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  • Deliberation, Reason, and Indigestion: Response to Daniel Dombrowski’s Rawls and Religion: The Case for Political Liberalism
  • Zandra Wagoner (bio)

Democracy requires a rather large tolerance for confusion and a secret relish for dissent.

—Molly Ivins, Nothin’ But Good Times Ahead1

I. Introduction

I am delighted to respond to Daniel Dombrowski’s book Rawls and Religion. Dombrowski and I share a number of what he would call comprehensive doctrine, such as the ethical treatment of animals, the relational worldview of process thought, and the idiosyncratic love of pacifism. So, immediately I was drawn in and claimed Dombrowski as a kindred spirit. With so many commonalities, including an interest in political philosophy and religion, I approached this book with a built-in desire to engage with and respect his thinking. To be honest, I wondered if I would be able to critically engage Dombrowski’s book given our common worlds, but of course, in a pluralist world of free and equal citizens, our comprehensive doctrines can only overlap to a certain degree. And as Dombrowski rightly cautions, “too much unity leads to monotony.”2 It is in the spirit of both deep appreciation and necessary contrast that I offer the following comments.

My comments are structured around four themes: A difference in emphasis, religious participation in politics and public reason, political liberalism and inequality, and reflective equilibrium.

II. A Difference in Emphasis

“Democracy requires a rather large tolerance for confusion and a secret relish for dissent.” This quote comes not from a political philosopher but from writer and columnist Molly Ivins. Ivins captures my political sensibility and helps [End Page 179] to foreground a difference I perceive between Daniel Dombrowski’s political theory and my own. Dombrowski’s understanding of politics, significantly shaped by John Rawls, leads to an emphasis on the “well-ordered society,” optimistically poised in the direction of “over-lapping consensus,” “reasonable agreement,” and “rational deliberation.” By way of contrast, my understanding of politics, significantly shaped by Chantal Mouffe’s “Radical and Plural Democracy,” and other closely related theory’s like Isabel Stengers’s “Cosmopolitics” and Bruno Latour’s “issue-oriented politics,” foregrounds a different constellation of terms, such as “conflictual consensus,” “antagonism,” “dissent,” and “power.”3 I want to focus on this difference as a way to engage with Dombrowski’s important book in political philosophy, Rawls and Religion: The Case for Political Liberalism.

I share a great deal with political liberalism’s goal, most significantly, its desire to preserve a pluralistic democracy where a pluralism of cultures, subjects, individual choices, and conceptions of the good are assumed and assured in our collective life together. As Chantal Mouffe explains, “Pluralism lies at the very core of modern democracy; if we want a more democratic society, we need to increase that pluralism and make room for a multiplicity of democratically managed forms of associations and communities.”4

In Rawls and Religion, Dombrowski presents John Rawls’s political liberalism as the most promising political philosophy for creating a just, pluralist democratic society. In particular, Dombrowski argues that political liberalism is best suited to address the problem of how to create a well-ordered society in a context of pluralism where citizens are divided, often in profound ways, by incompatible comprehensive religious and philosophical doctrines. The aim of political liberalism is not to present an alternative comprehensive doctrine, [End Page 180] but to suggest a method for adjudicating in a fair way the disputes that arise from a pluralistic society of competing comprehensive doctrines and to do so in a way that recognizes, respects, and affirms citizens as free and equal. According to political liberalism, citizens are free to subscribe to any number of comprehensive doctrines, religious or nonreligious, as long as they do not violate the key virtue of any democratic society—justice—and its corresponding notions of equality and freedom. For Rawls and Dombrowski, the centrality of justice is a common sense claim that is drawn not from any one comprehensive doctrine, but from the heritage of democratic societies. As the key virtue of any pluralist democracy, “justice as fairness” is a minimal vision of the good life that provides a horizon for our political life together...


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pp. 179-195
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