03/05/2014 09:20 am ET Updated May 05, 2014

Facing Off on Rawls, Public Reason, and Whether Political Discourse is Improving: A Conversation With Eric Miller

Eric Miller and I have been debating religion and politics since middle school. Today, he's a writer and professor at Bloomsburg University, while I'm still shooting NERF arrows at his head. Obviously, it was time to take our show on the road.

Eric Miller: In your view, does religious belief have a significant role to play in the public square? Should it be bound any way? Can it be bound? Do you endorse any particular set of "rules" for how it should operate? Start us off however you like!

Matt Bieber: I don't think public discourse can be bound. For that reason, I don't think the 'should' question really applies. But let me start at the beginning.

Our fundamental task in public life is to figure out how to relate to one another. For a long time, the liberal tradition (and more recently, the pluralist tradition) have tried to describe what it looks like for us to relate with a minimum of conflict and aggression. To do so, they've tried to establish rules or guidelines about the kinds of things it's appropriate to say to one another.

And in some domains, we do okay. For example, there is an etiquette to public discourse, a set of mores that govern the tones we use and the level of respect we seek to extend. These conventions get violated, of course (particularly on cable news shows) but we also tend to recognize when that's happened. (When senators swear at each other, or when Rush Limbaugh refers to a young woman as a 'slut,' we aren't cool with that.)

For me, though, the really interesting questions aren't just about how we address one another. They're about what we say. In a diverse society, people hold wildly different views about the big questions. What is the nature of reality? Is there a God? A human nature? What's good for human beings? How should they treat one another?

Religions, of course, are often the sources of these views, so we can understand why philosophers have worried so much about the role of religion in the public square. What happens when people disagree so fundamentally that it becomes difficult for them to relate?

John Rawls tried to resolve this challenge by suggesting that when we engage in politics, we should use "public reason" - lines of argument that would make sense to any reasonable citizen. As I understand him, Rawls is basically saying that there are certain sorts of questions that aren't really appropriate for public discourse. You're perfectly free to pray or chant at home, but the town hall is for talking about building bridges and schools.

This view seems problematic to me. After all, what is a reasonable citizen? And how do we draw the line between "public reason" and some other kind? Rawls seems to understand people much like economists do: as rational actors, capable of divvying themselves into parts and acting out of each part differently.

But as a million philosophers have pointed out, it isn't possible to divide the world up into neat spheres the way Rawls wants to. We are complicated beings, and our complexity comes with us wherever we go.

Still, I think there is something worth saving in Rawls. I don't know if he meant to, but Rawls is gesturing at something really provocative - the idea that, regardless of whatever metaphysical or ethical beliefs we may hold, there is something common to human experience.

And that's true. We all share the same biology, and we all experience a wide range of emotions. We can relate to each other at that basic human level, the one where we're confused and seeking and often in a great deal of pain. And it seems to me that these bare truths - the truths about what it's like to be us - cut deeper than any of our 'beliefs.'

Of course, it's hard to talk from this place. It requires a willingness to be vulnerable, to acknowledge that deep down, we're not nearly as certain about things as we pretend to be. It's much easier to repress our doubts, to sign on with a political or religious program that offers existential security.

And this is precisely why religion can be such a lightning rod in the public sphere. The problem isn't that the beliefs of one religion are inconsistent or incompatible with another. (What do beliefs care?) It's that people often use those beliefs to build identities for themselves, to provide themselves with stories about who they are and what their lives mean. And when you wrap yourself that tightly in anything, it becomes awfully hard to remain open, to stay flexible, and to relate with others. The thing that was meant to save you becomes the thing that walls you off from everything you care about.

EM: Excellent! The stage is nicely set. This discussion probably has to begin with Rawls, and from there it could follow any of a variety of routes that take public reason as a starting point. We could talk about Richard Rorty for a more critical view of public religiosity, or Jeffrey Stout, who I know has influenced your thinking. But first I want to say a word or two in defense of compartmentalization, if only for the sake of clarity...

The full conversation is available at The Wheat and Chaff.