Luke Bretherton (Duke Divinity School) responds to Divinity School Professor Richard B. Miller‘s tenth chapter, “Religion, Public Reason, and the Morality of Democratic Authority,” in Friends and Other Strangers: Studies in Religion, Ethics, and Culture (Columbia University Press, 2016).

The May issue of the Forum features Friends and Other Strangers, Miller’s most recent book, which argues for expanding the field of religious ethics to address the normative dimensions of culture, interpersonal desires, friendships and family, and institutional and political relationships. Professor Miller urges religious ethicists to turn to cultural studies to broaden the range of the issues they address and to examine matters of cultural practice and cultural difference in critical and self-reflexive ways.

Friends and Other Strangers critically discusses the ethics of ethnography; ethnocentrism, relativism, and moral criticism; empathy and the ethics of self-other attunement; indignation, empathy, and solidarity; the meaning of moral responsibility in relation to children and friends; civic virtue, war, and alterity; the normative and psychological dimensions of memory; and religion and democratic public life. Miller challenges distinctions between psyche and culture, self and other, and uses the concepts of intimacy and alterity as dialectical touchstones for examining the normative dimensions of self-other relationships. A wholly contemporary, global, and interdisciplinary work, Friends and Other Strangers illuminates aspects of moral life ethicists have otherwise overlooked.

The first post in the May issue includes the introduction to Friends and Other Strangers, “Alterity and Intimacy.” In the coming weeks, scholars will offer responses to different chapters of the book. At the end of the month, Professor Miller will close out the series with a final response. We invite you to join the conversation by sharing your thoughts in the comments section.


A Political Ethic of Alterity: Liberalism or Agonistic Democratic Politics?

by Luke Bretherton


In the tenth chapter of Miller’s insightful and highly stimulating book, he asks “whether religious citizens should be allowed to speak on matters of public policy in liberal democracies without any limits on how they express their deeply held convictions, or whether they should restrict their reason-giving to some political terms and values” (275). He argues for the latter on the basis of a modified conception of a Rawlsian account of public reason. Along the way he contests some of the most common objections to restrictions on religiously motivated actors speaking religiously in public (283-92). The chapter closes with a number of case studies in which Miller seeks to demonstrate how the case either falls afoul of the Rawlsian framework or, contrary to expectation, confirms it. At the heart of Miller’s argument is the contention that Rawlsian arguments for limits to the kinds of reasoning that can be used in justifying public policy positions is better understood as part of “an ethic of alterity.” He states: “Specifically, it is a kind of civic empathy, the disposition to place oneself in another’s shoes and imagine how the political world looks and feels” (285).

But Miller never addresses a contradiction at the heart of his argument; that is, why does civic empathy demand that everyone become good liberals but not, based on reciprocity (a key value in both his and Rawls’s argument), require liberals to become more religiously literate? Liberalism is just as much a comprehensive doctrine as Communism or Christianity, yet, in Miller’s account, it is assumed to be neutral and the kind of anthropology it presupposes (namely, the self-reflexive, autonomous subject) and values it requires conformity to (namely, equality, autonomy, and reciprocity) are never subject to critique and so never problematized or interrogated.

The need for civic empathy cuts all ways. Moreover, liberalism is not the only means by which it can be generated. Indeed, thicker notions such as neighbor love, tradition specific practices of hospitality, Gandhian conception of Satyagraha and ahimsa, or the Southern African framework of ubuntu, may well be better at generating an ethic of alterity than anemic notions of equality, autonomy, and reciprocity and the kind of subjectivity and selfhood they presuppose as normative and determinative.

Rather than discovering together a shared realm of meaning and action through a process of democratic politics, Miller’s account seeks to predetermine, prior to encounter, what the shared realm of meaning and action will be, and thus what constitutes criteria for determining the validity of judgments about the good. This reveals a potentially anti-democratic undertow to Miller’s arguments. He states: “The morality of democratic authority puts limits on any comprehensive doctrine that refuses to assign political authority on equal, horizontal terms” (307). If we grant this, then it applies to liberalism as much as it does to Christianity or Islam. Moreover, democratic authority depends on constituting a demos through negotiating a common life between friends, strangers, and enemies. It is not a common life if one comprehensive doctrine predetermines its shape and character. Yet what Miller proposes is a program to insert the comprehensive doctrine of liberalism as a program through which to circumvent democratic politics determining the nature and character of the demos that emerges.

Here we can contrast Miller’s position with that of Jeremy Waldron who argues that the first responsibility in contested arguments about the good is to “make whatever effort we can to converse with others on their own terms, as they attempt to converse with us on ours, to see what we can understand of their reasons, and to present our reasons as well as we can to them.”1 Or as Clarke Cochran puts it: “Public civil discourse is genuine to the extent that participants learn to speak with one another in their differences as well as their shared languages.”2 Miller’s account precludes real democratic dialogue and encounter in which both differences and commonalities together constitute an emergent arena of mutual (not neutral) ground.

If the aim is to develop a genuine “ethic of alterity,” then keeping diverse and thick forms of communication in play in public deliberation ensures that, on the one hand, difference is respected, and on the other, that, as Iris Marion Young puts it, there is “both the expression and the extension of shared understandings, where they exist, and the offering and acknowledgement of unshared meanings.”3 The implication of this more pluralist, variegated, and ‘agonistic’ conception of public deliberation is that, to quote William Connolly: “You transfigure the drive to reach a consensus on justice above contending faiths into the effort to negotiate a positive ethos of engagement between multiple constituencies who bring chunks and pieces of their faiths with them into the public realm.”4 So while I wholeheartedly share Miller’s goal, I question the means by which he seeks to achieve that goal and suggest there are better, more genuinely pluralistic, democratic, and ethical ways of achieving that goal.5

Luke Bretherton is professor of theological ethics at Duke Divinity School and senior fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University. Bretherton’s first two books include Hospitality as Holiness: Christian Witness Amid Moral Diversity (Ashgate, 2006) and Christianity & Contemporary Politics: The Conditions and Possibilities of Faithful Witness (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), winner of the 2013 Michael Ramsey Prize for Theological Writing. His most recent book, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge University Press, 2015), focuses on the intersections between Christianity, radical democracy, globalization, responses to poverty, and patterns of inter-faith relations. Bretherton’s primary areas of research, supervision, and teaching are Christian ethics/moral theology, the intellectual and social history of Christian political thought, political theology, the relationship between Christianity and capitalism, missiology, and practices of social, political, and economic witness.

 * Photo image: “Touching Strangers” by Richard Renaldi. Since 2007, photographer Richard Renaldi has worked on a series of photographs for which he asks complete strangers to physically interact while posing together for a portrait. 

  1. Jeremy Waldron, ‘Cultural Identity and Civic Responsibility,’ in Citizenship in Diverse Societies, Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman, eds. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 163.
  2. Clarke Cochran, Religion in Public and Private Life (London: Routledge, 1990), 94.
  3. Iris Marion Young, Justice and the Politics of Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1990), 133.
  4. William Connolly, Pluralism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2005), 60.
  5. My own account of community organizing represents a case study in just such an alternative, non-Rawlsian approach. Luke Bretherton, Resurrecting Democracy: Faith, Citizenship and the Politics of a Common Life (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).