Liz McCloskey on Confident Pluralism

This is a guest post by Liz McCloskey, a Danforth Visiting Scholar at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics at Washington University. With support from the Templeton Foundation and Washington University, Liz is working on a collection of spiritual narratives drawn from the United States Senate called “Profiles in Spirit.” Primarily through in-depth interviews, she is seeking, finding, and shining a light on the virtue of humility in a dozen selected public servants across differences of party, gender, race, ethnicity and religion.

In a political season when blustery confidence dominates the discourse, it is refreshing to read John Inazu’s Confident Pluralism, which offers a more modest and hopeful variation of what confidence in America can look like. In this quiet and convincing book, John separates the concept of confidence from any sense of presumptuousness. Arrogance smirks; confidence smiles (as some anonymous person penned) and John’s vision of a confidently plural America is a favorable one in which it is possible to hold fast to one’s particular convictions while recognizing and protecting the differences that exist. The confident pluralism that John promotes is less a description of our diverse country and more an aspiration for living together.

While the coarse tone of current political speech has some people cheering (jeering?) and others lamenting, Confident Pluralism is an example of “Living Speech,” a practice of writing and speaking that John describes in his book; “Speaking well and listening well are not intuitive for everyone. They will often take practice and patience. They will require slowing down our social media impulses, making more drafts of the written word, and taking more pauses before the spoken word.” (103). Something I found to smile about in John’s book is the very tone he adopts to make his case for the constitutional commitments and the civic practices necessary to bridge the relational differences that threaten to undermine the “united” states.   He practices what he preaches. John’s tone is reasonable, respectful, thoughtful and above all, human. His carefully crafted argument is enhanced by a perspective shaped in part by his Japanese American grandparents’ experiences as American citizens, born and educated in the United States, and held against their will for three years at internment camps during World War II.

And what are his arguments?

John demonstrates that three constitutional commitments and three civic practices are underused, and ought to be buttressed to ensure peaceful co-existence. For one who is not a constitutional scholar, or even a lawyer, I found his constitutional framework both comprehensible and compelling. His analysis of the current weakness of First Amendment protections concerning voluntary groups, public forums and public funding, and why and how they ought to be stronger, is convincing and fair. John is refreshingly difficult to label as either conservative or liberal, which engenders trust that the examples he uses in defense of these constitutional commitments is not born of any agenda to protect and promote only conservative or only liberal groups, forums and funding.

Krista Tippett, host of the thoughtful public radio program “On Being,” made a point about tolerance during a recently aired interview with the Harvard social psychologist Mahzarin Banaji. Krista remarked that tolerance is a rather tepid civic virtue, necessary but not sufficient for living with difference. She wondered whether tolerance is capable of doing the work of cultivating understanding and establishing relationships or whether a more robust virtue such as love is needed. Likewise, historian Eliane Glazer described a perceived weakness of tolerance in this way: “It is grudging rather than generous and carries with it an implicit disapproval of that which is to be tolerated. It also serves as a patronizing reminder to minorities of who has the power to be tolerant.”

At the same time, conservatives at times critique tolerance by equating it with relativism or passivity in the face of ideas or habits that threaten an established way of life. David Cameron gave tolerance a bad name a full year before the Brexit vote, when he said in a speech after his May 2015 reelection: “So let me say it right here: no more passive tolerance in Britain.”

Both these challenges—that tolerance does not do enough and that it goes too far—sell tolerance short. John avoids both of these stances by offering that tolerance, if truly practiced and particularly if accompanied by the virtues of humility and patience, is one of the most efficacious tools available to achieve a confident pluralism in which people from different national, racial, religious, ethnic, economic and political groups can live in peace despite deeply held differences.

As a student of religion in the public realm, I was particularly heartened by John’s inclusion of humility and patience in the trio of civic virtues. Those who suggest that tolerance pales in comparison with the noble and robust virtue of love as a unifier in the public realm miss the essential interrelationship between tolerance, humility and patience, as well as a lost art that underlies each of them: listening. As John notes, listening well takes patience and practice. Listening well is also an act of humility, acknowledging that someone else—especially someone else’s pain—has something profound to impart. As I write this, in my mind I hear the voice of a small child comforting her mother whose boyfriend has been shot by police during a traffic stop for a broken tail light in Minnesota; “It’s ok. I’m here with you.”

Humility, patience, tolerance. These virtues are found at the heart of spirituality as well as embedded in the ethical convictions of secular humanism, and are thus civic virtues that resonate across differences. By appealing to these shared values, John offers an exercise in the practice of them, making his book a hopeful example of civic practices as well as a practical argument for them. Admittedly, I am oriented toward hopefulness, and I must ask for your tolerance as I close with a scripture quote that suggests a reason for my hope even beyond John’s convincing book; “For the Lord will be your confidence . . .” (Proverbs 3:26)