Earthly Speaking, A Great Loss for Religious Freedom

Earthly Speaking, A Great Loss for Religious Freedom

Stanley Carlson-Thies, February 24 2017

On February 18, 2017, Stephen V. Monsma, age 80, was taken from this life and entered the next and better life with Jesus Christ. (“What no eye has seen, what no ear has heard, and what no human mind has conceived . . . God has prepared for those who love him” I Corinthians 2:9). In his long life, Steve was a professor (Calvin College and Pepperdine University), a legislator (Michigan House and Senate), a state executive branch leader (Michigan’s Department of Social Services), and author of an adult Sunday School course (Healing for a Broken World, 2008)—not to mention husband, father, and church member.  He was also the author of a series of insightful books on religious freedom and the inspiration for the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.

The religious freedom writings of Monsma, an evangelical Christian scholar in the Dutch Reformed or Kuyperian tradition, are distinctive in focusing on organizations in a pluralistic framework, and not only individuals.  Monsma’s writings are distinctive because they also reflect awareness of legal frameworks in other nations.

Monsma was quite aware of the importance of religious freedom to individuals, but one of the special characteristics of his work was his focus on religious organizations as a key way that many people of faith put their faith into practice.  It seems that no one knows who invented the term “faith-based organization” to refer to the many non-church religious organizations that are all around us—think of parochial schools, spiritual drug treatment programs, religious hospitals, or faith-shaped programs for prisoners—but we can easily point to Steve Monsma as an early and innovative researcher of their services and operations.  In When Sacred and Secular Mix: Religious Nonprofit Organizations and Public Money (1996), he reported on his path-breaking research on how religion inspires and shapes the operations of religious colleges, child-serving agencies, and international relief and development groups, and on the religious freedom restrictions that often accompany government funds that they receive.  In one of his last books, co-authored with Stanley Carlson-Thies, Free to Serve:  Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations (2015), he assessed trends in US politics and law that are restricting the freedom that faith-based organizations need if they are to make their important contributions to our society.

The Challenge of Pluralism:  Church and State in Five Democracies(with Christopher Soper, 1997; 2nd ed. with C. Soper, 2008; 3rd ed. with C. Soper and Kevin den Dulk 2017) explored how different nations with religiously diverse populations seek to protect the religious and conscience rights of all.  And that international, comparative, understanding is fully reflected in Monsma’s 2012 study, Pluralism and Freedom:  Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society.  In this book, Monsma explored how everyone’s religious rights can be honored when many of the organizations in a society are religious and thus might hire only fellow believers and limit and shape services in accordance with their respective religions.  Good guidance, he shows, can be found in the Christian Democratic tradition that was so strong in the Netherlands and in other European countries. Fortunately, as the book demonstrates, America’s own First Amendment principles and commitment to a limited government and a flourishing civil society are in important ways similar in spirit and intent to that Christian Democratic tradition.

In Faith, Hope, and Jobs: Welfare-to-Work in Los Angeles (2007), When Sacred and Secular Mix, and other books and studies, Monsma looked closely at the distinctive, religiously-inspired and –shaped, services and operating practices of faith-based organizations delivering a range of services, sometimes with government support and sometimes using only privately raised funds.  Monsma explored the following important questions: What difference does religion, or a particular kind of religion, make to who they serve and how they serve?  How are faith-based language and religious activities incorporated into services, not merely as the impetus for such services, but as a present part of the service?  Is religion manifest in a different way when the funding is from government?

But Monsma did not just study and learn, he also taught about how faith-based organizations should serve.  In personal discussions, occasional workshops, book chapters, and in the last chapter of Free to Serve, he offered his insight into how organizations inspired by faith can protect the freedom they need while making a positive contribution to their neighbors, as they take seriously both their responsibilities and their rights.

In Free to Serve, Pluralism and Freedom, The Challenge of Pluralism, and yet many other books, such as Church-State Relations in Crisis: Debating Neutrality (edited, 2002), Equal Treatment of Religion in a Pluralistic Society (co-edited with Christopher Soper, 1998), and Positive Neutrality: Letting Religious Freedom Ring (1993), Stephen Monsma both stressed strong protections so that persons and organizations can live and operate consistent with their specific respective religions or worldviews and showed the importance of governmental rules and societal attitudes that secure equal rights for all.  Acceptable political and legal practice does not seek to achieve equal rights for all by requiring religious individuals and institutions to hide their distinctive views and practices in their houses of worship and families.  Instead, the government should be guided by principled or civic pluralism:  not imposing one view when citizens have diverse convictions but instead protecting the ability of different private organizations to manifest those different convictions.

Pluralism in society—freedom for everyone to live in accordance with their differing deep convictions—is only practically possible when private organizations, both nonprofit and for-profit, religious and secular, have a robust freedom, offering many different types of services and goods, providing varied workplaces, and enabling those unable to find what they seek the opportunity to develop their own alternative organization.  This is the vision of religious freedom that our ever-more diverse nation requires.

A remark of Stephen Monsma’s in early 2002, about how US faith-based organizations needed a coalition or association to promote their common interest in religious freedom, led a half-dozen years later to the creation of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance.  Our mission statement reflects Dr. Monsma’s insight into religious freedom and faith-based services:

“IRFA promotes government policies, public attitudes, and organizational practices that safeguard institutional religious freedom, so that faith-based services can make their vital and uncommon contributions to the common good.”