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Rawls' Role of Religion and Duties of Citizenship under Conditions of Modern Democracy

John Rawls, one of the most influential political philosophers of the 20th century, extensively explored the role of religion and the duties of citizenship in modern democracies. Central to his political philosophy is the recognition of "reasonable pluralism", the coexistence of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines within a democratic society. Rawls contends that religious and other comprehensive doctrines have a legitimate place in the public sphere, as long as they are subject to the principles of public reason and the political conception of justice. This essay delves into Rawls' ideas, examining the complex relationship between religion, citizenship, and democracy in light of his political philosophy.

Figure 1. Harvard professor of political philosophy John Rawls ( Harvard University,1990)

Rawls' role of religion and duties of citizenship under conditions of modern democracy

In Political Liberalism, the role of religion in modern democracies stems from the "fact of reasonable pluralism". (Rawls, 2005). That relative to the historical conditions of society, reasonable comprehensive doctrines have an intrinsic role within a modern democratic society. Therefore, this is the political "fact" that one must take into account when evaluating the role of religion. In Political Liberalism, Rawls (2005) claims that "a modern democratic society is characterized not simply by a pluralism of comprehensive religious, philosophical and moral doctrines, but by a pluralism of incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines" (p. 156). Rawls here differentiates between reasonable pluralism and the "fact of pluralism", as both concern the holistic gathering of comprehensive doctrines within modern society. Rawls' reasonable pluralism demonstrates an endemic description from the epistemic results of modern Western liberal democracies. Seen in a democratic society such as the First Amendment in the US: "congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances". This aims towards an exclusive rather than inclusive view of the role of religion, one that does not condone modus vivendi (mode of life) but rather an overlap at the core of the pluralist society.

The Challenge to Justice as Fairness and the Political Conception of Justice

In the Theory of Justice, the substantive project of democracy of Rawls (1971) lacks a legitimate justification to promote the liberal principle "justice is fairness". This principle is vital to consider as the original linkage of public reason in a democracy is rooted here. Initially, Rawls claims (1971) we all "share a sense of justice" and a "sense of the good life," which we can rationally revise to our "sense of justice". This sense of justice stems from the two principles of "domestic justice" for liberal constitutional democracy. From the "original position," one would logically deduct the liberty principle. However, in retrospect to Political Liberalism, Rawls' "Justice as fairness" does not take into account the fact of reasonable pluralism. For instance, a reasonable religious citizen would have to accept a dominant liberal comprehensive doctrine, regardless of their beliefs, which contradicts Rawls' claim that in a democratic society "no one comprehensive doctrine is affirmed by citizens generally" (2005, p. 156). So now a reasonable person can reject a liberal or deontological doctrine and refuse to accept it as a political basis for a democratic institution. Therefore, Rawls reconsiders the fundamental principles of justice to be "unrealistic" and unstable in legitimacy. To parallel Weber's claim, the most stable social order of all is one that "bears the prestige of 'legitimacy'" (1905, p. 68). As legitimacy and stability occur when society takes into account tradition and customs rather than those merely based on force. The theory of justice initiates the universal principles of domestic justice for a liberal democratic state. Nevertheless, as shown in Political Liberalism, Rawls amends Justice as fairness from "a moral doctrine of justice general in scope" to a political conception of justice. This revision allows Rawls (1997) to argue that "those affirming a religious doctrine that is based on religious authority" can hold "a reasonable political conception [that] supports a just democratic regime".

Figure 2. A visual depiction of philosopher John Rawls' hypothetical veil of ignorance and original position (n.d)

The Political Conception of Justice and Its Compatibility with Religion

Rawls (1971) claims that to retain legitimacy for those that affirm religious beliefs, citizens must pursue the political conception of justice. Rawls reinvents the conception of justice from The Theory of Justice from the two principles, the first being: "some measure of agreement in conceptions of justice is [...] a prerequisite for a viable human community" (p. 6). Following this, the second is "the argument for the principle of justice should proceed from some consensus. That is the 'nature of justification'" (p. 581). The political conception of justice acts as a "social and pragmatic" justification of justice as fairness, as the concept is "political, not metaphysical". The "political conception is a normative and moral conception" which is affirmed on "moral grounds" that are the "very great values" at the centre of the overlap (Rawls, 2005, p. 139). Whereby the political conception is freestanding, as it contains no "metaphysical or epistemological doctrine" but instead contains its own "intrinsic normative and moral ideal" (p. 42). Therefore, when the conception of justice is not metaphysical, it does not presuppose a philosophical doctrine that reasonable citizens can reject. Furthermore, Rawls (2005) declares it as a "module" as the conception's property is "an essential constituent part that fits into" and "supported by various reasonable comprehensive doctrines" (p. 145). This element allows those who affirm religious doctrines to hold a political conception as it does not contradict their preexisting beliefs.

The Liberal Principle of Legitimacy and the Overlapping Consensus

The political conception of justice leads to the core idea of Rawls' public reason called "the liberal principle of legitimacy". The Liberal principle of legitimacy states "our use of political power is [...] proper [...] only when [...] exercised" under a condition "of which all citizens may reasonably be expected to endorse in the light of principles" (Rawls, 2005, p. 137) from the overlap. Citizens who follow a comprehensive doctrine within a democracy must adopt a public position that promotes the public conception and the inherent overlap values. The enactment of legitimate law must be following a constitution. A constitution that is justifiable to all citizens based on public reason and cannot be rejected by a reasonable citizen. However, the idea of the citizens promoting a "freestanding" conception has attracted criticism, as Guess and Williams claim it to be an "applied ethics" (2005) and a "morally first" (2008) conception. Rawls base indeed the conception of legitimacy on morality, but it is not a moral first conception but rather a focus on a consensual conception relating to justice. Rawls aims to avoid this complication as his substantive theory demonstrates a morally authoritative conception of justice that honours the autonomy of the political framework.

Figure 3. Visual depiciton of the overlapping consensus (Cambridge, N.D)

Rawls supports his liberal legitimacy with the overlapping consensus, which consists of reasonable comprehensive doctrines. Rawls (2005) defines reasonableness as a normative moral concept that is linked to a sense of justice, moulding a person's "moral sensibility" (p. 42). A social virtue that incorporates reciprocity in a democracy contrasts the egotism and selfishness of rationality. When present in a doctrine, such belief promotes fairness and reciprocity. Whereby, the political conception "module" is present or is consistent with the intrinsic values of such comprehensive doctrines. For instance, a reasonable doctrine is a "consistently and coherently organized body of belief" which gives "an intelligible view of the world", while a reasonable comprehensive doctrine acknowledges equality and social goals acknowledge "Justice is fairness" (p. 59). For example, in the Sussex Christian group "first love," the pastor preached the Bible phrase: "rich and poor have this in common: The Lord is the Maker of them all." (Proverbs, p. 22). In regards to Rawls (1971), one may argue that this evokes a reasonable virtue that promotes a veil to deprive a particular "information about themselves" (p. 253) like ethnicity, wealth, and gender. The maxim promotes one to see each other as "free and equal" in belief (p. 256). Whereby such reasonableness can encourage Christians, for example, to express interests in "an account of the moral point of view concerning matters of justice" as "very great values" are "not easily overridden" (Freeman, 2016). Therefore, common grounds of equality appear from the overlap of reasonable doctrines. Political ideals and values are a subset of what arises from the overlap, which produces the normative common ground of all reasonable citizens. Inherently, from this overlap, values such as justice give way to "equal political liberty, fair equality of opportunity and economic reciprocity". Therefore, within the "focus of an overlapping consensus", the political concept must cohere with every reasonable comprehensive doctrine (Rawls, 2005, p. 141). The formation of the overlap arises from the deliberation of reasonable persons that pursue a reasonable comprehensive doctrine, whether it is religious or secular.

The Duty of Civility and the Pursuit of Public Justifications

In conjunction with the liberal principle of legitimacy, Rawls (2005) places a duty of civility whereby "policies they advocate and vote for can be supported by the political values of public reason" (p. 217). This duty is reinforced as a "moral, not a legal duty" (p. 217) as it is part of political morality, not that which dictates a right of conduct; therefore, it is not legally enforceable. For instance, citizens feel morally obliged to vote, which is not a legal requirement. This duty falls upon all citizens but is reinforced within the political sphere, such as "government officials" and "candidates for office" (p. 433). However, the duty only applies to "constitutional essentials and matters of basic justice" and not to the broad background culture. A significant repercussion of this duty is the imposition of two demands. According to Christopher Eberle, a principle of pursuit requires everyone to offer political justifications for rejecting or promoting a coercive law. Alternatively, when one cannot find a public justification, the duty comes with a Doctrine of restraint, which imposes an obligation to restrain from offering exclusively comprehensive, non-political reasons. This parallels Amy Guttman's (1999) claim that people are "morally responsible" to argue for "reciprocity", that through reasonableness, we encourage the political concept. This duty is essential for Rawls' legitimacy of law, as mutually binding laws should be mutually justifiable.

Figure 4. The influence of Syncretism in a political context (N.d)

The Scope of Public Reason and the Proviso in Rawls' Philosophy

In The Idea of Public Reason Revisited, Rawls elaborates on the scope of public reason in the "proviso". Whereby, Rawls (2005) integrates the "Catholic views of the common good and solidarity when [..] expressed in terms of political values" (p. 774). However, this comes in conjunction with Rawls' "exclusive view" and "inclusive view" of public reason. The former view only regards "well-ordered societies" that reason towards "a firm overlapping consensus of comprehensive doctrines" (Rawls, 2005, p. 248). This view is an ideal scenario, one in that citizens have a strict moral duty of civility never to give non-public reasons in political deliberations. In such a scenario, citizens feel their "fundamental rights are already guaranteed, and there are no basic injustices they feel bound to protest" (p. 248). However, religion plays a more significant role in the latter "inclusive view," in a society without a substantial overlap and disagreements about constitutional essentials. This thesis allows citizens to give non-public reasons in regard to political questions, but only if the public reason is fulfilled. Proper political reasons must still be provided "in due course" and not just reasons justified "solely by comprehensive doctrine" (p. 462). Therefore, citizens are alleviated from the command to exercise restraint and a duty to pursue public justifications. The proviso also emphasizes the use of religious reason in the background culture of society, whereby the presence of comprehensive doctrines provides a "vital role" towards the political conception (Moriarty, 2009).

The Inclusive View of Public Reason and the Role of Religion

The role of religion in the inclusive view means that non-public, comprehensive reasoning is permitted in political advocacy by citizens but only to "strengthen the ideal of public reason" (Rawls, 2005, p. 247). Rawls argues that "the appropriate limits" and scope "of public reason vary" on the "historical and social conditions" (p. 251). That the idea of public reason tends to lean towards an inclusive view in times of political turbulence. In other words, in the scenario of a liberal democratic non-ideal society, the inclusive view can help achieve the ideal of public reason. An example of a society that is well-ordered but has internal conflict over its constitutional elements is Rawls' picture of the United States. Whereby, he mentions the issue of whether the government should "support church schools" or "is only responsible for public schools" (Shojaei, 2018) as an example of disputing "the principle of fair equality of opportunity as it applies to education for all" (Rawls, 2005, p. 248). Furthermore, in the inclusive view, Rawls claims that one can mention comprehensive doctrines and implore one's religious reasons in extreme scenarios such as abolishing slavery; it can be an effective way to reach an ideal of public reason. For instance, William Ellery Channing's (1836) abolitionist argument against slavery serves as an excellent example of religiously based political reasons. It states that "he cannot be property in the sight of God and Justice, because he is rational, moral, immoral being", God did not "create such a being to be owned as a tree or a brute". As a result, secularists do not need to share Channing's religious doctrine of faith to understand the "moral and civic force" of his argument (Guttman, 1999). Instead, Rawls (2005) believes that abolitionists are not unreasonable in appealing towards their religious reasons as "they could have seen their actions as the best way to bring about a well-ordered and just society in which the ideal of public reason could eventually be honoured" (p. 250). Therefore, Rawls elaborates that the "inclusive view seems the correct" option in encouraging "citizens to honour the ideal of public reason" (Shojaei, 2018). Religious reasons hold a decisive role in the fulfilment of the "idea of liberal democracy" and are encouraged under the inclusive view (Wolterstorff, 1997). The proviso emphasizes the use of religious reason in the background culture of society, whereby the presence of comprehensive doctrines provides a basis for the political conception.

Avoiding Modus Vivendi: The Role of Religion and the Political Framework

Figure 5. The Supreme Court Benches the Separation of Church and State Undermining the secularisation of the state (N.D)

Rawls aims to avoid a modus vivendi, a scenario that may spiral into a theocracy from pluralism. Under Rawls' exclusive view, which applies to a well-ordered society with an overlapping consensus, both religious and secular comprehensive views are imprudent to the pursuit of the political conception of justice. Here secular views are not advised because secular does not equate to political, as "we must distinguish public reason" from "secular reason and secular values" as these are "not the same as public" (Rawls, 1997, p. 775). The secular citizens like religious citizens have a moral responsibility to make arguments concerning the political conception in regards to the mutually justifiable laws. This view resembles two-way protection between the church and state, but not the separation of religiously based beliefs and politics. Like Rawls' thesis, two-way protection promotes a nuanced, less absolutist interpretation of the "establishment and free exercise clause" and paves the way for civic responsibility. For instance, in the US, the establishment clause separates church and state but does not erect a permeable wall of separation between religion and politics. As religiously based beliefs "should not be separated from politics" due to the fact they are religious anymore or less than "secularly based beliefs". The citizens in a state of pluralism are responsible for "seeking terms of mutual justification" within civil society (Guttman, 1999) . Whereby, like Rawls, this responsibility is not legally enforced, as a legal mandate would violate "the First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and religion".


In conclusion, John Rawls' political philosophy emphasizes the significance of religion in modern democracies while maintaining a framework that promotes the principles of public reason and justice. Rawls acknowledges the reality of reasonable pluralism, where incompatible yet reasonable comprehensive doctrines coexist within society. He argues that religious and other comprehensive doctrines have a place in the public sphere as long as they are subject to the political conception of justice and public reason. Rawls' ideas highlight the complexities of the relationship between religion, citizenship, and democracy, offering a nuanced approach that seeks to avoid a mere modus vivendi or theocracy. By engaging in a duty of civility, pursuing public justifications, and acknowledging the scope of public reason, Rawls aims to establish a democratic society that respects diverse religious beliefs while upholding the principles of justice and fairness.

Bibliographical References

John Paul II. (1979, October 6). Mass at the Capitol Mall in Washington [Homily]. Retrieved from

Freeman, M. (2017). Is the Jewish get any business of the State? Family Values and Family Justice. (1st ed., pp.327-347). Routledge.

Gutmann, A. (1999). Religious Freedom and Civic Responsibility. Washington and Lee Law Review, 56(3), 907-922.

Moriarty, G. (2009). Understanding God images: Conceptualization, assessment, and group intervention. In Conference of the International Association for the Psychology of Religion.

Rawls, J. (1997). The idea of public reason revisited. The University of Chicago Law Review, 64(3), 765-807.

Rawls, J. (2005). Political liberalism. Columbia University Press.

Rawls, J. (2009). A theory of justice. Harvard university press.

Shojaei, Z. (2018). The Role of Religious Reasons in the Public Sphere: A debate between John Rawls and Nicholas Wolterstorfff. University of Saskatchewan.

Weber, M. (1905). The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. New York: Scribners.

Williams, B. (2005). Realism and moralism in political theory. In M. Bruinsma & J. Wozencroft (Eds.), In the beginning was the deed: Realism and moralism in political argument.

Wozencroft, J., Clarke, M., & Bruinsma, M. (2010). Médiations. In Limited Language: Rewriting Design (pp. 247-279). Birkhäuser Basel.

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