Research

My project is about whether religions threaten or support liberalism. I am interested in politico-theological reconciliation, that is, the reconciliation between religious beliefs and civic duties of citizens in a constitutional democracy. In respect of this project, I have two research areas, public reason and Confucianism. Public reason is one of the central ideas of political liberalism, a liberal theory which seeks to show that constitutional democracy is compatible with citizens’ different ethical and religious comprehensive doctrines. Confucianism, a traditional ethical comprehensive doctrine that is influential in East Asia, serve as an example to show how traditional religions and cultures can contribute to the ethics of public discourse.

According to the philosopher John Rawls and his followers, each democratic citizen has a civic duty of voting and debating with others in terms of public reasons (i.e., secular reasons that are shared with other fellow citizens). However, in reality, many citizens in western democracies, especially those who have religious beliefs, ignore this duty, and rather believe that they should act according to the word of God. For example, when many American Christians vote for partisan politicians, such as Bush and Trump, they are not concerned with whether their political views are publicly justified or not. Rather, they are only concerned with whether the politicians are pro-life or not, since they believe that God requires them to vote for pro-life candidates. In brief, many religious citizens feel that civic duty and religious duty pull them in opposite directions. Without politico-theological reconciliation, religion may tempt citizens to behave badly and thus harm democracy. Therefore, my research is interdisciplinary, involving political philosophy (exploring the content of civic duties), political science (the influence of religion to current politics), and political theology (how religious faith can be reconciled with civic duties).

Some public reason theorists propose to enhance civic education to enlighten religious believers, whereas some argue that the government should restrict the actions of partisan politicians. I, however, argue that the key solution is cooperation between the clergy and the government. Only religious beliefs can explain why religious believers should restrain themselves and act in terms of public reasons. Instead of blaming that many religious believers are unenlightened and requiring them to follow civic duties, the government should recognize their psychological tension and acknowledge that appropriate religious education is crucial in civic education. Hence the importance of “liberal clergy”. Clergy play a crucial role in educating religious citizens and channeling religious beliefs into being compatible with civic duties. Thus, the separation of church and state should never imply a laissez-faire approach to religions. A democratic government should make use of subsidies and tax exemption to encourage more churches to become liberal. My view can be termed public reason integralism, emphasizing the importance of clergy in integrating religious citizens into the democratic community. It is different from the prevailing view of the public reason theorists, that a democratic government should either ignore or restrict the actions of religious organizations.

My interest in democracy also inspires me to think about how democracy could be established in non-democratic societies. Due to my background, I am especially concerned with the East Asian non-democratic societies, and how Confucianism could be reinterpreted in a way that supports democracy. I disagree with the orthodox interpretation that Confucianism is a perfectionist theory that demands the state to encourage an ethical ideal of sagehood. This interpretation implies a dangerous move towards an anti-democratic meritocracy. Therefore, I defend Confucian Neutralism, and that Confucianism should endorse a government that maintains harmonious order (治). In modern pluralistic society, the form of government that can best maintain harmony is a liberal democracy that is neutral to all religions and cultures, including Confucianism. Hence, instead of demanding a government to promote Confucian ideas and to make everyone virtuous, Confucians should support liberal democracy that avoids using laws and policies to promote any religion or culture.

Consequently, these two projects together form a two-fold response to the global crisis of democracy. The desirability of democracy is recently widely challenged. Some Westerners are disappointed by the chaos in their democratic societies and are worried that religious extremists may threaten democracy. Some East Asians argue that meritocracy is more suitable for them than democracy due to their Confucian culture. My Public Reason Integralism shows how democracy can be consolidated by encouraging cooperation between the clergy and the politicians, and my Confucian Neutralism shows that Confucianism in fact provides rich soil for democracy to be built on. Therefore, these two theories timely address the pressing critiques of democracy that are currently in vogue in contemporary Eastern and Western societies.

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