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Theology, Political Theory, and Pluralism

Beyond Tolerance and Difference

Kristen Deede Johnson


Hardcover, 276 pages
PublisherCambridge University Press
Published: Sept 30, 2009
Language: English
ISBN: 0521870038
ISBN-13: 9780521870030

How can we live together in the midst of our differences? This is one of the most pressing questions of our time. Tolerance has been the bedrock of political liberalism, while proponents of agonistic political thought and radical democracy have sought an answer that allows a deeper celebration of difference. Kristen Deede Johnson describes the move from tolerance to difference, and the accompanying move from epistemology to ontology, within political theory. Building on this ‘ontological turn’, in search of a theological answer to the question, she puts Augustine into conversation with recent political theorists and theologians. This theological option enables the Church to envision a way to engage with contemporary political society without losing its own embodied story and practices. It contributes to our broader political imagination by offering a picture of rich engagement between the many different particularities that constitute a pluralist society.


Kristen Deede Johnson

Kristen Deede Johnson (PhD, University of St. Andrews) is associate professor of theology and Christian formation at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan. She was the founding director of the Studies in Ministry minor and the Center for Ministry Studies at Hope College, programs dedicated to upholding the significance of theological formation, spiritual growth, cultural engagement, and vocational discernment.


  1. Introduction
  2. The recent journey of liberal tolerance
  3. Beyond tolerance to difference
  4. Augustine and the theological turn
  5. Towards a theology of public conversation
  6. Conclusion.


In this book, Kristen Johnson [argues] for a pluralism of public spaces [that] takes us fruitfully beyond the ‘great unexamined assumption’ of the nation-state. On the way, Johnson provides the best available survey of liberal and agonist political theories. She then turns to Augustine for a theological way to imagine a harmony of political identity and difference. In her writing Johnson does not merely argue for, but exemplifies, the fidelity to particularity and graciousness toward difference at the basis of her political theory. Johnson rises above the noise of the ‘clash of civilizations’ to give us a way to deal with difference without war.

— William T. Cavanaugh
Associate Professor of Theology
University of St. Thomas

Perhaps the first test of a philosophy of pluralism is how it represents the alternative positions it engages; the second is how it responds to those perspectives, so defined. In this ambitious and far ranging study, some will disagree with Johnson’s definitions of the theories of tolerance, community and difference she engages. But even they will be impressed with the rich imagination and generous vision of Christianity she brings to the question of how to respond to the actuality of deep diversity today.

— William E. Connolly
rieger-Eisenhower Professor
Department of Political Science
Johns Hopkins University

In these early years of the 21st century, we find ourselves in a political and religious world fractured beyond belief. As political scientists and politicians scramble to bring comprehension to our worldwide diversity and conflict, Dr Kristen Deede Johnson brings the theological voice of Augustine into the forum. A theologian at the same table with Locke, Rawls, Rorty, and the post-Nietzscheans! The results are astonishing: instead of strident polemics she brings the parties together in a rich conversation that integrates deep scholarship with a thoroughly Christian theological imagination.

— Eugene H. Peterson
Professor Emeritus of Spiritual Theology
Regent College, Vancouver

Too long held captive by liberalism and its so-called virtue of tolerance, Johnson points the Church to an alternative vision of the political found in agonistic theorists such as William Connolly and Chantal Mouffe. Engaging the ‘ontological turn’ in political theory head-on, her bold thesis is that political theology will find closer allies in Nietzsche than Locke. However, this is not an uncritical dialogue. Ultimately her project points to the limits of both liberal toleration and agonistic difference. And it’s precisely here that Johnson’s work makes a contribution not just to theology, but contemporary political theory, deftly demonstrating how Christian theology (alone) can re-invigorate our political imagination and help us to imagine the political otherwise.

— James K. A. Smith
Associate Professor of Philosophy
Calvin College

The interplay between religious commitments and political realities has resurfaced in the new millennium with unpredicted force as a matter of serious intellectual and practical concern. Rarely has there been a more urgent need for careful theological engagement on the question of how to deal with difference. In this outstanding study, Kristen Deede Johnson draws skillfully both on classical Christian voices and contemporary political theorists to point us beyond the seeming impasse to a vision of generous coexistence where particularity is respected and owned rather than marginalised. A work of rich political imagination.

— Trevor Hart
Professor of Divinity
University of St Andrews

In sum, this book stands alone as an impressive achievement in thinking Christianly about political theory, a notoriously confusing and contested area of study.

— Wesley Vander Lugt
University of St Andrews

Johnson deserves praise for providing a rationale for Christians to participate in public discourse rooted in a stance of service.

— Religious Studies Review
Jess O. Hale, Jr.
Tennessee General Assembly

Kristen Deede Johnson’s Theology, Political Theory and Pluralism is a refreshing, and creative response to current debates concerning the role of religion within the public square.

— Modern Theology