When I heard a good friend emphatically tell a large audience last week that the most pressing issue for the Christian community in the years just ahead is not going to be homosexuality or gay marriage or abortion or Obamacare, he got my attention. None of those, he said. The central issue will be pluralism.
His assertion caught my attention because of an exchange I’d had 13 years ago, in the days right after the horrors of 9/11. We naturally devoted a whole issue of WORLD to the al-Qaeda attack on the United States, and I entitled my column in that issue “Sinflation”—arguing that our regular disregard of God’s standards always leads a society to collapse. We had allowed ourselves to pursue false gods, I argued, and now those false gods were forsaking us. “High on our own Western shelf of false deities,” I argued, “have been the gods of nominalism, materialism, secularism, and pluralism.” And we shouldn’t be surprised if others in the world saw the World Trade Center as symbols of such gods, towering as they did over the world’s financial capital, and capped as they were by the transmitting towers of major media and entertainment centers.
In retrospect, I should have been more careful on a couple of fronts. Later that same week, Jerry Falwell charged that the 9/11 attacks were in fact God’s judgment on the United States. I had not said anything that specific, and winced at Falwell’s implication that we could know the mind of God. I was saying only that we shouldn’t be surprised that others were offended by our lifestyle.
But I was hardly prepared for the charge that came the next day in the online version of The Wall Street Journal. “To the ranks of anti-American Christians we can add Joel Belz of World magazine. …” WSJ editor James Taranto quoted at length from my editorial, and apparently thought I had done myself in with careless writing, and that readers would judge me guilty as charged without further argument.
Instead, enough WORLD loyalists immediately emailed Taranto so that he felt obligated, under the headline “Ringing Belz,” to give me a little further hearing. “Now, we have no beef for nominalism, and we’ll give Belz materialism too … [although t]he meaning of secularism is a bit more complicated.
“Our real beef, though, is with Belz’s apparent opposition to pluralism. If there is a quintessential principle that sums up the meaning of America, pluralism is it—and religious pluralism in particular. It is pluralism that allows everyone from evangelical Protestants to Catholics to atheists, from Mormons to Muslims to Jews, to live in the same cities and towns, free of the religious wars that divide such places as the Middle East. To be against pluralism, it seems to us, is to be against America itself.”
That was a stiff and wounding charge. So I emailed Mr. Taranto—personally this time—to plead: “May the fellow you described as an ‘anti-American’ … join briefly in your discussion of ‘pluralism’? Very simply, the ‘pluralism’ you described [yesterday] … that is something I applaud and thank God for. The pluralism which I call a false god is a pluralism which suggests that all religions are equally true or valid. When pluralism moves beyond the protection of everybody’s right both to believe and even to propagate that belief peacefully, and then also argues that none of those beliefs is more true than any other of those beliefs—then something that started off as very good has become a false god. I will always be a defender of the first kind of pluralism, even while I understand that it contains within itself the seeds for occasionally producing the second.”
Mr. Taranto was kind to publish my note in the next day’s Wall Street Journal, under the headline “Liberty Belz,” and with this generous note: “We’re grateful for the clarification. We usually like being right, but in this case we’re glad to hear we were wrong.”
Although that unusual exchange is now almost 13 years old, it sets the stage for a fuller discussion, now in 2014, of this issue called “pluralism.” That’s why I think my friend was right last week in saying that pluralism is the issue of concern for God’s people in the years just ahead. And it’s why we’ll be returning to the rest of what my friend said in successive issues.