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

The Fundamental Debate Between Liberalism & Pluralism

Michael J. Gerson


June 22, 2012

By Michael J. Gerson

This is a transcript of a radio address broadcast on KDCR radio in Sioux Center, Iowa.

Many of America’s most intense public debates seem purely political, the pitting of one party or interest group against another.  But when you clear away the underbrush of partisanship, sometimes a principled debate remains. And this is certainly true of the controversy over the Obama administration’s contraceptive mandate. 

It is an issue that concerns, not just the outcome of a single election, but the nature of modern liberalism. What is the priority of a free society: the protection of pluralism or the promotion of liberal values? 

On one side of this debate are pluralists, who believe that a national community is composed of many different communities, each with broad authority to determine their own beliefs and practices. Some of those communities will reflect liberal ideals of equality and choice. Others will be more sectarian and hierarchical, requiring their members to hold certain theological views or moral beliefs. 

Many religious institutions fit into this later category. They may forbid women priests, or oppose contraception and abortion, or hold to traditional teachings on marriage and family. Some Americans find these views oppressive or unreasonable. But a pluralist view of freedom requires all Americans to tolerate some ways of life they would not choose—even ways of life they find oppressive or unreasonable.    

There are limits, of course, to pluralism. The state must enforce public order and protect the most basic human rights. Pluralism doesn’t excuse child abuse or human sacrifice.  But in the pluralist view, the government should grant wide latitude to institutions in determining their own views and practices, within the boundaries of public order.  

Yet pluralism has critics. Another strain of political philosophy asserts that liberal values should be given public preference by a liberal state. The government, in this view, should promote autonomy, equality and choice at every level of society—all the way down to voluntary associations and families. All institutions, including religious institutions, should be encouraged or compelled to grant their members greater choice and freedom. 

This view of liberalism, consciously or unconsciously, is at work in the contraceptive mandate. The Obama administration has prioritized the expansion of liberal values above the claims of pluralism, by forcing Catholic institutions to be complicit in practices they find objectionable.

Disagreements on these issues are sincere. But establishing the liberal view of autonomy as a publicly favored way of life is inherently aggressive. This approach has no limiting principle. It could be applied on any issue the state defines as compelling, inviting constant cultural conflict.

But there are arguments for pluralism beyond social peace. The habits of good citizens—self-control, cooperation and respect for the law—don’t emerge spontaneously. They are cultivated in families and religious organizations. The health of liberal political institutions is strengthened by the success of traditional institutions, which often teach values that prepare individuals for the responsible exercise of freedom.   

At the same time, strong civic institutions act as a check on government. This is a basic American belief: that freedom is best preserved by the broad distribution of power, resources and authority.

This is the genius of pluralism, and the best hope for a free and peaceful society: a single nation with room for deep disagreements.

—Michael J. Gerson is nationally syndicated columnist who appears twice weekly in The Washington Post and is the author of Heroic Conservatism (2007) and the co-author of City of Man: Religion and Politics in a New Era (2010).  

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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.”