Finding Uncommon Ground
Interview with John Inazu
Can people with different views truly live in peace? Looking at news headlines or our social media feeds, it can feel like the answer to this question is a resounding “no.” Yet when we posed this question in the Fall 2016 Advance to John Inazu, a professor of law and religion at Washington University in St. Louis and a leading First Amendment scholar, he argued it was not only possible, but that it was also crucial to do so, and that Christians – especially Christian colleges and universities – can serve as models.
Four years later, Inazu has a new book out, which he co-edited with pastor and author Tim Keller (for an excerpt from Uncommon Ground, see “The Power of Words”). Joy Mosley, CCCU’s director of government relations, interviewed Inazu to see what, if anything, has changed over the last few years about his views on First Amendment freedoms, confident pluralism, and common ground in a fractured, conflicted world – and the role for Christian higher education among it all. The interview has been edited and condensed for length.
Joy Mosley: One of the most well-known First Amendment freedoms is the freedom of religion. In an increasingly secular America, how do you see this freedom both being upheld and being challenged?
John Inazu: There are a couple of considerations. One is that the First Amendment talks about the “free exercise of religion,” and one of the important questions today is what counts as “exercise”? Is it mostly belief, or worship, or does it extend to the other things that religious believers do in their lives? When a substantial part of the population professes no religion at all, the unquestioned assumption that religion extends to all parts of life starts to diminish in the broader culture. Many people in the past would have presumed that religious exercise was a broadly construed concept that touched all aspects of life. That’s no longer a given today, which means the argument for religious freedom needs to be made anew.
I think another challenge of increased secularization is that a significant demographic that professes no belief in any religion will not intuitively recognize or value the need for freedom of religion. When we had religious differences in past eras – even when people had different faiths – they all mutually recognized the significance of religious freedom. But if you don’t actually believe in religion, it’s harder to see why it might be important.
Back in 2016, you talked to us about how pluralism can help us live together in an age of division, and now you’ve written a book with Tim Keller on living faithfully in a world of difference. So how has society’s understanding of pluralism changed since 2016 – if you think it has changed at all?
Four years is not a long time in the course of history, but it sure feels like it has been a long time. There seems to be – particularly with national politics – an increased sense of exhaustion, and social media rhetoric seems to have intensified in the last four years. I think that the shrillness of disagreement has increased – or, at least, it hasn’t gotten better.
Another thing that we’re seeing on both sides of the political aisle is an increased sense that politics and political parties are what will save people. With the diminished value of religion for many people and the increased stakes of what politics seems to represent, there seems to be a move toward sacralizing the political – to a point where the political becomes the totality of what’s important in life or the primary marker of one’s identity. I’ve even noticed that with some of my students – they’ve started to talk about how their political identity is core to who they are and to what motivates them, and I don’t think I saw that even a few years ago.
You also discussed in 2016 the importance of finding common ground, acknowledging that we can’t overcome all disagreement. This new book is called Uncommon Ground. So, how should we hold these two concepts in tension, recognizing that there is both common and uncommon ground?
I think the ability to find common ground begins by being clear about what your differences are. When you know who you are, what your purpose is, what you value, then you’re more easily able to partner across difference and find those places of common ground. When you’re not sure about who you are or what you’re doing, it’s harder, riskier, and more threatening to try to dip your toes into unfamiliar waters because you’re not quite sure how they are going to affect you.
We also need to understand the limits on partnering that flow from the differences that we have with others. One of my criticisms of arguments for religious pluralism in the 1990s is that too often, those arguments glossed over our disagreements for the sake of unity. But real unity and finding common ground requires naming our differences first. That means – as a practical, a political, and a social matter – we’re not going to agree on everything.
What are some challenges people of faith face as a result of pluralism?
With an increased recognition of difference and diversity in society, we find a lack of ability to find or name consensus or to agree on common terms. So the more diversity we recognize in society, the harder it is to agree on common ideas. I think for a lot of Christians, in particular – who’ve been used to having a cultural baseline or discourse for their own beliefs for a lot of our country’s history – the increased questioning of fundamental premises and the recognition of a more diverse set of voices in society means that it’s harder to feel like you have consensus. It’s sometimes harder to name shared purpose or ideas. A corollary is that sometimes people feel more threatened or more anxious as a result. The reality of difference is that the more difference there is, the harder it is to name that which we have in common. And that’s hard for everyone, including people of faith.
You mentioned Christians used to feel like there was more commonality with other citizens in understanding their beliefs, and now that’s fracturing. How do you think we deal with that fracture?
I think a hopeful, confident Christian faith can recognize that the message of the Gospel and its manifestation in culture does not depend on who runs culture or who runs politics; it depends on the ability to live a life of faithful witness. Take the example of Christmas celebrations in public schools that used to include concerts and decorations and words that were rooted around a Christian understanding of Christmas. Today we have moved to more of a generic holiday celebration. And I think Christians should be fine with this change – we should double down on the significance of recognizing and remembering Christmas in our churches and religious organizations and then graciously engage with and love our neighbors who have different faiths, instead of feeling like there’s a loss of Christmas because certain social institutions no longer celebrate it as they once did. We recognize and affirm that the meaning of Christmas is far greater than whatever a particular school or society might say about it.
How can Christian college and university leaders assist their campus constituencies and their neighboring communities in living faithfully in this time of difference?
I teach at a non-Christian university, but I also deeply value Christian higher education, particularly when it combines formation and discipleship with intellectual challenge and rigor. And I see this among many of the students I encounter from these schools and from the colleagues I know who teach at those schools. I think it is important for leaders of Christian institutions to recognize the significance of forming the next generation at the intersection of faith and intellect. One way to do that within Christian colleges and universities is to maximize the opportunities to engage in unsettling and unfamiliar ideas – to do this within the integrity of the institution, but not to be afraid of difference or challenging ideas. I’m encouraged by the number of resources that exist to help educators and administrators do some of this work.
I’m thinking of Marion Larson and Sara Shady’s From Bubble to Bridge, which is specifically written for students at Christian colleges and universities. How might these students think of their time in those schools not only as a time for their own formation but also as preparation for engagement in the world? Or the organization that Kevin Singer and Chris Stackaruk started called Neighborly Faith, which is about inviting and equipping Christians to engage with their Muslim neighbors, especially here in the States. Or my friend Eboo Patel’s organization, Interfaith Youth Core. I think all of these are tremendous resources and opportunities, and leaders of Christian colleges and universities can invite these folks in to help train and form the next generation of Christian leaders.
You recently wrote an article discussing the various freedoms of the First Amendment, and you mentioned that freedom of religion is not the only freedom that’s vital to protecting our religious liberties. Can you flesh out that idea out for us?
The nature of civil liberties and the First Amendment protections means that legal arguments are not static. They change with how courts and others interpret the meaning of words and phrases. Right now, the free exercise of religion doesn’t always offer the strongest and best protections. For that reason, it’s important to understand how other First Amendment rights also protect religious expression and religious practice. One of the most important today is the right of free speech, which has been interpreted in the last 40 years to cover far more expression than it used to, including religious expression. So religious believers and advocates for religious liberty should not shy away from making free-speech arguments, which can also protect religious freedom.
Another area that I’ve written quite a bit about is the right of assembly. The way in which we protect and encourage the private groups of civil society to include religious and non-religious groups is ultimately a benefit to religious freedom as well. But I think what’s important about these arguments, and a good reminder for Christians, is that we can’t make these arguments purely out of self-interest. If we’re going to stand up for civil liberties, we also have to make arguments on behalf of people who disagree with us; on behalf of people we don’t like; even on behalf of people who will use those very rights to challenge our views. The only way the system works is if we recognize the mutual benefit of these rights for one another.
Could you say a little bit more about the freedom of assembly and how that is a protection for religious liberty?
The right of assembly covers the private groups of civil society – how they form and how they express themselves in public settings. You could think of anything from a protest group, to a church, to a labor union, to a chess club. And the idea of assembly is that, within the private groups of civil society, people form and pursue all kinds of interests, and it’s important to allow the spaces for those groups and those ideas to manifest apart from government control.
One place where this increasingly shows up in our current context is in non-Christian institutions of higher education, where you have Christian and other religious groups that are trying to maintain access on these campuses. And sometimes the groups encounter challenges where the administration will allow all kinds of student groups but not the religious ones. Here’s a place where Christians and others can say it’s important to have the right of assembly, to be groups in these spaces, just like any other groups, and then to say just as strongly that we need to stand up for the rights of other religious groups to do the same.
In your book Confident Pluralism, you discuss the civic aspirations of tolerance, humility, and patience. For some, “tolerance” can have a negative connotation – the idea that it only comes from a place of superiority, of just deigning to allow whatever practice or idea we’re tolerating. And on the other hand, “acceptance” can also have a negative connotation – the idea that if we accept someone, it means we approve of behaviors that we think are wrong. Is there some terminology that can help us be more effective for affirming our own beliefs while caring for our brothers and sisters with whom we might deeply disagree?
I think we should start by not giving up on the word “tolerance.” I agree that it is a terribly confused term, and when I speak to Christian audiences, it’s often the word that causes people the most concern. But instead of giving up on it, we can be clearer about its meaning. The version of tolerance that is defined as full acceptance or embrace of someone else’s beliefs and practices is ultimately an unworkable and philosophically impossible definition. None of us actually embraces and approves all other beliefs and practices; we can all name things that we find deeply problematic and wrong.
I think a better understanding of tolerance that we can argue culturally and rhetorically is to say that tolerance gives us a way to start to separate people from the ideas they hold. We can still critique ideas, and we can still critique practices, but we can usually tolerate other people who live and work and play with us. As Christians, we can see them as image bearers.
This leads us to a greater pursuit than tolerance – Jesus tells us not to tolerate others, but to love them. He tells us to love our enemies. When we start by recognizing every human being, no matter how different their beliefs and practices are, is first and foremost an image bearer, we can move from the hard work of tolerance to the even harder work of love, even when we encounter deep disagreement.
Is there anything that is particularly important, especially for students, to hear as a part of this conversation?
In talking to a lot of college-aged students around the country at both Christian and non-Christian institutions, I think my challenge for Christians is two-fold. First and foremost, recognize that while you will have different identities and different commitments in life, following Christ means that your primary identity lies in his redemptive work in your life.
The second challenge, which might be harder for today’s college-aged students, is to recognize that the call of Christianity is sometimes just going to look weird to the world. In today’s cultural moment, if you’re 19 and you’re a Christian, it’s probably easier to resonate with some of the more social-justice-oriented ideas in our culture. I think those are really important arguments for Christians to be engaged in and support, and quite frankly, earlier generations of white Christians have not adequately done so. But it’s also harder to be distinctive when you think about other aspects of Christian identity that don’t meld so easily on social media or other parts of culture. Part of the challenge for Christians, and Christian students, is to be clear about who you are and not to be afraid of being at times very different from the world.
That makes me think of one of the big challenges our campuses face: social media usage on campus and training students – and, frankly, everyone else on campus – how to engage with this medium that allows for a lot of interaction without a lot of face-to-face consequences. And so I wonder if you would have any thoughts on that in light of what we’ve been talking about today.
I think the combination of social media and technology represents one of the most significant challenges for Christian formation in the West today, and that’s certainly true for students and faculty and staff at Christian colleges and universities. It’s not to say that social media is all bad, but you can’t spend your entire life there; you have to work hard for face-to-face arguments and for sustained reading and for the kinds of things that aren’t clickbait driven by wildly expressive or sensational pictures or headlines. I don’t know how to do that without taking radical steps toward a different kind of formation.
One place to start is by reading books like Andy Crouch’s Tech-Wise Family – which is not just for families but for everyone – and taking seriously the immense spiritual challenges that come with technology and social media. And then I think that Christian schools have a real opportunity to try some radically different practices. I don’t know what those are, but I do think that they’re going to have to be more radical than I’ve seen. Maybe it means significant limitations on when people are using phones and technology, or even a kind of community agreement to read a diverse set of news sources and newsfeeds. Without that kind of shared communal existence, it doesn’t matter what you’re doing in the classroom or in a chapel service or in a convocation talk – that’s a few minutes out of the week, and then everyone jumps right back into their own influences and inputs. And if you’re being formed in the rest of the week by an eclectic and often unhelpful set of influences, it’s very hard to sustain real community.
On the other hand, we also want to avoid an Orwellian mindset of censorship and control, especially within Christian discourse. The challenge is immense, but I think that Christian colleges and universities are the kinds of institutions that can lead the way in addressing them.