Pluralism Isn't Just for Political Losers
A debate between two Christian conservatives shows how shifting political tides can affect commitment to principles of toleration and difference
In an earlier post, I defined two different meanings of pluralism: (1) the fact of deep differences in our society; and (2) the way that we respond to those differences. My 2016 book, Confident Pluralism, focuses on the second. I argue that we should respond to the fact of deep differences in our society with a posture of humility, patience, and tolerance. We should, for the most part, let others pursue their own ways of life, even when we think their choices are wrong. At the same time, I made clear that no society fully embraces all forms of difference—every society sets limits. As I tell my students, we know the United States is not fully pluralistic because we will not allow the Church of Human Sacrifice.
In the News
Last week, a debate about the limits of pluralism unfolded between Albert Mohler and David French. Mohler is the president of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. French is an attorney and political commentator who writes for The Dispatch and The Atlantic. (French is also a friend of mine whom I will be interviewing in an upcoming edition of Some Assembly Required.)
The controversy began after Mohler critiqued French’s Atlantic essay supporting the Respect for Marriage Act. The proposed legislation would require the federal government to recognize the validity of same-sex and interracial marriages and also provide certain protections for the religious liberty of those who do not support same-sex marriage. The Act comes in response to a number of the Supreme Court’s decisions, including its 2022 decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization (overruling Roe v. Wade) and its 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges (recognizing a constitutional right to gay marriage). After Dobbs, some commentators were concerned that the Court might revisit its gay marriage decision (and Justice Thomas urged as much in his Dobbs concurrence).
Mohler’s critique invoked a philosophical debate of whether pluralism is a normatively attractive—and for Christians, a theologically plausible—response to the fact of difference in our world. He expressed astonishment that French, as a Christian, would support the right of “gay couples to enjoy the legally protected right to build a life together.” Mohler elaborated:
The key issue seems to be French’s basic confidence in pluralism as the great civic goal and central political principle. But pluralism requires careful definition and boundaries. In a recent book, French explains, “I recognize pluralism as a permanent fact of American life and seek to foster a political culture that protects the autonomy and dignity of competing American ideological and religious communities.”
Mohler then offered his gloss on French’s quote:
But what, dare we ask, are the allowable boundaries of respectable pluralism? In answering this question, David French is particularly unclear. If he is clear, his view would undermine any stable public morality based on any objective moral truths.
In Mohler’s view, pluralism cannot tolerate gay marriage: “If marriage is not conserved—if civil marriage is not conserved as a man-woman union—then nothing genuinely conservative can last, at least for long.”
French observes in a lengthy response that Mohler’s “big beef is with my commitment to pluralism.” He finds particularly implausible Mohler’s charge that pluralism “undermines any stable public morality based on any objective moral truths.” Turning to the context of Mohler’s critique, French writes:
This argument is occurring after hundreds of thousands of gay marriages have been performed, and I have yet to hear a compelling argument why the “stable public morality” [that Mohler advocates] requires Christians to support ripping legal recognition and stability from those families.
Can you imagine waking up one morning and hearing the state no longer recognizes your marriage and that suddenly everything from medical decisions to child custody to basic inheritance and ownership rules were up for grabs? And the people telling you “stable public morality” requires your pain and sacrifice have also told America that a vote for a thrice-married, multiple adulterer who faces multiple, corroborated claims of sexual abuse, and who appeared in Playboy Video Centerfold: Playmate 2000 Bernaola Twins was an urgent moral imperative?
In My Head
Shortly after the release of Confident Pluralism, Mohler interviewed me on his podcast, Thinking in Public. I’ve never met Mohler or spoken with him outside of our interview, but I recall being impressed that he had read my book carefully and asked smart questions. For example, he honed in on the distinction between pluralism as a belief that leads to relativism and pluralism as a political response to the fact of difference. Focusing on the latter, Mohler noted:
[G]oing back to the period of the American founding, there was the understanding that this particular civilizational experiment, this experiment in self-government, would reflect from the beginning the understanding that everyone is free to come to the public square with all his or her convictions intact.
During our interview, Mohler was particularly interested about issues of religious freedom and his worries about the implications of gay marriage for religious freedom. At the end of the interview transcript, Mohler appended a few reflections on our conversation, asserting that “this kind of confident pluralism is exactly the kind of mode of public engagement that is called for not only in this time, but should have been affirmed in times past as well.”
Mohler interviewed me in October 2016, a week after The Washington Post reported on the Access Hollywood tape capturing Donald Trump bragging about sexually assaulting women. The day after that story broke, Mohler wrote his own Washington Post editorial, warning that American evangelical support for Trump’s presidential campaign was “a price for possible political gain that is simply unthinkable and too high to pay.”
A lot has happened since October 2016.
By 2020, Mohler had decided he could indeed support Trump. How any Christian could vote for Joe Biden, he wrote, “is beyond my moral imagination.”
But Mohler’s views of Trump aren’t the only changes in his thinking. We can see this by focusing a bit more on the Respect for Marriage Act.
The Act follows years of proposed legislation seeking to add sexual orientation (and, in some versions, gender identity) as protected classes to a wide range of federal antidiscrimination laws. Some earlier versions of this legislation included religious liberty protections; others did not.
The politics are complicated, but politicians, lobbyists, and commentators generally fall into one of four camps when it comes to The Respect for Marriage Act and the legislative proposals that preceded it:
Progressives who seek adding antidiscrimination protections without any religious liberty protections.
Progressives and conservatives who seek both antidiscrimination and religious liberty protections.
Conservatives who oppose any antidiscrimination protections involving sexual orientation or gender identity.
Conservatives who oppose any antidiscrimination protections involving sexual orientation or gender identity and also oppose legal recognition of same-sex marriage.
Mohler critiques French for being in Camp 2 and locates himself in Camp 4. This means Mohler either no longer supports pluralism at all or still supports pluralism generally, just not when it comes to gay marriage. Even if Mohler now holds this latter position, it sounds a long way off from endorsing Confident Pluralism as “exactly the kind of mode of public engagement that is called for not only in this time, but should have been affirmed in times past as well.”
In 2016, facing a likely Clinton presidency and threats to the religious freedom of those who opposed same-sex marriage, Mohler advocated for the importance of pluralism. Six years later, with a very different Supreme Court that likely provides a backstop to some of his earlier concerns for religious freedom, Mohler’s enthusiasm for pluralism appears to have waned.
The problem is that this is not how real pluralism works. Real pluralism requires political compromise and living with those whose words and actions offend your sensibilities even when—especially when—the politics might favor your views. Pluralism can’t just be the last refuge of political losers—it requires give and take from all of us.
In the World
Mohler’s critique of French quotes from French’s most recent book, Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. French picks up on many of the same concerns I address in Confident Pluralism. He pays particular attention to how geography and partisan divides contribute to our fractured politics. In the last part of the book, he advocates for a renewed emphasis on pluralism in America today. Take a look for yourself to see if you are persuaded.