Etikk i praksis. Nordic Journal of Applied Ethics (2018), 12(2), 143–157

In Defense of Moderate Inclusivism: Revisiting Rawls and Habermas on Religion in the Public Sphere

Jonas Jakobsen* & Kjersti Fjørtoft**

*Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, UiT The Arctic University of Norway,

**Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education, UiT The Arctic University of Norway,


The paper discusses Rawls’ and Habermas’ theories of deliberative democracy, focusing on the question of religious reasons in political discourse. Whereas Rawls as well as Habermas defend a fully inclusivist position on the use of religious reasons in the ‘background culture’ (Rawls) or ‘informal public sphere’ (Habermas), we defend a moderately inclusivist position. Moderate inclusivism welcomes religiously inspired contributions to public debate, but it also makes normative demands on public argumentation beyond the ‘public forum’ (Rawls) or ‘formal public sphere’ (Habermas). In particular, moderate inclusivism implies what we call a ‘conversational translation proviso’ according to which citizens have a duty to supplement religious with proper political arguments if – but only if – they are asked to do so by their co-discussants. This position, we argue, is more in line with the deeper intuitions behind Rawls’ political liberalism and Habermas’ deliberative model than is the fully inclusivist alternative.


Keywords: conversational translation proviso, deliberative democracy, ethics of citizenship, Habermas, moderate inclusivism, public reason, Rawls



Cultural and religious pluralism is a permanent feature of modern democracies. However, in spite of this diversity of worldviews and ways of life, a stable democracy depends on the citizens’ ability and willingness to agree on basic political principles. Thus, in order to make possible an overlapping consensus on ‘constitutional essentials’ and ‘matters of basic justice’, Rawls’ ‘idea of public reason’ (IPR) states that members of the ‘public forum’ (say, judges and lawmakers) should be willing to supplement ‘comprehensive’ arguments with ‘properly political’ ones. This means that public officials may present, say, a Christian or Islamic argument about the correct interpretation of constitutional principles, but they have a duty to supplement such arguments with other arguments, which do not presuppose the acceptance of any specific worldview – religious or secular. At the same time, Rawls argues that the IPR does not apply in the ‘background’ culture, say, in public media and civil society.

This paper defends a revised version of Rawls’ IPR, which we call moderate inclusivism. Moderate inclusivism distinguishes itself from Rawls’ IPR on three accounts. First, it makes moral demands on political argumentation not just in the public forum but also in the ‘background culture’. Second, it focuses on debates about legal coercion in general, not just on debates about ‘constitutional essentials’ and ‘matters of basic justice’. Third, and most notably, moderate inclusivism implies what we call a ‘conversational translation proviso’: We owe our co-deliberators to supplement comprehensive arguments with political ones if – but only if – we are asked to do so by them. Having outlined these basic features of moderate inclusivism, we defend our revised model against Jürgen Habermas’ ‘asymmetry argument’, according to which to the informal public sphere must be fully inclusive in order to equally include religious citizens on fair terms. In a final section, we argue that, on a closer look, Habermas’ deliberative model is more in line with moderate inclusivism than with the fully inclusivist alternative, and we point to developments in Habermas’ more recent writings, suggesting that he has moved in the direction of moderate inclusivism.

Rawls' idea of public reason 

The motive behind Rawls’ reorientation from A Theory of Justice to Political Liberalism was his discovery of the implications of the “fact of reasonable pluralism” for political philosophy (Rawls 2005: xxxvii; also 1987: 1). Whereas Theory relied partly on the moral doctrines of a ‘comprehensive liberalism,’ Rawls later came to believe that a conception of justice for modern democratic societies must be political in the sense that “there is some hope of its gaining an overlapping consensus in which it is affirmed by the opposing religious, philosophical and moral doctrines” (1987: 1). In order to make such a consensus possible, Rawls argues for certain restrictions on the form and content of public political deliberation. His own interpretation of these restrictions and duties is articulated as an “idea of public reason” (IPR), which reflects our “duty of civility” to other citizens (1997: 769). This duty involves, among other things, “a willingness to listen to others and a fair-mindedness in deciding when accommodations to their views should be reasonably made” (2005: 217). Most notably, it implies that participants in political advocacy attempt to justify their proposals on coercive laws in terms that other citizens can come to accept “as consistent with their freedom and equality” (2005: 218). On this account, political arguments that rely solely and directly on the unquestionable authority of the Bible or on the prophet Mohammad would be considered uncivil because they fail to include citizens with different faiths, philosophies or worldviews.
The IPR applies first to the “public political forum” (1997: 767), by which Rawls refers to the discourse of judges, government officials and candidates for public office. As an ideal, it also applies to ordinary citizens, though “not in the same way, or so strictly” (2005: 215). For citizens, the IPR applies especially when they are voting on fundamental political questions or evaluating candidates for office. In such situations, they are to think of themselves as if they were legislators: “all reasonable citizens think of themselves ideally as if they were legislators following public reason” (1997: 770). Rawls also states that the IPR holds for citizens “when they engage in political advocacy in the public forum, and thus for members of political parties and for candidates in their campaigns and for other groups who support them” (2005: 215).

Even though the IPR is not limited to religious doctrines, many critics believe that it wrongly excludes and disadvantages religious citizens. Wolterstorff states, for example, “What Rawls tells me is that if I step outside my own religious community and enter the public debate about the treatment of the poor in our society, I must at no point appeal to my religious convictions” (1997: 172). In a similar vein, Jeffrey Stout argues that Rawls has contributed to a conservative religious backlash against liberalism: “Many religious people have grown frustrated at the unwillingness of the liberal elite to hear them out on their own terms” (Stout 2004: 63).1

In order to meet objections like these, Rawls included various forms of ‘nonpublic public discourse’ in his model of public deliberation, such as “declaration” and “witnessing” (1997: 786-788). ‘Declaration’ means that citizens declare their (religious or non-religious) comprehensive doctrines to others even though they do not expect others to share them. The aim of doing so is to reassure co-citizens who hold different doctrines that their own doctrine supports the values of a reasonable political conception of justice, and thus to strengthen the “ties of civic friendship” (1997: 786). As examples, Rawls mentions the introduction of religious argumentation in the American civil rights movement and the issue of public support for church schools. ‘Witnessing,’ on the other hand, refers to situations in which citizens disclose their comprehensive views in order to protest specific institutions, policies or enacted legislation, as when the Quakers express the religious basis of their pacifism (1997: 786). This demonstrates that Rawls considers some types of religious argumentation to be perfectly legitimate, or even desirable, in public deliberation. Many types of religious argumentation are not justificatory but rather explanatory: they explain to others why believers endorse or criticize specific policies or principles, but they do not pretend to be authoritative also for non-believers.

Rawls also responded to inclusivist critics by explaining that the IPR does not apply in what he calls the ‘background culture’ and the ‘public political culture.’ When Rawls refers to the background culture he has in mind “churches and associations of all kinds, and institutions of learning at all levels, especially universities and professional schools, scientific and other societies” (1997: 768). Furthermore, the background culture applies to “media of any kind,” such as “TV and radio and much else” (e.g., the internet), which are supposed to mediate between the background culture and the “public political culture” (1997: 767):
The idea of public reason does not apply to the background culture with its many forms of nonpublic reason nor to media of any kind. Sometimes those who appear to reject the idea of public reason actually mean to assert the need for full and open discussion in the background culture. With this political liberalism fully agrees (1997: 768).
Within these channels of public communication, Rawls adds, “comprehensive doctrines of all kinds […] are taught, explained, debated one against another, and argued about, as long as society has vitality and spirit” (Rawls 2005: 383). Given this background, it should be clear that Rawls not only tolerates religious (and other comprehensive) contributions to public debate, but regards them as necessary for the ‘vitality and spirit’ of modern societies. He also refers to this view as “the wide view of the public political culture” (1997: 783).

A further response to the inclusivist has to do with the what (the content) of the IPR. Defenders of Rawls have argued that even if the scope (the who) of the IPR is wide in the sense that it includes ordinary citizens engaged in political advocacy, its content is narrow because the proviso applies only to debates about “constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice” (Rawls 1997: 767; also 2001: 90). Constitutional essentials concern questions about basic political rights and liberties; matters of basic justice relate to “questions of basic economic and social justice” (1997: 767). In all others discussions, the IPR does not apply and citizens may refer directly and solely to their comprehensive (secular or religious) doctrines. In this context, Silje Langvatn argues that Rawls is able to keep the balance between the “epistemic virtues” of open and inclusive democratic debate on the one hand, and justice (the equal inclusion of all citizens in public debate) on the other (Langvatn 2016: 145; see also March 2009: 42).