Review of ‘Free to Serve’ by Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley W. Carlson-Thies

Free_to_Serve_350Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley W. Carlson-Thies, Free to Serve: Protection the Religious Freedom of Faith-Based Organizations (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2015). Paperback | Kindle

[Author’s Note: This review originally appeared at]

James 1:27 offers this memorable definition: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.” For James, then, religion consists of a humanitarian and an integrity mandate. “Do good,” we might say, “ and be good!”

For Christians across the ages, the humanitarian mandate has produced charitable organizations of an enormous variety, from orphanages and schools to hospitals and relief agencies. These organizations express the heart of God the Father for those in crisis, those in in need. The integrity mandate has governed how Christians carried out the humanitarian mandate. Christian theology and Christian ethics provided guidelines for what good should be done, to whom, and how.

These two mandates need never come into conflict with one another. In an era characterized by the increased government licensing, regulation, and funding of all manner of activities, they can and do, however. This conflict is the subject of Free to Serve by evangelical Christian activists Stephen V. Monsma and Stanley W. Carlson-Thies.

The authors cite, for example, laws in Arizona and Alabama that prohibited people and organizations within those states—including religious organizations—from transporting or housing illegal immigrants. Many churches and religious organizations had been doing precisely that, so they challenged the law in court.

For another example, pursuant to a mandate in the Affordable Care Act (aka, “ObamaCare”), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services issued a rule requiring employee health plans to cover 20 forms of contraception, four of which could have abortifacient effects. Catholic organizations have objections to contraceptives generally, and evangelical Protestant organizations have objections to abortifacients specifically, so they challenged this rule in court.

A final example: Many campus religious organizations require members and leaders to affirm the doctrinal and ethical standards of their specific faith. One cannot be an atheist and leader of a Christian student organization. Unfortunately, in an attempt to promote nondiscrimination, some public colleges and university systems have ruled that, actually, you can be. Every campus organization must be open to all…except fraternities, sororities, and sports team, of course. Campus religious organizations have challenged these rules in court.

The United States has a variety of legal protections for religious individuals and organizations. The First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The Religious Freedom Restoration Act holds that a generally applicable law can infringe on a sincerely held religious belief only if doing so accomplishes a compelling governmental interest through the least restrictive means. There are other statutory protections as well, both at the federal and state levels.

Despite these, state and federal courts have not always protected the religious freedom of individuals and organizations.

  • Federal Courts have upheld the constitutionality of so-called “all comers” policies on college and university campuses, policies that prohibit campus religious organizations from requiring affirmation of a religion’s doctrine and ethics.
  • State courts have ruled that the government can require faith-based adoption and foster care agencies to place children in the homes of married homosexuals and cohabiting heterosexuals, despite those organization’s longstanding, sincere, doctrinal commitment to marriage as a monogamous heterosexual institution.
  • On the bright side, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Hobby Lobby, a closely held, for-profit business owned by religious persons is exempt from the so-called “contraceptive mandate” issued by HHS. On the other hand, the same right of religious colleges and universities (Notre Dame, Wheaton, etc.) is still being litigated.

Monsma and Carlson-Thies argue that these conflicts have grown and become heated because of four interlocking assumptions on the part of government bureaucrats and secular ideologues:

  1. The equation of religious freedom with freedom to worship
  2. The unthinking application of nondiscrimination standards to faith-based organizations
  3. The belief that acceptance of government funds makes faith-based organizations government actors
  4. The assumption of Christianity’s dominant position in society

To this list, I would add the increasing governmental involvement in aspects of life it had left alone previously. In my opinion, the larger government grows, the larger its ability to interfere with the rights of the people—including their religious rights—grows. The authors do not delve into this topic, however.

Instead, they make a case for what they call “principled pluralism” or “civic pluralism.” This pluralism, which they argue should not be confused with relativism, begins with the undisputed fact that our society is characterized by a diversity or plurality of religious and non-religious points of view. In light of this fact, it advocates four tenets:

  1. All human beings are morally responsible, free individuals who possess human dignity and certain fundamental rights, the most basic of which is freedom of religion.
  2. Although human beings are individuals, with individual rights and responsibilities, human beings are also social beings.
  3. For a society to be truly free its government must not prevents its members from being able to create and sustain nongovernmental organizations that are based on and reflect their members’ deeply held beliefs.
  4. Just as government should not attempt to dominate or control society’s organizations and their members, neither should one organization seek to dominate or control other organizations or individuals.

Under principled pluralism, the government could partner with religious organizations to accomplish humanitarian ends without requiring those organizations to sacrifice their doctrinal or ethical integrity. Religious organizations would be able to tailor health-care plans to conform to longstanding doctrine. Campus religious organizations would be able to require doctrinal and ethical affirmations of its leaders.

Principled pluralism thus differs from Christian nationalism, which privileges the Christian faith socially and legally, and secularism, which seeks a public square devoid of religious language and ideas. Indeed, it challenges both. The challenge to secularism is obvious. A public college or university, for example, must provide public resources to campus religious organizations despite their allegedly “sectarian” character, as long as it does so on equal footing with other religious and nonreligious organizations. That second proviso highlights the challenge principled pluralism poses to Christian nationalism. But Monsma and Carlson-Thies argue that such an application of principled pluralism is “a straightforward application of the Golden Rule to our civic relationships: to do to others as we would have them do to us (Luke 6:31).”

That is what makes principled pluralism such an attractive option for some. America is a diverse country, and principled pluralism offers a way for diverse religious and nonreligious groups to access public resources on an equal footing.

Still, I have my doubts. Pluralism must give way to principle on some issues. Monsma and Carlson-Thies cite abortion as one of those exceptions. It is a long-settled principle of American jurisprudence that race is another. No wonder, then, that LGBT groups analogize sexual orientation to race, and Christians resist the analogy. Some principles admit of no exceptions. In those cases, one can be principled or pluralist, but not both.

Even with this criticism of the book, Free to Serve is an interesting, thought-provoking book about an important topic. You will learn from its diagnosis even if you disagree with its prescription in the end. I myself am not wholly convinced, though I wholly support the book’s ultimate goal of supporting an integral Christian humanitarianism.


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