The HHS Mandates and the Many Meanings of Pluralism


There is an amusing bit in the famous movie Becket in which King Henry II of England and his counsellor (and later Archbishop of Canterbury) Thomas Becket spar about the meaning of honor.  Becket, who is presented in the film as at first a kind of self-interested survivor, emphasizes self-preservation.  “Honor is an affair of the living, my prince,” he says.  A man has to be alive before he can worry about honor.  The King, who is not as sharp as his advisor, says: “There’s something not quite right in that, Thomas.”  Although Henry can’t identify the flaw in Becket’s thinking, Becket has in fact made a mockery of the whole concept of honor, since it ordinarily means something even more important than your life (as Becket comes to realize in the course of the story, especially when the honor at stake is the honor of God).

Something similar has gone on in our own times with the term “pluralism”–although the wordplay here is not really funny.  I thought of this the other day when I read someone online defending the HHS mandates–which require religious corporations to provide health coverage they find morally and religiously objectionable–on the basis of “pluralism.”  We live in a pluralistic society, so the argument goes, so religious employers should not object to the HHS mandates.


This defense got me to thinking about how “pluralism”–at least as the term is used by contemporary liberals–has a kind of amorphous meaning.

On the one hand, pluralism means that Christians should not use the law to impose their own moral standards on the rest of the country.

On the other hand, pluralism means that liberals get to use the law to impose their moral standards on Christians.

As King Henry II might say, “there’s something not quite right in that.”

If we could articulate the concern we experience in seeing this strange dichotomy, we might be tempted to say that “pluralism” is not really a principle but instead an intellectual tactic by which liberals have first destroyed the public power of the people they disagree with and then permitted themselves to exercise the same kind of power for the ends that they approve.

Don’t ask them for consistency.  That was never the point.

The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of


About Author

Carson Holloway is a political scientist and the author of The Way of Life: John Paul II and the Challenge of Liberal Modernity (Baylor University Press), The Right Darwin? Evolution, Religion, and the Future of Democracy (Spence Publishing), and All Shook Up: Music, Passion and Politics (Spence Publishing), and the editor of a collection of essays entitled Magnanimity and Statesmanship (Lexington Books). His articles have appeared in the Review of Politics, Interpretation: A Journal of Political Philosophy, Perspectives on Political Science, and First Things. He is a regular contributor to the online journal The Public Discourse. Holloway was a 2005-06 William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life in the James Madison Program at Princeton University. He received his Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in 1998.

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