Reconciled to Liberty: Catholics, Muslims, and the Possibility of Overlapping Consensus (Dissertation; 2009)

The right to religious liberty and the tolerance of difference that this right engenders are central components of the American national identity. As a result, many in the United States are perplexed by current events in the Middle East. Rising sectarian violence and the imposition of Islamic law throughout the region have made it clear that the values associated with liberalism are not gaining traction in this part of the world. This dissertation uses the tools of comparative religious ethics to challenge two popular explanations of this phenomenon. The first contends that liberalism is not gaining traction because it is incompatible with certain “exceptional” features of Islamic history and theology. The second explains the phenomenon in terms of a general incompatibility between liberalism and all religions that seek a public role for religion. To challenge these theses, I compare the arguments of John Rawls, John Courtney Murray, and three contemporary Muslim reformers: Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na‘im, Khaled Abou El Fadl, and Abdulaziz Sachedina. In so doing, I show that it is possible to make religious arguments in support of liberal democracy and that Islamic struggles to do so are in no way exceptional.

"Within Reason: The Epistemic Foundations of Catholic and Muslim Arguments for Political Liberalism." The Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics 29, no. 1 (2009): 219-241.

This essay argues that judgments about the nature and function of human reason play analogous (though not identical) roles in Catholic and Muslim arguments for political liberalism. Focusing on the works of John Courtney Murray and contemporary Muslim reformers, I note three similarities. First, thinkers in both traditions argue that it is humankind’s unique ability to reason about the moral law that constitutes our dignity and provides the foundation for the right to religious liberty. This ability to reason is also what allows us to provide the publicly accessible justifications the liberal principle of reciprocity seems to require. Finally, all four authors argue that their attempts to reform or develop their traditions are dependent upon and required by the dictates of human reason.

"A Rawls by Any Other Name: Religious Pluralism and Public Reason in the Political Vision of Barack Obama." Working Paper presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, Montreal, Quebec, November 2009.

One of the most striking aspects of the 2008 presidential campaign was that the Democratic candidate seemed far more comfortable speaking about matters of faith than his Republican rival. Unlike many within his own party, Barack Obama consistently challenged those who sought to eliminate the influence of religion within both public political discourse and governmental social programs. Yet, his commitment to protecting the rights of non-Christian religious minorities, and non-believers in particular, has been equally unprecedented. This paper explores the nuanced way Obama has held these two positions together, arguing that his vision represents a popularized version of some of the best arguments in contemporary American political philosophy. More specifically, I show that he has translated, and made more palatable, many of John Rawls' most complicated ideas about religious pluralism and public reason in a liberal democracy.

"Categorizing Liberalism(s): Catholics, Muslims, and the Possibility of Overlapping Consensus." Working Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, Boston, MA, August 2008.

One of the most important features of John Rawls’ late political turn was a deep faith in the possibility of an “overlapping consensus.” In Political Liberalism he argued that it was reasonable to assume that all reasonable comprehensive doctrines—religious and non-religious alike—could and would endorse the basic categories of his liberal theory of justice. Despite numerous criticisms of his proposal, his optimism about this consensus never wavered, and in “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited” he makes his case even stronger, arguing that “those of faith” will be able to “endorse a constitutional regime even when their comprehensive doctrines may not prosper under it, and indeed may decline” (782). Over the past fifteen years, political theorists of all stripes have questioned the plausibility of this liberal consensus. Yet, most of these critics have largely ignored the few places Rawls attempts to provide a warrant for his optimism. Though the evidence usually shows up in footnotes, Rawls believes there is in fact precedent for this possibility within various non-liberal comprehensive doctrines. More specifically, he cites the works of John Courtney Murray and Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na‘im as examples of how this has worked within the Catholic and Muslim traditions. Few, if any, have addressed these footnotes with the detail they seem to deserve. In this essay, I fill the gap in the literature by looking more closely at these best-case-scenario works to determine whether the overlap between these traditions and thinkers is really as broad and as deep as Rawls would have us believe. Though his intuition is not unwarranted, a closer look reveals that these two thinkers remain uneasy about certain categories of political liberalism and that the task of reconciling one’s comprehensive religious doctrine to the foundations of liberalism is no small burden.

"The Possibility of Religious Liberalism: The Common Good and Civil Society in Catholic and Islamic Political Thought." Working Paper presented at the American Academy of Religion Annual Meeting, San Diego, CA, November 2007.

David Hollenbach has recently argued that “the idea of the common good is in trouble.” Citing John Rawls and other contemporary political philosophers, he argues that many in the West have given up hope of advancing a common vision of the social good upon which all can agree. Instead, the “tolerance of difference . . . has become the highest social aspiration in American culture” and ordinary Americans opt to keep their deepest convictions about the good to themselves. Hollenbach is aware that this “eclipse of the public” is largely the result of the troubled history of religious conflict in the West. Nonetheless, he believes public arguments about the common good are necessary if we ever hope to solve the most pressing social problems of our day. Thus, we are faced with a dilemma. How can religious commitments to the common good “become a moral force in contemporary life without legitimating or, worse, intensifying the conflicts between groups holding different ideas of what is truly good?” More importantly, how can religious communities themselves propose solutions to this dilemma that are consistent with the theological and moral foundations of their own traditions? This essay explores the ways two important religious traditions have addressed this issue. As part of a larger project comparing Catholic and Islamic arguments for political liberalism, the current essay will examine the role of the “common good” and “civil society” in the arguments of John Courtney Murray and three contemporary Muslim democrats: Abdullahi An-Na`im, Abdulaziz Sachedina, and Khaled Abou El Fadl.