The Promise of Confident Pluralism

I’ve been following the work of John Inazu for about 18 months now. Anytime he posts something in Christianity Today, I know it will be thoughtful, non-reactionary, and optimistic. It’s a breath of fresh air when too much of Christian media is caught up in “sky is falling” analysis.

John is an associate professor of law and political science at Washington University in St. Louis. I had been eagerly anticipating his book release and when I got my copy on Saturday I read the whole thing in one sitting. It offers as much hope and optimism as i thought it would. For those concerned about religious freedoms in a pluralistic culture, it’s a very worthwhile read.

InazuThe book is an interesting combination of constitutional legal analysis and commitment to certain civic principles. Interestingly, the phrase “confident pluralism” is taken from an amicus brief filed in a famous California law school case, Christian Legal Society v. Martinez, which challenged “all comers” policies when it came to religious groups in secular institutions. The brief was filed by a gay rights group in support of the CLS position.

Here’s how John describes confident pluralism in the introduction to the book:

The goal of confident pluralism is not to settle which views are right and which views are wrong. Rather, it proposes that the future of our democratic experiment requires finding a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions, while also making room for the cacophony that may ensue when others disagree with us. Confident pluralism allows us to function — and even to flourish — despite the divisions arising out of our deeply held beliefs (8).

Important to his argument is the Madisonian balance between the majority and the minority on a variety of issues. Russell Moore of the ERLC made a marvelous defense of religious freedom for Muslims, to the dismay of some listeners. But this is exactly the point about allowing for the inclusion of others into the rights we protect. At the same time, there is legitimate interest in protecting the dissent rights of those who stand counter to the prevailing mood. Much of the religious freedom legislation is caught up in trying to navigate this balance and Inazu explores how Supreme Court decisions have made this balance more difficult.

He argues that the “right to assemble” has been an underdeveloped component of constitutional jurisprudence. John characterizes this right to gather with like-minded others as a key protection in the First Amendment, even though the Court hasn’t recognized it as such. With this perspective, the right of an InterVarsity group to want its leadership to endorse its views or a Christian University to limit student behavior takes on a different light. I have argued the other side of some of these issues based on the law as it stands, but I find John’s argument persuasive.

But he doesn’t leave it there, which is where the pluralism comes in. If all we had were groups that were formed around particular interests, the result would be a balkanized society. Coser’s conflict theory argues that group cohesion is aided by having an out-group to be against. Inazu argues that we need forums, both governmental and private, that allow for robust interaction around issues of import.

[These forums] are an essential part of confident pluralism because they allow citizens and the groups that they form to advocate, protest, and witness in common spaces — and they are insufficiently protected under current constitutional doctrine (9).

His next constitutional issue deals with the limitations of public funding for groups that fall outside the mainstream. He deals with the issue of tax exemption, exploring not only the Bob Jones decision but also a feminist magazine. If public funding is generally available, it should be so without forces pushing conformity.

The public funding requirement insists that generally available resources are made available to any student organization. That principle should protect Christian groups in the current political climate on progressive school campuses. It should also protect atheist or LGBT groups on conservative public school campuses (80).

These constitutional provisions are necessary but not sufficient conditions of confident pluralism. They are accompanied by a set of civic principles that would govern how we relate to those who are different from us.

The exercise of tolerance, he argues, is based on a recognition that we can disagree on ideas and values but not on personal worth. We can differ without demonizing. John describes some speech norms that can help us here, namely by avoiding character attacks and conversation stoppers. To see examples of both of these, go read the comments section on just about anything on the internet. In this light, “political correctness” has become a conversation stopper when I would argue that it really is a significant issue that requires serious attention. More on this in my next post.

We may engage in protests or boycotts to make our voices heard, but these still fall within the constraints of tolerance and speech norms that would govern public forums. In addition, our goal is to actually build working relationships between differing groups even if the value separations cannot be overcome. This part of the book draws on a fascinating history of the connections between Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Hustler publisher Larry Flynt. If they can find ways of developing mutuality, even while disagreeing vehemently on core values, so can any of us.

I have written much, along with many others, about what it means to live in a post-Christian society, to be in a context where religious values are not a default position. I saw research cited today that a significant percentage of a sample was unconcerned with the question “If you were to die tonight…”. The reality is that there are lots of people who don’t think like evangelicals do.

When confronted with that reality, one option is to embrace nostalgia. The PRRI reports that 70% of white evangelicals feel society has gotten worse since the 1950s. Another option is to cry persecution, that “they” are out to get “us”. This requires an understanding of “their” motivations that we don’t often have, finding it far easier to impute motive. A third option is to crave the political and symbolic power to make sure our view is held in favor — making sure our stores say “Merry Christmas”, for example.

What John Inazu offers is something much harder, something more promising, and something ultimately more Christian. To engage others as valuable people, to find ways of engaging our differences, and managing to live confidently as people of faith in a changing culture.

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