Behind the scenes on Bradley and Parks' book collaboration


In December, Lexington Books released John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness, a book edited by theology professor at The King's College, Dr. Anthony Bradley. Among the contributing scholars was King's politics professor, Dr. Matthew Parks. Bradley's brainchild, the book is a series of essays addressing topics like equality and freedom in light of Rawlsian ideology and the Christian evangelical tradition. What drew him to this line of inquiry? While in graduate school, Bradley noticed that John Rawls’ work and ideas were cited in surprising areas of study, such as psychology and sociology. Years later, Bradley found himself in a Sunday service at a popular evangelical church in New York. He listened to the pastor use a phrase from Rawls—“justice as fairness”—to describe the notion of justice Christians derive from the gospel.

“I thought, ‘Are people even aware that the whole notion of justice as defined as fairness is Rawlsian?’ So I got a team of people, who know a whole lot more about Rawls than I do, to dig around and help us see where Rawls is in the culture and… provide a critique of Rawls from the Christian social engagement perspective,” Bradley said.

John Rawls is considered one of the most influential political philosophers of the twentieth century. In his most prominent works, including A Theory of Justice and Political Liberalism, Rawls sought to develop a politics common to people of all worldviews and religions. He recognized that the diversity we so prize in the United States has the undesirable effect of politically polarizing citizens. In response, Rawls stripped political life down to the most fundamental human capacities, proposing a way of political involvement and discussion that is open to all citizens, regardless of religion or worldview.

Rawls’ end product—justice as fairness—has been extremely successful in one sense. “His notion of ‘justice as fairness,’ now in the social sciences, is just the canon. It’s the law. It’s the rule. People don’t even question it anymore,” Bradley said.

Rawls’ followers would argue that he completed his project and found a theory that works. But in John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement, Bradley seeks to revisit that notion of success and open it up for debate.

Parks wrote specifically on Rawls and human equality. He explained in an interview that “the idea of human equality emerged from the Christian era. The question that Rawls is trying to ask is—now that we have that idea, can you account for human equality apart from Christian premises?”

Rawls wasn’t anti-Christian; he simply wanted to provide a space for Christians and non-Christians in the public square. But to Parks, an important question goes unanswered by Rawls’ work: “Why are we equal?” Unlike Scripture, which grounds human equality in man's reflection of God’s image, Rawls attempts to ground equality in human capacities. In his chapter on the subject, Parks argues that this is problematic, especially for those with severe impairments, the unborn and other special cases—groups that a Christian social engagement model would seek to consider first.

Parks’ first criticism is related to his second: Rawls’ dismissal of natural revelation. Drawing from Romans chapters 1 and 2, Parks sees fundamental truths available to all by natural revelation. Romans chapter 1 states that “[God's] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”

In Parks’ opinion, Rawls sought the same kinds of truths found in Scripture, but he was unable to draw out all of them, or enough of them, on his own. “What you end up with is an argument that strips away too much that we already know, that we all know,” said Parks.

Though Rawls’ project was not hostile to Christianity, according to Parks, but it fails the Christian. “It excludes arguments that ought to be there, and forces the historic Christian believer to set aside much of their identity and the arguments that inform that in ways that aren’t ultimately reasonable," Parks said.

A book published last December by Columbia University Press: Rawls and Religion arrived at the opposite conclusion. After examining Rawls’ work from a theistic perspective, its authors, Tom Bailey and Valentina Gentile, found Rawls’ theories to be complementary to a religious worldview. Bailey and Gentile, research and teach political philosophy and ethics in Rome.

Bradley, curious about where their exploration of Rawlsian theory deviated from his, hopes to begin a conversation with Bailey and Gentile in the future.

Reviews of the new book have been sparse but positive. David C. Iglesias of Wheaton College called it a “timely book” and praised it for explaining “the enormous impact John Rawls has on secular notions of relativism which have quietly crept into the Church. It is a must read for anyone seeking a Biblically based worldview.”

Bradley and Parks expect their book to be used in undergraduate and graduate political philosophy courses. Bradley hopes that it will help illuminate how pervasive Rawls’ theories have become and help Christians wrestle with their implications for the church.

John Rawls and Christian Social Engagement: Justice as Unfairness is available on Amazon for $85.00.