Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.

Evaluating Policy Proposals

Stephanie Summers


By Stephanie Summers

February 21, 2014

One of our many responsibilities as citizens is to understand proposed changes to government policies. With the numerous policy proposals that are beginning to attract attention in this even-numbered election year, I’m often asked how we evaluate proposed reforms to existing government policies. The short answer is that if the God-given responsibility of government and citizens in political community is to ensure public justice, then our task is to identify how policies promote governments’ upholding of structural and confessional pluralism.

But how do we wrap our minds around these ideas when researching a ballot initiative or a proposed policy change?  Let me suggest two thought experiments to conduct when doing so.

First, consider the roles you hold in life. For example, I am a wife and a sister, an executive in a corporation, a board member, a church member (and the list goes on). Each of these roles has a corresponding set of distinct responsibilities. When I arrived at the office today, it was clear to me that my coworkers were there to take active part in a shared community organized for a particular purpose. This is different than what we expect at home on Saturday, when our families work on chores common to our households. This may be a silly example, but no coworker shows up in my office for a meeting to review his family’s grocery list, nor do I expect my husband to write thank you letters to CPJ’s donors.

This normative distinction between different kinds of God-given responsibilities is called structural pluralism. God has created a diversity of institutions, each with different purposes and responsibilities for humans to bear. Structural pluralism reflects the roles and corresponding responsibilities held by these institutions in society (families, educational communities, churches, and voluntary associations like CPJ). Structural pluralism helps us think about the God-given role and responsibilities for government and citizens-- clearly government’s job isn’t to decide a family grocery list or write the thank you notes. 

This helps clarify how government ought to do justice. Not every responsibility given to humans by God is political. Reflecting this in its policies, government should uphold structural pluralism, recognizing the diversity of institutions God created, each with different purposes and responsibilities for humans to bear. This means that the government isn’t doing the family’s job, but instead is enacting policies that help families fulfill their responsibilities. As Jim Skillen often pointed out, as citizens, “we need to be clear about who (government) we are calling on to do what (policies and decisions) about justice”. 

Looking at a proposed policy change, how does it help or hinder government from more fully upholding structural pluralism?

A second thought experiment is to gather a group of friends together and discuss a decision that was made for each of you when you were children. Easy examples include parental decisions about church or schooling. As a group, reflect on what motivated these decisions, and if, as adults, you continue to make the same decisions based on the same motivations. Even in a group of close friends, everyone’s answers to these questions are rarely the same. Instead, this exercise most often illustrates that people’s basic beliefs motivate diverse decisions in every area of life.  

It is a responsibility of government to protect all beliefs equally, rather than privilege one belief system over others, or to establish a church through law. This includes governments’ responsibility to not privilege beliefs that would not even be considered religious by those who hold them. Confessional pluralism means that people live by these different beliefs, with different ultimate commitments that guide their lives.  

This too helps clarify how government ought to do justice. The second thing government should uphold in policy is confessional pluralism, recognizing the diversity of beliefs and responsibly protecting them equally under law. This ensures that government isn’t establishing a de facto belief system, but rather enacting policies that protect the true diversity in society. 

Looking again at a proposed policy change, how does it help or hinder government from more fully upholding confessional pluralism?

We have many considerations when we evaluate proposed ballot initiatives and policy changes, but these two thought experiments can help us figure out how to do justice in the political realm, particularly as we consider who (government) we are calling on to do what (policies) about justice. The goal of our Christian political engagement is to serve responsibly as citizens, calling government to fulfill its God-given responsibility to uphold public justice by recognizing and protecting in law structural and confessional pluralism.

— Stephanie Summers is the CEO of the Center for Public Justice.

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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”