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

Making room for differences

Gideon Strauss


September 3, 2010
by Gideon Strauss

In the 1960s movie The Sound of Music, Von Trapp, an Austrian naval officer faced with the unfamiliar task of raising a large brood of children alone, turns to the familiar routines of commanding a ship’s crew as he tries to find his way.  This effort goes miserably awry, which leads to his search for a reliable nanny … and the rest of the story I hope you know …

As Von Trapp discovered, a family is not a naval crew. Trying to run a family as if it were some other kind of human community—a business, a church, a circus, or the crew of a ship—is bound to lead to unwanted consequences: including twisted relationships between parents and children and a disordering of the kind of love properly exchanged in family life.  The consequences would be similarly unhealthy if the captain of a destroyer treated his crew exactly like a father would his children—or by extension if we confuse the norms proper to any one kind of relationship with those proper to another.

We human creatures are “neighborly” by nature, as my friend and teacher Calvin Seerveld likes to say. We are social creatures, “political animals” (if you give Aristotle’s term a generous interpretation). We are created for relationship with one another, and so efforts to define who we are exclusively in terms of our individuality—“individualist” understandings of what it means to be human—must in the end fail.

Yet our social nature is best expressed when we are not constrained by the character of a single kind of relationship. Understanding human nature in terms of a single collective, be it the tribe, the state, our race or ethnic community, or even the family—“collectivist” understandings of what it means to be human—must also in the end fail.

The Center for Public Justice works out of a tradition of Christian social thought that envisions human neighborliness as neither individualistic nor collectivistic. Rather, society is best understood in terms of a “structural pluralism” that recognizes that families are families and symphony orchestras are symphony orchestras, and that each kind of relationship needs its own space to prosper, thereby providing a rich context of social settings in which people can thrive.

States—governments and citizens—bear the responsibility of crafting public policies that recognize and protect this social diversity, without interpreting society only as a set of free individuals (as liberalism and libertarianism would) or as parts of the collective state (as fascism and communism would).

At the Center for Public Justice, we also believe that the state must recognize the deep, almost incommensurable differences that result from our divergent foundational commitments and convictions.

Human life is rooted in the core beliefs that shape our understanding of the world—sets of convictions, cognitive maps of reality, worldviews, if you will. So, for example, an ultimate love of the earth demands a kind of environmentalism that is religious in its fervor and in its scope. An ultimate love of Allah finds expression in a life submitted to the teachings of Mohammed as found in the Koran. A love of Jesus invites His followers to live lives marked by grace and gratitude, as taught in the Christian Bible.

The resulting distinctive worldviews cannot be wished away. From a perspective informed by the biblical teaching of God’s current patience with mankind, which allows people with sharply divergent commitments to live and flourish as communities of conviction, “principled pluralists” like us argue that states should allow for freedom of conscience, freedom of worship, and freedom of religious practice, for both individuals and communities.

In the weeks ahead, contributors to Capital Commentary will explore this and other views of political pluralism. Please think along with us as we compare our “philosophy of public justice, which advocates a strong but limited government that respects the autonomy and responsibilities of civil-society institutions and honors equally the convictions of all citizens” other views.
—Gideon Strauss is CEO of the Center for Public Justice and editor of Capital Commentary.   

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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.”