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

Politics & Prose

Byron Borger


March 2, 2012
By Byron Borger

This is a continuation of a series of articles by Byron Borger, introducing new books significant to the principled practice of public justice.

Pluralism and Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society Stephen V. Monsma (Rowman & Littlefield) $59.95

The Center for Public Justice has long offered a unique commitment to “structural pluralism in our education as well as in concrete policy proposals we helped create, such as the historic Charitable Choice legislation. Structural pluralism draws on both Christian Democratic insights popularized by Abraham Kuyper’s early 20th-century Christian political movement in Europe and, more recently, from notions of “subsidiarity” rooted in Catholic social teaching. Structural pluralism leads directly to a high regard for the appropriateness of government funding for faith-based organizations that provide social services.  Both major political parties and the last three administrations have concurred. 

President Barack Obama, until recently, seemed supportive of the Center’s position that the religious freedoms of such faith-based organizations (whether those organizations are Islamic, Jewish, or any number of Christian groups, as diverse as Salvation Army or Catholic Charities) must not be compromised.  But this has become a huge controversy in recent weeks due to the White House’s controversial insistence (followed by a bit of a backpedaling compromise) that Roman Catholic hospitals and other social ministries must include and pay for access to contraception in their employees’ insurance coverage.  Catholic leaders argued that this violated their principles, and the shouting match from many quarters is, at this writing, still at a very high volume.  At stake is the freedom of religious organizations to act according to their convictions, even when acting outside the confines of the traditional church, synagogue or mosque.

There could be, therefore, no better time for this well-reasoned, succinctly described, impeccably fair argument in favor of fully protecting the character, principles and consciences of faith-based social service providers. Should a free and democratic society allow its funding policies to discriminate against religiously-motivated social service agencies, essentially forcing them to violate their beliefs? Given how much essential social work is done by faith-based organizations (Monsma has an entire fascinating chapter documenting the massive amount of effective services provided by these groups aiding the poorest and the most vulnerable), it is vital that we resolve these current debates in a way that is just for all and does not jeopardize the willingness of these providers to remain involved in their public work.

Monsma, a fellow of the Center for Public Justice, was referred to by one reviewer as “the dean of scholars who study religion and politics in America”, has now given us the most thorough, reasonable, insightful resource on this topic yet.  It is packed with vivid illustrations and dramatic case studies, making it truly helpful.   Each of the informative chapters deserves its own review.

One particularly illuminating chapter draws on history and political philosophy as it documents the most common assumptions and values that drive the typical left- and right-wing perceptions and attitudes. That chapter itself, in this bickering and partisan era, is exceptionally useful beyond the specifics of the discussion about religious freedom for faith-based organizations; it shows why members of each ideological camp see things as they do and clarifies their typical instincts and impulses.  

Pluralism and Freedom is an instant classic, the go-to book for anyone interested in this debate. Center for Public Justice has long made the case that structural pluralism is the most robust and sustainable mechanism to ensure religious freedoms, not only for individuals and churches, but also for religious organizations.  As President of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance Stanley Carlson-Thies has written, Monsma’s book is “path-breaking.”  John Dilulio, the founding director of the White House Office of Faith-Based Initiatives notes, “You don’t need to agree with all or even most of his policy-relevant conclusions to marvel at the deep erudition, moral balance, and civic spirit that informs each and every page.  You can’t claim to have a truly informed and considered opinion on the most controversial church-state issues of our day unless you have read this latest gem of a book by Monsma.”   As E.J Dionne warmly writes, “Few scholars have thought harder or more productively than Monsma about faith-based organizations.”  This book is a splendid example of the very best insights about pluralism and public justice that the Center for Public Justice has promoted for many years.  We are grateful for this detailed, compelling and insightful exploration and trust that it will advance the conversation, in civil and fruitful ways.

Byron Borger runs Hearts & Minds Books.


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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.”