Nearly a decade ago, my university and our sibling seminary took an unconventional path to a prison-education program. We could have focused on learners who would parole soon with the goal of reducing recidivism rates by helping incarcerated persons re-enter broader society well. We also could have built a curriculum that would inculcate the technical and “soft” skills that prepare re-entering citizens for the challenges of the workforce and the broader culture. These are the typical elements of a prison-education program that win the support of departments of corrections, state legislators, foundations, and employers. But our university-seminary partnership started with a counter-cultural line of thinking: What if we built our efforts around those with life sentences and others with a long road to parole, that is, those most unlikely to re-enter society any time soon? And what if our curriculum was designed less to foster skills for re-entry and more to cultivate a deep community within the prison itself?
CPI boldly declares that God’s image bearers are created for each other—and that our communal selves are not checked at a prison gate.
Our answers to those questions resulted in the Calvin Prison Initiative (CPI), a national gem in prison education that seeks transformation within prisons through a degree program that fosters moral community exclusively among the long-term incarcerated. CPI boldly declares that God’s image bearers are created for each other—and that our communal selves are not checked at a prison gate. CPI also declares, equally boldly, that community is possible even amid profound diversity—in fact, that communities of inquiry will thrive in diverse places. There is no mistaking or escaping the powerful differences among students, faculty, and staff on CPI’s prison campus. But a hallmark of the program is to practice habits and form dispositions that help us navigate our differences as a necessary feature of living in common.
Democracy, Difference, and Civic Education
As a political scientist, I have always seen CPI as an encouraging glimpse into what we might hope for for civic life on the outside of the prison’s walls. And what a contrast outside those walls. Modern democracy seems tormented by difference. We not only find little to agree on about human sexuality, immigration, race and policing, or other hot button issues of the day, but we also distrust the institutions that are supposed to help us forge a life in common. The irony is that we widely share that institutional skepticism but can’t agree on the reasons. Electoral integrity? Judicial bias? A failure of law and order? Money in politics? There are plenty of reasons to join the chorus of distrust.
In a sense these are not unexpected patterns in our politics (even if their recent intensity can be surprising). We might argue they are baked into democracy itself. The tension between diversity and solidarity has always been a key challenge of modern democratic life. We cannot establish a measure of common ground—a promise of democracy—without a willingness to engage others across the lines of our differences. Yet those differences, and the social environments that shape those differences, matter to our sense of meaning, purpose, and community. When a democracy asks its citizens to set aside or reimagine differences and seek common purposes, it pushes against deep social inheritances that are often fundamental to identity itself.
A classically liberal democratic answer to this tension is a thin framework of process and rights rooted in tolerance. Tolerance is a straightforward rational calculation: I will put up with those ideas and persons I find objectionable if others extend the same restraint to me. For scholars from John Locke to John Inazu, this “modest unity”—to use Inazu’s (2016) phrase—around tolerance not only reflects some basic assumptions about human freedom and action, but is also worth embracing for the simple reason that both liberal citizens and liberal democracies appear to resort to violence less often than alternative systems.
After all, the easiest way to tolerate is to avoid what we find objectionable and sort ourselves into networks of sameness.
Still, a pulse-check of liberal democracies across the globe raises the question of whether tolerance is enough. Political distrust, deep-seated polarization, and destabilizing populism have besieged liberal democracies across North America, Europe, and elsewhere (Carothers and O’Donohue 2019; Galston 2018; Mounk 2018). Citizens are wondering about the health of long-standing public institutions. One could argue those trends are evidence of the need for reinvigorated tolerance, an openness to peaceful co-existence. But perhaps tolerance is part of the problem. After all, the easiest way to tolerate is to avoid what we find objectionable and sort ourselves into networks of sameness. Self-segregation is no pathway to realizing common ground.
What I see in CPI is a virtue beyond tolerance, a kind of hospitality that carves out public spaces that take pluralism seriously, even in a prison. We often associate hospitality with the intimacy of family and friends and of spaces such as the home. But the experience of the learners in prison pushes us to ask, what if we extended the idea of hospitality outside these groups—even to strangers—and into the broader public square? The difference this makes is profound.
Unlike the merely tolerant, hospitable citizens do not give in to the temptation of self-segregation.
Unlike the merely tolerant, hospitable citizens do not give in to the temptation of self-segregation. As Matthew Kaemingk (2018) shows us in his work on Christian-Muslim relations, hospitable citizens cultivate habits of patience and generosity, especially toward the stranger or otherwise disadvantaged, with a goal of actively creating public space to engage each other in our differences. Christians might unexpectedly recognize the fruit of the Spirit in the concept. What if we cultivated a civic peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness, self-control—even a civic love and joy?
This distinctively civic hospitality is a habit and a disposition that we form, not merely a belief that we hold. Here the formative power of institutions, including schools, is crucial. It is my contention that educators have a great deal of work to do in expanding from the familiar focus of schools on civic knowledge (“How many branches of government?”) or skills (“How should a citizen prepare to vote?”) to developing the dispositions that citizens need in order to take part fully in public life. And that raises another key question: How might Christian civic educators cultivate curriculum and pedagogy that sustain hospitality in public life toward those who are different from us?
The Challenges to/of Pluralism
We live in a time when answering that question is both more urgent and more challenging than ever before. Consider, for example, our recent experience of trust, that key ingredient to civic decision-making in a democracy. Trust in public institutions is in alarming decline across many democratic countries. Confidence in nearly every institution in civil society in most Western democracies has eroded over the past four decades. One of the few institutions that has maintained high levels of support is the military (Jones 2022)—a revealing fact, given its coercive capacity to offer security in an era of disorientation and fear.
In addition to distrust in institutions, our levels of trust in each other—“interpersonal” or “social” trust, that is, trust in friends, family, co-workers, co-religionists—has also declined. As trust wanes, people participate less and democracy diminishes. After all, if our fellow citizens or our institutions are unreliable partners, then there’s little point in agreeing to work together on public matters.
I would suggest that declining trust manifests itself in at least two key directions in our body politic. One direction is polarization; the other is alienation.
Boyte, Harry. Awakening Democracy through Public Work: Pedagogies of Empowerment. Vanderbilt UP, 2018.
Carothers, Thomas, and Andrew O’Donohue. Democracies Divided: The Global Challenge of Political Polarization. Brookings, 2019.
Galston, William A. Anti-Pluralism: The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy. Yale UP, 2018.
Inazu, John. Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving through Deep Difference. University of Chicago Press, 2016.
Iyengar, Shanto, and Sean J. Westwood. “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science, vol. 59, no. 3, 2015, 690–707.
Jones, Jeffrey M. “Confidence in U.S. Institutions Down; Average at a New Low.” Gallup, 5 July 2022, https://news.gallup.com/poll/394283/confidence-institutions-down-average-new-low.aspx. Accessed 24 July 2023.
Kaemingk, Matthew. Christian Hospitality and Muslim Immigration in an Age of Fear. Eerdmans, 2018.
Margolis, Michelle F. From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity. University of Chicago Press, 2018.
Mounk, Yascha. The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It. Harvard UP, 2018.
National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). “Civics,” https://nces.ed.gov/nationsreportcard/civics/. Accessed 24 July 2023.
Pew Research Center. “Partisan Antipathy: More Intense, More Personal,” 10 Oct 2019, https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/10/10/partisan-antipathy-more-intense-more-personal/. Accessed 25 July 2023.Putnam, Robert D. “E Pluribus Unum: Diversity and Community in the Twenty-First Century.” Scandinavian Political Studies, vol. 30, no. 2, 2007, pp. 137–74.
Kevin R. den Dulk is Associate Provost at Calvin University. He has co-authored or co-edited several books, including The Challenge of Pluralism: Church and State in Six Democracies, Religion and Politics in America, and Pews, Prayers, and Participation.