Is Unlimited Pluralism Really a Good Idea?
Two things came to my attention via the print media at the same time. One was an opinion essay published in my local newspaper. It was syndicated. In other words, my local newspaper picked it up from some other news source and re-published it. The author was a scholar of constitutional law. In it he strongly criticized the U.S. Supreme Court for allowing a huge cross to stand on public land in memory of U.S. citizens who died in World War 1. He argued that in America all religions should be treated equally with favoritism shown to none. (Of course, the Supreme Court defended its decision by declaring that a cross can be a secular symbol because of its history in American culture.)
Around the same time it came to my attention that a member of a Satanic temple gained the right to open a local government meeting in Alaska. She ended her talk with “Hail Satan!” According to news sources many people walked out in protest.
These two events, a new expression of an old idea about pluralism and a government meeting opened by a Satanist hailing Satan, ground against each other in my mind. That’s called cognitive dissonance. Sometimes I enjoy cognitive dissonance but most of the time I want to overcome it. I want to relieve it as much as possible with an opinion that creates more cognitive and less dissonance.
What I would love to ask the author of the opinion column is what he thinks about a Satanist opening a public government meeting with “Hail Satan!” And I would like to ask him what he thinks about a Satanic symbol being erected on public land and allowed to stand there. Perhaps he would say he approves of both—for the sake of pluralism. Or perhaps he would say no religious ceremony (prayer or expression of religious belief) should be permitted in a public, especially government, meeting.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
As a Baptist I am a strong believer in separation of church and state. Although some Baptists do not embrace that traditional Baptist belief, I do and it is one reason I became a Baptist. Traditionally, Baptists always (until recently) were passionate defenders of separation of church and state.
However, my own research into Baptist church history leads me to believe that our Baptist forefathers and foremothers never envisioned a day when Satanism would be permitted in the “public square” on an equal footing with Judeo-Christian monotheism. I believe they never envisioned the rise of secularism or paganism within European or American culture and society. When they (e.g., John Leland) talked about separation of church and state they meant that no Christian denomination should be supported by government and that government officials should not be required to be members of one (as was the case in some New England states even after the American War of Independence).
While I strongly disagree with pseudo-historians who claim that all the founders of the American republic were Christians, I strongly agree that they all assumed a Judeo-Christian basis for the republic’s laws. That Judeo-Christian basis took the form of Deism for some of them, but original Deism was rooted in a Judeo-Christian theistic worldview.
I do not think any culture or society can long exist with sheer, unlimited pluralism of ideas about ultimate reality. By “pluralism” here I mean all ideologies, worldviews, philosophies, religions treated equally. That can only result in chaos as people of absolutely contrary belief systems vie for power. In other words, I believe there is no such thing as a cultural vacuum devoid of any metaphysical basis for ethics.
As much as I disagree with German theologian-philosopher Ernst Troeltsch about Christian doctrines and about his implicit cultural-religious relativism, I agree with him that biblical religion (worldview) has provided the values for Western civilization and without that at its center, especially replaced by sheer pluralism, Western civilization cannot endure.
In other words, pluralism is a good idea until Satanism and similar worldviews and religions arise and claim equal standing with Judeo-Christian theism in the public square.
This raises many questions. For example, some will argue against me that public spaces should be denuded of all religious symbols. I would respond that all symbols have some religious or at least quasi-religious (Tillich’s phrase) significance—to someone. Sociologists have coined the term “civil religion” for those who implicitly worship the U.S. Constitution and our form of government. I would go further and argue that even “sheer pluralism” has a quasi-religious element to it.
Is it possible for one culture, one society, to grant equal status everywhere and at all times to all religious and quasi-religious belief systems? Not without eventually falling into chaos or one emerging to exclude all the others. True Judeo-Christian theism does not want to exclude all the others in terms of persecuting them; tolerance of different opinions and beliefs and the right not to be persecuted because of one’s beliefs are rooted in Judeo-Christian theism. John Locke and other early modern proponents of those ideas were explicitly Christian even if not exactly orthodox ones. The church fathers argued against religious persecution as did the radical reformers.
Right now, in America, we still have a cultural favoritism toward biblical religion, Judeo-Christian worldview, but that is being attacked and undermined by many people in the name of secularity and pluralism. And some secularists and pluralists are actually attempting to marginalize Christianity in public spaces. This past Easter weekend I was in a large mall of a major U.S. city. I walked into a bookstore and saw up front, just inside the door, a large table filled with books and paraphernalia related to Easter. Except there was not one book or symbol about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Most of the books and other objects were about Easter bunnies and eggs, etc. Some were about Spring. But some were Jewish—about Passover. And in the center of the table stood a Menorah. (I happen to know the store is not owned by Jewish people; it is a national chain.) So I asked an employee why there were no books on the table about the resurrection of Jesus which is the Christian meaning of Easter. She looked puzzled and only said “I’ll talk to the manager about that.” I doubt that she did. I felt brushed off.
That is not an isolated incident. In the same large American city I entered a “big box store” the name of which everyone would know. There’s one in every American city. There was a large “endcap” of books and objects related to Easter “stuff” including a shelf of Passover books and objects including a Menorah which I assume at least some people think of as a Passover symbol. (My understanding is that it is not specifically that.) Again, no hint of anything about Christ or Christianity or the resurrection of Christ anywhere in the store.
What I wonder is if these kinds of incidents can be accidental? I don’t think so. I think the store owners know that Christians will not object to the presence of other-than-Christian Easter books and symbols but that some non-Christians will object if they include Christian books and symbols on displays.
I could go on and give numerous examples of this that I have experienced. But I won’t here.
Do I feel persecuted? No. Do I sense that some businesses are consciously excluding Christianity while including other religions and non-Christian symbols in place of Christian ones on and around Christian holidays? Yes. Am I offended when a store clerk fails to say “Merry Christmas?” No. Am I offended when a store clerk tells me her manager forbids them to say “Merry Christmas?” Yes.
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