Two months ago, I wrote an article for CT that explored the issues and complications surrounding the growing tensions between religious liberty and LGBT rights. I also suggested that Christians ought to pay greater attention to pluralism, an idea that I explore in more detail in this academic article (and in an upcoming book).

I am grateful to CT’s editors for the invitation to share some additional thoughts about these and related issues, and I plan to do so in a series of essays in the coming months. In this essay, I want to explore the contours of our society’s pluralism, and how Christians might engage with our pluralistic world regardless of where they find themselves in it.

Out of Many, One?

Our nation has many aspirations toward unity and a common good. Our Constitution sets a course for “a more perfect union.” Our politicians speak of a great “melting pot” that flows out of a “nation of immigrants.” Our pledge of allegiance refers to “one nation.” Our nation’s seal, E pluribus unum, promises “Out of many, one.”

These aspirations are to some extent realized. Almost all Americans agree about the background practicalities we need to live as a society. Most of us agree that we need public roads, national defense, fire departments, and the like. We also agree today on many basic features of a democratic society: the right to vote, the right to due process of law, the right to free speech. We disagree—sometimes sharply—about the contours of these rights, but we usually have enough of a baseline to recognize the nature of our disagreement. And importantly, we agree about many basic laws, like those protecting life and property, the payment of taxes, and the operation of courts and prisons.

But all of this common ground tells us surprisingly little about who we are as a people, what our goals should be, or what counts as progress. On these deeper questions, Americans remain a deeply divided and pluralistic people. Our differences extend to religious liberty, LGBT rights, immigration, abortion, poverty, foreign policy, health care, economics, philosophy, theology, law, and education.

As I write these words, my hometown of St. Louis grapples with painful and complex questions about race, class, and law enforcement. The public commentary of the past month has made clear that people across this country disagree sharply over the causes of and solutions to the problems brought to light by the shooting death of Michael Brown. Many disagree about the scope and meaning of Ferguson itself: whether Brown’s death and the ensuing protests concern an isolated incident whose details are not yet known (and may never be known), or whether they represent a far greater set of challenges. These disagreements point to striking differences in perception and belief—not merely about what our goals should be as a society, but even about what our problems are in the first place.

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These deep differences complicate appeals to “the common good” of our society. We can, as Andy Crouch has argued, use the language of the common good within Christian discourse. But framing our own practices (like neighbor love) in common good language is quite different from invoking that language in broader political argument. The pastor who challenges church members to pursue “the good of God as the good of all” differs from the politician who argues that a particular law or policy furthers “the common good.”

The Challenge for Evangelical Protestants

The preceding claims may surprise and unsettle some Christians. For most of our country’s history, white Protestants have not had to think much about our country’s deep differences or the extent to which a common good eludes us. Protestant influences on law, culture, and education, combined with deeply embedded racial inequalities, left white Protestants in relative positions of prominence and power.

Some of those influences were extraordinarily important to the institutions and norms that helped to shape our country. But our history also reveals that the Protestant influence often came at the expense of other people, practices, and beliefs, papering over significant differences. Consider just the history of religious liberty. While early religious disputes unfolded largely between various Protestant denominations, much of our later history involves a Protestant majority ignoring the religious freedom claims of Catholics, Mormons, Christian Scientists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.

In the 1870s, dozens of state legislatures passed Blaine Amendments that prohibited the use of public money for “sectarian” (meaning Catholic) schools. Throughout the 19th century, Protestants ignored religious liberty appeals from Mormon settlers in Missouri, Illinois, and the Utah Territory—the 1890 dissolution of the Mormon Church stands as the most egregious violation of religious liberty in our history. In the middle of the 20th century, Protestants trampled (sometimes literally) over Jehovah’s Witnesses who refused to pledge allegiance to the country and its flag.

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The historical narrative does not mean the United States was itself Protestant. Nor does it mean that Protestants have never faced opposition. To the contrary, the growing secularization of our country (especially among its elites) has brought with it increasing challenges to believers. In my world of elite higher education, Christian perspectives are routinely marginalized, ridiculed, or simply dismissed as irrelevant. And even outside of colleges and universities, public school curricula and related pedagogical decisions disadvantage Christians in many parts of the country. There is no such thing as a “neutral” curriculum or pedagogy in education, and displacing a Protestant-influenced educational framework with a more secularized one does not make it any less infused with values or ideology.

The story of Protestant Christianity in the United States is neither persecuted minority nor unchallenged majority. But it has been largely “mainstream,” at least insofar as Protestant views have been generally acknowledged by the broader society. Richard John Neuhaus warned a generation ago that a strict separation between church and state would create a “Naked Public Square” stripped of religious speech. But Protestants and other religious believers continued to advance religious arguments in public discourse. The Supreme Court legalized contraception and then abortion, but religious opposition to those practices has always been recognized and usually protected. Religious doctrines that limit the role of women in positions of church leadership are in tension with certain equality norms, but they have not been seriously questioned by mainstream policymakers.

Evangelical Protestant (and other conservative religious) views about sexuality have met a different reception. Today those views are opposed in unprecedented ways. Some of that opposition is fueled by bad reasoning, like the oft-made comparison that LGBT rights today raise the same issues as civil rights for African Americans in the Jim Crow South, or the suggestion that any belief in traditional sexuality reflects bigotry, hatred, and animus. Some of the opposition rests on bad policy, like the misguided “all-comers” policy adopted by a number of colleges and universities, which requires campus student groups to accept any student as a member or leader, even those students who refuse to affirm creedal and doctrinal beliefs of the group.

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We can and should question some of the reasoning and policies fueling opposition to those who hold traditional beliefs about sexuality. But sometimes bad reasoning and bad policies carry the day.

How do we respond to these challenges? Here are five recommendations, which we might consider regardless of how the legal and policy discussions unfold:

1. U.S. Christians should avoid the language of “persecution” to describe their circumstances. Developments like the all-comers policy are legitimate threats to pluralism and religious liberty. These policies continue to proliferate. As I have recently argued, these policies reflect “a disturbing and (at least in some cases) unprincipled effort to rid colleges and universities of conservative religious groups with creedal faith statements.” But they are not persecution. Christians in other parts of the world are literally being martyred for their faith, and we ought to honor those distinctions in our language.

2. We mustn't compare the cultural position of Christians to the cultural position of historically disadvantaged minorities—including gays and lesbians. In some cases today, Christians will find themselves as distinct (and sometimes beleaguered) cultural minorities. And we will probably see more of those situations in the future. But the relative cultural disadvantage of Christians in the United States does not and likely will not come close to the circumstances that gays and lesbians have confronted (and in many places today, continue to confront). Gay men who engaged in sodomy faced the possibility of prison in this country a generation ago. The public shaming and religious judgment of gay men in the early days of the AIDS epidemic caused deep wounds and helped to perpetuate the crisis. Until recently, gays and lesbians were prohibited from openly serving in the military, and many others saw their employment come to an end upon being “outed.” Today, many states still lack basic civil liberties protections for gays and lesbians. We can rightly point out abuses, unfairness, and bullying of Christians without drawing such comparisons.

3. Some of us might learn from those who have long lived in cultural disfavor. One obvious resource is the black church, which can speak to historical and contextual differences between LGBT rights today and African American rights in the Jim Crow South in ways that the white church cannot. And if those distinctions fail to persuade a broader public, the black church can teach us what it looks like to live outside the mainstream of cultural acceptance. While we learn from our black brothers and sisters, we need to continue addressing the deep differences across racial and class lines within the church.

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The events of Ferguson remind us how far we have to go. Black evangelical leaders argued that Ferguson highlighted (once again) the sin, despair, and indifference that surround issues of race and class in this country. In contrast, with few exceptions, white evangelical leaders remained silent. These painful differences within the Body of Christ are of great concern. The deep differences in society may never be overcome; the differences inside the church must be overcome.

4. Even as we aspire toward greater unity, we can avoid inaccurate descriptions about that unity. With the exception of fleeting bursts of patriotism around our greatest wars and our greatest tragedies, our aspirations for unity in this country have largely gone unrealized. As a nation, we lack much of a common good (and perhaps we also lack a “we”). Our diversity and lack of a unifying “we” suggests that the United States can’t accurately be called “a city on a hill,” a “Christian nation,” or even “one nation, under God.” That kind of language is not only descriptively wrong, it also risks misplaced faith and allegiance.

5. Despite the elusiveness of a common good, we can and indeed are called to pursue creative work for the good of others. We can do that regardless of whether we find ourselves within the acceptable mainstream or at the margins of society. That is the example of Martin Luther King Jr., John Perkins, Dorothy Day, Fanny Crosby, Sojourner Truth, and countless others who have gone before us. It is also the example of Jesus.

Our laws and our culture are in a state of flux, and we do not yet know what the new normal will look like. But we can move forward without knowing how the story ends, because of our faith in how the Story ends.

I am encouraged by what I see in the ministry of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. The enforcement of the all-comers policy against groups like InterVarsity is a cultural marker that these groups are now outside of the mainstream of acceptability on the campuses that they serve. But InterVarsity has largely avoided the language of persecution. It has also worked for years to cross race and class lines, and to learn from those differences. And now, from outside the cultural mainstream, it continues to pursue creative enterprises for the good of others. Tish Harrison Warren reminds us that even though Vanderbilt has enforced its all-comers policy against InterVarsity, Christians at Vanderbilt are “still loving their neighbors, praying, struggling, and rejoicing [and] proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, in daily ordinariness.” When Bowdoin enforced its policy, the InterVarsity leaders started a ministry off campus. And InterVarsity’s Greg Jao described Cal State’s recent enforcement decision as “an opportunity to reinvent campus ministry.”

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These are signs of hope in uncertain times. They join a Christian witness that has endured across an extraordinary variety of times and places. Importantly, the form of that witness has varied. Faithful Christian practice has looked vastly different in the early church, Calvin’s Geneva, in early America, and in contemporary China. Our current American context—largely secular, incredibly divided, and lacking a common good—presents another opportunity that calls for a distinct, even if not yet fully articulated, Christian witness.

John Inazu is associate professor of law at Washington University School of Law. He is currently a visiting fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia, and has written for CT about Hobby Lobby and LGBT rights.