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

On Dreams of Justice and Cups of Cool Water

Paul Brink


(Editor: This is the fifth in a dialogue series of contributions on the nature of pluralism in American politics.)  

At their most basic, the questions that Strauss, Woodiwiss, Koyzis, and Hunter have been asking concern the question of how we should relate politically to those who are fundamentally different from us. Woodiwiss in particular is concerned that in the attempt to “account” for difference, pluralists risk missing just how deep and intractable difference actually is. According to Christian agonists such as Woodiwiss, given the reality of the Fall, our difference concerns not mere matters of public policy, amenable to resolution through policy whitepapers covered in bullet-points, or even through more conferences sponsored by the Center for Public Justice. On the contrary, Woodiwiss warns that the differences encountered in the Earthly City penetrate to our very core, and, as a result, our political situation is considerably more perilous than our Enlightenment-informed pluralist visions might suggest.


My own view is that the distinction Woodiwiss highlights is overdrawn. The longtime, faithful readers of Capital Commentary could hardly conclude that political reality is somehow “nice,” or that the differences encountered in the political arena are mere “inconveniences to temporal harmony.” Indeed, those same readers might discover that Woodiwiss’s portrayal of the “destructive passions and wills” found in the antithesis between the Cities of God and Man represents Christian agonism with a distinctively Kuyperian accent. Not even the Christian agonist’s attempt to mediate between political quietism and cultural antagonism will be unfamiliar to the principled pluralist.  Indeed, such debates are the bread and butter of the Center for Public Justice.


I wonder, rather, whether the disagreement may have its source in a certain propensity among pluralism types to emphasize the big-picture Kingdom vision over the faithful day-to-day efforts in the long, slow, hard work of justice-seeking. The vision behind the Center for Public Justice is grand: its roots go deep into historic Christianity, and it remains nourished by traditions of theological and theoretical reflection that are lively and increasingly global in their reach. But when the Center for Public Justice enters Washington’s public space, it does not stand on the street corners shouting out the names “Abraham Kuyper” or “Herman Dooyeweerd” (or even “James Skillen”!). Rather it does “some limited good using the means at hand,” slowly, carefully, working with allies as it finds them, talking with those who will listen, occasionally experiencing success (remember charitable choice?), but more often making the sort of progress that is not the stuff of newspaper headlines.


Of course, that doesn’t make the grand vision any less necessary. Indeed, especially because the political task entails what the sociologist Max Weber called “the strong and slow boring of hard boards,” the principled political actor, whether pluralist or agonist, needs grand visions of justice and goodness, without which the people will perish.


Though his emphasis may be different, would not the Christian agonist, reaching for his cup of cool water, have to agree? Who precisely should be the recipients of our political cup of cool water, especially when such water is scarce? Any who ask? Immigrant neighbors not here legally? Neighbors not yet born? May we take cool water from some neighbors so that we may give it to others? Under what conditions? Might we be able to help the thirsty neighbor drink from her own well? For these and a host of other similar questions, we need the dream of justice and the principles to which it gives rise. And as we deal with these questions within political societies where many such dreams compete with each other, we will continue to require something like principled pluralism to articulate our tentative answers.


—Paul Brink, Associate Professor of Political Studies

Gordon College 


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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.”