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Deliberative Democracy's Religion Problem

Posted: 29 Mar 2010  

Darren Walhof

Grand Valley State University


Deliberative democracy has a religion problem. The shared perspective called for by deliberative approaches coexists uneasily with the religious language and activism in U.S. politics today. The solution among deliberative theorists has been to argue that citizens should refrain from appealing to religious reasons in public. This paper argues that deliberative democracy's religion problem is of its own making, stemming from the way that it conceptualizes "religion." Theories of deliberative democracy understand religion as essentially apolitical and ahistorical, consisting primarily of assent to a set of beliefs. Religion is imagined as an autonomous area of life that appears as an occasional interloper on politics, rather than as something that is fundamentally constituted by and through politics. Deliberative theorists are then inevitably surprised and frustrated by the predictable "return" of religion and the failure of religiously-based political speech and action to fit their standards of legitimacy. I argue that understanding religion in terms of "tradition" allows a recognition of its political and historical dimensions, and that this conception fits within a deliberative framework. In other words, the religion problem does not mean that theories of deliberative democracy must be abandoned. Instead, they already have the resources within them to recognize and include religious language and activism as part of the deliberative process.

Suggested Citation

Walhof, Darren, Deliberative Democracy's Religion Problem. Western Political Science Association 2010 Annual Meeting Paper . Available at SSRN:

Darren Walhof (Contact Author)

Grand Valley State University ( email )

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