Over at the New York Times “Room for Debate” page, Tim Shah and Tom Farr observe that our liberal counterparts are often tempted to define democratic culture as, well, liberals talking the way liberals talk .

Drawing from Barack Obama’s meditations on the role of faith in public life, they give us his conclusion: “What our deliberative, pluralistic democracy demands is that the religiously motivated translate their concerns into universal, rather than religion-specific, values.”

It’s the standard Rawlsian boilerplate: universal values, public reason, and so forth. I can understand the impulse. Civic responsibility seeks to promote the common good, not private interests, and the common good is, well, common, and in that sense universal. But it’s a mistake to translate a virtue—civic responsibility—into an epistemological principle or criterion.

It’s a mistake because the principle or criterion that promises to be formal—only universal truths, only public reasons—ends up being substantive. By the reasoning of nearly all Catholic thinkers, the existence of God and the immortality of the soul are universal truths accessible to natural reason. Thus a good Rawlsian should allow me to make public policy arguments based on these universal truths: obligatory philosophy of religion classes in high school, for example.

That I don’t make these arguments stems from my prudential judgment that such policies would be either ineffective or counter-productive, which is to say contrary to the common good. It’s these sorts of judgments—we all make them all the time—that makes public advocacy responsible and appropriate for a democratic society.

In some circumstances an explicitly Christian and theological argument serves the common good. Martin Luther King, Jr., provides the most obvious recent example, with Lincoln’s Second Inaugural providing another. In other circumstances the most responsible arguments are empirical—the debate leading up to the Welfare Reform Act in the 1990s provides a good example. In still others it’s a philosophical argument that serves the common good, the pro-life argument being a current example. There is not formula, no criterion, not principle that can tell us what bests promotes the common good. That requires good judgment, which is a virtue.

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