In Pluralism's Defense

Editor’s Note: This is part of Law & Liberty‘s series of Faultline Essays, in which we publish different perspectives on a given topic, allowing authors an opportunity to read and respond to each other’s work before publishing them together.

In any democratic society, one must wrestle with the tendency toward tyranny of the majority. How, we ask, can we promote a fair and representative government while ensuring minority viewpoints are not summarily dismissed? What does it mean to respect the voices of the many while hearing the voices of the few? And what does this mean for questions and debates at the heart of our most cherished convictions?

Institutionally, our bicameral legislature and the Electoral College provide some answers. But writing in Federalist 10 James Madison proposed an additional solution: By encouraging the proliferation of factions in our society, we decrease the chances that one faction will dominate others. As various factions emerge with their own interests and points of view, it becomes less and less likely that one will command a majority across a range of issues and periods of time. It is pluralism, Madison argued, that best guards against our innate majoritarian impulses.

What is pluralism? I define it as a framework of politics and culture marked by competing (and even contradictory) conceptions of the good life. These can be deeply held ideas about religion and morality, yes, but they can also be beliefs about culture, governance, and other organizing principles. In a pluralist society, people are not expected to have identical lifestyles or articulate similar visions of what is right. Instead, pluralism gives space for the marketplace of ideas to thrive, and for people to flourish as a result.

Madison’s proposal is not without its problems. What happens, for example, when more and more of our identities are wrapped up in fewer and fewer competing factions? Still, Madison was on to something in recognizing the importance of pluralism in representative democracy. By supporting and maintaining a system where diverging voices are not only permitted but encouraged, we can cultivate a diverse and flourishing society. Yes, pluralism can be messy, but messiness is not tantamount to weakness.

In this essay, I argue that pluralism, as a political and legal framework for a diverse and contested society, ought to be pursued and embraced by conservatives. Pluralism, properly understood, provides important checks on government while respecting individual and group rights. And while it can be difficult to implement consistently and fairly—as Doug Walker notes in his companion essay—pluralism is nevertheless a more desirable framework than alternative arrangements and one that should be fought for in the years to come.

Pluralism is Not Relativism

One critique of pluralism in liberal contexts is that it inevitably leads to moral relativism, wherein actors deny objective truth for the sake of social harmony. Under pluralism, one may argue, we cannot collectively ascertain truth, stand on shared principles, or even interpret reality in a cohesive way. Pluralism, the argument goes, raises individual identity and experience above what is true. And when anything can be true, nothing ultimately is. For a society to promote flourishing in service of the common good, there must be agreement on certain first principles. Pluralism, it could be said, gets in the way of this process.

But pluralism does not foreshadow nor require relativism. As a Christian, I can hold my faith in confidence while recognizing the dignity of others whose convictions differ from mine. Moreover, pluralism is not an admission that there is no truth; it is an acknowledgment that we can disagree about truth and still exist together despite deep differences. Pluralism does not require us to throw up our hands in the face of competing conceptions of the good, but it does hold that there can be no coercion about what is right. For better or for worse, under pluralism individuals have the freedom to make these determinations for themselves.

We may wish for people to adopt our views, not for the sake of oppression but for the good of both the individual and society. As a Christian, I strongly believe that the gospel best leads to human flourishing in a fallen and corrupted world. But coercion cannot foster moral prosperity or objectivity. Pluralism asks people to evaluate competing truth claims, consider alternatives, and arrive at conclusions on their own. Pluralism does not lead to moral relativism, nor does it deny objective truth. Instead, it lets people choose for themselves, rightly or wrongly. Under pluralism, it is the means, not the ends, that matters most.

Support for pluralism is not an inherently progressive position. Indeed, there are many reasons why conservatives ought to endorse pluralism as a structure for social relations. From a political perspective, pluralism requires the government to treat people’s convictions about the good life as equally valid under the law. Absent a compelling government interest and policy enacted in the narrowest way, people’s beliefs and subsequent practices are held in the highest of legal esteem. Pluralism therefore restrains and places significant limits on government action. This is something any conservative should applaud.

In addition to restraining government, pluralism ensures individual freedoms. In systems and cultures rejecting pluralism, there is no incentive for governments and societies to respect the natural rights of persons to think and practice freely. Authoritarian regimes—such as those in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and North Korea—are among the least pluralist systems in the world in terms of ideological and religious liberties. Meanwhile, states like Hungary maintain democratic values yet are increasingly embracing illiberal tendencies, with major implications for dissenting voices and cultural minorities.

By contrast, the United States explicitly protects individual freedoms in religion, speech, association, and more, leading to a robust and dynamic environment for competing ideas and values. Indeed, the First Amendment all but guarantees a pluralist society, one where views are not mandated in a top-down format, but rather encouraged to develop from the bottom up. For conservatives wary of government power and supportive of individual rights, pluralism is far superior to alternative arrangements.

Perhaps most important, though, is pluralism’s respect for persons. While pluralism does not deny objective truth, it does object to imposing one set of beliefs on all people in a society. While this imposition requires empowering the state to a frightening degree in invalidating established legal and natural rights, it also rejects the deepest elements of the human condition. Pluralism maintains respect for persons as made in the image of God with the free will to choose or reject the good life.

Southern Seminary’s Andrew Walker is far from a relativist or progressive on the cultural battles of the day. It is therefore noteworthy to read his defense of pluralism in Liberty for All: Defending Everyone’s Religious Freedom in a Pluralistic Age. In his book, Walker defends a theology of religious liberty closely resembling pluralism as described here. He argues that Christians should support religious pluralism in daily life, encouraging people to hold and exercise their deepest held beliefs in an increasingly complex society. This not only respects our fellow image bearers—even allowing them to choose wrongly—but also cultivates a space for the Christian faith to thrive.

Americans—and especially conservatives—should not reject pluralism because of how it is applied; we should instead seek to strengthen and better root it because of the weight it gives to values increasingly at odds with cultural norms.

As a Christian, it concerns me to see growing support for “Christian nationalism” in certain corners, especially when cited in favor of using state power to favor a particular conception of the good life. I am not unsympathetic to this temptation, given the challenges that lay ahead for Christians in an increasingly post-Christian America. But, as Walker suggests in Liberty for All, these challenges should prompt support for pluralism, not criticism of it:

Whatever hardships may come for Christianity, a commitment to pluralism that allows the Christian message to be freely expressed may be one of its greatest long-term strategies for continued presence and activity in the public square. Contestability should be one of Christianity’s most cherished principles as its influence wanes, as it allows for continued dialogue and Christian public witness.

Just as one should invest during economic downturns, those finding themselves increasingly in the minority should be among the most vocal advocates for pluralism.

Value Pluralism and Conservativism

All this brings me to Doug Walker’s essay on value pluralism and the threat to conservatism. Walker has highlighted several important challenges to pluralism, some of which take aim at what I have written here. I want to respond directly to his essay, highlighting points on which we seem to agree while also identifying important points of contention between us. And while Walker does identify real problems with pluralism, it remains to be seen what a better framework might be for those prioritizing both human flourishing and the imago Dei.

Walker’s summary of the philosophical and practical implications of liberalism is helpful. There is a danger of pluralism that comes from liberalism’s emphasis on individual autonomy, one that is, like Walker says, rooted not in any moral or religious tradition but rather in the subjective values of differing persons. Pluralism of this sort is not without its challenges, particularly in an era marked by declining social capital and increasing emphasis on individual identity. What used to be disagreement over values can now be wrongly characterized as hate speech or even violence.

This concern seems to drive Walker’s critique of pluralism, especially in terms of how pluralism may lead to intolerance of ideas increasingly viewed as outside acceptable norms in a liberal society. Conservative beliefs about sexuality and gender, culturally mainstream for hundreds of years and embedded in the deepest trenches of theology and philosophy, are only just recently being declared out of bounds by ascendant ideological gatekeepers. Christian universities like mine may have sincere reasons to maintain a traditional sexual ethic in hiring faculty and staff, but these reasons are increasingly seen by opponents as inherently bigoted and wrong.

Moreover, Walker astutely observes that classical liberalism’s emphasis on individual liberty is far different than today’s conception. The liberty of John Locke, for example, is the liberty to pursue what is good for the sake of human flourishing, not unabashed and unrestrained liberty to do whatever one wants. This libertarian conception is squarely at odds with tenets of classical liberalism, but it has, Walker notes, become the dominant understanding of liberty in our contemporary liberal order. Pluralism grounded therein is bound to pose real challenges to those adhering to orthodox and deeply rooted principles.

Walker’s solutions to these challenges are straightforward. Toward the end of his essay, Walker argues that conservatives should reconsider the relationship between neutrality and pluralism, and “recapture a more vigorous sense of ‘liberty.’” I couldn’t agree more. But conservatives can do this through the pluralist framework currently in place. Contesting these terms does not require abandoning pluralism or the liberal order, as some post-liberals have recently argued. Rather, it is the environment pluralism yields that best gives space for the marketplace of ideas to thrive. While conservatives are correct to point out occasional unfair practices, it does not follow that we should burn down the store.

Walker is also right to critique the increasing prevalence of moral relativism in our political and cultural disputes. As Bonnie Kristian observes, the progressive emphasis on individual experience and identity—and the relativism that follows—is a primary contributor to our widening epistemic crisis. But moral relativism is not a result of the pluralism envisioned by Madison and supported by our constitutional order. Competing factions and interests do not encourage moral relativism any more than religious or expressive liberties do. One person’s convictions are not weakened when another person can freely hold his own. Moral relativism is a crisis, yes, but practical pluralism is not to blame.

“We the People”

For diverse and complex societies, pluralism provides a path to political stability and social accord. But pluralism is not immune from problems. Pluralist states are often rife with conflict, as people with differing—and, in many cases, conflicting—deeply held beliefs are unlikely to yield when confronting one another. These conflicts often breed inefficiency in governance and policymaking, rendering legislative bodies unresponsive bystanders to our most contested and important disagreements.

But more importantly, as Doug Walker suggests, the biggest criticism of pluralism today is that it might not exist in the first place. Yes, Americans hold myriad beliefs about religion, ethics, and politics, but our culture has always valued some beliefs over others. Rather than being left alone, religious minorities—from Quakers to Catholics to Mormons to Muslims—have routinely faced challenges from those holding more dominant beliefs. Lately, it is theologically conservative Christianity that is increasingly out of step with prevailing cultural norms. As it has been throughout our history, ours is not always a “live and let live” society.

Still, these challenges do not come close to outweighing the benefits our imperfect pluralism provides to diverse and changing societies. Conflict and applicative inconsistencies aside, pluralism opens doors rarely opened under coercive regime types. Applied fairly, pluralism gives minority viewpoints and communities room to breathe. And for those of us who occasionally occupy minority positions in our culture, this is a very good thing.

Americans—and especially conservatives—should not reject pluralism because of how it is applied; we should instead seek to strengthen and better root it because of the weight it gives to values increasingly at odds with cultural norms. Though occasionally exacerbating cultural conflicts, pluralism provides a template for coexistence despite deep differences, provided we are willing to work for it. Pluralism is not perfect, but in our divided era it remains the best hope for maintaining a constitutional and social order squarely centered on “we the people.”