The Pluralist Game

This is how it works. The political liberal, unable to win much support for the goodness of the activity he wants permitted, makes this suggestion to his adversaries: why don’t we let each individual decide for himself whether or not he wants to do X? His doing X does not affect you, since the state is not forcing you do to X. So this is a perfectly neutral position consistent with individual liberty. By permitting others to do X, you are not approving of X. All you are doing is allowing each person to choose to do or not do X.

The Pluralist Game is the name of a book that consists of a collection of essays by the late political philosopher and Fordham professor, Francis A. Canavan, S. J. (It is also the name of a lecture I have given for several years at Summit Ministries, which is where I am writing this column).

Fr. Canavan makes the point that the pluralist game is a sort of bait and switch. The pluralist promises neutrality in exchange for your support, but winds up giving you something far different than what he promised. You are forced to acquiesce to a set of beliefs that are, in fact, hostile to what you believe. They become over time part of the unquestioned infrastructure of our public life, and thus make it more difficult for you and your dissenting compatriots to live consistently with what you believe about the nature of the good life.

In order to appreciate the full significance of this process, let’s replace X with a few substantive moral issues over which citizens deeply disagree and about which the U. S. Supreme Court has offered its wisdom.

Consider first the issue of abortion. In Roe v. Wade (1973), Justice Harry Blackmun opined that because experts – including philosophers, theologians, and physicians – disagree on whether the fetus is a person, “the judiciary, at this point in the development of man’s knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

Nevertheless, he concedes elsewhere in the opinion that if Texas (the state whose law was being challenged in the case) could show that the fetus is in fact a person, this would undercut the right to abortion because the fetus would then be protectable under the Fourteenth Amendment.

      Apostles of pluralism: Justices Blackmun (left) and Douglas

Consider next the issue of contraception. In the Supreme Court’s holding in Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), Justice William O. Douglas overturned Connecticut’s anti-contraception statute on the grounds that a married couple’s decision to use contraception is constitutionally protected by a “zone of privacy” that can be inferred from combining the principles behind several of the Constitution’s amendments and their implications.

Marriage, reasons Douglas, is a pre-political association that is more fundamental than the Bill of Rights or the Constitution itself. He illustrates this point by drawing our attention to numerous other associations that the Court had already recognized as protectable under the Constitution, even though they are not directly addressed by it.

The freedoms of association, to educate one’s children as one wishes, to assemble, and to be a member of groups and parties in order to promote one’s philosophies and beliefs are all within the scope of the Constitution’s protections.

So given the Court’s generous understanding of the wide diversity of equally reasonable views on abortion as well as the eclectic range and variety of associations whose integrity the Court claims to jealously guard, it would seem that those who defend the Court’s holdings on abortion and contraceptive use would think it inconsistent with these holdings to treat these practices as public goods that dissenting associations are forced to provide directly to others.

I am, of course, talking about the HHS mandate and its requirement that religious institutions and private businesses (with some narrow exceptions) must provide contraception and abortifacient drugs in their employees’ health care plans, even if the leadership of the religious organization or the ownership of the private business believes it is a violation of conscience to cooperate materially with the distribution and use of contraceptives and abortifacient drugs.

This is the pluralist game in all its glory. The promise of personal and corporate liberty on the matters of abortion and contraception – as asserted in Roe and Griswold – was, at least for its truest believers, a ruse. It was, it seems, never really about respecting diversity and contrary visions of the good life as we draw closer to our pluralist paradise.

It was about eradicating one understanding of the good, the true, and the beautiful, and replacing it with another. It was, as we now know, the first of many steps in a hostile take-over, one that will not be complete until the Church and its people are entirely banished from public life.

Francis J. Beckwith is Professor of Philosophy & Church-State Studies, Baylor University, and 2016-17 Visiting Professor of Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, Boulder. Among his many books is Taking Rites Seriously: Law, Politics, and the Reasonableness of Faith (Cambridge University Press, 2015).