The Divided Public Square

The world today feels as divisive as ever. Abortion, refugee resettlement, immigration, gun control, and freedom of religion are just a few topics that have pitted neighbor against neighbor and even Christian against Christian as many cling to their tribes no matter the cost while others find themselves without a political home. Where does that leave us as Christians? What is our duty to each other and to God? How can we move forward connected, with respect for one another, and united in our mission for Christ? The Banner has teamed up with the Center for Public Justice to release a series of articles exploring these topics. This is the fifth of six.

I’ve just passed my fourth anniversary as a Canadian resident, but my heart and home are still American. Most days, I still read only American news. I still don’t understand who all the Canadian politicians are, the parties, or some of their strange quirks. But this summer I had my first feeling of really being away from America, of not even understanding my own country.

Truthfully, it was face masks that did it. Canada had its small debates and controversies over masks in COVID-tide, but it did not rise to the rancor of America’s mask discourse. Looking at it from afar, I honestly couldn’t relate: the intensity, the anger, the vile accusations on social media, especially among Christians.

This is, of course, just one small example of many instances of deep polarization. And often, the polarization that plagues us points to the weighty issues at stake, like systemic racism, unborn children, poverty and wealth inequity, religious freedom, mass incarceration, creation care, and the list could go on. It’s no surprise that such important things elicit deep convictions! But our method of engaging polarization matters, and unfortunately, it often seems that the polarization of our society is mirrored in church, rather than challenged by it.

While there aren’t easy or quick fixes to our polarized, pluralistic communities, our own Reformed tradition does have important tools for addressing these challenges. It begins with getting some of our terms straight: what kinds of difference, or pluralism, are we talking about?

Differentiating Difference: Types of Pluralism

When Reformed theologians like Abraham Kuyper discuss God’s initial work of creation, you can almost hear their jaw drop at the diversity God has built into this world. “From the riches of his glory,” Kuyper wrote, God “distributed gifts, powers, aptitude, and talents to each according to his divine will.” Or, as Herman Bavinck writes, creation includes “the most profuse diversity.”

It would be easy to dismiss pluralism as wholly bad, or out of line with God’s creational intent (we’ve seen its divisive features). But this isn’t the claim of Reformed theologians like Kuyper and Bavinck. They argue that (much) pluralism is part of God’s design!

To help us make sense of this, people like Richard Mouw and Sander Griffoen have helpfully described three different types of pluralism: directional, structural, and cultural.

  1. Directional pluralism: the many religions, worldviews, or fundamental orientations that come from our estrangement from God after the Fall.
  2. Structural pluralism: the many kinds of associations, institutions, and societal structures, intended by God for good in creation (pre-fall).
  3. Cultural pluralism: the many kinds of human cultures: languages, customs, cuisines, and more, also an intended goodness (pre-fall).

Principled Pluralism for Today

In the public square, each of these three pluralisms is at play: we live among those that don’t share our creed (directional pluralism), those that are a part of different institutions and associations (structural pluralism) and those that belong to different ethnic groups (cultural pluralism). What does faithful public engagement look like, given this plurality of pluralisms, and the polarization that so often accompanies them?

One important tool for faithful engagement is principled pluralism, a guide for politics and public life that builds off of the Reformed emphasis on creation.

In the public square, principled pluralism affirms the protection of each of the pluralisms listed above: directional, structural, and cultural. We live in a fallen world and thus—as the CRCNA’s own revision to Belgic Confession, Article 36 states—political power ought not be tasked with the authority to enforce true religion. Principled pluralism honors the diversity of our society that includes many ethnic and racial groups, many political opinions, religious convictions, and more. To live together, principled pluralism affirms that our public policies should mitigate and uphold diversity in a peaceful way, so that a multiplicity of organizations with different, deep convictions can co-exist, and even work together.

Lest this begin to sound like a thoroughgoing relativism, though, principled pluralism is also principled. A vision of a society where public policy upholds difference is not a vision of a society where everything goes!

Every society has limits. Principled pluralism is thus bound by principles that include the following:

  1. Humanity as God’s image bearers
  2. Humans were created as social beings, created by God to live together
  3. God has created the world with multiple spheres, which do not act in exactly the same way: the church is not the state, the family is not a business, etc.

Given this, principled pluralism affirms our ability to bring the full weight of our convictions to the public square and affirms and protect our neighbors’ right to do the same.

What About the Church?

While many have found this to be an important posture for public action, what about the church?

In an important way, principled pluralism ought not to be the stance of the church. If we take seriously the reality that some pluralism is pre-fall, but others are only post-fall, we begin to see that some of the guidelines that principled pluralism touts as good and important ought not be seen that way within our church communities. While we certainly ought to celebrate, promote, and pursue structural and cultural pluralism within the church, confessional pluralism is a different story. In our preaching, teaching, and practice as the church, we don’t simply say that some of us may believe that Jesus Christ is Lord and Savior—and it’s OK if others don’t. Scripture, and the creeds and confessions our church affirms, very clearly state the opposite!

Nevertheless, some of the postures of principled pluralism do give us real insight for the heated disagreements and debates within the church.

Richard Mouw has championed an approach he calls “convicted civility,” which he describes as “hold(ing) onto strongly felt convictions” and “nurturing a spirit that is authentically kind and gentle.” While he often talks about this posture in the context of interfaith dialogue, he has also modeled it in the context of intrafaith dialogues and debates, highlighting two practices we should simultaneously nurture as we seek to faithfully navigate polarization within the church.

The first practice is kindness and civility within disagreement. The way that we disagree is important, he reminds us—including how we render each other’s arguments. It’s easy, Mouw reminds us, to “emphasize the negative aspects of the other perspective, or even distort the positive elements of that perspective,” for the benefit and bolstering of our own position.

Speaking kindly and truthfully about those with whom we disagree honors God’s call to not give false testimony. It may also lead us to surprising revelations about, and opportunities to learn from, those with whom we deeply disagree.

Scripture calls us to “pursue peace with everyone” (Heb. 12:14) and, as Mouw puts it, “exercise judgment about questions of truth and value.” Thus, the second practice of “convicted civility” is to hold to, and advocate for, our convictions. In our dialoguing with, and learning from, those with whom we have deep disagreements, strong, biblical convictions still matter—and ought to be defended. It is even possible that strong convictions might exist that cannot be reconciled within our churches on this side of the eschaton; debate and discussion do not—and should not—always end in compromise and concession. It is a special challenge for the church to learn what civility and love look like in those moments.

Conclusion

These may seem like weak stuff against the torrent of abuse and polarization that now seems a regular part of our public and—alas—church life. It can seem small, humble work, compared to shouting down our opponents on cable news or Synod floors. But these convictions, and these postures, are also I think what we might call salt and light in our life together. We might not always win, but then, the point might not exactly be to win. In the “getting there,” we need wisdom for our means, not only our ends. These Reformed practices and postures might be the start, the legacy, of something important for our moment.

About the Author

Jessica Joustra (Ph.D., Fuller Theological Seminary, Vrije Universiteit) is an assistant professor of religion and theology at Redeemer University. She serves as the chair of the board of trustees of the Center for Public Justice.

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Thank you, Jessica, for an insightful article.

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