The Challenge of Pluralism: Public Sphere for Me, But Not for Thee

03/05/2014 12:21 pm ET | Updated May 05, 2014

The concept of the public sphere has evolved into a major part of Western life, aided by discourses on secularism, multiculturalism, and the roles of various filtering agents such as the state and media institutions in regulating one's access to the public sphere. When Jurgen Habermas explained the idea of the public sphere in democratic societies, that sphere was largely confined to white Christian males.

Over time, however, the public sphere has slowly transformed to include more voices, though it can expand and contract depending on perceived threats by certain groups. Groups such as Japanese Americans during World War II and Muslim Americans after 9/11 faced ostracizing and (temporary) expulsion from the public sphere, while specific demographic populations such as African-American men and undocumented Americans have long struggled to gain permanent access into the mainstream of public discourse.

Through the development of multiple public spheres and "counterpublics," as coined by scholars such as my friend Cathy Squires, there has been more opportunity for growing the field of discourse. Many public intellectuals have hailed the changing American social tapestry as a precursor to an all-inclusive public sphere that embraces cultural diversity and religious pluralism within the framework of secularism.

Religious pluralism, however, is perhaps the greatest challenge in American society, where policymakers and "thought leaders" -- including many in the media -- still frame the narrative of pluralism based upon a Judeo-Christian worldview, sometimes expanding to include Islam as part of an Abrahamic-centric public discourse. Indeed, interfaith efforts and faith-based discourses in secular public space are seemingly hampered by a general reluctance to expand what it means to be pluralistic. For those who are now accustomed to a Judeo-Christian/Abrahamic framework of pluralism within the public sphere, it is often difficult to imagine how an all-inclusive, egalitarian practice of religious pluralism would work.

When minority religions and spiritual traditions do get access to the public sphere, it is often in response to trauma. Awareness about Sikh Americans, for example, has increased significantly since the Oak Creek massacre in 2012, while Muslim Americans have made strides in clearing up misconceptions about Islam in the decade-plus since 9/11. Advocacy groups for both religions have also strategically invested time in cultivating themselves into the pluralistic framework of this country. For other faiths such as Buddhism and Baha'i, for example, access into the public sphere can be granted through celebrities or intellectual curiosity about the philosophy of the religion. However, fascination with a faith doesn't always mean an appreciation for pluralism.

The problem with the way that pluralism has been defined in the United States -- and in other Western countries -- is that there is an underlying assumption that the public sphere is still dominated by a monopoly or oligopoly of faith perspectives. Indeed, the principles of pluralism are hampered by the politics of privilege. For Hindus living in the United States, for example, the challenge of being part of the public sphere is that Hinduism is already framed as unequal to the Abrahamic religions. Moreover, the ideological inscriptions about Hinduism that have carried over from the colonial era continue to hold significant influence in how it is framed in American discourse. As a result, many Hindus -- particularly those who were born and raised here -- are reluctant to self-identify as such in order to be able to gain access to the public sphere. In other words, in order for Hindus to be accepted in a pluralistic discourse, they have to "play down" their Hinduism.

The problem for Hindus, or members of any other religious or spiritual tradition that must sanitize or downplay their identities, is that religious pluralism becomes impossible to achieve. If the benchmarks are set that only members of religions that have an assumed pre-clearance to discourse are allowed to be part of pluralistic interactions, then we are defining a society where pluralism is selective. The "pluralism for me, not for thee" approach can have a devastating impact on not only equal discourse, but it can create significant repercussions for groups who fall outside of the "pluralism for me" model. As Diana Chapman Walsh argues, "people of diverse backgrounds are best able to come together and suspend their suspicions and fears when they are secure in their own commitments. They can let down their guard and learn from one another when the perceived risk is not too great. This kind of security emerges...out of relationships with intellectual integrity and out of ongoing dialogue exploring differences." I would add that this dialogue must be explored on equal footing rather than certain groups exercising privilege over others under the claim of pluralism.

Perhaps then -- and only then -- can we achieve this ideal of religious pluralism we so dearly seek.