Understanding Monsma’s “Pluralism and Freedom” Through a Public Justice Lens

By Andrea Rice


Stephen V. Monsma, author of Pluralism and Freedom, offers a fresh perspective on faith-based organizations and other community groups as the foundational support in protecting individual human rights. Monsma argues that pluralism in American society is facing several challenges due to an individualistic, Enlightenment-shaped perspective that interprets our constitutional right to religion as a private matter. The implications of this dictate what does and does not belong in the public square. As Monsma declares, this is not a proper defense of pluralism and tolerance in the United States. A vision of religious freedom that encompasses the contributions of faith-based organizations, institutions and community groups must be included in our definition of freedom and human rights. 

Protecting Institutional Services 

Monsma begins his overarching argument on the need for institutions to provide human services by focusing on faith-based organizations. Monsma argues that these organizations are deeply engaged in human services networks, and therefore, if their religious rights are violated, “a major portion of the nation’s social safety net of human services would be lost” (Monsma, 2014, pg 16). A public justice framework emphasizes the government’s important, but limited role in our pluralistic public square. Therefore, individuals, groups, and government should work together to fulfill their own unique roles in promoting human flourishing. Monsma seems to also hold a similar sentiment that the government should not direct all means of human flourishing but rather encourage policies that allow other groups to support human flourishing. According to the Center for Public Justice (CPJ), this is accomplished by permitting “institutions and associations to make their full contributions to human flourishing.”

Monsma further notes that nonprofit organizations are a crucial force in American culture because of their commitment to improving the quality of human life, a goal which motivates the cause of social services and advocacy. This perspective is very similar to a public justice framework because it calls attention to the roles and responsibilities of government, institutions and individuals. Monsma’s urge to protect nonprofits, secular or faith-based, reiterates how “citizens share with government the responsibility to uphold a just political community,” as expressed in the CPJ Guidelines. Therefore, Monsma and CPJ share the belief that in order to protect human flourishing, the roles and responsibilities fall on citizens and non-governmental institutions to uphold the government to a standard of justice. 

Human Beings Are Social in Nature

Monsma further focuses on human beings’ social nature through a structural pluralist lense. He contends: “all human societies are marked by … social structures that lie between individuals and the national political community … [T]hey are of the very essence of human society … as intended and created by God” (Monsma, 2014, pg 124). Monsma argues that because social structures are integral to God’s creation, individual liberty cannot be sustained without interdependent communities. The proclamation that social structures are part of God’s intention for human society connects with CPJ’s mission for human flourishing and its stance on “mutual obligations” and the “responsibility to one another as creatures called to heed God’s standards of justice, love, and good stewardship.”

Monsma and CPJ frame the issue of human rights through a community lens, in light of the truth that God created us as relational beings to participate in a just, political community together. CPJ asserts the need to recognize and protect institutions and organizations in order to sustain human life and bring justice. As discussed in Pluralism and Freedom, faith-based organizations are heavily involved in adoption services due to their faith convictions, and must not be discriminated against by secular organizations. FBOs should be protected in the public square, so they may continue acting out their distinct roles and responsibility in adoption services by pursuing care and justice for children. 


Both Monsma and CPJ’s opinions on public justice clearly articulate that the means to protect human rights cannot simply be found in observing the relationship between government and individuals alone. Although American culture can be viewed as overemphasizing the individual, it is important for us to remember our responsibility to one another. Christians should remember our role in the body of Christ, so that we may be a community that upholds justice for all of creation.