A Final Conversation with Steve Monsma: On Why Protecting Communities is Essential to Protecting Human Rights

A version of this article originally appeared on the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance's website. 

Dr. Stephen Monsma’s vision for living together across difference in modern American society is particularly resonant for the current political moment. A member of the Silent Generation, his message, in both tone and substance, has the unique capacity to transcend generational divides and offer a much-needed, hopeful vision for millennials to navigate the increasingly polarized public square. I had the privilege of speaking to Stephen Monsma in December about the emerging challenges of adopting public policies that promote pluralism and religious freedom for all in the public square. Steve was generous and warm, yet at the same time, his comments captured a precision regarding the state of our public life today and its connections to our history, as well as our future.

The Limits of Individual Rights

Steve and I began our conversation with the question of how we go about balancing freedoms and protecting diverse interests in the highly individualistic, right-based culture in which we find ourselves.  Although I lamented that this emphasis on individual rights to the exclusion of community health has dominated our legal and cultural frameworks of late, Steve provided a thoughtful context and historical framework for this trend.  Steve noted the truth of modern society as “rights oriented and very individualistic in nature. We are in a ‘Do what I want’ culture.”

Yet, Steve noted, these “challenges of individualism really arose from the American founders in many ways: in their focus on individual rights over protecting communities, which they took for granted as a given.”  This observation is elaborated on in Steven's book Pluralism and Religious Freedom: Faith-Based Organizations in a Democratic Society. Steve writes of the American founders:

“[they] were deeply influenced by Enlightenment thinking that failed to see religion as rooted in communities of faith and embodied in organized structures. They saw religion… as a purely individual, private matter and of no concern of government. Thus to ignore the role of collectivities in the lives of the faithful and to wall religion off from government would do no harm to religion, since it operated in an individual, private sphere. This attitude is still prevalent in the United States today.”

“We Live Our Lives in Communities”

In our December conversation, Steve emphasized the community and associational contexts in which we, as human beings, live our lives. Steve pointed out that as humans, we are not merely individuals who exist in a vacuum, but we participate in various communities in the process of living our lives: “We are not just atomistic individuals, but rather we are integrated in a groups.  We live our lives in communities: in families, in neighborhoods, in faith communities. If the rights of these groups are not protected, in a way, our own individual rights are not protected.”

Steve's observation of individual rights as seen in concert with the way in which we are associated with diverse formal and informal groups and communities, is essential to understanding the limits of a purely “individual rights” approach to our legal structures today.

As Steve noted further, humans are inherently associational beings, so the freedom each individual has to form relationships and networks and civil society groups is a right that is both deeply individual and deeply connected to larger community protections. As Steve stated: “Individual rights [include] rights to meet together, as an LGBT community, but also of a traditional religious group.

The Limits of Pluralism

Steve was quick to point out that pluralism also has boundaries. Although the freedoms of various groups in a pluralist society ought to be protected so that these groups are able to fully live out their diverse missions and identities in the public square, these organizations and institutions could also be regulated by government in certain instances.  As Steve put it: “Even in a pluralist society, there has to be a limit to the pluralism one would accept.”

Steve elaborated that both individuals and institutions in a diverse society could be legally limited in engaging in behaviors that endangered public safety.  In Pluralism and Freedom, Steve highlights specific examples of the limits of pluralism with respect to government’s regulation of faith-based organizations:

“Churches…must meet local fire and safety building codes… enforced by certain inspectors. Clergy and other religious officials can be prosecuted for crimes such as embezzlement or child abuse. Church-based child care centers must meet state and local standards for such centers."

Again, Steve cited the American founders and “problems of the 18th and 19th century where our conceptions of church/state separation emerged.”  As Steve pointed out, this separation provided a solution to many of questions Americans faced over two centuries ago, such as whether government should fund clergy whose primary duties were to serve the adherents of certain faith systems. Americans collectively decided the answer to that specific question was “No.”  Yet the question of whether government should fund houses of worship for explicitly and primarily religious activities to serve their own members is fundamentally different than the questions posed in the 21st century about the extent to which faith-based organizations who serve the larger community through social services should be able to partner with government.

For the 21st century, Steve aptly suggested that we think of separation between church and state not as a wall, but as fence: “A fence between church and state,” Steve said, is less all-or-nothing and makes distinctions while also recognizing the principled and pragmatic necessity of being able to pass through this boundary. In other words, there are times when government should partner, through financial or non-financial collaborations, with faith-based organizations to achieve shared goals and serve the common good. If Catholic Charities has the most competitive, most effective foster-care program, for example, and the government is looking for a partner in this space, government should not exclude Catholic Charities from participating in a competitive process to receive a government grant to provide foster-care services. To exclude Catholic Charities would be to privilege secularism over other ideological belief systems.

What Liberal and Conservative Platforms Both Need More Of

Steve returned, time and again, in our conversation to this essential idea of not dismissing the mediating structures, the social architecture, of our society.  Very simply put, Steve noted that both major political party platforms neglect to take up the question of protecting the health and distinctiveness of diverse communities and groups in our increasingly plural society.  Steve explained, “If you look at the policy recommendations of liberals and conservatives, both sides are concerned about two things: individuals and government.” Steve discussed how liberals tend to look at challenges individuals face in society and to then look to government as the answer: government should provide X for this individual to solve their problem. On the other hand, Steve noted how conservatives tend to observe challenges individuals face and declare that if government would only get out of the way of the individual, then the problems will dissipate: the government should get out of the individual’s way and stop interfering with the individual’s freedom to live her life as she sees fit, and then all the individual’s problems can be more easily solved.

These paradigms fail to take into account the reality of how we live our lives and form our identities in the context of other groups and communities, Steve argued. We are neighbors, spouses, parents, members of faith communities, volunteers, we sit on boards, we participate in sports teams, we play in orchestras, and we engage in political communities. As Steve noted, the model of government and individual as the two main players in society, as the way we ask questions, is inherently flawed if this model does not recognize the organizations that often serve as mediators and ambassadors between the government and the individual. As Steve stated: “Both sides [conservative and liberal] miss the “in-between” groups: the nonprofits, families, neighborhood associations, religious and civic groups.”

Steve's vision is especially hopeful and captivating for young adults. Steve tapped into something powerful when he spoke and wrote, throughout his life, about how humans are called into these different communities, these different mediating structures, as a reflection of our very humanity. “We are associational beings,” Steve said, noting in December that even the senior community into which he and his wife had recently moved was providing much need social, spiritual and physical supports. Steve's large body of work reminds us that part of creating culture is cultivating these groups and communities that make up different areas of our lives, that right up until the end of our lives can provide us the relational, material, and soul-nourishment that we deeply crave. In short, these communities and groups help to remind us that we are human, and give us a context in which to share the diverse expressions our humanity takes on.  So to fully protect the interests of all human beings, we must not just look at humans as individuals without context, but we must protect the integrity, distinctiveness and diversity of groups that diverse human being form as expression of their very humanity.

-Chelsea Langston Bombino is the Director of Equipping and Membership at the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance, a division of the Center for Public Justice. She holds a JD from the University of Michigan and is a licensed attorney by the State Bar of Michigan.