Two months ago, I wrote an article for CT that explored the issues and complications surrounding the growing tensions between religious liberty and LGBT rights. I also suggested that Christians ought to pay greater attention to pluralism, an idea that I explore in more detail in this academic article (and in an upcoming book).
I am grateful to CT’s editors for the invitation to share some additional thoughts about these and related issues, and I plan to do so in a series of essays in the coming months. In this essay, I want to explore the contours of our society’s pluralism, and how Christians might engage with our pluralistic world regardless of where they find themselves in it.
Out of Many, One?
Our nation has many aspirations toward unity and a common good. Our Constitution sets a course for “a more perfect union.” Our politicians speak of a great “melting pot” that flows out of a “nation of immigrants.” Our pledge of allegiance refers to “one nation.” Our nation’s seal, E pluribus unum, promises “Out of many, one.”
These aspirations are to some extent realized. Almost all Americans agree about the background practicalities we need to live as a society. Most of us agree that we need public roads, national defense, fire departments, and the like. We also agree today on many basic features of a democratic society: the right to vote, the right to due process of law, the right to free speech. We disagree—sometimes sharply—about the contours of these rights, but we usually have enough of a baseline to recognize the nature of our disagreement. And importantly, we agree about many basic laws, like those protecting life and property, the payment of taxes, and the operation of courts and prisons.
But all of this common ground tells us surprisingly little about who we are as a people, what our goals should be, or what counts as progress. On these deeper questions, Americans remain a deeply divided and pluralistic people. Our differences extend to religious liberty, LGBT rights, immigration, abortion, poverty, foreign policy, health care, economics, philosophy, theology, law, and education.
As I write these words, my hometown of St. Louis grapples with painful and complex questions about race, class, and law enforcement. The public commentary of the past month has made clear that people across this country disagree sharply over the causes of and solutions to the problems brought to light by the shooting death of Michael Brown. Many disagree about the scope and meaning of Ferguson itself: whether Brown’s death and the ensuing protests concern an isolated incident whose details are not yet known (and may never be known), or whether they represent a far greater set of challenges. These disagreements point to striking differences in perception and belief—not merely about what our goals should be as a society, but even about what our problems are in the first place.
These deep differences complicate appeals to “the common good” of our society. We can, as Andy Crouch has argued, use the language of the common good within Christian discourse. But framing our own practices (like neighbor love) in common good language is quite different from invoking that language in broader political argument. The pastor who challenges church members to pursue “the good of God as the good of all” differs from the politician who argues that a particular law or policy furthers “the common good.”
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SOURCE: Christianity Today
John D. Inazu