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The Times They Are A-Changing… Being the Church in a Secular, Liberal, Pluralist Democracy

Friday, 18 September 2015  | Scott Higgins

The centuries from the Enlightenment until the present have seen the decline of Christendom and the rise of liberal, secular, pluralist democracies. They are “liberal” in that individuals possess rights that their fellow citizens and the state are obligated to respect; “secular” in that no religion is preferred by government nor is legislation formed on the basis of religious views; and “pluralist” in that citizens, organisations, and social institutions are free to pursue their own interests and values. This has dramatically reshaped the place of the church in society and societal expectations around virtue.

James Davison Hunter notes that

pluralism in its most basic expression is nothing more than a simultaneous presence of multiple cultures and those who inhabit those cultures… In most times and places in human history, pluralism was the exception to the rule; where it existed, it operated within the framework of a strong dominant culture. If one were part of a minority community, one understood the governing assumptions, conventions, and practices of social life and learned how to operate within them.… But pluralism today – at least in America – exists without a dominant culture, at least not one of overwhelming credibility or one that is beyond challenge… For the foreseeable future, the likelihood that any one culture could become dominant in the way that Protestantism in Christianity did in the past is not great.

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010).


The shift to pluralism is represented in the diagram below.


The small circles represent the citizens that make up a community. In a homogenous society there is a dominant culture, represented in the diagram on the left by the thick circle that surrounds the smaller circles. It is the role of social institutions such as churches, schools, and government to embody the values of the dominant culture and to ensure people do not stray outside its boundaries. In a pluralist society the strong boundaries have evaporated, members of the society have different value sets and interests (represented by the arrows inside the circles) and the role of social institutions is not to keep people within particular cultural boundaries, but to facilitate the possibility for members of society to live their own values and interests. This can be a disorienting situation. We want to find the cultural centre, but there is not one.

In a pluralist democracy the role of government is not to dictate values and behaviours, but to coordinate society such that: 1) the various actors are free to determine their own values and pursue their own interests without infringing upon the freedoms of others; 2) the various actors in society can work cooperatively towards a common good. 

Hunter identifies four possible responses to this new state of affairs. First, those who see pluralism as a threat and seek to make the culture Christian once more. Second, those who seek to make the church relevant to the concerns of contemporary pluralistic culture, more often than not by getting involved in social justice issues. Third, those who seek to withdraw into an ideal/pure community. Fourth, his own prescription, which he refers to as “faithful presence”, by which he means a commitment to the biblical vision of shalom that is enacted by being fully present to God, to others, to our tasks (in which we join with others in our culture in fulfilling the creation mandate to be world-making), and to our spheres of influence.

Though there is no biblically mandated form of government, a Christian response to Australia’s polity is well accommodated by Baptist theologies of church and state. In a Baptist understanding, the conscience can be governed by no one but God. This limits the role of the state, for it should never seek to command conscience, that is, the religious beliefs and values of its citizens, but has a far more limited role of maintaining public order so that citizens can live by the dictates of their conscience. 

Consistent with this, the reformed understanding in the Kuyperian tradition argues that within any society there are multiple spheres of responsibility, including the individual, the household, social institutions, and government. These are each accountable to God for their behaviours and values, and neither the state nor the church should position themselves as the representatives of God to whom others must answer.

In light of this Miroslav Volf’s reflections on engagement in the public sphere in a pluralist society are helpful.


  1. 1. Christ is God’s word and God’s lamb, come into the world for the good of all people, who are all God’s creatures and loved by God. Christian faith is therefore a “prophetic” faith that seeks to mend the world. An idle or redundant faith – a faith that does not seek to mend the world – is a seriously malfunctioning faith. Faith should be active in all spheres of life: education and arts, business and politics, communication and entertainment, and more.
  2. Christ came to redeem the world by preaching, actively helping people, and dying a criminal’s death on behalf of the ungodly. In all aspects of his work, he was a bringer of grace. A coercive faith – a faith that seeks to impose itself and its wildlife on others through any form of coercion – is also seriously malfunctioning faith.
  3. When it comes to life in the world, to follow Christ means to care for others (as well as for oneself) and work toward their flourishing, so that life should go well for all and that all would learn how to lead their lives well. A vision of human flourishing and the common good is the main thing the Christian faith brings into the public debate.
  4. Since the world is God’s creation and since the Word came to his own even if his own do not accept him (John 1:1), the proper stance of Christians toward the larger culture cannot that be that of unmitigated opposition or whole-scale transformation. A much more complex attitude is required – that of accepting, rejecting, learning from, transforming and subverting or putting to better uses various elements of an internally differentiated and rapidly changing culture.
  5. Jesus Christ is described in the New Testament as a “faithful witness” (Rev 1:5) and his followers understood themselves as witnesses (e.g. Acts 5: 32). The way Christians work toward human flourishing is not by imposing on others their vision of human flourishing and the common good but by bearing witness to Christ, who embodies the good life.
  6. Christ has not come with a blueprint for political arrangements; many kinds of political arrangements are compatible with the Christian faith, from monarchy to democracy. But in a pluralistic context, Christ’s command “in everything do to others as you would have them do to you” (Matt 7:12) entails that Christians grant to other religious communities the same religious and political freedoms that they claim for themselves. Put differently, Christians, even those who in their own religious views are exclusivists, ought to embrace pluralism as a political project

-   A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good (Brazos Press, 2011)


Points 1 rules out withdrawal from the public space, points 2, 4, 5 and 6 rule out the attempt to coerce Christian values through legislation (i.e. the re-Christianising project), while points 3 and 4 point us in the direction of Hunter’s concept of “faithful presence”.


What the Church Can Expect from the State

In a liberal, secular, pluralist democracy the state should ensure freedom of religion, that is, it should ensure that every religious group and their members are free to believe and practice their faith. To be a secular society does not mean the state makes no place for religion, but that it does not preference one religion over another or religion over no religion. In a healthy liberal, secular, pluralist society we would expect to see many expressions of religious faith.

The corollary of this, is that the church should not expect the state to discriminate favourably towards it or unfavourably against it.


What the State Can Expect From the Church

The church is called to seek the flourishing of its community and does so on the understanding that the values of God’s kingdom represent the best way for humankind to flourish. In a secular, liberal, plural democracy this leaves the church with two instruments for engaging in the public space. First, the church has its public witness, in which by its words and deeds it encourages people toward the values of the kingdom of God. Secondly, the church has public advocacy, in which it calls on government to execute justice. 

These two dimensions, advocacy and witness, should not be confused or conflated. The primary arena of the church’s contribution to a flourishing society will normally be through its witness in its words and deeds. Advocacy can play a critical and decisive role in securing flourishing, as the civil rights movement led by Baptist pastor Martin Luther King Jr. demonstrated, but we must be careful that in our advocacy we do not ask government to do that which is not its responsibility. It is not the role of government to coerce conscience and the church should not ask the government to do this. Advocacy therefore should focus upon justice while witness is the vehicle by which we promote virtue.



John Waterhouse
October 9, 2015, 1:07PM
Thanks for the thoughtful summary, Scott. I appreciated reading it and your bio on your website. All the best with your chosen vocation and the management of your health!

Sure, if I had to pump for one option it would be option #4: ‘faithful presence’. Who can fault that. But these theoretical options have kind of been superseded, have they not? The old rules of pluralism have passed. With the growth of illegal migration to the West, we are dealing with a new reality: a world faith that denies freedom to others and is hell-bent on coercion and world domination.

Ask the Christians in Iraq what they think of sharia law. Ask the parents of teenage girls in Nigeria, kidnapped by Boko Haram, what they think of women's rights under Islam. Ask the families of the twenty-one Egyptian Coptic Christians – young bread-winners seeking to support their families back home – about the beheading of their sons and brothers in Tripoli on 15 February this year. Ask our fellow Christian believers to our near north, in Aceh Province, about religious tolerance – enshrined in the constitution of Indonesia, but hardly practised.

We the 'unbelievers' need to be brought to submit by the sword or whatever means at the disposal of the 'believers'. The Q'ran dictates this. Local imams now mandate political action, including the murder of innocents, as the means of ushering in a new Caliphate. If a fifteen-year-old schoolboy can heed the call in Parramatta, Sydney, on 2 October 2015, so will other more able exponents of jihad.

I am familiar with Harvey Cox (Secular City), Reinhold Niebuhr (Christ and Culture) and other Neo-Orthodox positions. This essay is a continuation of that debate. I find these idealistic visions for the future, formed as a synthesis with our Western secular tradition and based on an abstract, intellectual paradigm, now sadly irrelevant. Circumstances have changed. We now have a significant player, representing already more than two billion people on the planet, who does not want to play by our secular rules.

We are entering a dangerous period in the history of the West when individual freedoms are going to be subject to rising acts of violence and physical aggression. Not even thoughtful, tolerant Christians will escape! Brutality and murder will 'persuade' where our past evangelistic efforts have not.

Watch how the permissive Left will capitulate when their lives are in danger. Watch how formal political leadership will duck for cover. Watch denominational leadership go to water. Opposition will not come from any of these powerful elites — or, I regret, Christian theologians safe in comfortable sinecures. It will come from ordinary Christian believers who will choose to stand up for their faith, often to death — and ordinary Australians who are not stupid.

That, at least, is the experience of our brethren overseas in the persecuted church.
Ray Barnett
October 9, 2015, 1:11PM
It is not a pluralistic society that ought to concern us. We ought to be able to cope with a pluralistic society. Run tolerance up the flagpole and we can usually salute!

The problem comes when one of the 'multiples' has at its heart the desire to become the intolerant hegemony. And on this issue, people seem inured to the lessons of history. When ‘tolerant’ ideologies gain hegemonic status, their true nature is revealed — whether benign, murderously intolerant or anywhere along that spectrum.

Consider the joyful crowds embracing and then basking in the new social equalities of Communism — and the starry-eyed Westerners who thought the sun shone out of its courageous innovators. But as the Communist Party became the ascendant majority, it had the power base to become a totalitarian regime on the Left. And totalitarianism brooks no opposition. Its murderous intolerance liquidated — what, 40 million, 60 million? It was after the shock waves that students of history fathomed the true depravity of Lenin’s writings… The seeds were always there.

Consider the joyful exuberance of blond-haired, blue-eyed Aryans basking in the newly recovered dignity of a Germany once humbled at the Treaty of Versailles. Picnics under the Aryan sun – itself yellow — in salute to the regime’s racial purity. But as the Nazi Party became the ascendant majority, it was also easy for it to become a murderously totalitarian regime on the Right. Ask six million Jews and the thousands of gypsies, handicapped, mentally retarded and other 'social deviants'.

Other examples probably abound. (Even Papal Christendom had its 'day in the sun'.)

BUT THE POINT IS that under each regime, the benign welcomers of the mild-mannered social innovation, under threat of death, became the willing executioners of the regime. Either inform on your neighbour — or die. So they did. And they watched silent as columns of slave labourers marched to their death under Stalin or to the gas chambers under Hitler. The regime had caught them in its power and made them compliant through the fear of death.

And, as in the two examples above, those who failed to question these new faiths and beliefs discovered — too late — that a timely word might have been appropriate after-all, even if that timely word was pilloried by a compliant media.

What would happen if one of the 'religions of peace' that makes up our pluralistic society came to hegemonic power? What seeds are there within its tenets for murder, for oppression, for dictatorship? We might ask that question of… Pakistan, ISIS, Saudi Arabia or Nigeria. And at that time, all of those who — like the joyful welcomers of social equality under Lenin or the supporters of resurgent German nationalism under Hitler — would find themselves forced to become willing executioners? If not, then victims of those who are.

Rarely does a regime display its true colours during the period of its rise. If history is a teacher, then the place to look is not in what is, but in what might be. And ‘what might be’ is usually seen in small print below the PR. Ideological boundaries are rarely set at the fringes among the warm-hearted; they are usually set at the (often undisclosed) core.

Even a 'religion of peace' – in whose writings it is clearly stated that to 'lie to infidels' is not lying – might, upon reaching power, disclose that intolerance and murder were always lurking within and were necessary to the ideology. Just as the Prophet said.
Jim Reiher
October 11, 2015, 10:24PM
Great article thanks.

To live well in such a modern society, we do have to embrace "peaceful coexistence", "tolerance", and "putting up with others around us who we don't personally agree with."

Groups that are often the minority or that even get harassed as a minority group, need this (want this) desperately.

Sadly, some of those groups, or some people in some of those groups, don't always have the same sense of offering such attitudes towards others. If they get their chance, some of them are not so tolerant after all.

But if we don't tolerate the intolerant, we have become them.

To ask to be tolerated but then to not tolerate others, seems very human, and yet is very hypocritical.

And the fear of that happening stops some people from trusting others with full equality, tolerance, respect and grace.
Ray Barnett
October 17, 2015, 9:14AM
It is interesting to see the shades of meaning the word ‘tolerance’ has taken on. To search for, and speak the truth about, an ideology is apparently intolerant. It is also made to mean that I must somehow hate the people who believe this ideology: correct?

It would be interesting to speak to Bonhoeffer about tolerance. Was he also ‘intolerant’? In carrying out his work in the Confessing Church, did he hate all Germans? Or in his opposition to the fascist regime of Adolf Hitler, did he in fact love his countrymen (and non-countrymen) so much that he wanted to expose the murderous depravity of the ideology that had superimposed itself upon their consciences?

The desire to seek out, and if necessary expose, the truth of any ideology that seeks to hold absolute sway over its members is not based on a desire to protect ourselves, but is – as it ought to be – motivated by a deep love and concern for all who might be ensnared. God’s grace and mercy as seen in Isaiah 19:23-25 (‘The Lord Almighty will bless them saying, Blessed be Egypt my people, Assyria my handiwork and Israel my inheritance’) ought to be our own motivation.

But that cannot mean turning a blind eye to the realities of Islam’s unredeemed ideology that would appear, from its writings, to support mayhem. Such ‘tolerance’ will not be an act of mercy and grace on our part.
John Olsen
October 17, 2015, 9:47AM
The above comment about intolerance is a furphy. The true meaning of tolerance is: 'I understand and acknowledge your point of view, even if I do not agree with it.' It implies respect and willingness to agree to disagree — without rancour.

Like a lot of words, the meaning of tolerance has changed. It is now widely used to mean that a tolerant person is one who not only acknowledges the alternate position, but also accepts it as correct. This is a great way to control thinking, as it requires a change on the other person's part and leads to guilt-tripping — such as 'If we don't tolerate the intolerant, we become them.'

It is tolerant to acknowledge others' viewpoint, but not necessarily to accept it. The corollary that we, of necessity, become one of them is an absurdity. How we behave is the issue.

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