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John Inazu responds

July 24, 2014

I appreciate the time John Inazu took the time to thoughtfully respond to my post on his Christianity Today essay. For now I think it’s best I post it without comment. Please read the whole thing.

Praj, thank you for your kind and thoughtful engagement with my essay.  You’ve raised some important questions.  I’ll offer some partial and tentative thoughts now, and I hope to develop some of them in greater detail in the coming months.

First, a couple of small but important points about the wording of your post.  You end by suggesting that the details of my pluralist argument “need to be filled in.  Fast.”  I certainly understand the feeling of urgency—no doubt exacerbated by Twitter feeds, Facebook shares, and online comments.  But I would caution all of us from moving too quickly with the articulation, translation, and working out of ideas.  Even very old ideas (like pluralism) take time to work out in new contexts and with people who may be encountering them for the first time.  That is one of my greatest concerns about the political developments over the past few months.  They are forcing decisions with tremendous consequences that lack the benefit of reflection—not only reflection by those imposing the decisions, but also from those on whom they are imposed.  Here I am thinking primarily but not exclusively of President Obama’s recent Executive Order, as well as the borderline hysterical response to Gordon College President Michael Lindsay signing a letter requesting a religious exemption under that Executive Order.  (It’s not like Gordon came up with its views out of the blue, or that they differ markedly from the views of tens of millions of Americans).

One other small but important point about the wording of your post.  Your first paragraph posits: “Few people would acknowledge that any of their beliefs are morally reprehensible.”  That is right, of course, but it differs from my claim that “every one of us holds beliefs that others find morally reprehensible.”  My hope is that all of us will have enough self-awareness to know that others find some of our beliefs morally reprehensible.  But that is quite different from asking people to acknowledge that their beliefs are actually reprehensible.  (I would hope that most people who arrived at that conclusion would abandon those beliefs.)

Now to your substantive points.  I share your concern that there is a large segment of society that is more or less “unreachable” by an argument for pluralism.  Importantly, that demographic includes people on the Left and the Right.  My hope is that there is enough of a “reasonable middle” that is open to the political, theoretical, and practical arguments about pluralism.  And I mean to include in the “reasonable middle” many people with very strong and opposing beliefs about things that matter.  Prominent supporters of gay marriage have made similar arguments; I have seen less of this in the other direction.    (I also think the twenty-something demographic is extremely important here, and I haven’t seen a lot of good arguments directed at them.)

As the preceding paragraph suggests, I am not making an argument for some kind of Christian pluralism.  Rather, I am making an argument from within American constitutionalism and political theory (and by those descriptions, I mean to encompass law, history, and culture).  My argument will undoubtedly be contested and critiqued from within that discourse, but it does not depend on premises that lie apart from that discourse.  I do maintain, however, as I wrote in the CT essay, that this kind of argument is “fully consistent with a faithful Christian witness.”

I have no idea whether the pluralist argument from within American constitutionalism will “work.”  American constitutionalism is a kind of ongoing argumentative practice—at times incoherent, but still recognizable as a practice on its own terms.  Its practitioners include lawyers, judges, and politicians, but also ordinary citizens.

Part of the practice of American constitutionalism is a willingness to engage critically with arguments about text, history, and interpretation.  And it is here that the argument for pluralism could have the most traction.  The appeal to pluralism is bolstered by its strong historical connections to progressive movements ranging from abolitionism to women’s suffrage to gay rights.  (I take up a number of these historical examples in my first book, Liberty’s Refuge, which is freely available for download here.)

Of particular relevance, gay social clubs, student groups, and bars benefited from legal protections based on appeals to pluralism during the early gay rights movement.  These were, to be sure, hard-fought protections.  But the protections were real, they were advocated by those who faced far greater cultural disadvantage than religious conservatives confront today, and they depended upon principled arguments from within American constitutionalism.

You rightly noted that my CT essay was “short on specifics.”  Space considerations made it difficult to provide specifics in that essay, and they are similarly constraining here.  I do plan to work out some of the specifics in the coming months, including in a new book that I am writing at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture while on leave from my academic position at Wash U.’s Law School.  I hope that you and others will help to work them out with me.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Victor permalink
    July 26, 2014 10:14 am

    Go, Prof Inazu! Nice response.

    I think the slow methodical working (and living) out of these questions and what it looks like is what has been actually happening in the margins of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, etc. (at different paces and points of progress for each). It’s something Brian McLaren often says and it’s been amazing watching and reading his journey over the past 20 years, for instance. The community of people around similar ideas is so much bigger than when he began (I think they were there, but many were in the closet). I’ve experienced a benefit from such a slow, reflectful living-out of these questions as opposed to shock therapy which doesn’t work with anyone asking these questions especially when their very identity is being questioned (from their perspective).

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