A friend sent me an article about the rise of Christian nationalism. I’m definitely a Christian, but not a Christian nationalist. So this got me thinking about pluralism, and why it’s complicated — as most things are.
The article asserted that up to two-thirds of white evangelicals are either Christian nationalists or “sympathizers”, and I bristled a bit at that. I’m definitely an evangelical, though given how prone some are to misunderstand what that term means, I understand why some now seek a different label. To me, it simply means being an heir to the solas of the Reformation, in an admittedly non-magisterial way. That shouldn’t be controversial; I suppose that the caricatures of my faith are the problem, and labels are always tricky. I’m not a pietist, but I believe in piety. I’m not a fundamentalist, but I hold to the fundamentals of my faith. I’m not a separatist, though I do spend a lot of my time alone now that my beautiful Diane is gone.
I believe in civic pluralism — that used to go without saying; so few things are allowed to go without saying now. But to me that simply means that all Americans are politically and legally equal (sometimes they aren’t treated as such), and should be, and that we take the voice of the people as determinative in the moment. The proper response to a lost election is an attempt to do better in the next one; it’s odd for me to write those words as if this were not just a given. It’s not clear to me that this is what everyone means by pluralism; indeed, it’s not entirely clear to me what others mean by many other things.
I checked Wikipedia, since they’re never wrong, except when they are, to see how many flavors of pluralism there might be. They cited Isaiah Berlin, calling him an “arch-pluralist” (I’ve read some of his work, and there’s not too much that I find arch about it), as follows: “let us have the courage of our admitted ignorance, of our doubts and uncertainties… [and] try to discover what others … require, by … making it possible for ourselves to know men as they truly are, by listening to them carefully and sympathetically, and understanding them and their lives and their needs”. Actually, there is no logically necessary connection between the first and the second of these assertions; compassion doesn’t require a lack of conviction, though a bit of epistemic humility works well as a garnish.
They continue by asserting that pluralists eschew extremism (and often spit it out), which I do; and that they are optimists about the notion of a sustainable definition of the common good, which I try to be, though by temperament I am a bit dour. Pluralists are said to value good faith dialogue, which I agree is an improvement over deliberate perfidy, and avoid having a hidden agenda. There’s nothing wrong with an agenda, though; the problem is with a lack of transparency about it. Phrases that obscure the agenda, such as “it’s not a date”, are to be avoided when possible. Put your cards on the table, I say; it’s all right to do that face down, since we all need plausible deniability, but only in moderation.
Well, this to me avoids the main point — there are two of them, really. The first is whether a pluralist has to be a relativist; I’m the former but not the latter. Some things are “really truly true”, as noted in the famous novel Bobbitt (no, not Babbitt), which was about a child actor who found it difficult to grow up. As a corollary, those who disagree with them are what I like to call wrong; not necessarily fatally wrong, often excusably and understandably wrong, yet wrong. Logic demands that; the law of noncontradiction has not yet been repealed. Of course, I don’t pretend that I’m always right; I’m no doubt frequently wrong, the challenge being to figure out which times those are. For instance, I used to think that the capital of South Dakota was Aberdeen. It’s not, but allow me to state for the record that it should be.
I note en passant that many, perhaps most, religious traditions including my own contain a mixture of inclusivist and exclusivist elements. I don’t see this as a problem; one can only define a category X with reference to things that are non-X, or there simply is no category. “I notice that you’re a contingent being!” “Well, who isn’t?” This is why membership in the League of Contingent Beings doesn’t require any annual dues, because there’s no down side to a failure to pay them. One remains contingent just the same; it’s a status that can’t be revoked, really. I think of my faith as remarkably inclusive, because anyone who desires it may drink of the water of life without cost, the price having already been paid. What could be more inclusive than that? But those who don’t want to drink it are presumably self-excluded; this seems necessary, though genuinely tragic. The door of grace remains open; one need only enter.
The second main point — you thought I forgot, didn’t you? — is that the American experiment is nearly unprecedented in that we have attempted to build and maintain a society that lacks a clear consensus about the true and the good. It’s necessary to do that if one seeks to be pluralistic; but the parameters of that have been stretched more of late, for varying reasons. Some on the left fear theocratic authoritarianism; some on the right fear anti-religious authoritarianism. Both have existed at various times and places in history — there was Oliver Cromwell, and there was Maximilien Robespierre. Around the globe today, we see in Modi’s India a place that is hostile to non-Hindus, and in Xi’s China a place that is hostile to any religious believer, and so on. Pluralism isn’t on the ascendant across the planet just now; and its enemies aren’t all to the left or to the right of the muddled middle I inhabit, but agree on coerced conformity, which I reject.
While some are suspicious even of the notion of freedom of conscience now, seeing somehow in that phrase an Orwellian inverse, I like the First Amendment very much; it’s no accident that Madison thought it belonged at the beginning of the lineup. People have to choose for themselves what they value and how they order their lives, with the government remaining as aloof as it can from playing referee. We may disagree about when it can do so; I admit that freedom of conscience may not quite be a political absolute, since there is always a balancing of the goods. But it comes close in my mind; and if I desire America to be positively influenced by my faith, that can only happen if I am winsome and wise, truthful and transparent, and (I hope) a light in a dark place. Stay tuned.
So I think Wikipedia is wrong when they assert that to be a pluralist is to call all views and all ways of life equally legitimate. That is obviously false; believing that the earth is flat is mistaken, and making a living as a purveyor of ransomware is reprehensible. What they may mean is that we ought not be too quick to judge, and should remember that we all stumble in many ways; and with that, I heartily concur. I almost slipped in the tub just this morning, due to my arthritic knee.