Beyond culture wars: protecting a place for faith-based services

Beyond culture wars: protecting a place for faith-based services

Heated debates about whether, and how much, religious freedom should be accorded to various persons and organizations are not merely legal tiffs nor just noisy yelling matches.  Without the freedom to follow their deep religious convictions, many of the services that we all count on will wither or even disappear.  Faith-based service organizations play vital roles in our society—protecting their freedom to follow their religious inspiration enables them to continue to serve without requiring everyone else to follow their practices.

The forthcoming book, Free to Serve:  Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations, by Stephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies (Brazos Press), surveys the growing pressures on the religious freedom of faith-based schools, adoption agencies, student clubs, and companies of conviction and offers a principled pluralist alternative—a fairness for all approach that privileges neither secular nor religious organizations.  The book is written for leaders, boards, and staff of faith-based organizations—and for everyone who understands how important these organizations are in the lives of our communities and as the “hands” of religious communities reaching out to their neighbors.

The book also features short essays by a religiously diverse set of commentators and a chapter specifically on what faith-based organizations themselves should do in response to the growing challenges.

The paperback book will be available in mid-October; pre-order at Hearts & Minds Books ($13.59 w/Book Notes discount), Christian Book Distributors ($11.99), Amazon ($16.99), Barnes and Noble ($16.99), the publisher ($16.99), and wherever books are sold.  The Kindle edition is scheduled to be available on October 6.

The following excerpt, “Free to Serve:  Why Pluralists Should Support Religious Freedom,” originally appeared in the Comment magazine blog, on July 2 (used by permission of Comment magazine and Brazos Press.

“Many today are convinced a culture war is raging in the United States. In their view, religious persons and organizations in our society—usually Christian—are in a bitter struggle with non-religious, secular persons and organizations. One side opposes same-sex marriage; the other side favors it. One side supports prayers before legislative sessions; the other side opposes them. One side is “pro-life” on abortion; the other side is “pro-choice.” And on and on.

It appears two irreconcilable visions are clashing. One vision holds that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that its people are still predominantly Christian in character. Thus it is appropriate that Christian symbols and values infuse its public life. The other vision is that of a thoroughly secularized public realm, with all things religious banished to the private realm. Each side believes any loss in the public arena means their freedoms are violated.

At first blush it seems impossible to reconcile these positions. It appears to be a zero-sum game. One side’s victory is the other side’s defeat, and in time one side or the other will prevail. Fundraising letters and emails from groups on both sides add to this impression in their attempts to inspire persons to send them money.

This culture war has spilled over into the issues of religious freedom for faith-based organizations. Those holding to a vision of a thoroughly secularized public realm believe Christian faith-based organizations—and those of other faiths—should be required to leave their faith behind when they enter the public realm. Especially when they accept government funding, they need to adhere to purely secular standards and practices. They have entered the public realm, and the public realm is a secular realm. Meanwhile, faith-based organizations believe they have every right to reflect their faith in their policies and practices. Otherwise, their freedom to serve in keeping with their religious faith is being violated. They would be squeezed into a secular mold destructive of their distinctive religious natures that lie at the heart of who they are.

However, this does not need to be a zero-sum game; one side’s gain does not need to be the other side’s loss. Much of the culture war rhetoric—and even the term itself—is rooted in the false assumption that one or the other of two opposing visions of our society and the public realm must prevail. Especially in the case of faith-based schools, health care programs, social service agencies, and many for-profit businesses, there is a third option.

Our pluralist vision of society equally respects and welcomes into the public life of the nation the wide diversity of religious and nonreligious beliefs, perspectives, and organizations. Both faith-based organizations and secular organizations have every right to enter the public realm, and—more important—they have a right to do so as religious or secular entities. Faith-based organizations should be free to serve as religious organizations true to their faith’s tradition and not be squeezed into a secular mold, just as secular organizations should not be required to engage in religious activities, even of a very broad, generic nature. As intimated at various points in this book, this is what we favor. It is time to look more closely at this third option, one we have termed “principled pluralism.”

Principled pluralism rejects both a secularized public square and a religious—or a Christianized—public square in favor of a pluralist public square. Our vision is of an America in which we live together in tolerance and mutual respect notwithstanding our differences of race, color, ethnicity, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, and religion. This vision means our public policies must reflect and accommodate this tolerance and mutual respect.

Principled pluralism thereby rejects both government-enforced secularism and any kind of theocracy (government-enforced adherence to a religion). Principled pluralism accepts the reality that our society is filled with diverse and sometimes clashing belief systems, both religious and secular in nature. We as a people follow different faiths; our consciences are formed in different ways. Diversity, to a greater or lesser degree, has always characterized the United States, and our system of religious freedom has always been a prime principle enabling us to live together with our deepest differences. Principled pluralism renews and clarifies this fundamental principle of American respect and tolerance.

Principled pluralism—or “civic pluralism” as it is sometimes called—is a political principle, a design for how a diverse people can live together in one political system. It requires neither that we agree completely with each other about our deepest beliefs (we don’t) nor that we stop trying to convince each other about what we think is best (we shouldn’t). Instead, principled pluralism simply asks us to agree to respect each other’s convictions not only in private life but also in public life. Just as we ask for freedom to live our lives according to our convictions, we believe others with different convictions should be free to live their lives according to their convictions.

This means the public realm, our common life, will be neither Christian nor secular. The public realm ought not to privilege those of us who hold to Christian beliefs (or those of other religious traditions). Nor should secularism be imposed on all by banishing religion to the private world of congregational worship and personal devotions. Doing so would show little respect for people of faith—people for whom faith is relevant not only for worship but also for how they educate their children, heal the sick, serve the needy, and run a business. People of faith would then not be treated in a neutral, even-handed manner. But the answer to such favoring of secularism cannot be to favor those with religious convictions and their organizations. That too is wrong.

Central to our position is the basic fact that a thoroughly secular world does not occupy neutral ground between belief and nonbelief. Instead, a nonreligious, secular perspective is a distinctive perspective, or worldview, that is in competition with religious perspectives. Political scientist A. James Reichley was exactly correct when he once wrote, “Banishment of religion does not represent neutrality between religion and secularism; conduct of public institutions without any acknowledgment of religion is secularism.” This means a thoroughly secularized public realm has taken sides in the contest between religious and nonreligious organizations and their differing views of life and the world. This is why principled pluralism seeks public policies that are even-handed not only among the faith-based organizations of various religious traditions but also between faith-based organizations and secular organizations. Neither should be favored over the other.”