Citizens of Faith and the Theory of Public Reason

Students Research Honors Projects Examine Issues of Gender and Faith
Each fall, PPS students in the undergraduate honor seminar taught by Assistant Professor of PPS Judith Kelley conduct original research and write a thesis.  Two projects of special relevance during an election year are described here:  Gender and Framing In Political Campaign Ads by Samantha Fahrbach and Citizens of Faith and The Theory of Public Reason by Kylie Harrell.

Kylie HarrellKylie Harrell (PPS ’09) was intrigued, yet skeptical, about the “theory of public reason”—the idea that policy arguments should be limited to those based on reasoning common to all persons in a society, without resorting to religious justifications. So it seemed like aninteresting topic for her honor’s thesis.

“As a conservative on a largely liberal campus, it’s been personally challenging. I have to really think through my positions in order to present them to others in terms they will understand and accept as valid. I’ve had to defend my positions and sharpen my arguments in ways that many other students haven’t.”

Harrell worked with faculty advisor Evan Charney, assistant professor of PPS, to develop a survey to probe whether American citizens of faith can provide reasons for policy without bringing in their religious convictions.

“I wanted to see if the theory could be put into practice,” she said, or whether it might be an unattainable ideal.

The survey asked participants to provide reasons for their positions on the contentious topics of abortion and gay marriage. She asked the leaders of a selection of congregations in Durham and Harrell’s hometown of Austin, Texas, to invite their members to take her online survey. It included both multiplechoice and free-response questions.

The resulting data, while not from a representative sample, provided support for Harrell’s hypothesis that highly religious people, especially evangelical and born again Christians, would not be able to offer public reasons for their stances on abortion and gay marriage. There was also a high correlation between those who identified as Republicans and/or conservatives and lack of public reason offered for opinions.

She concluded that if such groups can’t engage in public reason, then that throws doubt on the feasibility of reaching the ideal of public reason in American political life. That ideal was not on display in the recent election, she noted.

“Clearly, there was a lot of religious rhetoric being used, which politicians feel is necessary to be elected,” said Harrell. She found the perspective of the thesis seminar instructor, Judith Kelley, assistant professor of PPS, particularly interesting. Kelley noted that both candidates were professed Christians, just like all previous U.S. presidents, but that a candidate’s religious affiliation is never brought up in her native Denmark.

After graduation, Harrell plans to attend law school, and later run for elective office back in Texas, perhaps for the judiciary. “I think I’ll be able to better communicate my positions to people because of my Duke experience,” she said.