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

Neither a Christian Nor a Secular Nation

Stephen V. Monsma


In June of this year, the Michigan legislature passed and the governor signed a package of three bills allowing faith-based adoption agencies in Michigan not to provide adoption services to persons if doing so would violate the agencies’ sincerely held religious beliefs. These highly controversial bills were passed by largely partisan votes, with Republicans supporting them and Democrats opposing them. They were accurately seen as allowing faith-based adoption agencies to refuse to place children for adoption with same-sex or unmarried couples.

The opponents of these bills labeled them as “state-sanctioned discrimination” and argued they would allow organizations to impose their religious views on others. The supporters of the legislation insisted the issue was one of religious freedom: namely, the freedom of faith-based agencies to act in keeping with their religious beliefs. Since the faith-based agencies will continue with their adoption services, the supporters also argued that more children will be placed with more families. They also pointed out that no one will be denied the opportunity to adopt a child, since the legislation requires faith-based agencies electing not to provide adoption services to certain persons to inform them of other agencies willing to provide them with adoption services. 

As Christians, how should we react to legislation such as this? Is it an unjust exercise in discrimination? Or is it a commendable effort not to compel faith-based agencies to act contrary to their religious beliefs? Considering these questions requires us to do some careful thinking about the nature of a diverse, free society, and how God calls his followers to relate to the society in which he has placed them. 

A Christian Nation or a Secular Nation?

Let’s begin with considering the two opposing positions regarding the role of religion in the public life of our nation. Both, I believe, are deeply flawed. One position is the “Christian nation” stance, characterized by an insistence that the United States is a Christian society, founded on Christian principles that have made our nation great and that are still reflected in our Constitution, laws, and practices. Those holding this view believe all this is now under threat from a militant secularism that is driving Christian recognitions and standards out of public life. Therefore, they would urge Christians to enter the political realm to defend the Christian roots of our nation and society and advance Christian principles and practices.

This Christian nation approach poses significant problems, even though many Christians today support it. First, it overstates the extent to which Christian beliefs and practices were explicitly a part of our Constitution and early history. From the beginning, our nation was marked by a diversity of beliefs and religions. There were New England Unitarians, Quakers, Jews, evangelical heirs of the Great Awakening of the mid-eighteenth century, skeptics such as Ben Franklin, and rationalists such as Thomas Jefferson. Second, there are justice problems if we support public policies that impose Christian practices and rituals onto non-Christians. While I look forward the growth and expansion of Christian influence, I am equally convinced that it must come by the power of persuasion and appealing models of faithful Christian lives, not by the power of public policies that favor Christianity and impose Christian practices on all.

This leads to the “secular nation” position. Most of American society—and especially its academic, journalistic, and entertainment elites—support this option. This view argues that the public realm must be a thoroughly secular realm where religion is to be limited to the rituals and celebrations of religious congregations in their houses of worship and to personal devotional activities in the privacy of one’s home. Adherents of this position believe that Christians and other religious people should leave their religion behind when entering the world of government and public policies. For them, a secularized public world means Christians of various persuasions—as well as Muslims, Jews, or those of any other faith—will not be in a position to impose their beliefs and practices onto others. In the secular nation position, the argument is that if all religions are banned from the public realm, no one religion will be favored over any other. 

But this position is also deeply flawed. First, most religions have public dimensions to them. To confine religion within houses of worship is to do violence to the very nature of religion and is a violation of the freedom of religion. Many nineteenth century abolitionists, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., and most recently Pope Francis and his encyclical on the environment are all examples of those whose beliefs compelled them to take their faith out into the broader public realm.

Second, the secular nation position contains the hidden but false assumption that a secularized world is a religiously neutral world. But as the political scientist A. James Reichly once wrote, “[B]anishment of religion does not represent neutrality between religion and secularism; conduct of public institutions without any acknowledgment of religion is secularism.” Secularism is a certain worldview, a set of assumptions concerning human beings, society, and moral standards that can run counter to Christianity and other religions. The secular nation position is no more neutral or just than the Christian nation approach. Both end up favoring a particular religious or religious-like perspective or worldview.   

A Better Way: Principled Pluralism

Much of the so-called culture war battles pit Christian nation advocates against secular nation advocates. Is there no better way? Are we doomed to continued culture wars, with eventually either the Christian or the secular side standing triumphant over the other?  I think not. Principled pluralism offers a better, and I would argue, a more Christian way that allows all of us to live together in spite of our differences.

What is principled pluralism?

Principled pluralism rejects both the Christian nation position’s attempt to Christianize the public square and the secular nation position’s attempt to secularize the public square. Instead, it favors a pluralistic public square. We are a diverse society, composed of a variety of ethnic and racial groups, religions, political opinions, and much more. Some of us are ardent conservatives, others are equally ardent liberals; some of us are deeply religious, others see religion as retrograde and foolish; some support women’s liberation, others see women’s liberation as a threat to the family and societal stability; some are strong supporters of same-sex marriage, others believe equally strongly that marriage should only be between one man and one woman. How are we then to live together as one society with diversity such as this? Principled pluralism argues that we must learn anew to live together with our differences. We need to learn a tolerance and forbearance that is reflected in our public policies.

That is why the legislation recently enacted in Michigan that allows faith-based adoption agencies not to facilitate adoptions that run counter to their religious beliefs got it exactly right.  It would have been a different question if the issue had been banning all adoptions by unmarried and same-sex couples. Such a ban fits the Christian nation approach. But making faith-based agencies choose between violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or operating in keeping with secular standards fits the secular nation approach. Either one of these approaches would have involved one segment of the population attempting to impose its views onto all of society. In this case, pluralism won out. Same sex and unmarried couples are free to adopt if they otherwise meet important standards; faith-based adoption agencies are free to follow their religiously shaped understanding of marriage and family. The new laws favor a diverse, pluralistic public realm--not a uniform, secularized public realm, nor a Christianized public realm.

Under principled pluralism, the world of public policies, social service agencies, schools, health care centers, and business will be a diverse world. There will be evangelical colleges and universities that raise questions about some aspects of naturalistic evolution and state universities that accept fully naturalistic evolution; there will be faith-based drug rehab agencies that follow faith-influenced treatment modalities and secular drug rehab agencies that follow thoroughly secular treatment modalities; there will be agencies that do not provide birth control services in their health insurance plans and other agencies whose plans do provide those services; there will be Christian student organizations on university campuses that require their leaders to adhere to certain Christian beliefs and there will be other student organizations with no such requirements.

The principles in principled pluralism

Principled pluralism is not a pragmatic, second-best, fallback position to retreat to when failing to secure a more fully Christian policy position. Nor is it rooted in a relativism that supports diversity out of a refusal to make moral judgments. “Who am I to say that my values and beliefs are true and yours are false,” is relativism’s theme. Principled pluralism insists that there is truth—indeed Truth with a capital T—which also means there is falsehood and error.

What then are the principles at the heart of principled pluralism? First is the Christian understanding of human beings as God’s image bearers, created with dignity and worth, having basic human rights, and possessing a God-given ability to make morally guided choices. The apostle Paul wrote to Timothy of Jesus Christ “Who will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of truth.” (II Timothy 2:4) But this being saved and coming to the knowledge of truth must be by winsome examples and persuasion, not the force of law. No one—Christian or otherwise—should use public policies to impose their beliefs onto others. Doing so violates God’s intent for us as morally responsible, free human beings.  

A second basic principle underlying principled pluralism is the social nature of human beings.  God created us with individual worth and dignity, and he also created us as social beings. To be fully human we must live in human societies and those human societies are marked by a host of formal and informal organizations and human interactions. All societies have families and other kinship groups, neighborhoods, work groups, religious organizations, and a host of other social associations. These too are a part of God’s will for human beings, and their integrity and freedom of action should also be protected by a nation’s public policies. That is why principled pluralism insists that not only the religious freedom of individuals must be protected, but also the religious freedom of the faith-based organizations within which many of us work and live. 

Both a Christianized and a secularized public realm run counter to a just society where no one faith is favored or disfavored, advantaged or disadvantaged. Principled pluralism supports a truly free, truly just public realm, where neither Christianity nor any other religion is favored, but also where secular points of view and practices are not favored. In such a realm, human beings, created in God’s image, can be the free, creative, and morally responsible persons that God intends them to be, as individuals and as members of organizations of like-minded persons.   


Questions for Reflection:

  1. Is there a danger by both religious and secular persons of accepting pluralism “for me but not for thee” (accepting pluralism in arguing for my policy positions, but not accepting it when it comes to others’ policy positions)? How willing are you personally to accept public policies that are contrary to your own religious beliefs? 
  2. This essay uses the Michigan adoption legislation as an example of principled pluralism. Can you think of other public policy issues or areas where principled pluralism offers a distinctive policy perspective?


- Stephen V. Monsma is a Senior Research Fellow at the Henry Institute at Calvin College and Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Pepperdine University. He is a trustee 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.”