Recently the California State University System and several other schools have denied campus privileges to student groups such as InterVarsity Christian Fellowship on the grounds that their requirement that their leaders affirm a faith statement is discriminatory. Most schools still recognize that it is common sense for a religious group to have religiously based standards. But the trend is revealing. We’re seeing religious groups that do not adopt a uniform public standard of non-discrimination discriminated against.
This trend is very much in evidence elsewhere. Gordon College in Massachusetts has been asked to show that its behavioral standards, which forbid “sexual relations outside marriage, and homosexual practice,” are not unacceptably discriminatory. Peter Conn, an English professor emeritus at Penn, recently argued in The Chronicle of Higher Education that it is “a scandal” that schools like Wheaton College in Illinois should be accredited, since by requiring faith statements from their faculty they abandon “the primacy of reason” in higher education. “Providing accreditation of colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.”
Despite the celebration of diversity in American life in recent decades, religious diversity often has been merely tolerated. Now there is a strong impulse to insist that religious organizations and institutions conform to a standard set of essentially secular ideals.
To counter this trend, we need to convince people that whenever diversity is celebrated in American life, religious diversity should be included. By now it is clear that religion is not going to fade away as reason and modern science advance. So those who want to build a healthier, more inclusive pluralism need to take seriously the question of how to deal equitably with religious differences. Some religious groups, of course, are not interested in supporting a pluralistic civil order and are sources of irreconcilable conflict. But the vast majority of seriously religious people in America are shaped by democratic heritages and the desire to be responsible citizens. One goal in contemporary education should be to maximize understanding and cooperation among all the subcommunities in our immensely diverse society, including those animated by religious faith.
One first step is for all parties involved to avoid the politics and media-driven polarizations that promote a “warfare” metaphor. This approach reinforces the prejudice—often found among both religious conservatives and secular progressives—that there can be only a winner and a loser, and that we therefore cannot share the public square. It’s this zero-sum mentality that we need to overcome. Public life need not be homogeneous. People with very different worldviews can come together when they share common goals. Moreover, this cooperation need not be grudging or suspicious, but can instead be one based in a proper humility about one’s own beliefs and sympathy for those of others.
How did the public sphere come to privilege secular outlooks? In The Twilight of the American Enlightenment: The 1950s and the Crisis of Liberal Belief, I look back to the liberal consensus of mid-twentieth-century America. It was a “twilight” era because it still included a version of the belief, inherited from the American enlightenment, that rational and scientific ideas could be objective and so provide the best basis for building a unified society. Starting with self-evident ideals, such as the rights of individuals, those who founded the nation hoped to assimilate diverse peoples into a consensus guided by principles based on reason. That “noble dream” was still very much alive in the 1950s. Yet in retrospect we can see that it was in its last days.
Darwinism had undermined the natural law assumptions on which the self-evident ideals of the American consensus had originally been based. In its place, post-war liberalism substituted philosophical pragmatism. This meant giving priority to problem-solving guided by experts informed by social science. But pragmatism worked with borrowed moral capital and had no way of adjudicating differences regarding fundamental first principles. This became evident during the upheavals of the 1960s, when the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, and the “counter-culture” challenged the legitimacy of the then-dominant consensus and its claim to be building a rationally based and essentially unified American way of life.
In its various forms, the American consensus, even in its fading period when it relied so heavily on social science, did not exclude public religion. The American enlightenment heritage had grown out of Protestantism, and most American Protestants enthusiastically endorsed its principles. Because Protestantism was so diverse, religious tolerance was among those principles, although in practice this was almost always an only very grudging tolerance of anything other than the varieties of Protestantism. Protestantism was the default religion in mainstream colleges, public schools, and public ceremonies. Other religions, such as Roman Catholicism or Judaism, would be tolerated, often with much prejudice, as private options.
The 1950s was the last era in which Protestantism prevailed as the unofficial public religion, though the content of public religion was often a vague theism. Furthermore, in recognition of growing diversity, commentators began to speak of the “Judeo-Christian” tradition or of “tri-faith America,” Protestant, Catholic, and Jew. Amid these changes, however, the 1950s saw religious revival and church growth, and the public influence of religious leaders was taken for granted.
At the same time, most intellectual trends were running against taking traditional religion seriously as an intellectual option. Fundamentalism had been discredited as obscurantist, and Roman Catholics were seen as authoritarian anti-moderns. The prevailing assumption was that classic religious beliefs were irrelevant to modern intellectual life because they failed to meet modern standards of rationality. If religion was to play a role, it would have to be modernized by making its peace with the settled findings of science and offering some optional higher principles that speak to those spiritual sensibilities that are beyond the reach of science. Progressive Protestant theologians, of whom Reinhold Niebuhr was the most influential, did just that. Yet they conceded so much to the dictates of modern science that they proved to be fighting a rearguard action. Christianity was becoming less and less of a mainstream intellectual option.
One of the most momentous results of the upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s was the dramatic weakening of the role of the old Protestant establishment in public life. Talking in terms of “Protestant, Catholic, and Jew” did not change the fact that only one sort of religion had been privileged in the public domain throughout American history: Protestantism. In the face of countercultural outcries against the White Anglo-Saxon Protestant establishment in the later 1960s, progressive-minded Protestants often took the criticism of their supereminence to heart. This led to voluntarily diversifying and secularizing their church-related colleges and greatly reducing campus ministries to universities.
The diminishment of mainline Protestantism, which had always provided the principal religious voices in mainstream public life, cleared the way for the dominance of the view that the public domain—whether in education, politics, or public discourse—ought to operate without reference to specific religious viewpoints. The most common way to promote this neutrality has been to insist that religious belief remain private. That approach has considerable appeal. All religious views can be treated equally and respected as personal choices, so long as they do not get in the way of the public business of society. It results, however, in the problem that Richard John Neuhaus described as “the naked public square.”
Major universities, having set aside most of their residual links to Protestantism, effectively adopted privatization as their default position regarding religious belief. Speaking from a religious perspective was not banned, but it was an uncommon and often unwelcomed exception to the assumed norms. Yet privatization left an unaddressed problem. Vast numbers of Americans are seriously religious, and there is no way to build a “wall of separation” between their private beliefs and their public activities. This is especially true in education, where beliefs are formed, challenged, and refined. Despite growing emphasis on the value of recognizing diversity in American public life in the decades following the 1960s, few applied that principle to religion. In fact, the contrary was more often the case. People with religious beliefs were expected to act as though their faith was irrelevant to their identity in the academic sphere.
By the late 1970s, the religious right emerged. Its goal was to put Christianity back into American public life. That movement sounded the alarm bell on abortion and other moral issues. But its solutions tended to be simplistic. The religious right maintained that America had been founded as a Christian nation. In their telling of things, secular humanists had gained control of the nation and were systematically eliminating Christian influences. Leaders such as Francis Schaeffer and Jerry Falwell called for true Christians to unite in warfare against secular humanists with the goal of restoring the nation’s Christian heritage.
This mobilized believers, but the us-against-them rhetoric left very little conceptual space for pluralism. Although as a political movement it contained some internal religious diversity, including conservative Catholics, Mormons, and Orthodox Jews, what it glaringly lacked, especially in the popular Protestant zeal to return America to its Christian roots, were accounts of how such restoration would deal with the greater diversity of our country, both a religious diversity that makes the old Protestant consensus impossible, and the growth of a nonreligious, secular population that feels threatened by the idea of a Christian nation.
As the “culture wars” heated up in the 1980s, neither side had a well-developed heritage of thinking about how to accommodate religious diversity. Secularists and religious liberals were emphasizing multiculturalism of other sorts. Yet their progressive views of culture left them with little interest in engaging conservative religious subcultures that promoted moral views at odds with their own. Meanwhile, the instinct of many conservatives was to rebuild something like the old informal Protestant establishment. Even if it now included conservative Catholics and a few others, there was no place for the secularists and their progressive views. The point is not that secular progressives should pretend that they agree with religious conservatives, or that they should include them in their political coalitions—or the other way around. Rather, the problem is that neither side had a place for the other in its vision of public life—except as a defeated adversary driven from the field. The result has been the unconstructive standoffs of the culture wars.
Thus our problem today. We do not have effective ways to envision the religious and irreligious sharing a common public realm. We do not have an adequate vision of an inclusive pluralism.
My constructive proposal grows out of the thought of Abraham Kuyper, the Reformed theologian, Dutch churchman, political leader, prime minister, and publicist. As a religious and civic leader, Kuyper formulated what is now often described as a “principled pluralism.” His vision was tailored to the needs of late-nineteenth-century Netherlands, so the specifics of his politics and social views are dated. Nonetheless, the Dutch cultural and religious heritage is close enough to that of the United States for us to learn from the comparison.
The predominant cultural project for late-nineteenth-century American Protestants involved trying to assimilate diverse immigrant subcultures into a broadly “liberal” mainstream. Italians were to become Italian-Americans, Irish to become Irish-Americans, with a strong accent on the “American.” Kuyper, by contrast, viewed the great challenge in the ethnically more stable Netherlands as the opposite. He sought to preserve religious subcommunities in the face of growing secular trends and modern pressures toward liberal uniformity. Owing in no small part to Kuyper’s own efforts, the Netherlands, which has a parliamentary system, developed multiple ideologically and religiously defined parties that reflected the pluralism of Dutch society.
This political program put into practice Kuyper’s commitment to confessional pluralism. Modern societies contain many subcommunities, especially religious communities. These communities can be defined confessionally rather than just regionally or ethnically, which is to say according to the core convictions by which they organize their lives. In this sense, articulate and self-conscious forms of secular progressivism can be confessional, as Kuyper himself recognized. Civil governments should recognize confessional pluralism, which means supporting the rights of communities to use their core convictions to define their own standards and to maintain their own institutions and associations, such as charitable works and schools.
Kuyper endorses this freedom because, by his way of thinking, the proper sphere of civil government does not extend to judging the truth or falsity of religious beliefs. Any regulation should be limited to the state’s proper functions of providing essential protections for its citizens. Otherwise the confessionally based standards of the subcommunity should be given the benefit of the doubt.
Confessional pluralism rests on a theological-philosophical basis that is especially helpful in the American context today. It shows us how epistemology can help shape social policy (as unlikely as that may sound). As an Augustinian Christian, Kuyper reflected on the implications of the formula “I believe in order to understand.” One’s highest faith commitments precede and shape one’s understanding. Working from this principle, Kuyper insisted that reason and natural science are not ideologically neutral. Even the most technical of natural sciences, he observed, operate within the framework of faith commitments, whether formally religious or secular. Christians see the distinction between those who recognize their Creator and Redeemer and those who do not as fundamental. We recognize that these differing starting points will inevitably lead to many differing conclusions about the nature of reality, human nature, and the moral order. Ultimately, views of these crucial things are not settled by science, however much it might inform our thinking. They turn on our prior faith commitments.
Abraham Kuyper developed his views as a critique of the Enlightenment ideal of universal reason, yet he was not a postmodern relativist. Rather than holding that various claims to truth were artificial human constructions, he believed that God has created a reality that all people can know in part, if never completely. There is a shared capacity for truth. Even though, as a result of human sinfulness, people are sharply divided as to their first commitments, they are still creatures of God who enjoy God’s “common grace.” They share, for instance, some important elements of common rationality and moral sensibilities, such as a sense of justice. So on the one hand, differing peoples need to recognize that no one stands on neutral ground. All are shaped by their highest commitments. On the other hand, they can still look for shared principles on which they can agree as a basis for working together.
Kuyper’s account of confessionally shaped reason can provide us with a basis for formulating our own view of why and how we can share public space with those who are committed to different confessions, including secular humanist ones. The political arena, however, is probably not the place to start. Politics moves from crisis to crisis and tends toward polarization. Therefore, I propose that we turn to higher education. Universities provide the institutional context for a culture of research, teaching, and learning. This more limited public space is (or at least should be) united in the common end of knowledge, which is why it provides a more promising context for us to think about and try to implement a more inclusive pluralism.
The turn to the university may seem counterintuitive since it is well documented that the American professoriate is substantially more secular than the rest of the population and more likely to be hostile toward traditional forms of Christianity. Moreover, universities are politicized, and in our cultural politics today they play an important role as adversaries to the religious right. This means that the progressive version of culture war categories is often operative, which is why higher education can be so hostile to religious conservatives.
All that said, universities remain places where many people affirm the value of stepping back and considering first principles or finding fresh ways for thinking, places where loyalty to the goals of education can transcend political differences. Universities also increasingly draw students and faculty from throughout the world, and this includes many who are religious in ways that don’t slot into our divisive political categories. Finally, nearly all of today’s universities profess a commitment to diversity. So the key principle is already in place. We, as Christians, need to deepen and enrich it with our own theologically informed account of an inclusive pluralism.
The first step will be to make clear our commitment to pluralism. Too often we have talked as though our goal is to “take back” the universities. Once we have established common ground (and, not incidentally, some good will) in our desire to live and learn with those who have different confessional commitments, we can begin to reflect on ways our confessional commitments lead to differing practical conclusions. It ought to be possible, especially in an academic setting today, to get at least some of our peers to see what Kuyper saw. The Enlightenment dream of a neutral, universal reason that will transcend history and culture is just that, a dream. Our differences regarding the good life flow from our confessional differences, and these differences will not be resolved simply by an appeal to some uniform standard or a common objective rationality.
The scientific disciplines have a great deal of well-deserved prestige, but this does not translate into proof that they provide sufficient answers to all our questions. The exclusive naturalist starts with the premise that he will consider only natural causes in explaining the universe and the meaning of life. The Christian starts (as do other religious people) with commitments to a theistic understanding of such things and then does his science and reasoning within that framework. The differing frameworks need not lead to different conclusions about many things. Christians and non-Christians can agree about physics. But for larger frameworks of understanding, their views will inevitably differ. So it makes sense to speak of a Christian philosophy. But the larger point is that in debates where they differ, neither the one nor the other can prove that his premises are the only ones properly admissible.
Recognizing the limits of reason in this regard helps both the Christian and the naturalist see that their views do not have a monopoly on the honorific title—rightly valued in academia—of reasonable. Granted, not all views, either secularist or religious, are intellectually defensible. But some religious outlooks are as intellectually rigorous as any secularist views. There is no intellectually defensible ground for excluding them from an academic context committed to promoting the life of the mind.
In making the point that no global viewpoint, including exclusive naturalism, should be given hegemonic authority, Christians who are principled pluralists can benefit from some postmodernist insights, even while rejecting the relativism and subjectivism typical of such views. Postmodernists have pointed out that human rationality always operates within the framework of the interests of the groups or persons involved. That principle, which can be copiously documented historically, is remarkably close to the Christian teaching that humans are by nature blinded by sin—self-love colors all our thinking, sometimes very darkly. Augustine depicted the City of Man as inevitably built on self-interested principles.
It’s not just an awareness of the way sin shapes our own thinking that should lead Christians to address their differences with others with epistemological humility. The confessional stance that informs our thinking flows from the gift of faith, something we do not earn or merit. We should be able to sympathize with those who think otherwise: But for the grace of God go I. We know, moreover, that we cannot produce knockdown arguments that will compel others to assent to our confessional truths. Such epistemological humility can, without compromising our own commitments, help us to understand those who are part of the predominant confessional community in academia: the secular one.
Despite our many differences on larger frameworks for understanding, people of various religious and secular faiths, as Kuyper also points out, share a good bit of common ground. We live in the same ordered universe and are shaped by similar cultural and political outlooks. So whatever our own reasons for adopting confessional pluralism, in the public sphere we will win allies only on the basis of publicly accessible arguments and shared concerns.
The first and most important of such common ground arguments is that an inclusive pluralism is a matter of justice. Religious communities should not be discriminated against just because of the peculiarity of their religiously based views. Students from such communities who attend state schools should not be told that organizations with their religious standards are not recognized as legitimate, while more liberal religious groups are welcomed and subsidized with student fees. Of course that does not mean that anything goes, but it does mean that, except in extreme cases, religious differences should be honored along with other differences.
Second, an inclusive pluralism reinforces constitutional protections of religious liberty. Although recognized by the courts and given expression in the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, our culture often fails to respect religious freedom. Mainstream culture too often imposes uniform, melting-pot standards—standards that would fail to take into account the value of religious diversity.
Third, there is a pragmatic argument we can offer to our secular friends for honoring and even cultivating religious diversity. The history of the United States shows that religious communities have contributed a great deal to the health of the nation. They have been important training grounds for countless morally responsible, public-spirited citizens, making religion one of the most important sources of shared moral capital for the nation. Even if one thinks traditional religions are false, one ought to be able to appreciate the great number of social reformers and national leaders reared in distinctly religious communities. Some of these leaders have given up the doctrines of their upbringing, yet they nevertheless have served the nation with a moral zeal cultivated in religious settings. Religious communities also have been responsible for a host of charitable works and educational institutions that have benefited the whole nation. So there is a good, practical, secular argument for an inclusive pluralism.
Some will object that religion and religious subcommunities have also been major sources of conflict, prejudices, oppression, abuse, and anti-intellectualism. Even if the same could be said of every human community in history, these are indeed legitimate matters of concern. But what is the best way to defuse negative religious influences in society and to reduce conflict? It is a tolerance of differences that gives the benefit of the doubt as much as possible. That is a first step toward encouraging dialogue, fostering understanding, and then encouraging change when that seems needed.
We can take concrete steps to foster a more inclusive pluralism in mainstream universities. Campus Christian organizations or study centers can initiate constructive conversations that explore and unpack the ways in which our core convictions shape our outlooks. Given the mission of higher education, one obvious way forward is for Christian faculty who have won the respect of their peers to speak about the role their faith plays in their intellectual work. Faculty are also in a unique position to help students recognize that religious perspectives can be just as intellectually rigorous as nonreligious perspectives and belong in the university curriculum.
Another resource for changing university life is students. A few years ago, Peter Gomes, then the minister of Harvard’s Memorial Church, remarked that there were more Evangelical undergraduates on that campus than at any time since the seventeenth century. There’s a significant body of confessionally serious Christian students at many secular universities, and they especially need to be encouraged to see their faith as interacting with the whole of their lives, including their intellectual lives. If they can openly express their faith, and do so with charity, they can encourage mutual understanding and respect for religious as well as nonreligious perspectives on diverse campuses.
College administrators need to be encouraged to recognize Christian (and other religious) members of the academic community and honor their distinctive outlooks. Currently that is often done more consistently for representatives of other faiths than for confessional Christians. This prejudice against traditional Christianity in higher education is in part a reaction against the fact that Christians were recently a cultural majority. It also reflects the fact that, unlike any other religion in America, Christianity continues to exercise tremendous cultural and political influence. There is the still further factor that the university today is often very partisan. Administrators are often insufficiently self-aware and fail to recognize that they define as “reasonable” and “mainstream” what is in fact only one side of America’s ongoing contest over culture. The leadership of higher education needs to resist this tendency and remain committed to a genuinely inclusive pluralism as a matter of principle.
Finally, a civil society that cultivates a healthy, religiously inclusive pluralism needs to value and protect diversity among educational institutions. Religious subcommunities, if they are to flourish, need a variety of institutions, including educational institutions. Academically strong religious colleges and universities, of which there are many, can be invaluable training grounds for responsible citizens. These are institutions that typically help counter the anti-intellectualism and simplistic prejudices that otherwise might flourish within subcommunities. Yet if such valuable educational institutions are to survive, it does not make sense to expect them to adopt exactly the same standards as secular institutions. Rather, it should be recognized and honored, as a matter of course, that religious perspectives will sometimes differ from each other, as well as from various secular perspectives. It is culturally imperialistic to think that all institutions should conform to a single standard. And the crassest example of such thinking is the idea that religious organizations are being unduly discriminatory if they want to have teachers or leaders of their own religious persuasion.
A healthy pluralistic society needs a plurality of institutions. So religious institutions should not be expected to instantiate principled pluralism in the same way as our public and secular private institutions. Secular institutions serve the common good by uniting diverse people around the shared goals of teaching and learning. They model a public space where “common grace” unites. Religious universities and colleges play a different role. They serve the common good by forming young people in a confessional tradition and providing an intellectually sophisticated context for the deepening of that tradition. This provides the wider society with a vital body of citizens who are united by a coherent set of principles and moral imperatives that empower them to address the challenges facing society as a whole.
George M. Marsden is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and the author of The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship.