Contrasting Pluralism and Religious Freedom

By Sosamma Samuel-Burnett J.D.
Founder/President, G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice

I recently read a series of articles that promote the idea that Christians should adopt a pluralistic approach in order to be relevant in present times. Pluralism can be defined as a system in which two or more states, groups, principles, or sources of authority co-exist. In the post-modern era (or by some accounts post-post modern era), pluralism seems to have growing appeal in our society – both in religious and secular circles. It fits the post-modern approach that assumes no common understanding in pursuit of a broader range of perspectives. Some aspects of this post-modern/pluralistic idea are compelling, and certainly some changes in views and approaches may be warranted. However, just like post-modernism itself, pluralism as a theory has several weaknesses, and as a practice even more so.

The underlying premise behind religious pluralism is that Christians (and other religious groups) risk losing relevance if we do not conform to the direction of society on various social and political issues. However, the relevance of most religious or faith perspectives is that they are not intended to reflect society as it is, but as it could or should be. While religions certainly have done their share of bad in the world, most are about doing some form of good for society now and into the future. Religious-based morality in general is a curb on humanity from causing harm to others or to themselves, and also sets guidelines for how society can best live. Further, from a Christian perspective, as the Bible states in Romans 12:2, we are not to conform to the world but to be transformed by the renewing of our minds – indicating a deeper, personal purpose for faith than simply reflecting contemporary society.

Further, the fact that society today includes a range of views on political, social, economic, and moral issues also does not mean that Christianity is no longer relevant. In Christianity, as in democracy, it is legitimate to have diverging views and a range of perspectives. But what binds Christianity and society itself is not the fact that we have differences but that we have a shared understanding that allows the freedom for those differences. For example, in the U.S., we may have different political views or even disengage from politics in general, but we as a people still have an understanding that we are in a representative democracy and that we can speak (or not) with our votes and not by dictates of one or a few. Similarly, most people understand and recognize the benefit of the religious-based moral foundations of our society, even if we have diverging religious views or don’t engage in religion at all.

While the US system is far from ideal in the way we interact and interrelate, the underlying principles and Christian perspectives within this system have been an essential element to its strength, longevity, and resiliency. Christians in the U.S. have had a unique role in both establishment and continuance of the U.S. Given that Christianity puts a high premium on free will, dignity of the person, and religious and other freedom, it creates a stronger, values based foundation for a wide range of perspectives. No one is required to be a Christian (or anything else), and to protect the related values, we have to have a political system that allows for liberty and responsibility. In this sense, understanding and appreciating the Christian foundations within the U.S. actually allows for a range of ideas to interrelate rather than just co-exist in a pluralistic sense.

Some argue that many in society are indifferent to the notion of religious freedom as fewer recognize its importance for society. The very concepts of morality and truth are certainly in question philosophically and politically. But when a student once asked Christian commentator Ravi Zacharias why we have to have a religious or moral perspective at all (and couldn’t we all just get along), Mr. Zacharias simply and brilliantly stated “But do you still lock your doors at night?” His response indicates that as society embraces a more pluralistic approach, it has not resulted in a safer or better place. Even if we point to religion in general or to a specific religion in particular as a problem, neither religion-less society nor pluralistic society is any more improved and often is worse with regard to crimes, deceptions, and depravities.

To understand the implications of pluralism as a system in our country, we need only to look at how pluralism actually functions in other countries. Although I have been a U.S. citizen since I was 15 and have grown up in the American political and religious system, I was born in India and raised in my early years in Canada. My US citizenship, Canadian upbringing, and Indian heritage have helped me to appreciate some of the key aspects and major challenges of each of these countries with regard to the notion of pluralism. And the fact that Christianity has been part of my family’s Indian heritage for centuries provides a distinct perspective on Eastern and Western societies. Experiencing and seeing the results of religious freedom versus religious pluralism in each of these countries is enlightening.

India presents a strong example of how pluralism functions in the contemporary era. In 1949, after a long struggle, India won independence from the British Empire. At that point, India became and remains the largest democracy in the world. India and its form of democracy have many merits, but it also bears the weight and is a stark example of the challenges of systemic pluralism. In India, more than 80% of the population are Hindus in religion with a majority speaking Hindi as their main language. But overall there are as many as 200 different religious groups, 22 official languages, and more than 1,600 other languages and dialects within a range of regions and villages. Although Hinduism is the majority religion, Indian society allows for a range of religious perspectives with particular legal and other distinctions based on those religious views. However, religious pluralism in India has had far from peaceful results. In fact, the conflicts have been and continue to be quite severe between Hindus and Muslims, Muslims and Sikhs, Hindu extremists and mainstream, among others. Many of the modern heads of state of India have been assassinated, generally by someone representing a group not in power. And, while there are majority parties, the political system is highly factionalized. Whether in elections, other political processes, or in the administration of laws and justice, pluralism creates a dynamic in India and on its 1+ billion people that is difficult to lead and administer. Consensus is challenging if not impossible since negotiations, compromise, and other necessary aspects of governance are just harder in a pluralist society. In one sense, it is a model of how diversity can co-exist, but in another sense it is democracy gone amuck.

Unlike the U.S., Canada was not established on deep religious, moral, or philosophical underpinnings. It was basically engineered to be a secular society. In recent years, Canada has represented a pluralistic approach to diversity and range of religious and cultural perspectives. However, despite this pluralism there have been and remain a number of racial/cultural/religious tensions. When I was a child living in Canada, I was regularly discriminated against and/or faced racial slurs because of wrong assumptions about my race and religious heritage. Although blatant racism may or may not exist today as it did in my childhood, religious and cultural issues are rising today. The recent attack at Parliament is but one example. For a country that is specifically not based on a set of religious values, it is now having to face the realities of how pluralism creates divergence rather than diversity.

From the perspective of those who promote pluralism, Christians should be open to a wider range of views or otherwise face our own downfall. However, this logic is not consistent with either the examples noted in this article or by history, even ancient history. Democracy itself started in a pluralistic society – ancient Greece. The example of Greece influenced the U.S. Founders. It wasn’t what Greece did right, but what it did wrong, that made the most impact on the U.S. Founders. They understood that direct democracy was actually a weakness in Greece, which is why they opted for a republican form of government. Similarly, while Greece was devoid of a moral compass, the US Founders recognized that religious freedom and moral grounding were essential aspects of American society. But the U.S. concept of freedom required that no one religion dominate government. Within a society where there was a central purpose, shared principles, diverse voices, and individual liberty and responsibility, there could be more room for different ideas and religions to exercise their freedom. The result is something far stronger than what would result from the chaos of pluralism. As such, pluralism did not give Greece relevance in its era, rather it resulted in its downfall.

Inevitably tensions have and will arise between religious perspectives, but that does not mean that Christians need to take a passive “live and let live” approach to the world. The role of moral compass and societal rudder is important in today’s society as it was in previous societies. Christianity has always had adversity and the church existed in hostile contexts from the beginning – but that did not prevent its spread or impact. Even if not everyone today agrees on what is “due north,” Christians can still engage in society in a manner that is respectful but doesn’t compromise faith perspective or religious ideals. And, Christians do not need to step aside from legitimate debate on issues. From the beginning of philosophical discourse, topics such as the common good, virtue, and justice have been debated. The fact that we don’t have a precise societal definition of such concepts in the world today, does not negate a common understanding that they are still worthy of pursuit. As such, pluralism may allow for many points of view, but does not provide a grounding for the pursuit of what is worthy for society. Religious freedom, in contrast, allows for many ideas and perspectives, but also allows us to live with purpose.

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not imply endorsement by G.L.O.B.A.L. Justice. We are a faith-based, nonpartisan organization that seeks to extend the conversation about justice with a posture of dignity and respect.