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Published in the Fall 2007 symposium issue of the West Virginia Law Review (vol. 110), on “The Religion Clauses in the 21st Century.”


The debate over the proper role of religion in public life has raged on for decades and shows little signs of slowing down. Proponents of restrictive accounts of public reason have proceeded under the assumption that religious and deep moral disagreement constitutes a threat to social stability that must be tamed. In contrast to this "scary story" linking pluralism with the threat of instability, there exists within political theory a competing, "happy story" according to which pluralism affirmatively contributes to stability by creating incentives for groups to moderate their demands. Whether the scary story or happy story is a more accurate reflection of our reality is a difficult empirical question, but one that ought to matter a great deal to discussions of public reason. Acting as if the scary story were true when the happy story is in fact operating will lead proponents of public reason to stifle the healthful effects of robust pluralism, degrading the quality of public deliberation and ultimately undermining stability. In other words, if the happy story turns out to be the right one, restrictive accounts of public reason may turn out to be counterproductive, hastening the very deliberative and social harms they aim to forestall.

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