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

Small Steps Towards Principled Pluralism

Timothy Sherratt


Small Steps Towards Principled Pluralism

July 26, 2013

By Timothy Sherratt


Over the last few weeks, two very different processes have nudged the US polity in the direction of principled pluralism. These are the Senate’s decision to retreat from the “nuclear option” to weaken the filibuster and the Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling that for-profit businesses may be exempt from the provisions of the HHS contraception mandate on conscientious grounds.

Principled pluralism entails that a society provides legal space for a range of worldviews—the basic beliefs with which people operate in the world. The simplest of these orders of pluralism guarantees people freedom to worship and freedom from being required to support religious commitments to which they do not subscribe. In the American constitution, this form is enshrined in the First Amendment and in Article Six, which rejects religious tests for office holding, thereby outlawing both favoritism and discrimination on religious grounds.   

A second order of pluralism recognizes that the exercise of basic beliefs extends beyond the act or place of worship to the ordering of family life and the means of earning one’s living. By its very nature, practicing worldview commitments in these domains attracts more controversy, largely for the potential to clash with cultural expectations.

A third and equally important order of pluralism allows for citizens sharing a common set of beliefs to organize politically around those beliefs in various ways to influence public policy, including lobbying government or contesting elections. In this respect, the United States lags behind most democracies. Proportional representation, which encourages multi-party democracy, supports this principle better than the single member district plurality system employed for the US House of Representatives, which perpetuates the unrepresentative two-party system.

Many liberal, democratic political systems permit principled pluralism, without necessarily encouraging it. Political systems embrace it when they anticipate its dimensions and are structured to facilitate its expression. Our two cases illustrate this.

Last week, the US Senate decided to pull back from the so-called “nuclear option” over stalled executive branch nominations. Senators left in place the sixty-vote supermajority needed to head off a filibuster rather than change the rules to allow a simple majority to secure that result. By protecting the filibuster, the Senate maintained one of several means of protecting pluralism, albeit indirectly. Designed to preserve state interests against majority wishes, the filibuster empowers a single senator with veto power to protect those interests.

Had the Democratic leadership implemented the nuclear option, the consequences may have been worse than the usual gridlock or compromise that the filibuster’s operation can bring. Although executive appointments would have moved along more smoothly and more bills would have become laws, the current balance of powers would have been compromised. This could have led to a seesawing of laws enacted by Democrats and repealed by Republicans (or vice versa) when first one party, then the other, gained the upper hand. For example, had the filibuster been weakened in concert with a Republican Senate majority in 2014, an early victim of the new process could have been the Affordable Care Act.

For more than a year, the HHS contraception mandate has been the subject of considerable controversy. The mandate requires employers to provide insurance coverage for a broad range of contraceptives to their employees at no charge. Originally, to secure exemption, an organization had to serve exclusively its religious clientele, although the administration subsequently broadened that exemption in the non-profit sector.

Hobby Lobby, a for-profit business, has now won a temporary injunction from the punishing fines that non-compliance attracts. The Tenth Circuit Court ruled in Hobby Lobby’s favor, on the grounds that the proprietors’ free exercise rights are unacceptably burdened by the mandate while the federal government has not demonstrated a compelling interest to sustain that burden.

Why is this so important?

Like the decision to preserve the filibuster, the struggle over the scope of exemptions where religious conscience is at stake also approaches the standards of the second order of principled pluralism. It reassures citizens that cherished beliefs will be respected, even if those beliefs may be contested—as some medical authorities have contested the claim that Ella and Plan B are abortifacients.

Christians support steps to preserve or expand the orders of principled pluralism, not as panaceas for society’s problems, but as moves towards public justice. Those steps, large or small, are consistent with a biblical view of persons as relational beings whose cooperation with God calls them to exercise multiple stewardly responsibilities. Making room for those responsibilities to be exercised conscientiously—according to basic beliefs, Christian or otherwise—lies at the heart of principled pluralism. Structures that protect minority interests and laws that contain meaningful religious exemptions foster an atmosphere of principled pluralism.  


-  Timothy Sherratt is Professor of Political Science at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts.


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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.”