Pluralism. Ruminations. Very long. Skip if you aren’t bored. Synopsis: we need to quit undermining important pluralistic social institutions or go found our own country.
I have been wondering how to frame what has been bothering me about the current fracturing of American institutions. I have not had the luxury to think about anything much lately, but recent events have made it urgent. I have been wondering about and carefully considering the positions of people I know, some of who condemn the public schools on principle, some who decide to fracture their religious communities, and more recently individuals who think the only solution to what they consider a deep moral crisis is to start a competing “christian oriented” alternative to century old youth organizations.
All this fracturing is part of the natural human processes of establishing community and identity. Social Scientists know all about this stuff. Yet what bothers me is exactly that fact: we DO know all about this pattern and still we do not pull ourselves up short when it is clearly detrimental to our own future. All of us have been given enough background to avoid this trap. It has been a favorite topic of ancient and modern philosophy. It is one of the central subjects of social studies and U.S. history in schools. Still everyone just runs off the cliff when they suddenly find their own pants are on fire.
So here is the cliff notes version: political exclusivism arises from religious and social exclusivisim, and political exclusivism is the mortal enemy of democracy,
Now, unless all my talented grade school, high school, and college teachers as well as the writers of the Federalist Papers were very much off base, the founding idea of the American experiment was pluralism. Pluralism is not assimilation, or individualism, and it is certainly not exclusivism. It assumes functioning social institutions can be built and maintained despite diversity in culture and religion. What is crucial to it’s success….OUR success..is the public support of cultural institutions which are decidedly and consciously pluralistic, institutions which serve as bridges and mediators between diverse groups. Without those institutions, both social and political, the American experiment is without foundation. There is no “plan B” as far as I can tell.
It took me a while to identify the source of my current sour outlook and malaise, but I think it is rooted in my perception of the abandonment rather than reform of pluralistic institutions in our society. Mainline denominational churches have long formed pluralistic functions (try to find two Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Lutherans for example who actually agree on anything, or Catholics either for that matter) by being tolerant of wide ranges of theology and promoting ecumenical relations. Today these institutions are in decline and only the more theologically “conservative” and exclusivist groups are holding their own. Current polls show that most Americans are trending towards “a church of one”, agnostic, or atheist so that the moderating and communal functions of religious structures are fading, especially among evangelicals. Our public schools are a primary pluralistic institution which are also in decline and in desperate need of reform, support, and care. Our conversations are increasingly centered on promoting charter, private, and home schooling (not questioning the solution, just the symptom). Of course, fraternal service institutions like the Rotary Club, the Kiwanis, The Masons, Eastern Star, the Elks, Oddfellows, the VFW/American Legion, all these served pluralistic goals.
The number of these organizations has fallen precipitously over the last 50 years as have their memberships. Because all these institutions once performed important functions their eclipse has left gaps in our social networks, gaps which we have tried to fill through public governance, a process which has not gone unopposed. Even the military, which was once built upon conscription and served to help integrate society, has become in many ways a small and culturally isolated social institution.
Pluralistic institutions are fading from our cultural landscape.
Which brings me finally, of course, to the topic of the day: Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts. The GSA seems to have successfully negotiated the retention of their pluralist structure, and whatever failings the GSA has in its program (another rant) it has managed to preserve it’s social function. I have yet to hear a Brownie be berated for their organizations discriminatory or liberal membership policies. They can sell as many boxes of bad cookies as they can make. Ponder that.
What is it about the membership of the BSA which is different? That seems to be a much more complicated sociological question. To answer it you would have to look at the traditional role of male leaders in our dominant culture and especially in dominant religious congregations, then furthermore at the increasingly integrated relationship between those religious institutions and the BSA. This has been a radically different pattern than seen within the GSA. The LDS church, for example, has long operated an essentially parallel but exclusive and fundamentally different variant of Scouting in their programs.
The early promoters in the LDS church took advantage of and supported the framework of the National organization as it grew while holding the central pluralistic mission of the BSA at arms length. This is the extreme example, but to a certain extent the growing dominance of Church denominations at the National Council table has infused the organization an increasingly conservative Christian (yes the LDS considers themselves Christian) positions. This process is well and convincingly documented in many sources, so this is certainly no original claim of mine.
What can be said is that the 2013 exodus of individuals away from the BSA to found “alternative” and exclusive Christian-based organizations (e,g, Trail Life USA) is a reflection of how conflicted Americans have become about the interaction of civil and religious institutions within our society. This pattern is not at all about Boy Scouts per se but the BSA is a good microcosm of the issue. For that reason recent events in the BSA should be a topic for wider public discussion and analysis IMHO.
Now I can say from personal experience that the fracturing of established charitable institutions is almost always detrimental to the members in the short term and usually in the long term. Loss of membership, duplication of effort, diffusion of economic support. Economies of scale apply here. We should be able to avoid this cycle in the arena of religion and society. Why? Because we have been there and done that. The old trope is true; most of our European ancestors came to this country to escape the horrors of religious wars and state sponsored churches. Certainly all of mine did, and some of them were involved in the founding of this country. The entire point of the experiment of 1776 was to escape the seemingly eternal hell produced by the toxic combination of pious tyrants and zealot citizens imposing their singular vision of social morality on their neighbors. The enlightenment was an intellectual rejection of that model of society. It is such a deeply black irony that the upholding of “American Values” can now be claimed to justify the dismemberment of fundamentally pluralistic institutions given our nation’s history. Franklin is probably spitting up pebbles.
Pluralism and democracy requires an active engagement with people who have radically different views on some issues but share common values in others. The differences are given, commonality is what is constructed. The forging of the cannon of common values is the process of building a civil society, they are not “handed up” from somewhere (Jefferson recommended a complete constitutional overhaul every few years to effect this change). Building pluralistic institutions requires compromise, sometimes deep painful compromise, not instance on conformity or exclusion. From that emerges the acknowledgement of common moral standings on the most important issues of human rights, the acceptance of other views on less important issues, and the critical ability to tell the difference.
More than anything else, pluralism depends on the rock-solid and thoughtful commitment to the existence and maintenance of pluralistic institutions as necessary to the preservation of our society. Without that unwavering principle the game is up. So maybe it is worth repeating each to ourselves what we already know: the most important active principle of citizenship in a democracy is not abandonment of personal beliefs but an affirmation of our commitment to our common community and the support of its democratic institutions. Walking away is not an option.