Philosophy and Social Criticism 43 (4-5):453-464 (2017)

Cristina Lafont
Northwestern University
The normative place of religion in liberal democracies is as contested as ever. This contestation produces understandable fears that liberal democratic institutions may ultimately be incompatible with religious forms of life. If this is so, if there is genuinely no hope that secular and religious citizens can equally take ownership over and identify with these institutions, then the future of democracy within pluralist societies seems seriously threatened. These fears commonly arise in debates concerning the liberal criterion of democratic legitimacy, according to which citizens ought to justify the imposition of coercive policies on each other with reasons that everyone can reasonably accept. Since religious reasons are not generally acceptable to secular citizens and citizens of different faiths, endorsing this criterion entails accepting the claim that, for the purposes of political justification, public reasons should take priority over religious considerations. This claim has been vigorously criticized on two grounds. First, critics resist such a claim on the skeptical grounds that there is simply no such thing as public reasons, that is, a subset of reasons that all citizens can reasonably accept as having priority for justifying coercive policies. Second, critics contest the claim on the normative grounds that an unequal treatment of religious reasons for the purposes of political justification is unfair to religious citizens and is therefore incompatible with the core values of a liberal democracy. Against both lines of criticism, I articulate a defense of the priority of public reasons that is exclusively based on the normative commitments constitutive of liberal democratic institutions and which can therefore be reflectively endorsed by all democratic citizens, whether religious or secular.
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DOI 10.1177/0191453717695366
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