Two years ago, I published a book called Confident Pluralism. In it, I argue that living together across our differences in this country must begin by acknowledging the depth of those differences. And our differences are indeed deep: We lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, and the meaning of human flourishing. These differences affect not only what we think but also how we think and how we see the world. Pluralism, the fact of our differences, is a fact of our world.
The past two years have affirmed, if not magnified, these claims. Many of us have experienced increased fracture, animosity, and distrust surrounding politics, religion, race, sexuality, and other important matters. The weakening of major institutions (in politics, education, the media, and religion) and the continued rise of social media have contributed to a crisis of authority. These developments pose significant obstacles to attaining the minimal amount of consensus and sense of belonging that we need in order to make confident pluralism possible. And these challenges are compounded by what political analyst Yuval Levin, in his book The Fractured Republic, diagnoses as misguided nostalgia and lack of imagination from both of our major political parties. But though the challenges have intensified, I am no less committed to confident pluralism. Finding a modest unity across deep differences is not only possible but necessary.
Between Chaos and Control
The premise of confident pluralism is that we can make room for our differences even as we maintain our own beliefs and practices. Doing so requires both legal and personal commitments. When it comes to the law, we must insist that those in power protect our ability to disagree. We must have a shared commitment to allowing for dissent, difference, and divergent beliefs. That means strengthening First Amendment freedoms for everyone.
The personal argument focuses on civic practices rooted in three aspirations: tolerance, humility, and patience. Tolerance acknowledges that people should generally be free to pursue their own beliefs and practices. This is not the same as approval; it is much closer to endurance. We can usually respect people even if we don’t respect their ideas. Humility recognizes that we will sometimes be unable to prove to others why we believe we are right and they are wrong. Patience asks us to listen, understand, and empathize with those who see the world differently.
The American experiment in pluralism depends upon legal commitments and civic practices. And we have usually found ways to maintain a modest unity against great odds. We have always done so imperfectly, and too often our political stability has been purchased at the cost of suppressing or silencing those with less power. But in acknowledging our country’s shortcomings, we can also remember some of its successes. The disagreements between white Protestant men at the founding of our country may seem trivial today, but those differences meant widespread killing in other parts of the world. Our debased and dehumanizing political rhetoric leaves much to be desired, but unlike many other societies, we usually stop short of actual violence. In the midst of deep disagreements with our neighbors, we still find creative partnerships in unexpected places. These examples of our modest unity are important reminders that we can live together across deep differences. On the other hand, they do not suggest that we have or will overcome our differences. As I write in the book’s conclusion, confident pluralism will not give us the American dream, but it might help avoid the American nightmare.
Christians have a much greater reason for confidence, one rooted in the theological virtue of hope. Regardless of our circumstances, we can engage in this messy and uncertain world because we trust that God is in control. Because of our confidence in the gospel, Christians should see not only the challenges of pluralism but also its opportunities. This was the focus of an article that Tim Keller and I wrote for CT last year. We concluded with these words: “The audacity of Christian hope is that Jesus Christ came into the world and is reconciling all things to himself. He is both the subject and object of our confidence, and as generations of saints who have come before us have testified in word and in deed, he is sufficient. It is with that hope and that confidence that we engage in the world in an anxious age.”
That still seems right to me. In fact, Tim and I are doubling down on the claim. We are collaborating with ten friends (Claude Alexander, Rudy Carrasco, Sara Groves, Shirley Hoogstra, Kristen Deede Johnson, Warren Kinghorn, Lecrae, Tom Lin, Trillia Newbell, and Tish Harrison Warren) to write a book suggesting how Christians from different backgrounds and walks of life can model confident engagement with the world in a way that both respects people whose beliefs differ from ours and maintains our gospel hope. We want to demonstrate a form of engagement through tolerance, humility, and patience that draws from the rich complexity of the American church today—and ultimately rests on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love.
But it’s not just about the books or articles we write. As Christians, we should display this kind of confidence in our daily lives, rooted in love of God and love of neighbor. We should concern ourselves with repairing the social fabric around us rather than looking solely to our own interests. We can serve lavishly and risk boldly, stepping outside of our comfort zones with our time, money, and reputations. We have no reason to fear, because we know that God holds our lives and our world in his hands.
Christian confidence allows us to engage confidently in our world, entering into risky and uncertain relationships and opening our lives and our beliefs to inspection and criticism. There is an urgent need to model this form of engagement. If we instead allow our partisanship and echo chambers to rule us, then we will soon find it impossible to maintain any kind of shared discourse. And we will find ourselves headed toward chaos.
Confident pluralism seeks to avoid chaos, which ignores our differences. It also cautions against control, which suppresses those differences we don’t like. We can choose to live between the extremes of chaos and control by insisting on legal protections that honor difference for all and practicing civility in our own relationships across difference. In doing so, we should not pretend that confident pluralism will lead to an idealized society. Any workable theory of democratic politics will have some degree of chaos and require some amount of control. Constitutional protections like associational rights allow our private groups to flourish, but they increase the risk of instability. Civic aspirations underlying our speech and actions give us norms that protect against chaos, but these same norms also introduce elements of social control.
Still, Christians can work to avoid too much instability and too much social control. We can begin by showing greater charity toward those who differ from us. For many of us, this will require a more empathic imagination. I regularly speak to Christian audiences of different political persuasions about the aspirations of tolerance, humility, and patience. It is not uncommon to see people nodding in seeming agreement during my presentation, only to have some of them reveal afterward their lack of receptivity in private questions or correspondence: “Confident pluralism sounds great, but surely it can’t include Muslims.” “I am not going to tolerate Republicans.” “Liberals are too smug to be humble.” “Don’t ask me to be patient with white men.” The aspirations of confident pluralism are needed most when our views of others tend toward stereotypes and dismissals.
We can also do a better job of acknowledging those around us who call us to our better selves. These people don’t often make the headlines, but their good and ordinary work accomplishes the extraordinary task of keeping us together. People all around us do this work every day, particularly at the local level: through surprising friendships between people who disagree about core values; through local partnerships in public education between religious and nonreligious people; and through the everyday acts of neighbors and strangers coming together to help vulnerable populations. In these instances and others, Christians and non-Christians work across difference and navigate the challenges of pluralism without succumbing to the despair that leads to chaos or the fear that leads to control.
Turning Aspirations into Virtues
On the other hand, if we are going to realize the possibility of confident pluralism, we are going to need more than a mutual nonaggression pact. We will need to figure out how to practice civic friendship with one another. And that is going to require a great deal of effort. Confident pluralism refers to tolerance, humility, and patience as aspirations. People can aspire to almost anything. But aspirations can only take us so far—at some point we will need to see aspirations transformed into virtues. The virtues of tolerance, humility, and patience can only be learned over time—they must be cultivated and sustained by putting our aspirations into practice. With enough practice, we can begin to form habits, dispositions, and—eventually—virtues.
Moving from aspirations to practices will require common language, stories, and moral traditions, the kinds of shared narratives sustained by institutions. And many of our institutions—including Christian ones—are in desperate need of repair. If we are honest with ourselves, many of our own institutions have fallen short of facilitating the practices and stories that form virtuous people. Some of these institutions have rotted from greed, racism, and sexism. Our desire to repair the social fabric starts in our own backyard.
The deep divisions in our society are not going away. But in the midst of our differences, Christians can model tolerance, patience, and humility with our neighbors. We can bear witness to the faith, hope, and love of the gospel. We can be confident in our own beliefs as we engage charitably in a world of difference.
John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis. This article draws in part from the preface to the newly published paperback version of his book, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference (University of Chicago Press).