Flourishing in a Pluralist World

A version of this article originally appeared in the Public Justice Review, a publication by the Center for Public Justice. 

Last summer, a number of French seaside towns, not normally known for regulating beach wear, imposed a ban on the wearing of the “burkini,” swimwear designed for Muslim women who wished to go to the beach but didn’t want to expose anything more than their faces. Though most of the towns eventually withdrew the ban, the regulation was of a piece with a wider French ban on wearing face veils in public, a ban not uncommon across a number of Europe’s democracies. It’s tempting, of course, to merely smirk at the broadly libertine French getting twisted about over the sort of clothing its citizens might wear in public, but it is in fact a helpful entrée to a set of questions that should concern us all.

How it is that we can live together, and live together well, in the context of deep, seemingly ineradicable moral and religious differences?

The notion that we live within a widely pluralist culture is so commonplace that we might miss just how unusual it actually is. Most modern liberal democracies contain within them an extraordinarily wide range of different religious, moral, ethnic, and racial groups who very often manage not to kill one another; it’s a remarkable achievement, and one not to be passed over blithely. But not killing one another isn’t living well, as a great deal of oppression, frustration, and civil strife can coexist along with a tepid peace. To live together well is to flourish, not just survive.

Can we flourish together in a society where we don’t agree on what it means to flourish? Is it genuinely possible?

Emphasizing Commonality or Celebrating Diversity?

One answer, offered by the protagonists of French laïcité, is to create a public order that is robustly inclusive but also shorn of the particularities that distinguish us. The French ban on face veils doesn’t so much reflect an anti-Muslim bias (though that’s not an insignificant factor) but rather the worry that allowing some citizens to dress in such distinctive, identity-reflective ways would threaten to undermine the sense of commonality considered crucial to the country’s democratic republicanism. Allowing individuals to present themselves indelibly as Muslims, the thinking goes, cuts at the heart of civil solidarity and common political community. And truth be told, without some sense of commonality and a capacity to recognize one another as fellow citizens sharing in a political community, democratic republicanism does seem unlikely to succeed. But there are at least two problems with this exaggerated emphasis on commonality, one moral and the other sociological.

The laïcité model supposes, empirically, that we can more or less neatly divide our lives into what is public and what is private, that we can check the things that make us who we are at the door-jamb as we step into the public street. It’s true, of course, that we don’t typically carry our identities unmodified wherever we go—an ordinary workplace is not the same thing as a church, and the expectation that we present ourselves somewhat differently in the former as opposed to the latter does us no damage. But to suppose, then, that our particularities don’t matter at all or that everyone can prioritize our public over our private commitments consistently is foolish and unwarranted.

Perhaps more to the point, even what counts as “common” or public is never just that. When the public demands—in, for example, regulating beachwear for women—that individuals and groups accede to a “common” standard, all too often this putatively common standard reflects more the majority’s particular inclinations or interests, not what’s genuinely common. The French secularist is affected not at all by the face veil ban, while some Muslim women will feel the majority’s social pressure every day, to the point where they find it near impossible to live well because the social space within which they can order their lives as they see fit is so constricted as to be nonexistent.

American Christians who hold to traditional moral norms (especially those connected to sex) have begun increasingly to feel this pinch, as their institutions are pressured, formally and informally, to bow to a new political and cultural orthodoxy regarding non-discrimination. Whether this means accrediting agencies threatening Christian colleges, or state and federal authorities threatening loss of public funding for faith-based organizations, or simply broad efforts to make traditional views out to be little more than sheer bigotry, the cultural tendencies are clear, though whether they represent what is genuinely common is much less so. In some way, this sort of dynamic is probably inevitable. No social or political order could plausibly accommodate every way of life, but all too often the demands for commonality reflect an exaggerated sense of what is necessary to make a free society work and a rather narrow sense of what is actually common.

An alternative to this is what we might call the “celebrate diversity” option, wherein we come to recognize our differences not as problems to be managed but as distinctives to be feted and cherished. Difference need not mean conflict, and our lives, both individual and collective, are often enriched by living with, not just alongside, those who worship, look, and believe differently than we do. But if laïcité often exaggerates the possibilities for what we have in common, asking us to “celebrate diversity” just as often underestimates how our differences are not just matters of taste—they can be deep and ineradicable sources of conflict.

To live together well is to flourish, not just survive.

Our conceptions of what it means to live well usually has public and even political dimensions that do not all fit together seamlessly. The Muslim woman who wants to wear a veil (and maybe wants other women to wear them as well) and the French secularist who is offended by a society that allows Muslim women to do so do not just eat different foods or speak different languages; they want quite different societies. Figuring out if, and how, we can live together well in spite of those differences requires hard, and even sometimes tragic, choices. It does no one any favors to trivialize those choices by waving them away, as if the difficulties in making pluralist societies work were just the momentary product of bigotry and prejudice, soon to be overcome via near-inevitable social and political progress.

Indeed, it seems to me that our well-intentioned impulse to “celebrate diversity” doesn’t take diversity seriously enough, relegating it to something of a curiosity rather than deep-seated commitments that may, at times, be in conflict. Ironically, getting the depth of our conflicts wrong can do just as much to make those conflicts politically dangerous as a misguided laïcité.

Reflective Discomfort

The point is that in order to successfully navigate our societies’ very real and sometimes conflictual pluralism, we need to get our expectations right and understand how to give pluralism its due without making our common political life impossible. John Inazu has framed this in terms of “confident pluralism,” and while I have written elsewhere about why I think he may be overly optimistic in his expectations, his suggestion that we should aim for a kind of “confidence” in our particularity seems right. What that means is that we should aim for a social order in which people feel free to order their lives as they see fit and recognize others’ freedom to do so as well. But this isn’t just “live and let live,” as it recognizes that ordering our lives “as we see fit” usually includes a public component and is at least sometimes at odds with others’ views about their own lives.

We can make two mistakes in this regard. We can, on the one hand, be entirely hostile to others’ sense of flourishing, not understanding that many of our differences reflect earnest efforts to make something of human existence in light of a particular history or fundamental moral and religious commitments. But we can also, on the other, neglect our critical faculties and fail to recognize that, sometimes, affirming that our way of life is good necessarily requires affirming that others’ ways of life fall short or are even bad.

Both errors ironically stem from the same root: failing to give due respect to human dignity. The former does so by not recognizing a central element of human freedom and the latter by not recognizing how that freedom may (and does) go seriously wrong.

Instead of hostility and indifference, we should, I think, pursue a goal we might call “reflective discomfort.”[1] “Live and let live” or “celebrate diversity” asks us to be entirely comfortable in our pluralistic culture, but at the cost of not seeing that pluralism and its conflicts clearly. Hostility unreflectively just takes those differences to be destructive and ruinous. By taking that pluralism seriously, we can see more clearly where our commitments run up against those of others and where they can coexist and even complement. We need not expect to be entirely at ease in a world where we live side by side with others who are really rather different than we are, but neither should we expect to be at war, either metaphorically or for real.

Recapturing a Common Vision for Flourishing

Suppose this is all more or less correct and Christians, like others, should aim for “reflective discomfort.” What should we be doing politically and socially?

For one, it seems reasonable for us to press for political institutions that give pluralism its due, meaning political institutions that are constrained from imposing putative norms absent some real necessity. It will not be enough, however, to merely advocate for protections for us and our institutions. Insofar as we are willing to countenance the oppression of others’ ways of life, we are implicitly inviting that the same be done to us if the political tides were to turn—as they always do. I worry, sometimes, about some of our common good language, precisely in that it can incline us to neglect pluralism’s very real challenges. But surely we can agree that we should accord others at least as much social, legal, and political space to form and develop their ways of life as we want for our own.

But politics will not be enough; indeed, I suspect that a successful politics, one that aims at something like the common good while giving pluralism its proper due, can only take hold within a broader culture that takes both our own and others’ flourishing into account. To that end, we need, first, to focus on recapturing and reenergizing our communities around a common vision (or common visions, more likely) of what the Christian vision of human flourishing looks like, both theoretically and practically. It will not be enough for us to bleat about “tolerance” or “freedom” or what-not. If we cannot articulate clearly and demonstrate practically that the norms and practices we inhabit are worthy of at least grudging respect, or even admiration, no political strategy of litigation, legislation, or executive orders will be successful in the long run. This means getting our own houses in order, committing our own resources of time and money and effort, and (re)building our own institutions so that they might do what they are supposed to do: form a people for God’s glory.

In so doing, we Christians will inevitably, because that’s in part what it means to be a Christian, be just as concerned for others’ flourishing as well. It should be no part of the Christian life to hope that we do well and others suffer. If we embrace loving our neighbors as wholeheartedly as we embrace loving ourselves, those inclined to continue to despise us will do so in spite of us, not because of us.

Make no mistake- this is not a guaranteed recipe for success. We may, and will likely, fail, maybe sometimes spectacularly. But we can flourish, and contribute to others’ flourishing, within a pluralist order, but only insofar as we are genuinely interested in our and others’ good and are willing to work and sacrifice for it. In the end, I don’t think the real question is how we can live well in the context of a pluralist democratic order. The question is: do we really want to?

-Bryan McGraw is Associate Professor of Politics at Wheaton College.

[1] I owe this phrase to a conversation with Noah Toly, though I wouldn’t saddle him with my interpretations.