. 519 (2021).  That article did not directly consider the place of religious reasons within democratic deliberation.  My argument in the present Article thus complements that piece and bolsters my conclusion that Christians might well be able to join the Rawlsian “overlapping consensus,” by confronting another prominent barrier to this reconciliation.  However, it is important not to overstate this conclusion.  My previous article identifies various strands of political theology that cannot be so reconciled, and even the reconciliation that I argue is possible contains remaining tensions, as I emphasize in its final section.

10See, e.g., Simone Chambers, Secularism Minus Exclusion: Developing a Religious-Friendly Idea of Public Reason, Good Soc’y, no. 2, 2010, at 16, 19; Mark Cladis, Religion, Secularism, and Democratic Culture, Good Soc’y, no. 2, 2010, at 22, 24; Japa Pallikkathayil, Disagreement and the Duties of Citizenship, 56 Am. Phil. Q. 71, 74–75 (2019).

11For relevant empirical studies, see Steven Kettell, You Can’t Argue with God: Religious Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage in Britain, 61 J. Church & St. 361 (2018); Steven Kettell, How, When, and Why Do Religious Actors Use Public Reason? The Case of Assisted Dying in Britain, 12 Pol. & Religion 385 (2019).