CESNUR - center for studies on new religions

John Rawls (1921-2002): A Short Obituary

Massimo Introvigne

On November 24, 2002 moral philosopher John Rawls (1921-2002) died in Lexington, Massachusetts. He was born in Baltimore on February 21, 1921. A Harvard professor, Rawls is remembered for his 1971 book "A Theory of Justice", seen by many as a watershed in modern moral philosophy. Rawls reformulated the concept of justice ("justice as fairness") in neo-Kantian, neo-contractual terms, giving new life to classic liberalism. Although he is now regarded by some as the champion of a bygone era connected in American public imagination to the Carter administration, Rawls philosophy remains relevant for both moral and religion, and obituaries have indicated that he remains the most influential moral philosopher of the 20th century. Rawls always denied that his idea of justice was alternative to religion, although his brand of religion, Kantian and liberal, would surely have less appeal in the contemporary postmodern resurgence of conservative faiths. His ideas on justice, on the other hand, opened the road towards a new formulation of theories about religious liberty. Rawls did defend religious liberty as a key feature of his "fair society", but what he had in mind was more individual freedom of conscience. His principles of juistice imply a strict separation of church and state, protecting (he argued) both religion from the state and the state from religion. As such, Rawls' theory of justice was perceived by many as both a contribution and a justification to secularization in the form of privatization of religion (see, on this point, Daniel A. Dombrowski, Rawls and Religion: The Case for Political Liberalism, Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001). On a personal note, encouraged by my academic mentor Enrico di Robilant I devoted to Rawls my first book, I due principi di giustizia nella teoria di Rawls (Milan: Giuffré, 1983). This started a lifelong interest in U.S. public life, public morality, and religion, later to lead to to CESNUR's continuing interest in religion in the United States.

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