top of page

Are liberalism and religion compatible?

The abortion matter of the United States and Iran's political system


Writings When rights collide

Photos    When rights collide



Related to this project: 

Image taken from

Key words:  Politics, religion, identity, conflict, society, ideas, violence.


This paper aims to assess whether or not liberalism and religion are compatible. Broadly speaking, religion consists in the observance of practices which imply a degree of belief in a divine power. And liberalism encompasses a set of spheres whose core values are autonomy and equality in respect for individuals (The Open University, 2016 a). In the most generous sense, religion and liberalism foster a communitarian and an individualist lifestyle, respectively. For the purpose of this paper, both will be treated according to their most intransigent positions. The main question will be observed firstly through Rawls’ liberal concepts over the abortion matter in the U.S., and subsequently through Taylor’s politics of difference regarding Iran’s political system. Hobbesian social contract puts people in the position to pursue positive freedom, namely, what they want (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2012). According to Rawls, positive freedom may overlap with autonomy (The Open University, 2016 a). Taylor, instead, argues that the self might be conceived within a collectivity and therefore, its interests are part of a whole (The Open University, 2016 a). Along these same lines, this paper will evolve around the political interrelation of liberalism and religion and the kind of politics both generate when holding to their strongest positions. It must be stressed that the concepts of religion and liberalism coexist and influence each other on a variety of factors, they cannot be thought of as isolated but should be understood relative to their specific reality. As such, this paper will conclude that with some semantic flexibility religion and liberalism are, to different degrees, compatible and, when in their intransigent form, only to the extent minorities abide to the limits set by the majoritarian doctrine.


Rawls’ liberalism is infused with a universalist normative stance. In Theory of Justice, he suggests looking at the original position in trying to establish upon what principles people should build a society. In this position, individuals are situated behind the veil of ignorance, that is, they are void of the knowledge which forms their identity, and therefore, they would not favour principles that support their own interests (The Open University, 2016 a). According to him, people would pursue a low-risk strategy and elect to be governed by two principles, one of which concerns liberty. This principle is consistent with the idea that people should be autonomous and therefore treated 'as ends not as means,' in the words of Kant (The Open University, 2016 a). It follows that the state, laws and institutions should respect people’s freedoms and refrain from entering in people’s private domain. Consistently, in 1973, the United States Supreme Court decisions Roe vs Wade and Doe vs Bolton granted women a degree of control over their bodies regarding carrying on with a pregnancy or aborting (The Open University, 2016 b). However, from the perspective of the anti-abortion movement, the pro-family fringe sees this way of doing politics, and particularly the abortion case, as a devaluation of motherhood, their identity and an attack on the traditional family, a unit of communitarian principles. Most anti-abortionists have a deep faith in God and believe human attempts to control pregnancy are a sign of man’s arrogance toward the divine will. In these terms, Rawls' ideas are appealing only to secular liberals since they minimize the moral ties embedded in societies and the values with which people have grown up.


In The idea of public reason revisited, Rawls recognizes that politics mix groups with different moral views, which he calls comprehensive doctrines, such Christianity, Islam or Secularism. Whichever is one’s comprehensive doctrine, politics permits people to live according to their moral views to the degree that they use public reason (The Open University, 2016 a). This means that people establish compromises acceptable from different perspectives according to the most reasonable conception of political justice, even at the cost of their own interests. This can be achieved in terms of the rights and duties protecting religious liberty as described by liberalism, or as expressed from within a comprehensive doctrine (The Open University, 2016 a). As a result, reasonable comprehensive doctrines will often allow for overlapping consensus between different views. In this sense, pro-life, another fringe of the anti-abortion movement headed by Liberal Catholics, ties their opposition stance to liberal arguments, suggesting that public reason might assume a strategic role instead of the adoption of individualism. The arguments were about supporting the rights of the foetus versus supporting the rights of the woman over her own body. In this sense, a genetic dimension of life that has the potential to turn into a person deserves respect just as every human. In an increasingly laic society, liberal arguments might be appealing to a greater amount of people.


Since pro-choice women have an interest in controlling their reproduction in order to pursue life as they choose, they support legal abortion (The Open University, 2016 b). Consistently, the abortion debate is more genuinely a matter of individual claims against forms of communitarianism. Thus, the individual choice to set up a political public-private divide conflicts with communitarianism as understood by traditional families and communities. However, according to Rawls’ ideas, public reason is given only by the principles and values of liberal political conceptions of justice, and religion is not on the same level because it falls outside of the political domain. Religion does not properly address the structure of political and social institutions and, contrary to public reason, it invades people’s private sphere. Nonetheless, even though Rawls sees liberalism as neutral and more functional for the political life of a state, in practice people understand it as one of many ideologies with which they argue against. Political liberalism does not affirm the ideal that public reason should always lead to a general agreement. Protestants may, in line with public reason, continue to argue against the right to abortion. But if there was a general election in which people think according to public reason, paraphrasing Rawls’ words, the outcome would be legitimate and binding on citizens by the majority principle (The Open University, 2016 a). It follows that attempting to impose a determined comprehensive doctrine on the majority of citizens who do not accept it is unreasonable. In practice, while Rawls’ first text was clearly universalist, his subsequent work still defines politics within the boundaries traced by liberalism. In the 1980s and 1990s, pro-life activism radicalization gave rise to bombings and assassinations (The Open University, 2016 a). This points out the limitations of public reason. Religion and liberalism politically coexist only if the minorities abide to a reasonable conception of their lifestyle, namely to the degree they conform to liberalism. 


If Rawls’ concepts are somewhat prescriptive, Taylor takes a descriptive step in observing the real world. Whether people of varied cultures desire a liberal order is a controversial issue. The emergence of the liberal tradition in Iran includes the period when Western pretentions over Iran’s oil, disguised by a supposed looming communism, brought the latest Shah to power. The Shah was not able to remove the reputation of being imposed, and he increasingly contributed to anti-Western sentiment in Iran. People are not simply rational human beings, in this instance, cultural and religious values reinforced their identity against the West. Taylor’s notion of identity creates the need for identity recognition and therefore, a politic of difference (The Open University, 2016 a). Like liberalism, it is based on the notion of equal respect, but it fosters uniqueness. Everyone has an identity and this approach respects the distinctness of any individual or given group. Rather than equal value given by the potential for being rational, politic of difference comes to include the equal value of what people do with this potential (The Open University, 2016 a). In this sense, while distancing himself from the West, Khomeini embraces a hybrid made by a particular understanding of Shia Islam mixed with liberal ideas. Even though before the revolution, Ayatollah Khomeini exhorted people to claim their rights and a new social contract, he suggested not using the term "democratic." Millions went to the streets for the revolution of 1979 (Milani, 2015). In a yes or no popular referendum, the constitution was overwhelmingly accepted. Even though Article 6 of the new constitution says sovereignty stems from the popular will, Khomeini, who appealed to the majority of the religious population at that time in poverty, suggested that popular sovereignty was a colonial construct meant to undermine the spiritual community (Ummah) (Milani, 2015). According to Taylor, Rawls overlooks the nature of human sociality that drives people’s communitarian sense of belonging and defines their political existence.


The politic of difference values different cultural expressions and liberalism becomes the political expression of a range of cultures that other can potentially adapt. For mainstream Islam, there is no question of separating politics and religion the way it is expected in Western liberal society. Khomeini overturned the ides that clergy's main responsibilities were apolitical and attested that the Supreme Leader, a faqih, had a general right to rule. Inspired by the French Fifth Republic, the Constitution is based on Islamic ideology and those who rule are ultimately responsible to Allah rather than to people (The Open University, 2016 c). The unelected Supreme Leader wields great power over the different bodies and reforms against the Sharia law can potentially advance at a pace that may appear odd to liberals living elsewhere. However, using the term fundamentalism about Iran might be a further evidence that the term’s meaning and use is very flexible, but, more importantly, it can also be seen as a failure to appreciate their politics. Fundamentalism originated in American Protestantism of the early twentieth-century, it can be referred to in modern day politics as rigidly trying to implement ideas from religious fundamental texts (The Open University, 2016 c). Khomeini discarded many Shia concepts and borrowed ideas and words from the non-Muslim world. In fact, Khomeini avoided esoteric doctrinal statement in his initial speeches. In ideological terms, a degree of liberal ideas endured along with religion. This evidences that identity is constructed by distinguishing and adapting oneself to others in a kind of accordion movement. However, the fact is that Khomeini as an Ayatollah used mainly socio-political arguments, and if these are not thought of as identity features they suggest that socio-economical issues might have been determinant to his causes. This suggest the religion narrowly speaking is not appealing by itself but it need a degree of convergence to other sentiments and ideologies.


Demand for recognition is given by the link between recognition and identity, as fundamental characteristics of human beings (The Open University, 2016 a). Hasan Ayat, a Shia theologian, said citing Rousseau: “If the social contract were once in reality realized, it was in relation to Islam” (cited in The Open University, 2016 c). The idea is that Iran’s political identity was given by its recognition or its misrecognition. Until the arrival of Khomeini as a whole many might have experienced a low national self-esteem. Needless to say, misrecognition might be reproduced and become an issue for minorities. In 2008, a Human Rights Watch stated that authorities "arbitrarily suppress and punish individuals for peaceful political expression, association, and assembly..." (cited in Beaulieu, 2010). Although the politics of difference is valuable, identity reasons related to religion per se might be a far too narrow focus of the whole story. After overturning the Shi'ite cleric tradition of non-participation in politics, approaching his death, Khomeini emphasized that the state predominates over religion. This was somewhat a secular move, yet according to him, as successors of the Prophet they could make their own rules (Milani, 2015). He often justified his position out of the necessity to maintain order in society. A posteriori, this is an important note. Foucault’s articles prior to the Revolution have shown how concern for other cultures may sometimes be misleadingly romantic. Supposedly Iran’s revolt would have shown the Western world how to discharge materialism and individualism in favour of a collective desire to generate a spiritual transformation (Beaulieu, 2010). 


In conclusion, this paper has tried to answer whether or not religion and liberalism are compatible. The main question has been assessed firstly through Rawls’ liberal concepts regarding the abortion matter in the U.S., and subsequently through Taylor’s politics of difference in relation to Iran’s political system. Consistently, in the first section Rawls’ ideas highlight that religion peacefully coexists with liberalism in so far as it abides to the rules set by the latter. In this sense, people trying to live in accordance with a Christian doctrine emphasizing certain communitarian values might conflict with the principles of a predominantly liberal society. Likewise, it arises that Taylor‘s politics of difference is useful up to the point it finds a doctrine firmly grounded on his radical stance. Iran’s case shows that their political system might have arisen from the need to claim a distinct identity from the one proposed by the Shah under Western pressures. At the same time, while Khomeini’s trajectory did make use of Western and liberal ideas, liberalism in his political system might be an oxymoron. It does not tolerate liberal ideas which trespass the ones overlapping his conception of Shia Islam. Interestingly, despite both authors apparently distancing themselves in their concepts, in a situation of minority doctrines coexisting with hegemonic ones, both Rawls’ and Taylor’s concepts are functional in so far as minority doctrines overlap to some degree with hegemonic ones. In contrast, the politics arising from the religion/liberalism relation or the individualism/communitarianism dichotomies are characterized by conflict.





Beaulieu A. (2010), Towards a liberal Utopia: The connection between Foucault’s reporting on the Iranian Revolution and the ethical turn, Philosophy and Social Criticism, 36(7) 801–818


Milani A. (2015), Iran’s paradoxical regime, Journal of Democracy, Volume 26, Number 2, pp. 52-60


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2012), Positive and Negative Liberty, [online], Available from: (Accessed the 20.02.2016)


The Open University (2016 a), Religion and Liberal Politics, DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed the 18.02.2016)


The Open University (2016 b), Identity, Status and Religion in Action, DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed the 15.02.2016)


The Open University (2016 c), Religion in Iranian Politics, DD306 -15J Living Political Ideas, [Online]. Available at: (Accessed the 16.02.2016)


bottom of page