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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