The Public Square on Memorial Day

By Carl Trueman:

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 Statesis 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…..

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….

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