The Quixotic Pursuit of Pluralism Leads Into a Tower of Babel

by John Ellis

The contemporary embrace of book banning reminds me of the adage that if you wait long enough your clothes will come back in style. Making that connection, though, requires the surrender of the deeply entrenched belief that pluralism is part of this country’s warp and woof. I surrendered that belief a while ago, so it’s easy for me to see the cyclical nature of fashion in the outworking of current political moods. Not only was pluralism not part of the Founder’s intention for this country, pluralism, in and of itself, is a myth (like a unicorn). The return to book banning was inevitable because it never went away. The current clash of ideologies that’s ripping this country apart was also inevitable because we allowed ourselves to believe the myth of pluralism and have convinced ourselves that there was a time when everyone played nicely (and fairly/justly).

It’s probably more accurate and revealing, not to mention slightly more palatable to Christian defenders of pluralism,[1] for me to describe the pursuit of it as Quixotic instead of reducing the concept to a myth. By definition, justice is a transcendent concept. And I don’t mean transcendent in the sense of deity or other-worldly (although as a Christian I would argue that it ultimately is). What I mean is that for a society to function, a controlling standard – a metanarrative – standing behind the program is required. Somebody/something has to provide definitions for what’s allowed as well as boundaries to prevent violations of those definitions. That ultimately means that some ideologies/worldviews are privileged over others. It also means that some ideologies/worldviews are denied any access to the public square and, in some instances, even denied within the private sphere. No matter what qualifier you glue to the front of pluralism the fact remains that it’s only really pluralism for those permitted a voice by whatever standard is standing behind the program. For those on the outs, all the qualifiers in the world don’t change the reality that pluralism is a myth for them. What happens, though, when a society reaches the point where two sides are warring over that controlling narrative? Well, we’re living it.

In the very early 20th century, the German sociologist Max Weber observed that adhering to religion in America produced a net positive for citizens. To be clear, Weber’s insights didn’t reveal devoutness in this country; he simply realized that religiosity served as an identity marker for Americans. While leaving many people groups out in the cold, the controlling narrative of this country was staunchly in place by the time Weber trudged around it. Shamefully, though, the people groups left out in the cold were silenced, often violently. Frequently labeled as why this is a Christian nation (mistakenly), this controlling narrative centered a specific type of person within the community – a white, “Christian” male.

Now, I could go on and on about how that controlling narrative is, in fact, quite contra-Christian, but I don’t want to get bogged down. Besides, you can find other articles on this blog that make that argument. In brief, the controlling narrative of this country has never been Christianity, at least not how the Bible defines Christianity. And that controlling narrative didn’t allow for dissension. Those in power were firmly in power and weren’t about to give any of it up (ask Eugene V. Debs about that, who, ironically, was an actual Christian).

To be sure, there were pockets of resistance – think the Provincetown Players, or the Harlem Renaissance, etc. – but that resistance was always relegated to the fringe of society. At best, the voices of protest could make noise that could be heard and felt in the public square, but that noise usually had a short shelf life. By and large, what it meant to be an American, at least out loud, was heavily prescribed.

Interestingly, two competing factors in the 1950s helped plant the seeds for our current cultural malaise and, I predict, coming demise.

Before getting to the 50s, the stage had already been set in the late 30s and 40s. Upset at FDR’s New Deal, business leaders in this country sprang into action. The National Association of Manufacturers drafted Rev. James Fifield, pastor of the First Congregational Church in Los Angeles, to advance the program of conflating capitalism with Christianity. Fifield dutifully preached Christian libertarianism which is what created the environment to allow Billy Graham to rocket into the national consciousness after William Randolph Hearst and Texas billionaire Sid Richardson recognized a charismatic ally in Graham.

Moving into the 50s, with Graham carrying the torch for Christian libertarianism as well as helping to get Eisenhower elected president (Graham played a large role in convincing the famous general to enter the race), the percentage of Americans regularly attending church in the United States began steadily ticking up until the Cold War ended. I’m willing to bet that many white evangelicals look backwards to the 50s and early 60s as the quintessential expression of Americanness.[2] However, the myth of Americana being apple pie, fireworks, and church picnics was a product of the CIA’s propaganda machine hard at work combatting the Soviet Union during the Cold War. This was the time period when “In God we trust” was added to the Pledge of Allegiance, for example. Godlessness and being a Red became synonyms. Winning the Cold War required all patriotic Americans to faithfully go to church (and buy the latest gadgets flashing at them off the colorful pages of the Sear’s Wish Book to fill out and decorate their American Dream cookie-cutter suburban home).

While that was going on, a group of “ne’er-do-wells” completed their pilgrimage to San Franscico and set up shop in the Haight-Ashbury district. The precursors to the hippy movement of the 60s, the Beats (Beatniks) rebelled against the approved mores of America’s controlling narrative. Unlike their predecessors the Provincetown Players, the Beats ended up with the law on their side, a surprise development that helped change everything.

In 1956, Allen Ginsburg’s (in)famous poem “Howl” was published. With themes of drug use, homosexuality, and heterosexual promiscuity dominating the poem, it didn’t take long for the authorities to act. Copies of Howl and Other Poems were confiscated, and Shig Murao was arrested after Murao, who managed City Lights Bookstore[3], sold a copy to undercover police officers in June 1957. The case landed on the docket of the California State Superior Court. Leaning on SCOTUS’ decision in Roth versus United States, California State Superior Court Judge Clayton Horn ruled that “Howl” was of “redeeming social importance.” This ruling set the precedence for future rulings that saw Roth’s decision gutted of its intent and pornography and obscene materials to be considered protected by the First Amendment.

To break it down, while the majority of white people in this country embraced Christian libertarianism and its twin “God” and Country, an increasingly vocal minority were finding their dissenting voices increasingly protected by the law of the land. An alternative voice to the controlling narrative was allowed. This, of course, set up the inevitable and existentially destructive war of competing narratives we currently find ourselves in.

If pluralism has existed at any real level in this country, it’s only done so between the end of the Civil Rights Movement and the election of Donald Trump in 2016.[4] However, as I stated above, pluralism, at best, is Quixotic. Eventually the lance shatters.

The last four to five decades have been a mirage. The demise of the Evil Empire, as Reagan tagged a dying, gasping Soviet Union in the 80s, fed that mirage steroids for about a decade. 9/11 was a near-fatal blow to the “end of history” celebrations of the classical liberals on both sides of the political aisle. The controlling narrative of this country started really wobbling twenty-years ago after President Bush launched his illegal and immoral invasion of a sovereign nation. Cracks appeared, those dissenting voices became louder, and more colorful, attractive identity choices were admitted onto the buffet of our society’s expressive individualism. Since 2016, it’s nearly impossible to listen to the discourse and say with a straight face that we’re all reading the same book, much less on the same page as a nation.  

We now have a segment of the population dug in and digging deeper into the belief that they are the last bastion to protecting the Christian nation intended by the Founders. They believe, mistakenly, that they have God on their side, which is the kind of mistake that leads to violently sinful “holy” wars. On the other side, we have an increasingly emboldened rejection of that narrative and any narrative that privileges white, “so-called” Christianity. In its place, they’ve been busily constructing their own controlling narrative for this country that is as idolatrous, just in different directions, than their enemies. And a controlling narrative that cannot coexist with the other side’s desired controlling narrative. Something has to give.

Alasdair MacIntyre ends his classical book After Virtue with the strange prophecy that, “We are not waiting for a Godot, but for another – doubtless very different – St. Benedict.”[5] Preceding that conclusion, MacIntyre offers the foreboding warning that we are entering an “[age] of barbarism and darkness”, that a new “dark age” is descending upon us.[6]

Hegel’s influence on Alasdair MacIntyre is showing, of course, but that doesn’t mean he’s entirely wrong.[7] While I agree with him (and Hegel) that things are about to get a lot worse, I don’t hold out any hope that a type of St. Benedict is showing up. At best, all we’re going to get is Godot. Until King Jesus returns, that is. Whatever we get, it ain’t going to be pretty.

This brings me to my point: brothers and sisters in Christ, I urge you to quickly exit whichever Tower of Babel you find yourself in. No matter which side you align with in this cultural war, it’s not allied with King Jesus. As you exit, take up your cross, be willing to leave family and friends behind, and follow Jesus. His way is not the world’s way, and that includes the Unites States of America. 

This culture is not sustainable for much longer. And that’s fine because it’s not our culture anyway. We serve the eternal King of the cosmos. Our job is to be his ambassadors in the here and now while we wait (and long) for the not yet. Our job is to be faithful witnesses to the Resurrection with the prayer that the Holy Spirit will be pleased to use our efforts to call others of our King’s people to him. We can’t do that if we’re climbing the Tower of Babel’s stairs.

Soli Deo Gloria

[1] I doubt I’ll ever be palatable to them. At best, all I can hope for is that they’ll stop condescendingly suggest books for me to read – books I’ve very likely already read and they, ironically, haven’t.

[2] Obviously (at least, it should be obvious), most Black Americans would vehemently reject a return to the 1950s. A glaring fact that is whitewashed by current white evangelical thought leaders who keep claiming that the 1950s was the highwater mark of evangelicalism in this country. I mean, on one their correct. But on the other hand, I’m all for condemning white evangelicalism outright. The 1950s were the highwater mark of white evangelicalism but that reveals how rotten the whole thing is.

[3] Apropos of nothing, I’ve been there and purchased some books.

[4] I’m willing to move those dates on either end, but I think my two choices serve as excellent rhetorical bookends.

[5] Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue, Third Edition (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2015), 263.

[6] MacIntyre, After Virtue, 263.

[7] In Faith and Knowledge, Hegel argued that the developing post-Enlightenment pluralism would lead to violent crisis that will allow for his end of history. He referred to his age (and our age) as a “universal Good Friday” to illustrate his point. Our society must die to be reborn, he believed. He’s not entirely wrong.

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