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Political Pluralism: How Government Can Support Conflicting Religious Beliefs

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When World Vision USA announced three weeks ago that it would begin hiring Christians in same-sex marriages, the conservative reaction was strong and swift. Individual donors jammed the call center's phone lines, and within two days, 10,000 poor children had lost their sponsors. The right-wing Family Research Council blasted the organization's decision, as did evangelist Franklin Graham, Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention and others.

Just 48 hours after the announcement, World Vision reversed its decision. Its president, Richard Stearns, acknowledged the uproar the new policy had caused and asked forgiveness for the "mistake." Over the next several days, criticism of World Vision's reversal began sprouting. The online advocacy group Faithful America organized a petition calling for the two Google executives on World Vision's board of directors to resign. After 17,000 signatures and a spate of publicity, one of them did.

And then a professor at Whitworth University, a Presbyterian school in Spokane, Washington, located near World Vision's headquarters, wrote a public letter decrying its change of heart. "We rejoiced in the initial announcement and we grieve the reversal," the letter says. It continues:

Christians have worked together across their differences on a wide variety of issues, and they should continue to do so when a mission transcending narrow doctrinal matters is at stake. ... we call on Christian institutions to employ LGBT brothers and sisters in Christ who help further the mission of their institutions.

Julia Stronks is the professor who wrote the letter. She was thrilled when World Vision made its initial decision. "Here was a faith-based institution showing leadership on how to treat gay people with justice," she said in an interview for this column. "I was brokenhearted when they reversed their decision." Stronks wrote down her reflections, shared them with some friends who sent her words to their friends -- and thus the public letter was born, gathering more than 350 signatures in less than a week.

In addition to having a Ph.D. in political science, Stronks has a law degree and is keenly interested in how government should accommodate the conflicting religious and moral beliefs of its citizens, as well as how Christians should live in a complicated world. Her answer is "political pluralism," a theory and practice that respects the rights of people with different worldviews to live together without coercion. In addition to protecting freedom of the soul, political pluralism sees the role of government as providing laws that treat everyone equally and without discrimination.

Political pluralism is very different from the credo of many Christian conservatives who are certain that their particular religious beliefs reflect God's truth and that the role of government is to pass laws that support these beliefs.

Not so, say political pluralists, who point out that the job of government is not to elevate one religious belief system over another. Rather, it is to protect a diversity of beliefs and worldviews -- including those of agnostics, atheists, secular humanists and others -- so that everyone has the freedom to follow his or her conscience and determine how to live.

Anything less is coercion, not to mention unconstitutional. According to scholars such as Stronks, it is unbiblical too. "Jesus never used government as a tool forcing people how to live," she said. "He used stories, persuasion, and encouragement."

During the interview, Stronks described the steps that led her to support marriage equality. "What moved me was education," she said. "Learning more about biology and sexuality and knowing gay Christians." She also decided to read the Bible from cover to cover and came across a slew of texts that are understood far differently today than when they were written. As for marriage as a sacrament between a man and a woman, by the time Stronks finished Genesis -- the first book in the Bible -- she had read about concubines, incest, rape and more. She said:

It's important to understand texts in their historical context. Many of the biblical passages that seem to condemn homosexuality are actually about abuse and coercion, rather than equal, loving relationships.

The impact of World Vision's decision is far from over. For one thing, its public refusal to hire people in same-sex marriages opens it up to discrimination lawsuits. The decision also puts the organization at odds with denominational partners, a number of whom are increasingly voicing support for marriage equality. Beyond that, the decision reflects a broader debate on religious liberty, which includes whether an employer's religious beliefs should trump the human rights of others.

From contraceptive coverage under the Affordable Care Act to whether business owners can turn away lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender or LGBT, customers, the public debate is usually framed as liberals versus conservatives, or secular people versus religious ones. But such framing is limiting because it ignores the philosophical and religious principles that lead Orthodox Christians such as Stronks to support LGBT equality.

Christians who practice political pluralism -- what Stronks calls a "theology of citizenship for a complicated world" -- have something to contribute to the debate of what is appropriate religious expression in a diverse society. Their commitment to their own faith and to the rights of others to believe differently can help find political and legal solutions that support deeply authentic religious expression, as well as the freedom not to be pressured into beliefs that are not one's own.