Difference and Dignity

Commentaries — October 24, 2014

Salt Lake City — Second in a five-part series on why faith matters to society

“People and communities need space in which to test differing modes of religious experience.” — Alan Meese and Nathan Oman[1]

Wouldn’t life be easier if everyone were the same? Think of the conflicts we could avoid if we all wanted the same things, voted the same way and went to the same church. The trouble is, however, that such a world doesn’t exist.

The temptation to form everyone “from a single mold,” said Dieter F. Uchtdorf, second counselor in the First Presidency of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, “would contradict the genius of God, who created every man different.”[2]

Societies are full of interest groups, political camps, cultural factions and religious organizations advancing their own vision of the good. And when we all have our own say, communities are better for it. As long as they harm or coerce no one, our differences can enrich our common existence.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks compared our social reality to the workings of nature: “Just as the natural environment depends on biodiversity, so the human environment depends on cultural diversity, because no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind.”[3] Equilibrium among many, not dominance by one, offers a better chance for stability.

Since no particular group has a monopoly on all that is wise, beautiful and just, everyone can learn from everyone else. Our experiences have gaps that need to be bridged, and our perspectives have blind spots that need to be filled. We find meaning in human connection when we climb out of ourselves and discover the dignity of others, even if we disagree. And no one should have to give up their identities.

This engagement between differences is called pluralism, a society organized under common laws and civilization but with no single belief system that wields total influence. Not just one, or even two, but many perspectives and traditions can co-exist within a shared moral framework. Such an ideal works only when people develop the habits and manners of civility in understanding the unique worldviews of their neighbors. In an age teeming with philosophies, ideologies and truth claims, peace and order depend on it.

Plurality is a normal part of society, but the problem comes when the strongest demand conformity of everyone else. Pressures mount toward consensus. The drive to diminish differences builds. And in the name of unity, larger voices dominate the smaller ones. But this tendency usually backfires. Unity turns into repression, and a cycle of tension develops. The job of a pluralistic society, however, is to minimize this struggle.

Political scientist Samuel Huntington said that of all the elements that define civilizations, “the most important usually is religion.”[4] So it’s no surprise that religious difference lies at the root of many conflicts in the world. But the solution is to let differences flourish, not to stifle them. Studies show that protecting the varieties of religious experience correlates strongly with greater civil and political liberties, greater press and economic freedoms, fewer armed conflicts, better health outcomes, higher levels of income, better education for women and higher overall human development.[5] In short, religious pluralism frees up room to live life.

Our disagreements, one commentator wrote, should not have to be “pitted against each other in a battle to the death.”[6] Diversity makes life harder, for sure, but also more worth living. Fears of our differences often threaten us more than the actual differences.

Over and over the Bible points us to those who are different. “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers,” it says, “for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”[7] Likewise, our differences can be a blessing in disguise, because human dignity is not always as it first appears.

[1] Alan J. Meese, Nathan B. Oman, “Hobby Lobby, Corporate Law, and the Theory of the Firm,” Harvard Law Review Forum, May 20, 2014.

[2] Dieter F. Uchtdorf, “Four Titles,” Apr. 2013 General Conference.

[3] Jonathan Sacks, The Dignity of Difference (2005), 62.

[4] Samuel P. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (1996), 42.

[5] See Brian J. Grim, Roger Finke, The Price of Freedom Denied (2011), 206.

[6] Ross Douthat, “A Company Liberals Could Love,” New York Times, July 5, 2014.

[7] Hebrews 13:2.

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