Interviews Thinking in Public

How Confident Is Our Pluralism? A Conversation with Professor John Inazu


This is Thinking in Public, a program dedicated to intelligent conversation about frontline theological and cultural issues with the people who are shaping them. I’m Albert Mohler, your host and President of The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky.

John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion and Professor of Political Science at Washington University in St. Louis. He’s a well-known scholar in the area of First Amendment freedom; his specialization is dealing with the rights of speech, assembly, and religion. He also has written and lectured broadly on issues that include political and legal theory and many of the issues currently in the headlines of America’s public conversation. In addition to his service at Washington University, he’s also Senior Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He’s widely sought in the major media and has been cited on CNN. He has also appeared in academic journals such as the Hedgehog Review; and, of course, he has published his own books, including his first book, Liberty’s Refuge: The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly, which was published in 2012 by Yale University Press. His most recent book and the topic of our conversation today is Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference, published just this year by the University of Chicago Press. Professor John Inazu, welcome to Thinking in Public.

MOHLER: Speaking right into some of the hottest controversies of the day, Professor John Inazu says, and I quote, “The end of pluralism is a nightmare.” Thus, he’s written his book, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference. I think it’s a very important contribution to today’s conversation, and I think intelligent Christians need to pay close attention to what Professor John Inazu is talking about here. Let me go back to that statement from early in your book, “The end of pluralism is a nightmare.” Why so, Professor?

INAZU: Right, well, Dr. Mohler, thank you so much for having me on your program. Really for two reasons—because if we can’t figure out how to live with the deep and real differences that divide us, we are faced with one of two options. The first is anarchy and violence, and the other is kind of a totalitarianism or total control, a reigning orthodoxy, and neither of those is very attractive from the perspective of most Americans.

MOHLER: Well, if you think about the American experiment, many people have described it now, especially in the period after the Civil War into the present, as something of a chartered pluralism. But the pluralism that was spoken of, say, one hundred years ago, is really dwarfed by the challenge of the reality of pluralism that we face today. Is it not?

INAZU: Well, I think in some ways it is. So historically, the challenge and the opportunity of pluralism has always been with us, even with the founding when, in some ways, the American public was much more homogenous. The denominational divides among Protestants were quite real, and the stakes were quite real, so early Americans figured out a way to live with a kind of difference between them. And then you’re right, post-Civil War, that became even more of a lived reality, and in some ways immigration trends, technological developments, moving patterns, and all these things have contributed to greater challenges and greater pressures on pluralism so that today the scope of the pluralistic landscape, I think, is much more challenging, and the reality of differences across all kinds of religious beliefs and across racial identities and across ideological claims about truth, transcendence, and some other important matters, put a lot of pressure on a notion of coherence around pluralism today.

MOHLER: You know, the word “pluralism” itself has kind of an interesting history amongst American evangelicals. You’re making a very powerful argument for claiming as a positive good the kind of pluralism that is that agreed upon—ordered, chartered, respectful pluralism you describe as confident pluralism. But at the same time, there is an evangelical rejection of theological pluralism or kind of a complete relativism or universalism. And I think it’s certainly important for Christians who often don’t have to think in these terms to recognize that we actually are talking about two different issues in two different arenas of thought. They certainly overlap, but within the Christian church, orthodoxy and heresy are essential issues of clear and boundary definition. But in the larger society, going back to the period of the American founding, there was the understanding that this particular civilizational experiment, this experiment in self-government, would reflect from the beginning the understanding that everyone is free to come to the public square with all his or her convictions intact. That’s a different context.

INAZU: I think that’s exactly right, and it’s a crucial distinction, because the political reality and the political experiment in pluralism is one that respects difference and is open to difference. And there are theological ideas about uncoerced conscience which fit right within the Baptist mold, among others. So it’s very important in terms of civil liberties to allow pluralism and difference. And there are arguments for pluralism that collapse into relativism, and I’m not interested in those arguments. As a Christian and one who believes in claiming that truth, the political reality of pluralism has to make space for the possibility of truth claims to be part of that mix, and then those are going to have, as you said, boundary-drawing consequences for religious truths. But actually, when we think about it, every group, in order to have a kind of coherence to it, draws boundaries around its own orthodoxies. So the broader principle is that in the political space, we recognize and allow for difference and freedom of conscience and variety. And then within institutions, religious or not, we allow a kind of internal policing of norms. And that’s the way that we sort of exist together in society.

MOHLER: And long before you wrote your latest book on Confident Pluralism, you had done some really important work on freedom of assembly as kind of an overlooked, essential civil liberty, because freedom of speech becomes, I won’t say meaningless, but certainly is undermined if there is not a freedom of association with those who are like-minded and define the group in those terms.

INAZU: Right. And what’s really interesting about the First Amendment is it does not contain the right of association, as you said. It’s the right of assembly. And when I wrote my first book on the right of assembly, I was fairly stunned to notice that very little attention had been paid to this right that’s in the text of the Constitution that was there at the founding. And we really, kind of, as a country lost sight of what it was about or why it was even there. So you have free speech notions that sort of seep over the First Amendment. You have the right of association the Supreme Court recognizes in the 1960s but doesn’t really do much with. So collectively, you have a First Amendment architecture that misses out on really the essence of the right of assembly and why it was there in the first place.

MOHLER: You know, I want to test something with you as a professor of law and political science. It’s a matter of tremendous interest to me. When you look at the argument you make on pluralism—and I think you make the argument honestly kind of in its classic form for us for conversation right now—but similar arguments were made, I think of an event that I observed rather closely in terms of a document called the Williamsburg Charter, now about twenty years old, which was introduced to conservative American political life the concepts of a chartered pluralism. And I just wonder, has this kind of conversation taken place on the political left? Because you would think that you could perhaps come up with a genealogy of thinking about pluralism on which there would be very important contributions from the left. I’ve been looking for them; I really haven’t found them yet.

INAZU: Well, so I think they are there, certainly at the level of theory. Folks like Bill Galston and William Conley and others have been writing from the perspective of the left for a long time about the reality and the need for pluralism. And then, what’s interesting is we also have a historical reality so that, particularly, when we talk about constitutional protection around ideas of pluralism and the protection of minority viewpoints to dissent from state orthodoxies, those are the kinds of normative moves that throughout our American history have largely benefitted what we would think of as progressive groups today—of abolitionists, of separatists, or the gay rights movement of the 70s. So with the historical example, it’s very important to say, on the one hand let’s look at what protections have been drawn upon in past times. And then you’re right that there are some reflections on pluralism in some more conservative religious circles today. The challenge is that while some of those conversations were happening a long time ago, it seems that a lot more are happening now. So the obvious retort from the left would be, “Well, now you’re suddenly interested in pluralism because you’re not in power.” And there’s some force to that argument in some ways, I think.

MOHLER: I think it’s to our credit if we honestly accept that as a fact, because even the kind of conversation on chartered pluralism that took place—conversation including Richard John Neuhaus, perhaps the sociologist Peter Berger—it was as they were recognizing a massive culture shift taking place. I think it’s intellectually honest to say we don’t deal with some culture issues until we absolutely have to. And now we have to.

INAZU: Yeah, there’s some truth to that. Although, I think that the historical story is brighter than that, and maybe more persuasive than that. And when you look at just the internal case of religious freedom, there is the bright side of what we’ve done in many cases with dissenting religious groups is to recognize the importance of religious freedom, even when those groups were not in power. So, when we think about the ways the Jehovah’s Witnesses or the Christian Scientists helped shape the First Amendment—or Catholics in some points of our history. And those I think are success stories precisely because those in power at the time recognized the importance of honoring dissents and arguments for pluralism. And so there’s a little more integrity to the argument when we look at that history.

MOHLER: You know, considering the argument you make in your book, one thing that does come to my mind is that, at least among Christians, I think the idea of religious liberty is probably a more salient idea than the idea a pluralism.  And I think it’s because we haven’t had to think in these terms. So even most of the religious minority groups you mentioned were not threatening to the moral consensus of mainstream American culture at that time. I think that’s something that is markedly different now, because it is the change in that moral culture that has created the sense of urgency among conservative Christians or conservatives in America—I think for good reason.

INAZU: Well, I mean, maybe. I think yes and no, right? So when we think about the historical context in which Catholics were arguing for religious freedom claims against a very dominant Protestant majority, Catholics were seen from that lens as very threatening to the moral order, right? Or in some of the cases, Mormons before them and others. So, I think actually in the context there was a sense of a moral threat. One shift that is real today and is worth noting is that in those moral challenges across religions, there was still an overall acknowledgement of God and transcendence. And the shift away from that framework is a more striking shift, as opposed to moral versus non-moral.

MOHLER: I think the frontline of all of this, of course, is the religious liberty front. And you deal with that from the very beginning. And as you introduce your book, you relate an anecdote from your experience in the classroom. And I think that anecdote is so important that I’m going to ask you to retell it here, Professor.

INAZU: Sure. And like you said, it was an anecdote; it was a classroom hypothetical. And it introduced the book to illustrate the point. But it is an important point. And so, the story revolves around a case that I teach, Everson, which involves public funding for bussing to private religious schools. This is the Supreme Court case that recognized the establishment clause being applicable to state and local ordinances. And so the question is, if you’re okay under the establishment clause funding busses through taxpayer dollars, are you then also okay funding Bibles and ministers in the classroom? And that’s going to make some people quite uneasy. But on the other side, if you’re not okay with the busses, then where do you draw the line? So, if taxpayer dollars can’t go to fund busses, then can it go to crossing-guards to keep kids safe? Or those sorts of things. So I press both ends of the hypothetical in the class discussion. And I had one exchange with a student where I raised the question, “If you have a religious school that has a certain view of gender that’s not in compliance with the reigning orthodox view of the town, can the town say, ‘We are not going to fund the crossing-guards for the school,’ even though we know the crossing guards are going to keep the kids safe?” And one of the students said, “Well, yes. They can refuse to fund the guards because the school has made a choice.” So I pressed further and said, “Well, can the fire department refuse to answer the call to put out the fire at the school?” And the student said, “Yes, the school has made a choice, and can’t fund it or any provisions for it.” And then I asked about the S.W.A.T. team, same answer. What it illustrates is a logical matter, as if state funding—because of the way we all rely so much on state and public resources—if the state funding argument is taken seriously, it can really go all the way. And you can say as a logical matter that someone might just be outside the bounds of society. And I think that answer leaves all of us unsettled.

MOHLER: I should hope!

INAZU: I hope so, I think so too, and I think outside the classroom hypotheticals, I would hope that most Americans would be deeply unsettled by that consequence. But if we are, then the hard questions are: so how do we think about these lines? And how do we think about what it means to live together with people and with groups that we don’t agree with, but that we recognize are going to have to benefit from the shared resources of society nonetheless?

MOHLER: And it’s not, perhaps, irrelevant that the Supreme Court will be hearing a case having to do with whether or not taxpayer money can go to playground improvements under state funding for a church-based school. And I think most of us probably don’t care a great deal about the funding for the playground, but how the Court decides on this could be of massive importance.

INAZU: I think that’s right. And I think these funding questions are very much tied into other questions about the scope of religious freedom. And what really makes all of this hard is that the existing case law and the existing Supreme Court doctrine is just not that good when it comes to the free exercise of religion and protecting free exercise. This is really one of the points that I try to make in the book and often make explicitly to Christian audiences—you said this a while ago—that there’s a certain salience of the idea of religious liberty to many Christians. I think that is right. I also think that many Christians don’t recognize how bad the law is in its present form in regards to protecting religious freedoms. So, cases like the one you mentioned and others are important, but they’re also sort of swimming upstream at this point where we just have an overall constitutional framework that in many ways is underprotective of religious freedom.

MOHLER: In a speech I believe she gave shortly after retiring from the U.S. Supreme Court, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor basically admitted that the Court has been incoherent in its religious liberty and church-state decisions. I don’t know if she dated a beginning, but I would say at least incoherence in 1971 in the Lemon v. Kurtzman decision. The decision you point to in your book, however, I think absolutely rightly as most devastating, is the Smith decision. Can you explain why that has created so much uncertainty in terms our commitment to religious liberty as a people?

INAZU: Sure. And if I could start at that incoherence point, I think the broadly-held critique about the incoherence of Supreme Court case law really applies mostly in the establishment clause contexts, where she mentions the Lemon case and others, where the Court has just not ever told us what kind of standard should be applicable in establishment clause cases, where this line of separation is between church and state. In the free exercise context, the line is actually much clearer and much better understood; it’s just not a very good line. This traces back to the 1990 decision in Employment Division against Smith, where the Court was assessing the free exercise claims of Native American Spiritualists who had used peyote and had gotten fired from their jobs and been denied job benefits. And I guess the key takeaway from this case, which is still with us today, is that under the current understanding of the free exercise clause, when a law is what is called a neutral law of general applicability. In other words, it applies broadly to religious and nonreligious institutions, or actors, or behaviors. When it’s broadly applicable, the free exercise clause does not have any protections against that kind of law. So the takeaway here is if you have a law that specifically targets religion—you know, the state legislature says, “We are not going to allow Presbyterians to appear in public”—that kind of law is going to be struck down and receive lots of constitutional scrutiny. But when you have a generally applicable law that says, “There will be no drug use at all in this state,” it’s applicable to religious and non-religious people in different contexts. Then, the fact that Native Americans might say, “Actually, peyote is important to our worship service and our essential religious activities,” that kind of claim is not going to be recognized or granted an exemption or accommodation from the law. And that has tremendous effects for all kinds of religious beliefs, precisely because most of our laws are generally applicable and neutral laws. And all of the current and coming challenges are going to be generally applicable and neutral laws.

MOHLER: This is also the place, I think, a lot of conservative Christians don’t watch legal developments and in particular the Supreme Court closely enough. So for instance, the Smith decision about which we’re speaking, that majority opinion was written by Justice Antonin Scalia. And it just reminds me that so many conservative Christians looking at that would say, “Well, when it comes to peyote use, clearly it was the right decision,” because they like the result of the decision. But the actual legal argument, the constitutional argument that Justice Scalia put forth in order to strike down the claims coming on the basis of free exercise of religion, they are just devastating, and have been virtually ever since 1990.

INAZU: I think that’s right. And it’s why we have cases where a Christian ministry meeting on a college campus for bible study and prayer has no particular protection under the free exercise clause. That’s why colleges and universities, Christian and other religious schools in California, have no special protection against opposed legislation when it comes to the free exercise clause. The consequences are pretty significant.


MOHLER: In reading Professor Inazu’s book, Confident Pluralism, it is very clear that the issue of religious liberty looms large over the entire conversation. But religious liberty isn’t the subject that reaches the title of the book. Instead it’s about pluralism. Indeed it’s about “confident pluralism”. It’s about something that is foundational when it comes to our experience and application of religious liberty. But it’s also written, in the background understanding, that religious liberty is a concept that fewer and fewer Americans understand, and certainly cherish.


MOHLER: Professor Inazu, I think one of the most chilling sentences in your book, or let’s say paragraph, is when you write, “The suggestion that religious liberty may fall outside of today’s modest unity will no doubt unsettle many religious believers. It may be that religious protections for religious free exercise are less salient today than in earlier times. It may be that the free exercise of religion has moved from a right in which all citizens have a stake to a more limited right, attractive to only a subset of citizens.” When you wrote that, it was on the other side of the Obergefell decision and with a lot these religious liberty issues now gaining in terms of both importance and velocity. Are we already at the point where a massive number of Americans, perhaps even the majority, really just don’t care that much about religious liberty?

INAZU: I don’t think it’s near a majority yet, but I think there’s still a sense in which if you ask people in general terms, “Is religious freedom important? Is religious liberty important?” most people will say yes. And even most government officials will say yes. We have it in a lot of speeches and discourses still. But the challenge is, how does that remain a salient concept at the particulars, not the line drawing? As fewer and fewer people recognize the immediate need for religious freedom in their own lives, there’s going to be less of a connection to it. And this is an area where I find, particularly in a lot of Christian audiences, there’s almost an intuitive resistance to what I’m actually offering as a descriptive claim. I’m not trying to make a normative point here, I’m just saying look, this is the way it is for a lot of people in the world. And the response in a lot of Christian audiences is something like, “Well, religious liberty is a natural right. It can’t be taken away from the state. It’s a right given by God.” Or alternatively, “James Madison said it’s our duty we owe our Creator before we owe the state,” and those sorts of things. And I usually want to say that you have to recognize that a lot of people today just don’t care what James Madison said, or they don’t care that you claim it’s a natural right. If they don’t recognize the failings of the protection, then these arguments that depend on religious-first premises are not going to have traction. There’s a political and cultural reality to all this, which is if there is a tipping point at which people just stop caring enough to pursue their protections under these rights.

MOHLER: You know, both privately and publicly, those who have both led and championed the moral revolution we have experienced, including those fairly described as LGBT activists and others, they’re now basically saying—again, I say publicly and privately—that this is just payback. This is the fair boomerang that comes upon conservative Christians for falling to respect or advocate moral pluralism when they would claim we had opportunity. Now that we are on the other side of moral coercion, we’re just going to have to deal with it.

INAZU: I think there is some legitimacy to those kinds of claims. There were certainly loud and outspoken voices that were rejecting claims to any kind of moral pluralism or difference in an earlier area, and I think some people are sensing the turning of the tides. And I think it is also important to distinguish, sort of, from a monolithic group out there that is opposed. You are right to name the reality of some activists who very much are in opposition and trying very concretely and strategically to make this hurt, and they are not going away. And I think there are people out there that are genuinely open to the possibilities, and the possibility, of pluralism, even those who disagree with the views that you, I, and others might hold.

MOHLER: So, if I were to anticipate what would be the most cogent criticism of your book in terms of its main theory and proposition, it would be this: you are overly confident of a pluralism that really has never existed and can never exist. So yes, the United States decided we can accept Utah as a state and Mormons as neighbors, but only if they define marriage as the union of a man and a woman, and that meant one man and one woman. And so even now on the other side of Obergefell decision, marriage has now been redefined to include same sex couples. In reality, we haven’t allowed, and currently by the edict of the Supreme Court, we do not allow any moral pluralism such that there could be jurisdictions in the United States that would not recognize same-sex couples as legally married. Aren’t there limits to this kind of pluralism, simply because society is going to define something as basic as what marriage is, and there is going to be winners and losers in this?

INAZU: Well, there might be. That is a really complex and important question. And so, to take a couple different pieces of it, on one hand, any society is always going to set some limits and some outer bounds, and we’re always going to have some line drawing. We are not going to permit the cult of human sacrifice under any circumstance in contemporary American politics. And so we’ll have those line-drawing cases. And then the Supreme Court as a nationalized kind of institution and in some of its decision making has, as you suggested, imposed certain standards that in a different political imagination might have been worked out at state or local levels, but that’s unlikely to be the case today. I think we still have a very important question remaining about pluralism and institutional differences within civil society. So, we have a recognition by the Supreme Court of a certain definition and cultural understanding of marriage applicable at the state and governmental levels, now the very live question still to be worked out is, does that norm carry over to all spaces and spheres of society? Or, do you allow for a kind of institutional difference that allows for differing views? One can imagine, I suppose, in the late nineteenth-century cases involving Mormons and polygamy a system in which the government continued to say that marriage is a divine, a binary, two-person relationship involving a man and a woman, but there could be some religious understandings of polygamous marriage. So, you can see the possibility of two coexisting norms. It doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy, but the question is still going to be on the table right now.

MOHLER: Yeah, I think it’s interesting to find if it is. I think often in terms of something like a series of concentric circles and with the power of the bureaucratic state, the regulatory state, as it now exists, it seems to me that the closer you get to the areas most under that kind of regulation, the force of moral coercion is going to be brought first and most forcefully there, and then it will move outwards. It seems to me that the most vulnerable right now in terms of religious liberty being threatened right before our eyes would be where institutions like educational institutions, a Christian college or university, are dependent on Title IV funding, or one is in a profession where licensor becomes a matter of state responsibility, and thus, they would argue a law that is generally applicable. Do you think that’s where we’re likely just in the very short-term future to see the most interesting, perhaps ominous, developments?

INAZU: Well, it could be. Let me take a step back. If we’re thinking about religious liberty as a broad category, there are actually even more significant and immediate threats, and most of them don’t involve Christians. There are ongoing threats to the religious liberty of American Muslims, for example, that are, in some ways, more particularized and concrete than the examples we’re talking about. And it’s important, right, to remember that for religious liberty to be meaningful, it’s going to have to account for a broad kind of religious pluralism, making those arguments and protecting those groups even when they’re not Christian groups. Within the examples you’re talking about, though, I think the institutional distinction is important. I think you’re right to focus on questions of funding and also particularly funding applicable to institutions like educational institutions that are often outside of the formal control of churches. So under the current law, right now, the most protected and the most constitutionally benefitted institutions are churches, and they will continue to be so. So the more one moves outside of the institutional core case of a church, the more public involvement there is, the more other non-believers or non-Christians are in the mix of those institutions, the harder it’s going to be to maintain the kind of control or autonomy apart from the regulatory framework you were describing.

MOHLER: You know, in terms of what you rightly bring up as religious liberty threats experienced by our Muslim neighbors, is that primarily now a matter of legal effort to prevent the building of mosques? It seems to me that the bigger issue there is probably that many conservative Christians aren’t thinking very well about either, and that is the fact that many of them are happy if a local zoning board decides to prevent a Muslim mosque from being built.

INAZU: Right, and like you said, I read a lot of these stories as well and talk to people who seem very concerned about the possibility of a mosque or who are supporting these kinds of zoning restrictions. That’s the sort of thing that I think if we’re going to be credible and serious about what it means to care for religious freedom, it has to be that other people are going to have to be able to pursue their own religious norms. I think actually that Muslims have even greater challenges than the zoning questions, though, when you think about the existential threats confronting some Muslim communities. There are some concerns about national security, some concerns about stereotyping beyond individual people and communities, and these do lead to real questions about law enforcement surveillance and even undercover infiltration and these sort of things. You know, that’s not a direct challenge that many Christians are confronting or thinking about today, but it is a real challenge to the scope of religious freedom

MOHLER: And, it’s complicated because in some places there’s—in a way that is not generally true of Christianity in the West—there is a certain national and ethnic identity that is often mixed in with that religious identity. You know, I think even the wisdom of Solomon would be tested sometimes to know exactly how these issues are to be well understood, much less separated. In your book, you deal I think so well with the Constitution and legal issues. And frankly, I think it’s one of the best and most succinct introduction to those issues where they stand today. The second half of your book is more about what Robert Bellah would call the habits of the heart. When you’re talking about what makes this kind of pluralism possible, much less confident, you’re talking about certain moral habits that are themselves pretty endangered in American society today.

INAZU: Right, I think it’s going to take both a reformation of constitutional norms and laws, but also a reformation of our civic practices with one another in how we do these things. In the book I call them tolerance, humility, and patience. I call them aspirations rather than habits or virtues because I think habits and virtues require institutions and practices and traditions to sustain them. I’m either not sure or skeptical that we have those institutions today broadly throughout society. And so at some point, we’re going to need them because aspirations cannot sustain indefinitely. Aspirations have to become habits or virtues in order to make this work in the long-term. What I’m trying in the book to say is that we need to have recognition—and this is something for both Christians and those outside of the Church— a recognition that the aspirations are needed, that we need them collectively, and that we need to work really hard to either create or sustain or rebuild the kinds of institutions that can form these aspirations into practices. That’s an urgent need. I don’t think we pull off this confident pluralism without them.

MOHLER: You know, I couldn’t help but hear the refrain of Sesame Street in those terms in this sense—don’t be insulted—and that is that one of these things is not like the other. And that’s the word tolerance here with humility and patience. I think conservative Christians, thoughtful conservative Christians would say, “You know, immediately I recognize the aspirations of humility and patience,” because they are biblical, after all. And that’s more than aspirations for Christians. Tolerance is such a difficult word. And so, in reading your book, I thought, “He really could have chosen a better word here.” I didn’t come up with any better word, and let me make that case just a little bit further. So, if you go back to the founding era, really good work has been done on how the word tolerance was rejected by those who were our constitutional framers, because it didn’t say enough. Someone like Roger Williams, the famous erstwhile Baptist who said that tolerance is not enough, it must be freedom; tolerance does not lead to freedom. Then, you come to someone like Herbert Marcuse in the 1960s and 70s who ruined tolerance from the left by calling for intolerance towards anyone who wouldn’t tolerate everything, which is this totalitarian intolerance. I have to admit to you, Professor, I didn’t come up with a better word, but I think you better explain your use of that word for us to understand it more clearly.

INAZU: Sure, I’m really glad you focused on that too. It’s really interesting, when I talk to Christian audiences, tolerance is the word that raises the eyebrows. When I talk to non-Christian audiences, it’s humility, right, and a sort of knee-jerk reaction in some circles against the idea of humility. So first, let me say, what I’m trying to do with these three aspirations is suggest a kind of civic norm that a lot, or hopefully a critical mass, of American citizens can move toward, whether or not they’re religious believers. So this is going to take a collective, civic effort that involves those inside and outside of the church. And you’re right that the word tolerance and toleration is an extremely complicated and tested term, particularly on university and college campuses today. What I don’t mean by tolerance is the idea that we fully accept or embrace and respect all viewpoints as either equally valid or totally permissible or harmless. And there’s a sense, particularly again on college campuses today, a sense that it’s not just enough to coexist, but you actually have to move toward and fully recognize, respect, and affirm my opposing viewpoint. And that’s not what I mean. I think actually that ends up being logically impossible to do, and practically impossible when we talk about real people. So I think of tolerance more as like a sort of practical enduring for the sake of coexisting with each other, and it’s moving toward a kind of respect for the person that does not, and sometimes will not, translate into a respect for the ides or the choices the person makes. And so it’s a kind of capacious concept, but it does not require a compromise of truth or a compromise of conviction. And part of the reason I think that Christians can pull off this idea of tolerance is if we are serious about the confidence we have in our own faith, then we need not feel threatened by moving into spaces and conversations with other people who share very different worldviews. And the tolerance that can lead to common ground and coexistence is what I’m talking about in the book.

MOHLER: As we come to a close, I’m going to ask you to extend that thought just a bit, because it seems to me that morally and, well, urgently, one of the most important questions we can ask is, how can Christians, convictional Christians, contribute in the best way possible toward the goal you’re talking about here of a confident pluralism? We’re kind of dependent on how others are going to respond for the other side of the equation, but speaking to Christians, how can we most helpfully contribute to this?

INAZU: So for Christians, I think it starts with an ultimate confidence and hope in the Gospel and our understanding of how we live out our witness to the Gospel in the world around us. And I think that is always moving toward people who are vulnerable, who are estranged, who are hurting. And we’re called to do that sort of irrespective of how they respond to those efforts. And so that means moving into spaces and places that might feel risky or uncertain. And that’s not sort of a full license to go anywhere and to throw off the constraints and to lose discernment. I think it’s always important to discern what alliances one is making. But I do think that a riskier kind of partnership for the sake of finding common ground, making both individual and institutional efforts to partner with other people, and in that partnership to recognize this doesn’t mean we embrace or agree with everything this other person or institution stands for—that’s going to be unlikely to impossible—but it does mean that we can work really hard to find where we have common ground and to work toward common efforts. And that very practically solves problems, but it also demonstrates to those around us that we’re not a closed off people who are applying purity tests to every relationship and partnership in which we enter. But it’s saying that we’re confident in who we are as Christians and as a church, and as the people of God, that we can be in the world around us and moving toward healing and hope and joy in the world we see. And that’s true regardless of the legal challenges that come or don’t come. It’s true regardless of the cultural response we encounter. It’s, I think, sort of what we’re called to do in spite of the circumstances.

MOHLER: Doesn’t it also come down to personal relationships, or sometimes the absence of those relationship? At least I think one of the powerful implications of your book is that we ought to be in some kind of intentional conversation and respectful relatedness with people who do differ from us in some of the deepest ways.

INAZU: Oh, absolutely. And I think that’s true in both directions. I am in a lot of very secularized, elite circles where it’s clear to me that many people I encounter have never met someone who actually believes in the claims of Christ, so they’re just left with a stereotype of what a Christian is. And then in the other direction, I’m in a lot of Christian circles where it’s clear, or almost clear to me, that many people have never befriended someone who is an atheist or of another faith or a Muslim. And so they are left with stereotypes of what those people are. And I think it turns out—and again this is not to move toward relativism in any way, but it is to say that there is a common humanity—that we recognize that people are created in the image of God whomever they are, and that in moving toward actual relationships, we can get to know those people as human beings first, and then work to move toward understanding the differences that we have.

MOHLER: Can you tell me what your next project is?  Are you already, as I would guess, at work on your next major work?

INAZU: Well we’re always thinking about the next thing, right? I think, actually, that I want to start to think through the specific applications of this idea of confident pluralism and the need for these both constitutional and civic practices in the particular setting of the university, which right now seems like such a hotbed for so many of the issues that you and I have been discussing—but also I think the kind of place, if there is a place, where we ought to be able to work this out, the kind of setting where people from lots of different backgrounds, different parts of the country and the world, different belief systems, come together, have an extended period of time, often live in close quarters, and have structured conversations around things that matter. And if we can pull that off in the university, I think we have a way to model a kind of behavior and engagement that is applicable in other settings. And if we can’t pull it off in the university of all places, then I think we’re really in trouble.

MOHLER: The book is Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference, and its author is John D. Inazu. Professor Inazu, thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.

INAZU: Dr. Mohler, thanks so much for having me.


MOHLER: I really enjoyed that conversation with Professor John Inazu, and I found his book, Confident Pluralism, to be a really important read for 2016.  I think it’s going to have a shelf life far beyond this because of two reasons.  In the first place, his taxonomy and historical understanding of our constitutional order on this very question of pluralism and, in particular, the question of religious liberty, is really important. I think it will stand the test of time. I think he sets many mythologies straight, and I think he also provides some really essential documentation concerning where we are as of 2016 on these questions. But I think it’s going to have a longer shelf life in public conversation for another reason. I think it’s really significant that here you have a very qualified academic scholar who is writing on the issue of confident pluralism in a way that is clearly scholarly and will speak directly to the academic audience, but also has a broad, very practical application in terms of America’s public life. I think that’s a rare combination, and one of the deficits we suffer from in America’s current cultural moment is that there are too few who are able to bridge the divide between a truly authentic academic argument and its practical application. And for that reason, I’m very glad this book appeared, and that it appeared when it appeared—right now, in 2016, as we find ourselves confronting so many frontline, unavoidable issues, and when we detect the fact that religious liberty is losing and not at this point gaining traction in American society. There are fundamental questions, then, we have to address, fundamental questions we have to ask and, as was made clear in this conversation, some fundamental questions we had better ask ourselves.

One question I want to ask is whether we can be so confident of this confident pluralism. But when you look at the title, it’s clear that he’s talking about a pluralism that is itself confident. He’s not necessarily talking about the confidence of everyone who may be trying to contribute to this confident pluralism. Confidence is both, in this sense, a modifier of what this kind of pluralism would mean, and an attitudinal issue for all of us to consider as we enter into this endeavor. Or, if I could put it another way, I am not so confident that this ideal of confident pluralism will be as widely as embraced as I would hope it would be. But I am confident that this kind of confident pluralism is exactly the kind of mode of public engagement that is called for not only in this time, but should have been affirmed in times past as well. The arguments made in this book by Professor John Inazu I can only hope will grow in influence and persuasive power. And I can only hope that we will discuss these issues as Christians, even including—and especially—those issues that reflect the deepest level of difference. I hope we can talk about these things in the public square in a mode that genuinely is confident, not confident, however, in pluralism, but able to engage in confident pluralism because of our confidence in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Thanks again to my guest, Professor John Inazu, for thinking with me today.  For more information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to  For information on Boyce College, go to Thank you for joining me for Thinking in Public.  Until next time, keep thinking. I’m Albert Mohler.