To build a composite nation with a rich plurality of cultures that are not in perpetual conflict requires more than the economic development of local communities. It requires that we embrace a spirit of civility toward ways of life that may not be our own. We lose little – and typically gain much – by respecting the diverse faiths, traditions, and philosophies of communities even if we do not wish to adopt them or advocate that they become part of our national culture. A spirit of civility for the life journey of our fellow citizens goes beyond Rawls’s demand of a duty of civility whereby we must provide reasons and empirical data based on a shared public framework that others can accept to justify our political positions.
It asks that we also respect what gives meaning to their life – even if that is different from our own understanding of the world. It calls on us to root for their flourishing as they define it provided their worldview is consistent with the first principles of justice, not a significant imposition, and neither violates our deep commitments nor constitutes something that we detest. We take joy in observing, or even sometimes partaking in, their approach to life. We view cultural differences as potentially enriching and elucidating our own experience as opposed to threatening it.
If we are to develop a genuine sense of justice, of fairness concerning the values and interests of others, as Rawls asks, then we must strive to truly understand their values. If our sense of justice is “continuous with the love of mankind,” as Rawls affirms, then that deep commitment means that we will desire for others to flourish or “to advance the other person’s good as this person’s rational self love would require.” While love imposes obligations beyond justice, Rawls recognizes that justice itself is rooted in caring fairly about the well-being of others. This may require us to pay attention to more than their material condition or freedom in a democratic society – basic needs which we can respect by complying with theoretical principles.
Nonetheless, Rawls likely would have hesitated to impose a duty of rooting for other worldviews as a requirement of justice, recognizing that a person may believe even certain reasonable ones to be false and not what another’s “rational” self should desire. How could a person be forced to cheer for something which they reject and wish to convert or change? Perhaps, for Rawls, bracketing differences in cultural or religious life and protecting these expressions from state interference is the most we can hope for in a pluralistic society. Joshua Cohen, a student of Rawls, argues that he was inspired by Bodin, who envisioned interlocutors of different faiths loving each other while agreeing to refuse to discuss religion after reaching an impasse. But this is a distant kind of love, walling off the things that matter most. An engaged love means striving to understand another person’s journey and vulnerability in search of truth and appreciating the customs and practices they believe in, even when they do not map neatly on to our worldview.
A spirit of civility stems from intellectual humility – a recognition of the limitations of reason to resolve ultimate issues which creates in us space for openness about how others choose to live while maintaining our own firm convictions about what is good and true. It requires us to look for ways to honour traditions that are important to others unless they are fundamentally inconsistent with our beliefs, recognizing the fallibility of our own approach, and seeking to love that which is deeply important to someone else and, in turn, wishing to be loved in a holistic way. It inspires us to question our own convictions about what may be in someone else’s good and examine if there is any room for engaging fellow citizens where they are at in their life journey as opposed to remaining firmly wedded to our own picture of how their lives should unfold, with all the social distance and distrust that brings. The challenge is when conflicts still arise.
In situations where cultural preferences are in tension, we may choose flexibility in accommodating the important practices of others instead of insisting foremost on strict parity if we come to appreciate the fairness, value for critical reflection, and beauty of a society with many strong traditions. This embrace and celebration of pluralism is a recurrent theme in Douglass’s philosophy. A devout Christian, he teaches us that to “welcome all . . . of every shade of religious opinion” does not dilute our own faith. “I know of no church, however tolerant; of no priesthood, however enlightened, which could be safely trusted with the tremendous power which universal conformity would confer,” Douglass observes, adding “religious liberty always flourishes best amid the clash and competition of rival creeds.”
To this we might add in the modern context in which we live that our faith is strengthened by learning about other traditions and reading their important works. These are not theoretical issues for me. They speak to my family’s lived experience. When we moved into my childhood home on Amsterdam Avenue in Holland, Pennsylvania, in the mid-1980s, there was chatter on the street about the Khannas. A handful of neighbours were concerned about an Indian family moving in. My father realized quickly what the fuss was about. Every Christmas Eve in Bucks County, our neighbors put out luminarias on their curb. Some thought my family would not, given our Hindu faith. If we did not, there would be a notable gap in the street’s lighting. My father told the neighbors we would put out the candles, and that his faith taught him to respect other holy days. Mom and Dad, in turn, took joy in sharing our food and customs with neighbours and invited them to our own celebrations. They also defended our Jewish neighbours who moved in after us and felt differently about the luminaria.
Years later, this story came rushing back to me, when I was a legal intern for Maryland lieutenant governor Kathleen Kennedy Townsend. One of her senior aides observed my aptitude for policy. He volunteered enthusiastically that I should work on the Hill because I could never be elected as a Hindu. Not to worry though. I could have a brilliant career, he assured me, rising up the congressional staff ladder. I refrained from sending him a note after my election to Congress. But I remember talking to my mother about the incident when it happened, who made me promise then that I would never give up my faith. “That would dishonour your grandfather,” she said. “But don’t worry. It will not be a barrier.”
Like my parents who put out luminarias, many Americans may decide to participate in traditions that residents of a town grew up with and cherish. A recent Pew study found that while fewer Americans consider being Christian or having been born here key to being “truly American,” a majority on both the right and left believe it important to adopt the country’s “customs and traditions.” Each of us knows, deep down, what practices we will never adopt or give up. This balance is different for every individual, every family, and every community. That is why I have suggested that in multiracial, multireligious societies, these situations are highly context-specific and not resolvable based on theory alone.
We may be more willing to accommodate, for instance, certain traditions locally than across a very diverse nation. What matters for the success of the American experiment is the to understand another person’s journey and vulnerability in search of truth and appreciating the customs and practices they believe in, even when they do not map neatly on to our worldview.
What matters for the success of the American experiment is the spirit with which we approach these matters and how that spirit is cultivated within us as a people. This is not to gloss over or to be Pollyannaish about the heated conflicts and rivalries that are inevitable in our democracy. Rather, my argument is that the spirit of civility is a principle that Americans of different backgrounds – whether recent immigrants or descendants of our founders – may come to recognize is worth embracing as an ideal that orients our politics. It is a spirit that is rooted in one of the quintessential American traditions of seeking to understand and nurture the different aspirations of freedom seekers from every region of the world who come to our shores.
Excerpted with permission from Progressive Capitalism: How to Make Tech Work for All of Us, Ro Khanna, Simon & Schuster India.