A Glimpse of Public Reason: Lincoln and Rawls (Mormon Rawls Project)

Author’s note: I originally posted this at Approaching Justice. The talk by Elder Oaks has gotten me thinking about the implications of public reason on the SSM debate and the use of public reason (directly and indirectly) in Elder Oak’s talk. I do not have the time right now to adequately address that speech. So, this is an introduction to the idea of public reason with a look at both John Rawls and Abraham Lincoln.

It is often noted that the late American political philosopher John Rawls had a great admiration for President Abraham Lincoln. While people often express admiration for Lincoln, there are many theoretical similarities between the thought and actions of Lincoln and the grand political philosophy of Rawls. For the purposes of this essay I would like to look at one particular aspect of Rawls’ work in which he can see parallels between his own theory and the thought of Lincoln. The aspect of Rawls’ work of which I speak is the idea of public reason. Below I will summarize the idea of public reason and then look at how public reason plays a role in Lincoln’s thought with particular focus on his second inaugural address.

The idea of public reason is rooted in Rawls’ later work about political liberalism, which for Rawls focuses on the hope that no matter what our religious or philosophical disposition we can all agree on a conception of justice that can form the basis of democratic legitimacy. Public reason within political liberalism places parameters upon the reasons that public officials can use in forming law and policy. Primarily, public official must appeals to publicly and commonly held ideas and concepts. Examples of such concepts would be the principles of liberty and equality found in the Declaration of Independence or the tenant of the Preamble of the Constitution (i.e. general welfare or common defense). Appeals to such concepts would be reasonable to all even if there is disagreement about the details or content of certain principles.

On the other hand, public reason limits or rejects arguments rooted solely in religious or philosophical doctrines that cannot be deemed reasonable in a public arena. One cannot support a policy position solely on the assertion that “the Bible says so.” Not only are such arguments tenuous because few policies can clearly be shown to be found in the Bible one way or the other, but such claims are meaningless and unconvincing to those the view the Bible differently or who find no meaning in it at all. According to Rawls, a policy lacks legitimacy if it is rooted in religious doctrine that not all could reasonably accept.

However, Rawls does not ban religion from the public discourse. He makes it very clear that political liberalism has nothing to say about the truthfulness of any religion (though if a religion denies liberty and equality to the point of demanding theocratic rule it is dismissed as unreasonable). Religion can be brought into public discourse following Rawls “proviso,” which allows for one to cite or refer to religion as long as policy is ultimately formed on the basis of public concepts. My commitment to the well-being of the poor can be rooted in a religious belief about the need to provide care with the needy. I can say as much in a public or political forum. Yet, I cannot expect others to accept or support programs for the poor solely based on my belief. I ultimately need to base my argument in the principle of equality or in the need to provide for the general welfare.

Abraham Lincoln is historically the master of public reason. Early is his career he refuses to make his own religion, and the religion of others, a public political matter. For Lincoln it was not about one’s ability to deliver a religious oration or their church attendance but instead ones commitment to sound political principles. In his early arguments about slavery, Lincoln makes his argument about slavery using the Declaration of Independence. It is not that slavery is evil (though he seemed to think so) or that is was immoral (though he said it was), but instead it violated a commonly held political principle. Slavery denied the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Slavery systematically maintained that blacks were less than equal. The religious or moral standing of slavery, while obvious to most today, was in dispute in Lincoln’s day. Religion was used to condemn and justify slavery. It was also used to exalt and enslave black men and women. No resolution could be found on religious grounds. While there was disagreement about whether the Declaration applied to slaves, it could not denied that if it did that the practice and institution of slavery violated the principles of the Declaration. His argument clearly scared the South.

Lincoln, as Arthur Schlesinger points out, did use much religious language in his speeches. It seems that his religious references increased as the war draged on. However, we can see from his use of religion in his Second Inaugural Address (delivered March 4, 1865) that he uses and shows an appreciation of public reason.

Speaking of the two sides, he calls them parties, involved in the conflict, Lincoln notes that both “read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” In acknowledging this, Lincoln is pointing to the need for public reason: We all have conflicting beliefs about the nature of religion and cannot expect others to view religion in the same way. Lincoln finds it “strange” that “any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces; but let us judge not that we be not judged.” He finds it hard to see how the forces of slavery could find divine help in the perpetuation of slavery, but he stops short of condemning their faith. This is consistent with Rawls’ admonition that political liberalism has nothing to say about the truth of religious conviction.

Given that “the prayers of both could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully,” it is evident that other grounds are needed for understanding this conflict. Yet, Lincoln does not shy away from invoking faith. He continues by saying that “if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said `’the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.”’ It is particularly important that the fate of which Lincoln is speaking of is the fate of the United States of American, both North and South. He is not trying to exalt his side over the other. In essence, he is arguing that both North and South share the same fate.

While Lincoln draws on religion in a sincere and philosophical way, he closes this inaugural speech with a call for the public idea of social unity. He does this when he gave the charge to “to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan.” More importantly, he calls strongly for social unity when he asks the citizenry to “strive on to finish the work we are in; to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” The desire for a just and peaceful republic is a theme throughout Lincoln’s life. Likewise, the desire for a just stability is the key to understanding the range of John Rawls’ work in political philosophy, including his work on public reason.

In looking at Rawls’ idea of public reason and the presence of public reason in the thought of Lincoln, I hope that I have shown one way in which Rawls’ admiration of Lincoln is found in his analytical and cumbersome political philosophy. There are many other areas of intersection between Rawls and Lincoln and surely more that could be said about public reason. For the purposes of this post, I will leave those for another day. They thing which personally strikes me with both of these men is their humility. An example of this humility is Lincoln’s desire to move forward with “malice toward none” and “charity for all.” This spirit of forgiveness is a grand example of humility.

4 Replies to “A Glimpse of Public Reason: Lincoln and Rawls (Mormon Rawls Project)”

  1. As one who was asked to head up my ward’s Prop 8 activities in California last year, I remember attending the big church broadcast/pep rally a few weeks before the election. I hoped against hope that the church would throw me some Rawlsian bone – an articulated public reason – to justify our activities. Instead it was a 100%”because God said so” message. Although it is the church’s prerogative to stick to only the religious message, I felt that a huge opportunity to explain how we can engage in the civic sphere in a civic way as religious people was missed.

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