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Muchnik Awarded Grant to Write Book on Religion and Politics

Associate Professor Pablo Muchnik, a specialist on Kant and current president of the North American Kant Society, was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant to work on a book that, using Kantian thought, develops a new conceptual framework to deal with religious claims in advanced liberal democracies.   

Muchnik teaches in the Institute for Liberal Arts and Interdisciplinary Studies. In his new book, Faith’s Labor Lost: Kant on Religion and Liberal Politics, he will provide an alternative to the current liberal paradigm. His goal is to avoid its shortcomings and secure an essential role for religion in the public square.

“Kant is really good for providing solutions that contemporary liberal theorists have ignored,” Muchnik said. “Instead of beginning with a political conception of justice,” as liberals tend to do, “Kant internalizes the constraints of reason (universality and necessity) and places them at the heart of any doctrine that claims to be religious.”

According to Muchnik, “this move introduces a kind of Copernican revolution in religious matters: God is no longer to be seen as an external/transcendent authority figure, whose laws are independent of our volition; divine commands, rather, must harmonize with the dictates of human reason.”

Kant realized that, by conceiving religion in this way, there is no need to privatize it, because the only demand God makes on human beings is that they lead a life of good conduct, irrespective of creed.

The problem with the current liberal strategy, Muchnik argues, is that it “forces religious citizens to privatize their deepest convictions. In so doing, it sets an inordinately high price for their political participation, since it compels them to split themselves into a private and a public self.”

This creates a dilemma for religious citizens, who must either choose to engage politically and risk betraying their religious convictions, or stay true to their faith and abstain from political participation, Muchnik said.

The consequences of this dilemma are illustrated, for example, in the recent debates on gay marriage, the fights for religious exemptions to the Affordable Care Act, or for the exclusion of LGBT individuals from hiring policies at Christian colleges. Whatever one might think of these issues, Muchnik believes, “the vitriolic and uncompromising tone of the debate are symptoms of a growing cultural divide that threatens to undermine our political compact.”

Political theorist John Rawls developed the idea of “public reason,” which has dominated political thought in the late 20th century. According to Rawls, in a pluralistic democracy, one can’t justify a coercive policy by referring to one’s idea of “good.” To avoid oppression and exclusion, one needs to justify one’s views appealing to reasons all citizens could endorse. 

“This is a problem for religious people because Rawls’ conception presupposes that you can translate your conception of the good to the public reason language,” Muchnik said. “But religious people, in many cases, do not have two sets of reasons—they have only their religious convictions. Thus, it is not that they are unwilling to translate, as some liberals think. They are, instead, unable to translate: they cannot appeal to the values and beliefs of public reason without betraying their own convictions.”

The case is completely different if we turn to Kant, who believes that all religions share a “moral core” that is consistent with the values a liberal democracy espouses, Muchnik said. Many religions, it is true, also have components that contradict that moral core, but by preserving the universal/moral crux of religion and restraining the “spurious” aspects of faith, religious people would be able to participate in public life without feeling that they’re betraying their own beliefs.  

A major difference between Rawls and Kant is that Rawls finds consensus in political values external to religion, while Kant finds it at its center.

“Instead of imposing from outside certain political limits on what you can say, religious reasons, constructed in the Kantian way, are completely acceptable to every secular citizen, because they are rational and moral,” he said.

Muchnik will use the grant to write chapter four of his book, which will deal with the differences between Kant and Rawls (who was a Kantian himself).

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