by Stephen V. Monsma and J. Christopher Soper. Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield. 278pp. Cloth. $75.00. ISBN: 9780742554160. Paper. $27.95. ISBN: 9780742554177.

Reviewed by Kevin R. den Dulk, Departments of Political Science and Honors, Grand Valley State University. Email: dendulkk [at]


When Stephen Monsma and Chris Soper published the first edition of THE CHALLENGE OF PLURALISM over ten years ago, it stood nearly alone in its focus and approach. Few books had examined church-state relations in cross-national perspective, and none with quite the same combination of clarity, richness of detail, and prescriptive edge. This second edition retains all of those traits, but I agree with the authors that the stakes today may be even higher than in the late 1990s. Religious pluralism in Europe and Australia is growing – or at least it is more conspicuous and challenging – and there appears to have been a “re-politicization of religious disputes” in the post-September 11 world.

THE CHALLENGE OF PLURALISM is superb cross-national analysis, but the primary purpose of the book is more normative than empirical. “Our goal,” Monsma and Soper assert, “is to give new guidance to all democracies and to the United States in particular in their attempts to relate church and state to each other in a manner that is supportive of their citizens’ religious freedoms and the role of religion in them” (p.2). On the highly contested terrain of church-state relations, their goal is ambitious and their guidance is unavoidably controversial. They advocate a “structural pluralist” framework that recognizes the comprehensive role that religion plays in human experience and requires the state to exercise “genuine neutrality” in its treatment of religion. In practice, such neutrality would mean that all religions and non-religion alike would be given the same access to state resources and protection. It would also mean rejecting some prominent church-state alternatives, including what Monsma and Soper perceive as the predominant separationism in the United States.

Monsma and Soper are forthright about the challenges to their pluralist model, especially in areas such as state-aid to faith-based education or social services. In fact, the book is organized around several key questions that point up those challenges: What are the limits to government forbearance of unconventional religious practice? Should government promote “consensual” religious beliefs and practices? How can the state ensure neutrality among religions and between religion and non-religion? They maintain from the outset that equal treatment does not entail accommodation of those practices that the broader community perceives as violations of fundamental values, but they also tackle the difficult question of how to balance those values against claims of religious freedom. [*215]

Monsma and Soper use a comparative case study to illustrate various ways of addressing these key questions. One might quibble with their case selection, which is limited to the United States, England, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands. To be sure, the addition of Italy, France, a Scandinavian country, or even non-Western states would have broadened the analysis. But I would have found little value-added by piling up or rearranging the countries in the study. Monsma and Soper sought cases that were roughly constant across some key variables – e.g., mature and stable liberal democracies, some level of religious pluralism – while varied in their respective models of church-state relations. Real-world cases never quite fit into neat analytical boxes, but one of the reasons THE CHALLENGES OF PLURALISM succeeds is that its authors pay attention to nuance and internal variation while still categorizing and comparing their cases.

Their chief empirical contention is that the United States, in comparison to other western democracies, is “exceptional” in its approach to church-state relations. They characterize that approach as “wavering” between models of strict separation and equal treatment, but they tend to see separationism as defining the “basic terms” of the church-state debate (p.42). For Monsma and Soper, the U.S. Supreme Court, starting with EVERSON v. BOARD OF EDUCATION (1947), began a process of embedding the Enlightenment understanding of church and state into constitutional law, in effect treating religion as a largely private matter that ought to be left out of public affairs. While Monsma and Soper see glimmers of equal treatment in recent cases and policymaking, they argue that it sometimes competes and sometimes combines uneasily with separationism, leading to uncertainty and incoherence in the American church-state model.

Monsma and Soper contrast the United States with the more accommodating approaches of the other states in the study. While they criticize England and Germany for failing to live up fully to the principle of equal treatment, they point out that at least both states acknowledge “that faith has a public character to it” (p.160). Australia has occasionally nicked religious freedom, and it courts do not have a clear theory of church-state relations, but it is “pragmatically” committed to accommodating religious pluralism. And the Netherlands, whose “principled pluralism” is clearly the authors’ preferred model, reflects its own commitment to tolerance and diversity through state support of faith-based schools and other organizations. Each in its own way, England, Australia, Germany, and the Netherlands have some level of commitment to “genuine neutrality,” and they have therefore managed to support religion in ways that are anathema in the United States.

It is important to note that Monsma and Soper readily admit that neutrality in these states has its limits. They repeatedly emphasize that every state “must advance those norms that will help to sustain the polity” (p.218), and that sustaining those norms might result in denying state aid to religious entities that are too far out of the mainstream. One of the key illustrations throughout the book is education; every government they survey has struggled with the precise boundaries of state support for [*216] religious schools. Monsma and Soper’s view of equal treatment requires the state generally to support religious education, but they also conclude that religious schools that are “nurseries of fundamentalism” and “fail to reach their objectives in citizenship education” should not receive state aid (p.220). But of course the interesting issue is the referent of the adjective “their” in the last sentence. The point is that the relevant objectives are the state’s, not religion’s. Hence “genuine neutrality” is bounded by the norms of a particular polity.

This does not seem to pose a concern for Monsma and Soper, who argue that, in fact, the religious schools and other organizations in their case studies generally “do not undermine democratic values, but support them” (p.220). Even for schools associated with unconventional religions, Monsma and Soper suggest that the state may still want to be supportive, since bringing religions into the “state system with the promise of state aid is a better guarantee that they will promote consensual democratic values than consigning them to a status where they have virtually no contact with state educational officials and are less beholden to state regulations” (p.221). But, again, note the direction of influence here: A principled pluralism will protect and even promote religious freedom, but only to the point that religion either supports consensual values or can be made (forced?) to support them.

These considerations raise a key question about the context for pluralism. Does pluralism only work if society itself is largely homogeneous? The Netherlands suggests an affirmative answer. Monsma and Soper grant the point, noting that both the compact geography and shared traditions in the Netherlands make it particularly conducive to pluralism in church-state relations (p.85). There is – or at least has been – wide and deep agreement on basic social norms and values in Dutch political culture for many decades, perhaps even to the 19th century. But now that the Netherlands – like England, Germany, and other European countries – is confronting a real challenge to that agreement as the result of Muslim immigration, some elites are asking whether the pluralist model can be maintained. Monsma and Soper are optimistic that the model can envelop Muslims today just as Catholics, Protestants, and secularists in the past. But one could plausibly interpret THE CHALLENGE OF PLURALISM to suggest that the challenge will be met only if religious pluralism itself is diminished by subsuming new religionists into the broader culture.

I would suggest that this interpretation brings us squarely to the issue of how church-state relations might affect trends toward secularization. Secularization theorists have long asserted that the rise of the administrative state is associated with increasing secularization in Europe because state intervention inevitably alters and co-opts those distinctive features of religion that draw in believers. After reading Monsma and Soper’s concluding reflections, I was left wondering whether it was state intervention itself that fostered some of the secularization that is apparent in the faith-based organizations Monsma and Soper document, especially in the Dutch case. If so, one might be tempted to invoke Roger Williams, insisting that [*217] church and state ought to remain separate to protect the church from the state (an argument that Monsma and Soper, with their focus on Enlightenment influences in the United States, give relatively short shrift).

In the final analysis, these questions only point to the provocative nature of THE CHALLENGE OF PLURALISM, and they certainly do not take away from the authors’ masterful cross-national analysis or well-presented normative goals. The book is itself a challenge to think carefully and humanely about the nature and scope of pluralism. Monsma and Soper have given us a rich array of theoretical and documentary resources to do just that.


© Copyright 2009 by the author, Kevin R. den Dulk.