On the Shelf

Free to Serve: Protecting the Religious Freedoms of Faith-Based Organizations

A review of the book by Stephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies

In Free to Serve, Stephen Monsma and Stanley Carlson-Thies bring their rich life experience from academia, public policy research, politics and personal Christian faith to the discussion of religious freedom for faith-based organizations. Readers will find this book helpful in understanding how current cultural and political beliefs are undermining our historic national commitments to religious liberty, especially for faith-based educational, healthcare and social service organizations. More importantly, Monsma and Carlson-Thies outline a compelling vision for the integration of religious freedom, pluralism and tolerance in the public square and practical strategies for faith-based organizations to continue their valuable contributions to civil society while maintaining their religious convictions.

While the authors strongly argue that genuine religious freedom must be extended equally to individuals and institutions of all religious persuasions or no faith, most of their examples and case studies are conflicts between Christian organizations and the government or civil society. Considerable space is given to the conflict between state governments and faith-based adoption or foster care agencies opposed to placing children in homes of unmarried couples or same-sex married couples, secular universities or colleges limiting campus access to religious groups, government contraceptive mandates for faith-based universities, and religious hiring requirements for faith-based humanitarian organizations. While published prior to the Obergefell v. Hodges decision, Free to Serve anticipates and addresses religious liberty concerns sure to emerge from this recent Supreme Court case.

Monsma and Carlson-Thies identify four trending beliefs in contemporary society that explain the seeming contradiction between our constitutional commitment to religious freedom and threatened limitations on faith-based organizations' unfettered participation in civil society. First, freedom of religion is increasingly reduced to freedom of worship rather than freedom to live out one’s faith in daily life and associations. Second, nondiscrimination standards are being applied to faith-based organizations that historically would have been given the same religious exemptions as religious congregations and integrated enterprises. Third is the belief that faith-based organizations that accept government funds are merely extensions of the government rather than partners with the government in achieving limited common objectives. The final belief is that Christianity is in a dominant, favored position in society and is seeking to protect its privileged position at the expense of others.

The authors suggest the winner-take-all approach of those on either side of the culture wars or among those with different religious convictions must be abandoned in favor of a principled pluralism that makes room in civil society for organizations formed around the belief systems of people of all faiths and no faith. “Central to our position is the basic fact that a thoroughly secular world does not occupy neutral ground between belief and nonbelief,” they write. “Instead, a nonreligious secular perspective is a distinct perspective, or worldview, that is in competition with religious perspectives.”

Fundamental to the practice of principled pluralism is the belief that the government must not prevent its citizens from “creating and sustaining nongovernmental organizations that are based on and reflect their members’ deeply held beliefs,” and that “neither should one organization seek to dominate or control other organizations or individuals.” They suggest that the respect and tolerance inherent in principled pluralism not only provide a framework for protecting religious freedom, but also broadly serve the common good.

Finally, Monsma and Carlson-Thies provide some proactive steps for protecting religious freedom. First, they encourage organizations to be explicit about their religious commitments in both internal and external documents and practices and to avoid the appearance of coercing others to follow one’s faith-based practices. They suggest getting to know community leaders and elected officials before the need to lobby on specific items related to religious liberty becomes necessary, showing respect and working with others with whom you disagree, and joining with those of different religious persuasions to protect everyone’s freedom of religion in civil society and the public square.

Their arguments will give leaders of faith-based institutions a solid rationale for advocating their continued access to historic religious hiring protections and exemptions that in some recent situations have been limited to religious congregations. Advancing this perspective will increasingly require collaboration between broad Christian associations – such as the CCCU, the National Association of Evangelicals and similar organizations representing other faith traditions – and all of these groups developing respectful relationships with state and federal legislators and executives in both major political parties. The authors are up front about their involvement with the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance (IRFA), which seeks to bring together and equip an alliance of diverse faith-based organizations to do these things. Free to Serve makes a compelling case for the necessity of such an alliance and the ability of IRFA to provide leadership in this arena.

Kathy Vaselkiv is a trustee at Wheaton College (IL) and a board member for World Relief.

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