As the breakdown in civic discourse continues apace, it is refreshing to read John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference—a welcome call for a more constructive public square. But sadly I fear its message will be little heeded. Too little, too late might well be the book’s epitaph—though not, I hasten to add, because of any intrinsic problems with Inazu’s careful scholarship, clear argumentation, or winsome vision. The problem lies with the state of the world to which the book is addressed.
The argument is in two parts. Part One deals with the legal and constitutional issues that provide the framework for pluralism, Part Two with the social practices that foster a healthy pluralism in practice. Both the legal framework and the social practices are necessary. Indeed, a symbiotic relationship exists between the two: The latter need the protection of the former, and the former are often interpreted and applied on the basis of cultural norms and expectations embodied in the latter. Underlying Inazu’s argument is a basically conservative understanding of human nature and of the importance of mediating social institutions, and thus of the need for government to provide a context for the flourishing of difference and diversity rather than imposing its own (inevitably restrictive) version of the same.
Part One is vital reading for anyone interested in issues of religious liberty. Inazu, a law professor, parses some important distinctions and also walks the reader through some key legal decisions. For anyone involved in education post-Obergefell, an understanding of Bob Jones University v. United States is vital. If comments made during the Obergefell hearings are any guide, Bob Jones is likely to be the legal precedent that will close down schools holding traditional views of sex and marriage.
Part Two outlines the ways in which pluralism can be cultivated through institutions, attitudes, and relationships. It contains worthy aspirations and sets forth a vision of an engaging and attractive society. If there is to be an answer to the current madness, I agree with Inazu that the answer will be found at the local level, where human beings are required to deal with each other as real individuals rather than as abstract concepts. It is hard not to acknowledge a common humanity when one is speaking face-to-face with one's next-door neighbor. Or at least it has been so until now. Whether such will survive the full weight of the anti-culture culture remains to be seen.
Nevertheless, Inazu’s work contains two potentially fatal flaws—through no fault of his own, I might add. First, Inazu fails to see—or perhaps underestimates the fact—that dialogue and tolerant co-existence are functions of a balance of power between competing groups and/or a deeper sense of shared social identity that relativizes differences in the public square. In other words, pluralism depends in large part (as Inazu’s argument in Part Two indicates) upon the existence of a healthy culture of diversity-in-unity. How we can restore that culture once it is gone is not easy to see. And that points to the real problems we face: a notion of personhood and identity in freefall, and the breakdown of mediating structures under the weight of an aggressive government allied with big business and the law courts, educational institutions where open and respectful discussion are not valued, and a pop-culture industry that sells nothing but a Puritanical amoralism.
Thus, Inazu provides no large-scale answer to the question of how we can reinvigorate a healthy pluralism when those with their hands on the levers of power—political, economic, educational, and cultural—have nothing to gain from such. Contemporary society’s moral imagination—I dignify it with that adjective, and that noun, merely for the sake of argument—is dominated by the solipsistic psychological hang-ups of the fist-shaking few generalized into a sort of twisted Kantian imperative to be imposed without exception upon all. How long will it be, I wonder, before the Attorney General decides that men who identify as dogs are indeed dogs and thus have the constitutional right to urinate in public up every available lamppost in your neighborhood?
The second flaw is that Inazu’s argument makes sense. Yes, the vision of society he presents actually makes sense—it really does—which is a major drawback today, dooming the book to immediate irrelevance. People simply do not operate in the public square in terms of sense any more, for that would require a kind of minimal objective unity of social purpose. The self-fulfilling nature of the notion that the world is a psycho-linguistic construct is now so deeply embedded in our social institutions that any such unity of larger purpose has become a chimera. Indeed, it is now hate-speech even to deny the cretinous notion that the world is merely a psycho-linguistic construct, as all the transgender nonsense (and I use the word in its strictest sense) indicates. Perfectly reasonable arguments that assume at root a common human nature and a minimal consensus on human flourishing have little purchase.
Nonetheless, Inazu’s book should be read by all who desire a more civil, thoughtful society than the one in which we find ourselves. If nothing else, it sets forth a vision of what we might be if the world were not so intent upon unchaining the earth from the sun. How we get there is not clear, however, and I for one think the situation is much bleaker than Inazu acknowledges. But optimism is perhaps one of the more forgivable sins.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.