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

Pluralism in Structure, Pluralism in Bones

Matthew Kaemingk


April 27, 2012

By Matthew Kaemingk

Shut down those filthy mosques, goddamn it, where they preach anti-Semitism and want to kill our kind. Throw those … fundamentalists out of the country! Or better still, sew the butchers up in bags and drop them into the sea! That’s the way to remember Theo!

-          A Dutch editorial memorializing Theo van Gogh (who was murdered by a Muslim fundamentalist).

The Center for Public Justice has long advocated two political principles known as structural and religious pluralism. According to the principle of structural pluralism, states are obligated to respect the pluriform structures and institutions of civil society. This means that the state should, in all its affairs, seek to honor the independence of a society’s schools, universities, families, labor unions, associations, media, religious institutions, and so on. Society should remain pluriform in structure and authority.

Religious or directional pluralism, on the other hand, demands that the state treat all ideological communities equally. The state’s responsibility is to construct a public-legal framework whereby every worldview, be it religious or secular, receives equal legal treatment. Such a state would, for example, regulate and fund all charities equally, whether they are socialist or Catholic, humanist or Lutheran, Islamic or atheist. If a particular community runs their charity well and within the law, their organization cannot be discriminated against simply on account of their ideological orientation.

The Center’s dream of a state that respects both structural and religious pluralism has been largely realized in the laws and constitution governing the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The Dutch constitution binds the state to treating all faith-based charities, media organizations, universities and organizations equally and without prejudice.  Today in Holland, for example, there exists a flourishing array of secular, Muslim, Catholic, Calvinist, Socialist and Jewish schools, all of which receive equal funding from the Dutch state. The pluralistic state exists, and it is Holland.

Enter Islam.

In the last 15 years, Dutch society—internationally known for its religious tolerance and pluralism—has experienced a seismic shift in its political culture. The PVV, a right-wing, anti-Islamic party, is steadily growing in strength. Calls are daily being made for bans on headscarves, minarets, halal food preparation and public prayers. Islam is being mocked, demonized and blamed for nearly every problem that currently plagues Dutch society. Islamic schools, associations and halls of worship are under increasingly close public surveillance, and the playful, tolerant, multicultural Netherlands of old is increasingly becoming a distant memory.

“The Dutch still understand the pluralist arguments,” notes James Kennedy, a scholar of religion and society in the Netherlands, “They just no longer feel that pluralism in their bones.” Similarly, another Dutch political philosopher who has long been an advocate of structural and religious pluralism admits, “If you had asked me fifteen years ago, ‘Could the Netherlands handle a large community of Muslim immigrants?’ I would have said ‘Absolutely, we are pluralists!’ Now I am not so sure.”

During the 1990s, tolerating Jews, Lutherans, Hippies, Mennonites, prostitutes and atheists was not so difficult for the Dutch. Today, conservative Muslims seem to be a bridge too far. Calls are now being made for the Dutch government to defund the pluriformity of religious schools (both Muslim and Christian) in favor of a uniform state school that will teach all religions a single, secular ethic of tolerance.

What does this Dutch digression from pluriformity to uniformity—from tolerance to bigotry—have to tell us about the merits of the commitment of the Center for Public Justice to establishing a pluralistic state? The message seems quite clear. Political structures that respect and equally fund religious institutions (while certainly vital to the demands of public justice) depend upon a political culture that feels the demands of pluralism “in its bones.”

How does a society cultivate a pluralistic political culture? How does it resist the temptations of retribution and domination? From whence will the stream of pluralistic virtue emerge to replenish and strengthen the democratic project? The eminent political philosopher Jeffrey Stout optimistically predicts, “That stream is in us and of us.”

Christians, I think, know differently.

—Matthew Kaemingk is living in Amsterdam and working on a joint doctorate at both the Vrije Universiteit (Amsterdam) and Fuller Theological Seminary. His dissertation is entitled "Mecca and Amsterdam: Christian Discipleship Between Liberalism and Islam."


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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.”