Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act has caused widespread and heated debate. Some say it allows people to discriminate against gays and lesbians, while others say it gives people of faith more liberty to live out their convictions. Reactions to the Hoosier state’s new law show there is fundamental disagreement over the scope of religious liberty and to what extent particular minorities should be protected.
The pointed commentary surrounding the Indiana law is a recent reminder that we lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, the meaning of human flourishing. Our differences are everywhere: they pervade our backgrounds, preferences, and allegiances. They affect not only what we think, but also how we think—and how we see the world.
To be sure, not all of our differences are problematic. Most of us think some difference is good, that a variety of perspectives makes life more interesting. I think the world is a better place because I pull for the Duke Blue Devils (especially today!) and some of my friends cheer for lesser basketball teams this time of year. March Madness would be less interesting if everybody liked Duke and nobody cheered against them. (My friends have assured me there is little danger of this possibility.) We might reach a similar conclusion about beauty, taste, and humor. Some of these differences enrich our lives. Some of them lead to sharper thinking and greater creativity.
On the other hand, we do not think that all difference is good. We can all name beliefs and actions we think the world would be better off without. This is especially true when it comes to our moral beliefs. We might prefer a society in which everyone agreed about what counts as a justifiable homicide, a mean temperament, and a good life.
To complicate matters, we also disagree over the nature of our disagreements, and over how much disagreement is good. That is all the more true when we look outside of our Christian communities to those who live, work, and play alongside us. Some of the differences manifested in our broader culture are fundamentally at odds with each other—they cannot all be true. It cannot be the case that the act of abortion is both morally acceptable and morally intolerable. It cannot be the case that God came into the world in the person of Jesus and that he did not.
These and other differences matter. They create the practical problem of how we live together in spite of and across our disagreement. One answer to that problem is what I call Confident Pluralism. This posture does not naively suppose our differences will go away. Rather, it helps us pursue a common existence amid our deeply held differences. Instead of the elusive goal of unity, Confident Pluralism suggests a more modest possibility—that we can live together in our “many-ness.”
Confident Pluralism takes both confidence and pluralism seriously. Confidence reinforces the convictions we hold. Pluralism recognizes and reinforces the differences that exist. Confidence without pluralism misses the reality of difference. It suppresses difference, sometimes violently. Pluralism without confidence ignores and sometimes trivializes our stark differences for the sake of feigned agreement or false unity. Confident Pluralism allows genuine difference to exist without suppressing or minimizing firmly held convictions.
This is not a distinctly Christian idea, and Christians and non-Christians alike could embrace it. Indeed, the origins of the phrase point toward that possibility.
In 2010, the Supreme Court ruled in Christian Legal Society v. Martinez that a public law school in San Francisco could impose an “all-comers” policy on campus student groups. The policy required groups to admit as members—and even leaders—any student who wished to participate. The Republican Club must accept Democrats. The pro-choice club must accept pro-life students. Religious groups like the Christian Legal Society with creedal membership or leadership requirements were unable to comply, and those groups are no longer welcome on the San Francisco school’s campus. The Court’s decision started a wave of similar policies that have removed some religious groups from college campuses around the country.
During the litigation in the Christian Legal Society case, the group Gays and Lesbians for Individual Liberty filed a brief highlighting the problems with the all-comers policy. Although the group promotes acceptance of members of the LGBT community, it argued that the all-comers policy sacrificed the freedom of other student groups to associate around religious convictions. The brief concluded that “the First Amendment envisions a better way: A confident pluralism that conduces to civil peace and advances democratic consensus-building.”
Confident Pluralism depends upon both legal frameworks and personal commitments. Legal frameworks focus on what we require of government to ensure the conditions that make Confident Pluralism possible. Personal commitments point to what we ask of ourselves.
The legal frameworks in this country are not where they need to be to foster Confident Pluralism. While our nation has a longstanding commitment to protecting difference and dissent, current constitutional doctrine fails to do so in important ways. In particular, current Supreme Court case law insufficiently protects the voluntary groups of civil society through a weakened right of association and an enfeebled public forum doctrine. These shortcomings risk harm to citizens of all stripes—religious and nonreligious, liberal and conservative. Religious believers would be wise to learn about these legal frameworks and their shortcomings in light of the decreasing cultural appreciation for religious liberty.
The personal commitments—what Confident Pluralism asks of us—cover the ordinary spaces of our lives that, for the most part, lie beyond the reach of law. In an earlier essay for CT, I gestured toward that argument by highlighting three aspirations to strive for: tolerance, humility, and patience.
Christians can pursue these aspirations in the spaces that the law does not regulate; we can choose to model kindness and charity across deep differences without sacrificing the claims upon which we stake our lives. That posture will affect how we talk to and treat others. The aspirations of tolerance, humility, and patience do not prevent us from expressing moral judgments or public claims of faith. But they will inform how we express such judgments and faith claims.
The aspirations of Confident Pluralism can help us recognize a common humanity in our neighbors, coworkers, and classmates. We can work toward partnership even when our differences will not be overcome. And we can find common ground even in the absence of a shared common good.
This call to find common ground is not an unworkable pipe dream. It unfolds in the unlikely friendship between Chick-fil-A founder Dan Cathy and Campus Pride founder Shane Windmeyer. It manifests in the surprising relationship between former Republican Senator Tom Coburn and President Barack Obama. It plays out in the creative partnership between Christian evangelist Kevin Palau and Sam Adams, the gay former mayor of Portland, Oregon (a partnership that has enabled 26,000 volunteers from 500 local churches to help “the city do everything from renovating parks, to counseling victims of sex trafficking and feeding the homeless”).
Each of these common ground examples involves a relationship that overcame distance. We might be inclined to focus on bridging ideological distance—to think that these people in some ways grew closer to one another’s views or worked toward compromise of belief. But that interpretation would be wrong in each of these cases. Finding common ground does not require bridging ideological distance through compromise or change. It depends on lessening relational distance through the civility, trust, and friendship that emerges through shared experiences. Those experiences are more often than not the stuff of everyday life: sharing a meal, laughing together, or helping a neighbor.
Pluralism, Not Relativism
Confident Pluralism allows for disagreement over claims about truth and ultimate reality. Just as we would expect non-Christians to allow Christians to believe and live out the claims of Christianity, we must also allow others to act out of their own beliefs and commitments. Some Christians worry that this kind of forbearance will collapse into relativism, but it doesn’t have to. And if it’s truly confident pluralism, it won’t.
We can begin by recognizing that limits on what we can prove are different from claims about what we know (or, as some would put it, about our warranted beliefs). We know lots of things that we can’t prove. Suppose that I ate fish on the first Friday of Lent. I can’t prove it to you. And if I tell you that I remember eating fish and you don’t believe me, I won’t change your mind by insisting that my memory is correct. I could even show you a video of me eating, in front of a calendar, but you could argue that it was staged—that it wasn’t really on that Friday, or that I wasn’t really eating fish.
The fact that I remember eating fish does not, by itself, give me a way to prove that event to you. But it does give me a certain kind of knowledge. This kind of knowledge also extends to other beliefs. We know that we are loved, and sometimes that we are not loved. We know that burning someone alive is bad. We know that helping a vulnerable child is good. Many of us are also confident about more contested moral beliefs. And we confidently hold these beliefs even though some people don’t share them and others reject them. We retain confidence in our beliefs, even when we recognize that they often stem from premises that others don’t share.
Each of us, religious or non-religious, live out our beliefs in our actions. Christians act on a belief that the claims of Jesus Christ are true. Non-Christians act on other beliefs. As theologian Lesslie Newbigin observes, “We are continually required to act on beliefs that are not demonstrably certain and to commit our lives to propositions that can be doubted.” Recognizing this fact of the world does not make us relativists.
Even though Confident Pluralism is one practical outworking of Christian witness in a liberal democracy, it finds resonance in Christian theology. For example, in our English translation of Psalm 118:9, we see the psalmist proclaim, “It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes.” And the well-known verse from Hebrews asserts that “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (11:1).
Such examples of confidence in the Christian tradition bring to mind what Newbigin calls “Proper Confidence.” For Christians, the proper object of our confidence is always the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In that confidence, we can engage with those who don’t share our beliefs. And we can do so with a grace that flows out of our confidence in the gospel.
That is not relativism. It is witness.
John Inazu is Associate Professor of Law and Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis and a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, where he is writing a book on Confident Pluralism.
Image credit: Jim Culp, Flickr