I’m half-reading John Rawls’s Political Liberalism, – a lot of it is some way over my head – in which Prof Rawls sets out his answer to the question:
How is it possible for there to exist over time a just and stable society of free and equal citizens, who remain profoundly divided by reasonable religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines?
Prof Rawls argues – surely correctly – that “the diversity of reasonable comprehensive religious, philosophical, and moral doctrines found in modern democratic societies” is a “permanent feature”. The only way to maintain a single comprehensive religious, philosophical or moral doctrine would be “by the oppressive use of state power”.
Hence Rawls’s concept of political liberalism, as distinct from liberalism as a “comprehensive doctrine” in its own right. Consensus cannot be reached on any comprehensive worldview; however, it is possible within “the domain of the political” to find an “overlapping consensus” between “reasonable comprehensive doctrines”.
This then leads Rawls to offer the following three conditions as “sufficient” for society to achieve the outcome described in the paragraph quoted above:
First, the basic structure of society is regulated by a political conception of justice;
In other words, society is not regulated by a particular religious or philosophical view of justice, but by one which operates at a political level.
second, this political conception is the focus of an overlapping consensus of reasonable comprehensive doctrines;
So the political view of justice is not a separate doctrine imposed on all other worldviews. Rather, those holding each “reasonable comprehensive doctrine” can agree on that political view of justice, even if they do so for different reasons rooted in their overall worldview.
and third, public discussion, when constitutional essentials and questions of basic justice are at stake, is conducted in terms of the political conception of justice.
In other words, our participation in the process of deciding these fundamental issues may be motivated by our broader worldview, but need to be expressed in terms of the overlapping consensus of the “political conception of justice”. Where we fail to do so, at best we will find ourselves unable to persuade those who hold different “comprehensive doctrines”; at worst, we will undermine social cohesion by eroding the “overlapping consensus” and promoting a clash between “comprehensive doctrines”.
These principles, especially the third, perhaps explain some of the problems with political engagement by Christians. We still have a lingering nostalgia for the days when society was indeed ordered by one single comprehensive doctrine: ours. This results in our political activities being pulled between two different objectives: first, achieving particular ends within the context of a pluralist society; second, re-establishing “the Christian worldview” as the basis on which society is ordered.
As a consequence, we are often very bad at arguing our case in terms which can persuade those who do not share our worldview, but who nonetheless share the same consensus on the basic ground-rules for political discourse.
This is what motivated my post at the end of last year asking for “secular” arguments against euthanasia. We can argue till we are blue in the face about the “sanctity of life” and the applicability of the commandment against murder, but all people outside our worldview will hear is an attempt to impose our “comprehensive doctrine” on the most vulnerable people in our society.
Hence, while our worldview may be the motivation behind the political position we take, we need to find other ways in which to express that position in the political debate. (To my mind, one of the most powerful arguments is the social psychology concept of “social norming” – the way in which people’s supposedly “free” choices are shaped by what society regards as “normal”. In other words, legalising euthanasia will “normalise” it and lead people to choose it who would otherwise not have considered it.)
The same applies to any other area in which Christians find themselves advocating a particular political position. Otherwise, we may congratulate ourselves on our “faithful witness to the truth”, while hardening society against our views in a way that is unnecessary and counterproductive.