Confident Pluralism? An Interview with John Inazu

June 16, 2016

American society is becoming increasingly diverse. As that happens, the public square becomes a crowded, and sometimes hostile, place. At times it seems there is no longer room for meaningful public debate. But is there a way forward? Recently, I had the privilege of interviewing John Inazu, author of the book Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference. In the book, Inazu sets forth a framework for public square engagement that allows citizens to live according to their convictions while actively participating in a diverse society. Below, John answers questions about the book and his model for public engagement.

JW: John, thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Please tell us a little bit about your personal and academic background.

JI: Thanks for having me. I live in St. Louis with my wife, Caroline, and our three kids: Lauren, Hana, and Sam. We’re members of Central Presbyterian Church, and I serve on the board of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

I have engineering and law degrees from Duke (can I say “Go Devils” on this site?), and I also have a PhD in political theory from a school down the road from Duke. I teach at Washington University, mostly in the law school, but this fall I will also co-teach an undergraduate law and religion class. Before becoming a law professor, I practiced law for four years as an active-duty Air Force attorney at the Pentagon, served for two years as a high school youth ministry director, and read a lot of books.

JW: Obviously you are interested in the First Amendment and the public square. Can you talk about what prompted you to write Confident Pluralism? What were your aims for the book and what audience were you hoping to engage?

JI: I wrote my first book on the First Amendment’s right of assembly.   (That book is a bit pricy on Amazon, but you can download a free PDF.) The purpose and values underlying the right of assembly include protecting difference and dissent in our communities and our ways of life—issues related to living in a pluralistic society. As I started to think about a second book, my initial plan was to write a theoretically oriented argument about pluralism and democracy. But my friend, Andy Crouch, and my graduate school advisor, Jeff Spinner-Halev, persuaded me to write for a broader audience. Confident Pluralism is a serious book, but I worked hard to find compelling examples and avoid academic jargon. As an example, I frame my chapter on the First Amendment’s public forum doctrine around the popular television show, Parks & Recreation.

JW: The idea of pluralism has been around for a long time, but it is still widely misunderstood. In your view, how should people think about pluralism?

JI: The most important idea that Christians need to understand about my argument is that pluralism does not mean relativism. To be sure, some prominent philosophical arguments for pluralism embrace a kind of relativism that is incompatible with Christian faith. But simply recognizing the deep differences that actually exist in our society—and the ways that those differences challenge our own assumptions and vocabulary—does not mean capitulating to relativism.

JW: You emphasize in Confident Pluralism that you are not seeking to settle debates over which view is right or wrong. That idea may sound strange to many people of faith who are very concerned about discerning and demonstrating truth. Can you explain the difference for us? Can Christians, and adherents of other faiths which make exclusive truth claims, be faithful to their confession while embracing the idea of pluralism?

JI: You’re right that many Christians are wary about this part of my argument (which relates to the concern about relativism in the previous question). I think in some cases this is because they haven’t taken seriously enough the “confident” part of confident pluralism. Here is how Tim Keller and I put it in a recent article in Christianity Today:

“Our engagement in the world is made possible by our confidence in the gospel, even in a pluralistic society where others have profoundly different beliefs. We won’t always be able to persuade those around us that our beliefs are right and others are wrong. Indeed, some of our most important beliefs stem from contested premises that others do not share. But recognizing the existence of these disagreements should not prevent us from holding to what is ultimately true. Our beliefs can be true, and we can hold these warranted beliefs confidently even though others reject them.”

JW: Today’s public square has become a rather messy place. How do you respond to those who contend that the culture is simply closed off, or too far gone, for significant civil discourse or public debate to take place?

JI: There are a lot of challenges to discourse and debate in our culture. Social media exacerbates these problems—our words today are more public, portable, and permanent than they have ever been before. Still, I don’t share the deep pessimism of some Christians, as I explain in this response to Carl Trueman’s review of my book in First Things. Even those who are more pessimistic than I am might remember that first century Rome was not exactly friendly to expressions of Christian faith. Yet Christians in those days continued to serve their neighbors and engage with the culture around them.

JW: In the book you differentiate between the personal and legal dimensions of Confident Pluralism. Can you explain these categories for us? Are these dimensions currently functioning well in our society or are they under threat?

JI: The legal dimension of Confident Pluralism focuses on three areas: (1) protecting the voluntary groups of civil society through the rights of assembly and association; (2) facilitating and enabling dissent, disagreement, and diversity in public forums; and (3) ensuring that generally available government funding is not limited by government orthodoxy. The personal dimension of Confident Pluralism aspires toward tolerance, humility, and patience in three civic practices: (1) our speech; (2) our collective action (including protests, strikes, and boycotts); and (3) our relationships across difference. The personal and legal dimensions are interrelated. Silencing other viewpoints may begin with personal antipathy, but it ends with legal prohibition—a refusal to extend the protections of the law to one’s adversaries, and ultimately, an effort to turn the law against them.

Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson recently wrote that “what is frightening about Inazu’s account is how weak the foundations are in current legal interpretation for this type of generous pluralism.” He’s right. Constitutional doctrine in the areas that matter most to pluralism (the right of association, the public forum, and the free exercise of religion) is weak and unstable. That doctrine needs to change. I don’t think enough people realize how bad the law is in these areas. Too many people assume that constitutional safeguards will protect them just because something is in the text of the Constitution or because James Madison spoke highly of a particular right. But that’s not how the law works—for better or worse, courts and administrative agencies have a great deal of power to shape the meaning and scope of constitutional rights.

JW: If you could press any thought into America’s consciousness, what concept or belief would you want the public to embrace? What do you think is the greatest hope for the future of America’s public square?

JI: That’s a big question. I suppose I wish we all saw each other more as human beings instead of as labels and abstractions. We need to realize that we are in this together, and that the “we” cannot simply be the people who look like us and think like us. Christians ought to be leading by example in this area, and too often we do not. Russell Moore is right that “this election has cast light on the darkness of pent-up nativism and bigotry all over the country.” And too many white Christians are complicit in personal and systemic beliefs and practices that contribute to this darkness. I hope and believe that the resources of Christianity are deep enough to lead the church into a better and more authentic engagement with the world around us. But we also have a great deal of work to do in our own house. We can’t expect to have a credible witness in the public square if we don’t have it in the fellowship hall.

You can learn more about Confident Pluralism on John’s website. And for further thoughts on the intersection of his book and Christian theology, see these articles:

“Pluralism Doesn’t Mean Relativism,” Christianity Today (April 6, 2015)

“5 Guidelines for Living in a Pluralist Society,” Christianity Today (October 10, 2014)

“Religious Freedom vs. LGBT Rights?  It’s More Complicated,” Christianity Today (July 16, 2014)

Josh Wester

Joshua B. Wester is the lead pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greensboro, North Carolina. Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24