Obama’s Rawlsian Defense Of Separation Of Church And State

This video of a speech Obama made during his presidential campaign which is making the rounds among my atheist Facebook friends today:


When the speech was made I commented on James Dobson’s faulty reaction to Obama.  As I implied in that post, in the part not addressing Dobson, I think this speech is a spectacular and perfectly appropriate embrace of John Rawls’s view of the just way for religious traditions to impact political discourse:

As something of a Rawlsian about public discourse, I have no problem with religious people arguing in government for application of ideals that they personally discovered through their religion or their sacred texts, their religious institutions, etc. as long as they respect the need to give reasons that are publicly accessible, reasons that do not cite religious authority as though it were binding upon all rational people to take into account. As long as your religiously derived view is also defensible in terms of reason, you should feel free to argue for it.

This principle is what prevents us from having laws rooted in religious intuitions that are purely arbitrary and incapable of rational justification. If anyone can just “feel” God’s voice telling them that God wants x or God wants y and if they are able to persuade others that they had this insight straight from God, then there are no limits on theological claims made by the fiat of “Scriptural” authors or contemporaries who claim prophetic abilities that can be made into laws. There is no limit to stop those who think God indicates to them that slavery is okay or that God demands a genocide (as the Bible claims he has repeatedly before for example) from making such insistences in arguments about public policy and law. We could wind up with arguments that all Americans must be baptized for the good of their souls, that there should be no separation from church and state, etc. Any argument must be considered when it needs no further justification when it is rooted in premises chosen to be believed purely by groundless “faith.”

For Dobson’s inability (or simple unwillingness) to understand such distinctions, see the rest of the post here.

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