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.


Categories:Culture Politics Religious Liberty


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  • Will

    What are Hobby Lobby’s retirement investments in drug companies telling us?–politics.html

    • Joshua Mercer

      Employees of Hobby Lobby are investing in mutual funds. Hobby Lobby doesn’t chose which funds are invested, but (like most employees) matches contributions). Not sure why this is considered a scandal. Or even news.

      • Will

        No one is saying this is a scandal. It is news because there are ways they can invest without investing in these drug companies and because of Hobby Lobby’s lawsuit.

  • Rob Schebel

    I’ve noticed that conservatives use the word “tradition” in much the same manipulative manner as liberals use “pluralism.”

  • RFPBerkleyCenter

    Thanks for this great piece. We’re also looking at the HHS Mandate and religious freedom on our blog at

  • Sherwin Cullison

    Why the continued use of the codeword “liberals”? None of us want the government to get mixed up in religion. We should also not want religious fervor to get mixed up in voting decisions as was the case with choosing George W. Bush, a man totally unqualified to be President. Health insurance is for the benefit of all of our citizens. It should look the same for everyone. The only difference would be which of its component services we as individuals choose to use. It’s just hypocrisy for these business owners to get involved in health insurance usage of their employees. The Supreme Court must surely nip this in the bud so that, for example, business owners who don’t believe in blood transfusions or, indeed, health treatment at all will not be able to use their religion to impose their personal moral standards on anyone unlucky enough to work for them.

    • Brian

      Your argument is based on the idea that a business owes its employees health insurance. I don’t believe this to be true (other than that it is now required due to the ACA).

      It used to be that insurance was considered a benefit. It was an incentive a company used to draw in the best employees. If a business includes insurance as a beneift but does not include transfusions in that benefit, the business owner is not wrong, he is simply offering a lesser benefit that his competitor who does cover transfusions. A business owner should not have to set his morals aside just to run a successful business. It really is that simple.

      You say that “it’s just hypocrisy for these business owners to get involved in health insurance usage of their employees.” I’m not sure where the hypocrisy is, but I wonder why you feel it is okay for the government to get involved in the benefits that a company offers its employees.

      And as for being “a man totally unqualified to be President,” I would say that being a governor for 5 years is a greater qualitification than being a Senator for two.

  • Eric Johnson

    In America, the power of the people comes from their right to vote and demonstrate, among other ways. There is no power in a democracy based on a person’s religious beliefs because that implies a theocracy, something that the founding fathers of our country very much wanted to make sure never happened as it did in Europe and of course, many other areas of the world. I personnally do not believe that women have the right to have their contraceptives paid for by other Americans. However, my power to make a difference comes not from my religious beliefs but from my right to vote for whomever I choose and from my right to demonstrate and my right to uphold my ethics.



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