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Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations

Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley W. Carlson-Thies
Published by Brazos Press in 2015

In Free to Serve, Stephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies argue that protecting and promoting the religious freedom of faith-based organizations is essential to the bulwark of democracy. The constitutional protection of religious freedom for faith-based organizations, however, is under attack, with division and disunity among religious communities and in their relation to the secular world. To combat this upheaval, the authors argue for a balance between freedom, pluralism, and tolerance—what they refer to as “principled pluralism.” They concede no pluralistic society that purposefully promotes and protects religious freedom is perfect, including the United States, but in order for any and all societies to remain vibrant they must be religiously plural and culturally and politically tolerant. A tall order indeed, but one the authors handle with mastery.

Monsma and Carlson-Thies divide their book into two parts. Part one (chapters 1-5) establishes their vision for America—an America that embraces religious differences through a balance and commitment to “freedom, pluralism, and tolerance” (3). They examine the merits and application of their vision through analysis of actual examples of discrimination against the beliefs and practices of faith-based organizations (and in one incident a private corporation). Interspersed throughout these chapters and into the second half of the book are numerous interludes or testimonies by individuals from distinctly different faith traditions, including Roman Catholic, evangelical Christian, Jewish, Muslim, and secular, testifying to the importance of freedom, pluralism, and tolerance. These distinct faith essays redirect the reader not only to consider the differences between religious and nonreligious positions, but also to recognize the respect each one has for the other, thus illustrating the importance of a principled pluralist society.

Using documented religious freedom discrimination cases, the authors demonstrate how government entities, such as university student groups, have been de facto thwarting the efforts of faith-based organizations to live out their religious principles and practices. For example, many universities have a double standard when it comes to advocating diversity and pluralism. It is acceptable to “allow Democrats to bar Republican leaders, or African-Americans to bar white supremacists” (13), but when on-campus Christian groups attempt to bar atheists from positions of leadership, this is considered discrimination.

Monsma and Carlson-Thies then highlight four threats to religious freedom, especially as applied to faith-based organizations. Principled pluralism is threatened when: 1) freedom of religion is equated with freedom of worship; 2) non-discrimination standards are misapplied to religious non-profit organizations; 3) faith-based organizations de facto become government actors when they accept government funding; and 4) Christianity is perceived as more favored in American society than other religious or faith systems. They argue none of these assertions are generally accurate or expressive of the truth. However, because they are promoted by society, including government, they are perceived as true. Overcoming these misconceptions is the heart of the book.

Part 2 (chapters 6-10) develops the key concept for bridging the religious diversity and nuances of many faith-based organizations with the role and function of government to provide and protect for the common good. This concept is titled “principled pluralism,” defined as “a design for how a diverse people can live together in one political system” (97). Principled pluralism requires that government respect the convictions of others, whether in private or public life, and promotes a net neutral position for all tenets of belief and faith, whether secular or religious. The public square is not to be naked—paraphrasing Richard John Neuhaus—but neither is it, according to principled pluralism, to be dominated by one or the other: secularism or religion (97).

Monsma and Carlson-Thies then present two concrete tenets of principled pluralism: 1) all staff, leaders, and members of faith-based organizations are to be chosen based on conviction and conduct, not politics and ideology; and 2) when laws to prevent discrimination and religious convictions collide, the government must overcome the high bar by not “substantially burdening” the faith-based organization from fulfilling its purpose before it rules against religious freedom. After addressing five commonly asked questions involving faith-based organizations’ religious freedom (136-152), the authors conclude the book by focusing on how principled pluralism’s protection of religious freedom furthers the common or public good and by highlighting the need for faith-based organizations to institute basic steps directed toward achieving respect and humility for all people.

In analyzing the book, I divide my comments into two parts: organizational and thematic. Organizationally, the interludes or testimonies are excellent and complementary to the concepts, theories, and facts presented. Each is distinct, bringing forth various religious and non-religious voices. All of the voices are sincere and passionate, while being respectful and humble. Unfortunately, these gems are awkwardly tucked in between chapters. Although the purpose of the placement is evident – that is, to illustrate and support a previous chapter – their impact is muted. Shortening the text of these interludes and incorporating them into the chapters as boxed inserts or vignettes would have strengthened their purpose.

Thematically, the authors make a compelling argument for using principled pluralism to address the division and disparity between faith-based organizations and governmental and non-governmental societal forces which seek to disrupt and limit religious freedom. Part 1 is layered with timely, diverse examples of religious discrimination, ranging from colleges and universities denying the right of Christian organizations to restrict their leaders to being Christian to groups challenging whether or not humanitarian organizations, such as World Vision, can be both humanitarian and Christian (17). The authors effectively describe the minefield of legal and constitutional questions regarding faith-based organizations and faith-inspired private sector corporations, contending that when legal and religious beliefs and practices clash, faith-based organizations’ purpose and very existence are jeopardized. These examples are actual and not hypothetical, which provides authenticity to the authors’ point: religious freedom is fragile.

Part 2 is the crux of the book, developing and applying the concept of principled pluralism. The authors acknowledge religious differences are readily apparent, but note these differences establish a source of strength rather than weakness, especially if pluralism, freedom, and tolerance of religious tenets by governing agencies and institutions are adhered to and not rejected. A principled plural world is the goal: a world where both the secular, non-religious organizations and the faith-based organizations can compete and do so respectfully. Pursuit of the common good, not the “Christian good,” is the goal. The authors do not attempt a definition of the common good, but their understanding of the concept includes public space wide enough to accommodate not only differences among faith-based providers, but also differences between secular, non-religious organizations. No doubt, that space is crowded. For Monsma and Carlson-Thies, however, that crowded space is more effective when principled pluralism is at work.

Overall, this book is an excellent example of the religious freedom challenges facing faith-based organizations in an increasingly hostile and secularized world. Diversity is important, but principled pluralism is essential. Principled pluralism strikes the balance between governmental responsibilities to promote the public interest while acknowledging the religious freedom of faith-based organizations. Principled pluralism is not a new term as it emanates from the pillar of freedom, expounded upon in the history of American republicanism.

Has principled pluralism been achieved in practice? The authors highlight one particular success story, at least the beginning of a success story, the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA). The ENDA was designed to ban job discrimination against LGBT people (132). It passed in the Democrat controlled Senate in 2013, but it was rejected by the Republican controlled House. Although it contained three key exemptions for religious or faith-based organizations or other entities, detractors were not convinced that federal government oversight was the answer.

Consider, though, the challenges of applying principled pluralism in this or similar incidents. How can both sides of this highly contentious issue—balancing equal protection to LGBT individuals and providing for religious freedom of persons, businesses, and faith-based organizations—find common ground, particularly in light of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the 2015 Obergefell decision? Questions abound: Does principled pluralism protect Christian pastors from having to marry same-sex couples? Does principled pluralism protect faith-based organizations assisting in the process of finding children for adoption, whether here or abroad, from assisting both same-sex and opposite-sex married couples equally? Does principled pluralism allow a Christian wedding cake business to deny service to a gay couple? Monsma and Carlson-Thies may argue the answers to the preceding questions are “no,” but unfortunately there is no firm answer. (Interestingly, voters in Houston, TX recently and resoundingly defeated a municipal version of ENDA.)

What is the answer? We do not yet know—each case or incident will be decided individually—but we are assured two elements are needed: 1) transparent, humble, and character-based leadership, both in government and faith-based organizations, to guide the process of implementing principled pluralism; and 2) the faith of a respectful and trusting public to abide by the tenets of principled pluralism. Both are essential to fostering the balance between the government’s need to uphold nondiscrimination practices and faith-based organizations’ right to exercise religious freedom (174-175). Faith-based organizations succeed or fail for many reasons, but without strong and compassionate leadership, and a willing and understanding public, navigating through religious discrimination will be challenging at best and impossible at worst. Free to Serve is a tremendous contribution to the much-needed dialogue.

Cite this article
Stephen M. King, “Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 46:1 , 100–102

Stephen M. King

Regent University
Political Science, Regent University