, Volume 17, Issue 2, pp 107-123
Date: 21 Dec 2010

Religious Political Parties and the Limits of Political Liberalism

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Abstract

Political parties have only recently become a subject of investigation in political theory. In this paper I analyse religious political parties in the context of John Rawls’s political liberalism. Rawlsian political liberalism, I argue, overly constrains the scope of democratic political contestation and especially for the kind of contestation channelled by parties. This restriction imposed upon political contestation risks undermining democracy and the development of the kind of democratic ethos that political liberalism cherishes. In this paper I therefore aim to provide a broader and more inclusive understanding of ‘reasonable’ political contestation, able to accommodate those parties (including religious ones) that political liberalism, as customarily understood, would exclude from the democratic realm. More specifically, I first embrace Muirhead and Rosenblum’s (Perspectives on Politics 4: 99–108 2006) idea that parties are ‘bilingual’ links between state and civil society and I draw its normative implications for party politics. Subsequently, I assess whether Rawls’s political liberalism is sufficiently inclusive to allow the presence of parties conveying religious and other comprehensive values. Due to Rawls’s thick conceptions of reasonableness and public reason, I argue, political liberalism risks seriously limiting the number and kinds of comprehensive values which may be channelled by political parties into the public political realm, and this may render it particularly inhospitable to religious political parties. Nevertheless, I claim, Rawls’s theory does offer some scope for reinterpreting the concepts of reasonableness and public reason in a thinner and less restrictive sense and this may render it more inclusive towards religious partisanship.