Principled Pluralism

The nation just got a lesson in what happens when well-meaning attempts to foster diversity instead evoke the opposite effect.

Last month, the chancellor of the California State University system rejected campus ministry group InterVarsity's request to modify the system's policy prohibiting student groups from requiring leaders to commit to the beliefs of the group they are leading. As a result, InterVarsity is facing de-recognition as a student group from the 23 California State University campuses.

The only thing that makes a decision like this possible is the pervasive distortion in our culture of tolerance and pluralism.

Today, many within the academic community have adopted a skewed and dangerous definition of pluralism. In a front-page article last June entitled "Colleges and Evangelicals Collide on Bias Policy," the New York Times reported several instances where new university non-discrimination policies -- policies designed to encourage campus diversity -- are actually making campuses less inclusive. At issue on campuses such as Bowdoin, Tufts, Vanderbilt and the California State University system is the right of all student groups to use beliefs-driven criteria to select their leaders. Accused of "religious discrimination," now some faith-based groups are at increasing risk of being derecognized on campus.

A year ago, the Aspen Institute addressed such concerns in the report "Principled Pluralism." Co-chaired by Madeleine Albright and David Gergen, the 25-member "Inclusive America Project" panel included university and seminary presidents, media thought-leaders, professors and social service providers. It was my great privilege to serve with senior religious leaders from various faith communities -- including Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, humanist and Christian.

Together, we coined the phrase "principled pluralism" to articulate two big ideas. First, we embraced the right of diverse religious traditions to self-define and to disagree -- even adamantly -- on matters of theology. Second, we affirmed a deep commitment to pursue the common good together in higher education, youth services, media and government. The first point distinguished us from those who seek to blur or mitigate religious doctrinal differences; the second, from those who seek to foster ill will among faith communities.

I was particularly impressed by Harvard Professor Robert Putnam's conclusion that religious diversity can actually be a source of social cohesion (as counter-intuitive as that may seem). Rather than trying to homogenize our culture, we can actually thrive by celebrating our diversity.

The emerging false pluralism we see on college campuses today stifles religious expression, labels leadership selection based upon orthodoxy and orthopraxy as "religious discrimination," redefines freedom of association as "exclusionary," and condemns the sharing of one's faith as "proselytizing."

It seems as if university officials need a refresher course on what the role of a leader actually is. Merriam Webster defines a "leader" as one who "guide[s] on a way especially by going in advance." How can the student-leader of a Christian group guide someone down a path he or she has not taken?

When pluralism is wrongly defined, nonsensical policies result. In the California State University system, for example, sororities and fraternities are explicitly exempted from gender discrimination in selecting leaders, while faith-based groups are not granted a similar religious exemption.

My point is not to slam sororities and fraternities. To the contrary, I concur that they should be allowed to have female and male leaders, respectively. Likewise, Phi Beta Kappa should have smart, academically high-achieving leaders. The Young Democrats should have politically progressive leaders. And, in this same spirit, faith-based groups should have religious leaders.

It is telling that the conservative National Review and the liberal Mother Jones concur on this point. University administrators bear great responsibility to ensure that principled pluralism thrives in their environs. The degree to which they provide -- or fail to provide -- truly open public campus forums will determine how our culture engages such issues in the future. How they define pluralism today will establish a cultural template for a whole generation.

Alec Hill is president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA.