A reader writes:
Let me get this straight: we now are given even greater proof of the depth of Rawls' religious commitments as a young man, and an actual text that details his theological views on ethics, community, and more. We also can see that in a few instances, his later political principles clearly were anticipated by his religious beliefs (the place of "merit" in both his theology and political philosophy being one example). And yet we still are supposed to take "public reason" seriously, as if we ever can escape the traditions of thought in which we are embedded? Put differently, Rawls political philosophy seems to me to be little more than an emaciated form of liberal Christianity, sure of what it wants but unwilling to appeal to any foundation in nature, history, or religion.
Obviously there are good reasons to avoid arguments about foundations in politics, and Rawls' concern for the religious wars that occurred after the Reformation was admirable (though somewhat strange to fixate on that given the history of the 20 century). When I read Rawls, I read a humane, decent man that quite obviously was a liberal Protestant who lost his faith, but wanted to keep the attic finery of Christianity around -- what Tocqueville called the "dangling chains" of past ways of thinking. We want charity, and the dignity of the individual, and fairness. We like to believe these things are self-evident, but they are not. Dressing up these principles with the name "public reason" is not really helpful. Its a form of evasion.
Again, I'm sympathetic to the kind of society Rawls wanted -- I just am willing to admit that such a political order is connected to the Christian tradition in important (if complicated) ways, ways that his own biography and intellectual history bear witness to. And I'm too consistent in my epistemological pessimism to ever really think there can be some Archimedian point of "public reason." He obviously didn't learn what he should have when he was reading Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1940s!
I take my reader's point. But in his later work, Rawls was very frank about the limited claims he was making, and rested them in a tradition of political liberalism, which, in turn, had roots in some Christian (and un-Christian) thought. I don't thnk he would deny this, even though some of his early champions did.