Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Confident Pluralism

John Inazu


[This is an edited version of the 2016 Annual Kuyper Lecture delivered at Baylor University on June 10, 2016.]

We Americans like to talk about unity: we see ourselves as “one nation, indivisible,” and in pursuit of “a more perfect union.” But much of our actual existence is characterized more by difference and disagreement than by unity. We lack agreement about the purpose of our country, the nature of the common good, and the meaning of human flourishing. Our differences pervade our backgrounds, preferences, moralities, tastes, and allegiances. They affect not only what we think, but also how we think, and how we see the world. The philosopher John Rawls famously called it the “fact of pluralism.”

Our differences are not going to go away—we are stuck with the good, the bad, and the ugly of pluralism and all that it entails. That leaves us with a practical problem in need of a political solution. Rousseau proposed one answer to that problem: “It is impossible for men to live in peace with those they think are damned.” 

Confident pluralism insists that Rousseau was wrong. It argues that our shared existence is not only possible, but also necessary. Instead of the elusive goal of unity, confident pluralism suggests a more modest possibility—that we can live together in our “many-ness.” That vision does not entail illusions that our differences will disappear. To the contrary, it forces us to pursue a common existence in spite of our deeply held differences. Confident pluralism will not give us the American Dream. But it might help avoid the American Nightmare. 

Engaging with the Present

Some people argue that some things seemed more “coherent” in an earlier era. That sentiment is not entirely wrong, and we now have important questions to answer about what fills the content of something like “morality” in a secular society. But the nostalgic “going back” or “retrieval” mentality that sometimes appears in Christian discourse is not only impractical, it is to some quite offensive. Going back to the 1950s isn’t a great bargain for African Americans. Going back to the 1940s isn’t a win for Japanese Americans like my grandparents, imprisoned in the internment camps. The “good old days” were in many ways much harsher for religious minorities, for many women, and for gays and lesbians. A greater awareness of the pluralism that actually exists in our country puts pressure on coherence, but it also does a lot of good. Those who focus only on coherence miss some of the real gains that come with greater tensions.

The very real and pressing question, then, is not how we recover the past but how we engage in the present. Confident pluralism offers one answer to that question. It is the idea that we can embrace pluralism precisely because we are confident in our own beliefs and in the groups and institutions that sustain them. Confident pluralism takes both confidence and pluralism seriously. Confidence without pluralism misses the reality of politics. It suppresses difference, sometimes violently. Pluralism without confidence misses the reality of people. It ignores or trivializes our differences for the sake of feigned agreement and false unity. 

Confident pluralism allows genuine difference to coexist without suppressing or minimizing our firmly held convictions. The goal of confident pluralism is not to settle which views are right and which views are wrong. Rather, it proposes that the future of our democratic experiment requires finding a way to be steadfast in our personal convictions while also making room for others to disagree. Instead of shutting down or avoiding those with whom we disagree, confident pluralism suggests that we allow space for meaningful difference and, with it, the opportunity for persuasion.

The Legal and Personal Dimensions

Confident pluralism includes both a legal and a personal dimension. The inclination to shut a certain viewpoint out of the bounds of civil society begins with personal antipathy but it ends with legal prohibition, a refusal to extend the protections of the law to one’s adversaries, and ultimately, an effort to turn the law against them.  

Let’s begin with the legal dimension. Ensuring a confident pluralism means protecting the spaces where we differ the most. We must have meaningful constitutional protections for both individual and collective action that dissents, offends, and agitates. 

These protections are best animated by two legal doctrines. The first is what the Supreme Court calls the right of expressive association. The second is something called the public forum. While both of these doctrines should exist to protect spaces for meaningful difference and dissent, both are deeply distorted in their present forms.

The basic idea of expressive association is that the private groups that we form in civil society are important spaces that are properly free from government interference, absent an extraordinarily compelling justification. This is an essential right if we are going to live in society amidst our real differences – we must be able to protect the ability of voluntary groups to exist on their own terms. But the current judicial understanding of the right of expressive association does not adequately protect the boundaries of the voluntary groups of civil society. 

Instead of recognizing the importance of groups to the formation of beliefs, values, and identity, expressive association focuses only on their outwardly expressive dimensions. But each of us knows intuitively that most groups are far more than merely expressive. Think about those groups that matter most to you—we find meaning and value in belonging, in purely internal discussions, and in informal interactions. Focusing only on expression misses the inherent connection between a group’s existence, its practices, and its message. 

The right of expressive association also creates an artificial and dangerous distinction between groups that are expressive and groups that are purportedly non-expressive. The artificial label of expressive association elides the fact that all associative acts have expressive potential: joining, gathering, speaking, and not speaking can all be expressive.

The distinction between expressive and non-expressive collapses entirely once we consider its online implications. Websites, blogs, and other online forums are unquestionably expressive. Determining the sufficiency of expressiveness introduces countless subjective and ideologically charged judgments—the kinds of inquiries most suspect under the First Amendment. Even more problematically, courts and government officials could insist that they were simply making objective judgments that a certain group was not expressive or not expressive enough. Ostensibly neutral criteria would elide ideological and political judgments.

The right of expressive association is not just theoretically confused. It also weakens and obscures the protections that our constitution envisioned for the voluntary groups of civil society through the First Amendment rights of speech, assembly, and the free exercise of religion. Without stronger protections for the voluntary groups of civil society, we will not have the possibility of confident pluralism.

The second legal doctrine is called the public forum. This is constitutional protection to voice dissent in government-provided spaces— the physical and virtual spaces where citizens come together to voice their dissent, opposition, and discontent. Public forums can be actual places, such as town halls or city parks, but they can also be non-physical or virtual spaces. Public colleges and universities create public forums when they allow students to form their own organizations; local governments create public forums when they solicit comments on a website.

Public forums are essential to our democratic experiment. They provide a practical mechanism for citizens to gather, express, and engage—on topics and issues of their choosing, in their own ways and on their own terms. The ideal of the public forum represents one of the most important aspects of a healthy democracy. It signifies a willingness to tolerate dissent, discomfort, and even instability. But like the right of association, the public forum doctrine is also distorted in practice.

The suppression of public outrage in Ferguson in the immediate aftermath of Michael Brown’s death (and the detention of journalists who covered the protests) is one example of the ongoing violations of the public forum in this country.  Other examples cut across the ideological spectrum.  Under current law, political protestors in public forums are often relegated to physically distant and ironically named “free-speech zones.” Labor picketers confront oppressive restrictions in public areas. Churches are prohibited from renting generally available public facilities. Occupy Movement protesters in New York City parks, antiabortion counselors on Colorado sidewalks, and political protesters in the North Carolina capital have all been silenced by government officials overreaching their authority. The public forum in practice is quite unrecognizable from its ideal, and that departure should give us great pause.

Our Civic Responsibilities: Tolerance, Humility, and Patience

Strengthening protections for voluntary groups and reclaiming the public forum are two of the essential constitutional commitments of confident pluralism. We must insist that the people we entrust to govern us honor these basic principles. But confident pluralism also depends on us in the everyday decisions without the constraints of law or policy—in what we say and do, and how we interact with other people. These decisions are an important part of the pluralist vision—they play out in the midst of our lives to a far greater degree than the occasional court decision that too often preoccupies our greatest attention.

These civic responsibilities are an essential part of confident pluralism. They build upon three aspirations: tolerance, humility, and patience. It might seem less obvious that we would pursue tolerance, humility, and patience in light of our firmly held convictions. But it is in fact the confidence in our own views and beliefs in the midst of deep difference that allows us to engage charitably with others. Rather than lashing out at others or remaining in our own echo chambers, we can pursue dialogue and coexistence even when (and perhaps especially when) we believe that our views are in fact the better ones. 

Tolerance does not require embracing all beliefs and viewpoints as good or right.  Instead of an “anything goes,” happy-go-lucky tolerance, we can embrace a practical enduring for the sake of coexistence. Parsing the difference between tolerance and approval requires the hard work of distinguishing between people and ideas. Tolerance asks that we treat people with respect. It doesn’t mean we have to respect all ideas. Every one of us holds ideas that others find unpersuasive, inconsistent, or morally reprehensible. The tolerance of confident pluralism does not impose the fiction that all ideas are equally valid or morally harmless. It does mean respecting people, aiming for fair discussion, and allowing for the space to differ about serious matters.

Humility takes us a step further. It requires us not only to recognize that others will sometimes find our beliefs and practices morally objectionable, but that we can’t always “prove” why we are right and they are wrong. The humility that I am describing is based on the limits of what we can prove, not on claims about what is ultimately true. For this reason, it should not be mistaken as relativism. 

Humility leaves open the possibility that there is right and wrong and good and evil.  Our beliefs can be true; they can also be known. In fact, many of us know our beliefs even if we can’t prove them, just as we know lots of things that we can’t prove. We know what we ate for breakfast last week.  We know that we are loved (and sometimes that we are not loved). This kind of knowledge also extends to our moral beliefs. We know that burning someone alive is bad and helping a vulnerable child is good. Many of us are also confident about more contested moral beliefs. And we confidently hold these beliefs even though some people reject them. 

Patience points toward restraint, persistence, and endurance. It also encourages efforts to listen, understand, and perhaps even to empathize. We need not accept or affirm as we do so. In fact, it may turn out that patience leads us to a deeper realization of the error or harmfulness of an opposing viewpoint. But we can at least assume a posture that leaves open a different possibility, that moves beyond caricatured dismissals of others before we even hear what they have to say.

Confident pluralism allows us to seek common ground across difference through tolerance, humility, and patience, with confidence in our own beliefs. The proper object of Christian confidence is always the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. That is ultimately what makes confident pluralism compatible with Christian theology. In that confidence, we can engage with the world as we find it, and we need not fear the realities or the limitations of pluralism. 

Questions for Reflection:

  1. Do you agree with Inazu’s assessment that our nation can find ways, both legally and interpersonally, to live together with our deepest differences? ‎ Why or why not? 
  2. What disciplines, habits, or practices will you need to adopt in order to sustain relationships with people with whom you deeply disagree? What disciplines, practices, or habits will you need to change or stop?


-- John Inazu is an Associate Professor of Law and Associate Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis and an alumnus of the Center for Public Justice’s Civitas program. This lecture draws primarily from his most recent book, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference.

“To respond to the author of this Commentary please email:
Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”