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Two-Way Translation: The Ethics of Engaging with Religious Contributions in Public Deliberation


Jeremy Waldron


New York University School of Law; University of Oxford

February 18, 2010

NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 10-84

Abstract:     
Using as an exemplar, the 2007 "Evangelical Declaration against Torture," this paper examines the role of religious argument in public life. The Declaration was drawn up by David Gushee, University Professor at Mercer University, and others. It argues for an absolute ban on the use of torture deploying unashamedly Christian rhetoric, some of it quite powerful and challenging. For example, it says: " [T]he Holy Spirit participates in human pathos with groans and sighs too deep for words. The cries of the tortured are in a very real sense, … the cries of the Spirit." The present paper considers whether there is any affront to the duties of political civility in arguing in these terms. There is a line of argument, associated with John Rawls's book, "Political Liberalism," suggesting that citizens should refrain from discussing issues of public policy in religious or deep-philosophical terms that are not accessible to other citizens. The present paper challenges the conception of inaccessibility on which this Rawlsian position is based. It argues, with Jurgen Habermas, that all sides in a modern pluralist society have a right to state their views as firmly and as deeply as they can, and all sides have the duty to engage with others, and to strain as well as they can to grasp others' meanings. It is not enough to simply announce that one can not understand religious reasons, especially if no good faith effort has been made, using the ample resources available in our culture, to try. Of course, many peoeple will not be convinced by the reasons that are offered in religious discourse; but to argue for their rejection - which is always what may happen in respectable political deliberation - is not to say that the presentation of those reasons was offensive or inappropriate. (This paper was originally presented as the 2010 Meador Lecture at the University of Virginia Law School).

Number of Pages in PDF File: 25

Keywords: Absolute Principles, Pluralism, Public Reason, Rawls, Religious Reasons, Torture

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Date posted: November 12, 2010 ; Last revised: December 5, 2010

Suggested Citation

Waldron, Jeremy, Two-Way Translation: The Ethics of Engaging with Religious Contributions in Public Deliberation (February 18, 2010). NYU School of Law, Public Law Research Paper No. 10-84 . Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1708113 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1708113

Contact Information

Jeremy Waldron (Contact Author)
New York University School of Law ( email )
40 Washington Square South
New York, NY 10012-1099
United States
University of Oxford ( email )
Mansfield Road
Oxford, Oxfordshire OX1 4AU
United Kingdom
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