Christian Politics with "Principled Pluralism"

As I wrote recently, "We Haven’t Advanced Very Far" in how Americans understand the role faith should play in politics.

Christianity is greatly influencing the way this current election is being handled by both the Republicans and the Democrats. After the last twenty-five years of American politics, many of us are sick and tired of the Religious Right. Some of us are going into this election season in the same mode of operation, looking at who is the best "Christian candidate." Others are so sick of the attempts to theocratize the nation that we are advocating for a strict separation of church and state.

Arising out of the chaos of all this, a question is being asked: "Isn't there a way to do politics that is distinctly Christian without advocating a theocracy?" In other words, isn't there a way for Christians to be engaged in politics while being civil? Can't we hold fast to our faith and boldly proclaim it in the political realm without sacrificing the political pluralism needed to live in a free society?

Perhaps my favorite Christian voice in politics is James Skillen of The Center for Public Justice (CPJ). In a document detailing the distinctives of the CPJ, he writes of a very important component of Christian engagement in politics. It's called "Principled Pluralism."

The Center’s philosophy of principled pluralism flows directly from its conviction that governments have not been ordained by God for the purpose of separating believers from unbelievers, giving privilege to Christians and the church, or serving the interests of one nation over others. This is a religious conviction that mandates publicly established religious freedom for all. Governments have the high calling to uphold public justice for all people living within their territories. States are not churches or families; public officials are not national theologians or clergy. States are public-legal communities that exist for the protection and enhancement of the common good.

The word "pluralism" in this context means at least three things. First, it means recognizing that the state itself is but one institutional community among others in society. The American republic, as a political community, is part of a diverse social landscape that includes families, businesses, schools and colleges, social-service organizations, and much more. The jurisdiction of American federal and state governments is (or should be) limited to the making, executing, and adjudicating of public laws for everyone who lives under the jurisdiction of those governments. The authority of government is not limitless. Governments may not ignore or displace other kinds of human responsibility in other institutions.

The word "pluralism" also means, therefore, that government should recognize and uphold the diverse organizational structure of civil society. Government should not treat human beings merely as individual citizens; human beings also exist as family members, faith-community members, economically organized employers and employees, and in dozens of other capacities and relationships. "Principled pluralism" means that government is obligated to do justice to society’s nongovernmental organizations and institutions as a matter of principle. This is why the Center for Public Justice is concerned with the order of society and the proper relation of government to the many different kinds of human relationships and organizations in society.

Finally, "pluralism" means that there should be constitutional recognition and protection of religious life in society. Principled pluralism means that government should give equal treatment to different communities of faith. Government should not have the authority to decide what constitutes true religion. Therefore, government should not try to establish one religion or to enforce secularism in public life. Most religious ways of life seek expression beyond the walls of a church. Most guide their adherents in the way they should live in society and not only in their worship and creedal confessions. Justice, therefore, requires equal treatment of religions in public as well as in private life.

All three of the meanings of pluralism articulated above are essential to the Center’s Christian-democratic, principled-pluralist understanding of a just political community.

Skillen wrote a book on this subject, Recharging the American Experiment: Principled Pluralism for Genuine Civic Community, and Os Guinness has recently written a book pleading for the same kind of thing: The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It.

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Byron said...


You're a lucid thinker, deeper than I, but this isn't your best work. Can I just mention several things that scream for illustration/clarification? And I won't even mention (well, yes, I guess I will) the fact that the "Religious Right" that you claim as such a bogeyman is much, much, much more difficult to define than simply lumping people together under that rubric. Yeah, I guess I will talk about this, after all: I once asked some atheist friends if I qualified as a member of the "Religious Right" (on a Yahoo Group called "Religious Right Watch"), and not one of them could or would answer my question, because I shared with them some of my viewpoints, and basically, they couldn't nearly so easily categorize me once I'd told them the ways I not only agreed with "Religious Right" positions, but the ways in which I disagreed as well. Frankly, I have no clue whether or not I'm "Religious Right"; none, because I guarantee you I believe some things politically that would send the Pat Robertsons and James Dobsons of the world running for the hills.

Further, we don't have to look too far into the "Religious Right" to find that, contrary to public opinion, there is not this monolith of thought/positions to define this beast. Frankly, when you boil it down to positions, I can think of two that are effectively unanimous: one, opposition to abortion, and two, opposition to placing homosexuals into a position of privilege (no, I'm not going to define that now; it's not my point). If ever we wanted evidence that the "Religious Right" is not some monolith, look at some of the endorsements this year: Pat Robertson (unbelievably!) endorsed Rudy; Bob Jones endorsed a Mormon; many (myself included) like Huckabee; I've seen others who like McCain. So this long digression from my main point is that while it would be in error to say, "there is no such thing as the 'Religious Right', on the one hand, it'd also be wide of the mark to say that we can very easily nail that Jello to the wall.

Now, to the questions I wanted to raise, relative to your post:

Chapter and verse, Bob: who is advocating a "theocracy"? That's a liberal talking point, nothing more, until/unless you can find that term being used approvingly by one so-called Religious Right leader. It's one thing to say, "America is a Christian nation"---and that's a point worthy of discussion, because the veracity of that turns significantly upon the definition. But theocracy? What would a "theocracy" look like, and who advocates that, honestly? I'll wait for the evidence, but you've got to find that actual word being used. Good luck.

Second, you say,
"...isn't there a way for Christians to be engaged in politics while being civil?" I have no idea how the two issues are connected, much less synonymous. Is the issue civility, or "theocracy" "Theocrats" are people who aren't civil, while non-theocrats are? I have no clue. And I say that as one who finds some of the rhetoric disgusting. I used to get Falwell's National Liberty Journal, not that I ever wanted it; in fact, on at least two occasions, I emailed them, asking my name to be removed from the mailing list, but I was unsuccessful (no surprise there, frankly). It turned my stomach sometimes to see the partisan nonsense and Kool-Aid drinking, so yes, there is certainly room for more civility, but what issue are you driving at?

Third, I like what Skillen has to say, but the word "pluralism" is far too weighted a word for me to ever be happy in using it. I'm afraid that some might read the words "political pluralism" and define it as I would have prior to reading Skillen's piece, the idea that it's a good thing that we have people who disagree on political matters. Yes, it's good in some areas to have "pluralism", I'm sure, if by that we mean a vigorous exchange on the best ideas to advance the project of liberty to which we all ought to be committed. How best should a free market operate, for instance.

But I fear that the use of the word connotes something with which I cannot for one minute agree. For instance, I do not think that it's a good thing that we have people who disagree with the right to life. I think it's a terrible thing that there is anyone who believes that the Constitution should not be interpreted from the perspective of original intent. I'm not happy that there are pro-choice people, nor that there are people who seem to believe that the Constitution is written in Silly Putty. This is a bit of a rant, and I'll stop, but just to say that even using that term "political pluralism" is one I can't ever finding myself doing, at least not in a positive light, because of the massive baggage that it carries.

Bob Robinson said...

Thanks for this.
On the "Religious Right." I don't understand your point. You say that the "Religious Right" is a bogeyman and that it is not a "monolith," and yet you are quick to point out how your personal views would send "the Pat Robertsons and James Dobsons of the world running for the hills." It seems that implicit in those words is that there is such a thing as an identifiable "Religious Right."

1. About "Theocracy." I was trying to make a rhetorical point, stated from the point-of-view of many who are suspicious of the Religious Right. "On further review": Yes, you are right. I should be careful using the word "Theocracy" without explaining what I mean by this loaded term. As my favorite author on politics wrote in the best book I've ever read on Christianity and politics: "References to the divine origin of political authority (and rights) are abundant in the Western world, and they have nothing in common with what is popularly called 'theocracy.' In fact, they form the bulwark of a robust theory of democracy and an antidote to certain types of theocracy...If the term 'theocracy' means direct rule by God, then few want or expect that today. However, recognition of a divine source for political authority can be compatible with, conducive to, and may be necessary for, genuine democracy." -Paul Marshall, God and the Constitution: Christianity and American Politics.

The RR is not advocating "theocracy" per se. They are more closely advocating for a government that would be run by Christians and that would line up with a specific view of a Christian moral agenda. The term "theocracy" is being used, wrongly, to describe this agenda. This agenda is reflected in the notion that "we will take this nation back for Christ." This is frightening, not only for the liberals, but for those of us Christians who believe in the "Principled Pluralism" talked about in this blog post.

2. The issue is not "theocracy." It is that a "robust theory of democracy" (as Marshall puts it) is one that does not seek to mandate a monolithic Christian government. Democracy is meant to be "civil" in that it is the place where open dialogue on the issues is allowed and freedom of belief is allowed, even the freedom not to believe. Therefore, the main issue of this post is this: A truly "Christian" political theory advocates for "Principled Pluralism" in the public square, and does not advocate to squash the voices that do not reflect specific Christian viewpoints.

3. I understand your hesitations with the word pluralism. The phrase "Principled Pluralism" was coined a long time ago by Abraham Kuyper. It was advanced by Carl F. H. Henry, Herman Dooyeweerd, and Francis A. Schaeffer. James Skillen, Paul Marshall, David Koyzis, and Os Guinness are the latest in a long line that advocate this. Perhaps the term "pluralism" has shifted meaning, and therefore Guinness is advocating for "Civility." But "Civility" sounds kind of namby-pamby to me.

Byron said...

Well that's much better, and clarifies a lot. Perhaps I did not make myself clear, so let me try again. I stand by the idea that it's not a monolith, and that folks (I specified you) have used the term as a catch-all bogeyman that isn't nearly as useful when considered honestly, instead of when used (as it most often is) in a derogatory way. That said, I think that the names associated with the "Religious Right" (whatever that is!) are Falwell, Robertson, and Dobson, at least at the top of the stack, only two of which are currently breathing. I'm not really denying that there's anything that can be labeled, even justly, "Religious Right"; we can sure use some appellation to describe the phenomenon. It's just that other than the two issues I describe, I'm not sure that there's a whole lot that defines it (well, OK, other than also a general "taking back this nation for Christ" attitude, with which I both agree and disagree, again depending on definitions. Darn it, I'm sounding like John Kerry.).

Thanks for retracting the "theocracy" talk, because that's just become a conversation-stopper; it doesn't really describe what's going on, as you concede. I'm not entirely taken by your proposition either that the "RR" wants a government run by Christians, but the second half of that sentence seems accurate. Pat Robertson's 1988 candidacy went nowhere, despite the fact that he was the "Religious Right" candidate; I wouldn't have supported him under any circumstances, and many, many conservative folks felt the same way. That said, of course, I supported a candidate who I believed represented my views (who ran besides Pat and Bush? I'm betting I didn't initially support GHWB, but that was 20 years ago).

You say, "A truly "Christian" political theory advocates for "Principled Pluralism" in the public square, and does not advocate to squash the voices that do not reflect specific Christian viewpoints." Yeah, I can agree to that, but when you use a term like "squash the voices", what do you mean? I believe my views to be correct (doesn't everybody?), and therefore I want them to prevail to the degree possible. Who doesn't want that? But "squash the voices"? That sounds like censorship, and I'll have to ask again both what you mean by the term, and for examples of the dreaded "RR" leadership calling for people to somehow lose their First Amendment rights if they don't agree with the RR? So even though I don't believe you mean it to be read that way, you'll really have to clarify there. As I saw it, the folks in the "RR" wanted to win elections, in order to return America to some (imagined, I concede) semi-utopian state. By the way, it's a bit dated now, but if you haven't read Blinded by Might, by Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson, it's a great, great read (but boy, did JDobson and Falwell hate it when it came out!).

Finally, good word history on the term "Principled Pluralism"; I was not aware of the etymology. I would then suggest that the term "pluralism" today has so far strayed from that type of intent---one with which I could wholeheartedly agree---that it's, perhaps unfortunately, become misleading. Say the word "gay" now, and nobody in the world thinks "happy"; say the word "pluralism", and I doubt the words of the Skillens et al come to mind. But the concept is useful!

RonMcK said...

I wonder if you are really that serious about principled pluralism.

If my religion is hedonism (getting quite popular these days according to preachers, but still a minority) I need all that I earn for myself. I do not want to waste my money helping the poor or paying for education for other people’s children. Will democratic pluralism leave me free to practice my religion.

I assume that the “principled” bit means that a proportional tax will be applied to my income so that the government can help the poor.

The problem is that democracy and pluralism contradict each other. In democracy, the elections winners get to impose their values on the losers, like the “hedonist”. You can dress this up with words like “principled” and the “common good”, but it is not pluralism.

I find that when you scratch beneath the surface most Christians want to force everyone to live by their standards.

Your previous posts have got stuck into the rich and powerful, but they are just living consistently with their religtion.

Benjamin Bush Jr. said...

I would contend that the priciples that need to be our vangurd when considering Christians and politics are the principles of our Lord Christ. By His own admission, Jesus denied pluralism when he said that he came to send a sword and to put men at variance with others.

Maybe he has also done this in American Politics, yet, for whatever reason, many fail to see this. For example, didn't Jesus also specifically command His Followers to "not swear at all"? Yet, every professing Believer must directly disobey this command in order to enter and hold Public Office. How's that for being principled? How's that for being a Witness of the Gospel?
So, is this principled pluralism? We disobey Jesus in order to minister to others in His Name?
If God's people can't understand and heed the simple words and commands of Christ, we're in trouble! If that's the case, then anything goes because Jesus and His Words are irrelevant!

Byron said...


You make the mistake of ripping Jesus' words right out of their context, misunderstanding the situation He was addressing, and turning a principle into a legalism thereby. "Understanding" and "heeding" Jesus' words involves being a bit more deep in our exegesis.

Benjamin Bush Jr. said...

Please provide the context.

Bob Robinson said...

Benjamin and Byron,
For reference, here is the commentary from Craig Keener on Matthew 5:33-37 (IVP New Testament Commentary)

Byron said...

Thanks, Bob, that commentary makes my point nicely.

Benjamin Bush Jr. said...

Bob & Byron,
I must confess that I have a very difficult time accepting the tenets of this commentary, much less the tenor. By it's own admission and supposedly in agreement with the Biblical writers, the words of Jesus in this case are considered as nothing more than "rhetorical overstatment."

First of all, the passages cited are neither an oath nor a vow on the part of the writers. In fact, they fit entirely within the parameters established by Christ of letting your yes be yes and your no be no.

Second, to conclude that the words of Christ are rhetorical overstatment are to render null and void the clear and direct command of Jesus to "swear not at all." This leaves no wiggle room for continuing to engage in oath taking and vows in any form. It's a cessation from swearing an oath or vow.

Third, to emphasize the point, Jesus refers to any words that go beyond yes, yes and no, no as "coming (existing) from evil."

Which leads to my fourth point, that this directive of Jesus had a very practical application for His Followers in light of the changes that were to take place soon regarding the Nation of Israel. The Law (specifically, the passage we are dealing with about oaths and vows) was given to a literal physical nation with literal physical borders among the nations of the World. This legal system included oaths and vows as a legal means of dealing with YHWH, other Israelites and other Nations (who also included legal oaths and vows to their deities for the same purpose).

Later Jesus would make a pronouncement to the Religious Leaders that would upset them greatly. In Matt. 21:43, Jesus tells them, "....The Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof." That "nation" is the Ekklesia Jesus told his disciples that He would build. Peter reiterates this when he refers to the Ekklesia (by quoting the OT) as a "holy nation." Of course, this nation has no literal physical borders. And its citizens reside within the literal physical borders of the nations of "this present evil World." The unique political separation of the Nation of Israel when dealing with other nations is kept in this new holy nation. It's citizens are to politically govern themselves, separated from the World system, yet legally recognized by them. Both the Nation of Israel and the Ekklesia were politically recognized by Rome, yet separate political entities from Rome. The same legal reality is available to us today within the modern day Roman Law applicable within the United States. The separate duties and responsibilities required of us toward God and Caesar have not changed from the time of Christ. Our problem lies in our attempting to merge political entities created by God with those created by Caesar, something God has not aproved of at this time.
That's all I'll say for now. Thanks for your patience!

Byron said...


I certainly respect your position, but maintain my previous contention: you've missed the point by misunderstanding the context, seizing upon the words of Christ as if they were spoken in a vacuum. By your understanding, we would have to conclude that the apostle Paul was in error when he swore an oath in Romans 1:9, Philippians 1:8, II Corinthians 1:23, II Thessalonians 2:5, I Thessalonians 2:10 and 5:27, and so on. And of course, God Himself swears (Ps. 110:4; cf. Hebrews 6:13 and 7:21).

The error I believe you make is similar to one I used to make when I was a kid, once I read the words that we should not call anyone a "fool": I studiously avoided using the word "fool", but didn't blanch at calling people all kinds of other less-than-savory names. I was keeping the "rule", but missing the point. The point in this case is that the Jews were using oath-taking as a means to skirt the truth and lie while maintaining the appearance of telling the truth. This is what Jesus is talking about, I believe, the need to be utterly truthful in our dealings. I'm convinced that that is exactly what His hearers would have understood Him to be saying.

Further, we make vows before God when we are joined in marriage as well; on a practical level, your interpretation would seem to rule such out.