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 Detailing Critical Religious Pluralism Theory  

Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Senior Level
December 4, 2020 Jenny L. Small Brandeis University

Critical Religious Studies in Higher Education: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

Jenny SmallIn my first publication of this recurring column, I shared my intention to use this space to discuss the ongoing development and usages of various critical theories related to religious, secular, and spiritual identities (RSSIs). I also introduced my new model, Critical Religious Pluralism Theory (CRPT; Small, 2020). In the current column, I will share more details about CRPT and invite you to consider how it might be relevant to your research or professional practices.

CRPT was designed with a twofold purpose: “acknowledging the central roles of religious privilege, oppression, hegemony, and marginalization in maintaining inequality between Christians and non-Christians in the United States” and “developing a plan of action for utilizing the theory to combat the very inequalities it exposes” (Small, 2020, p. 61). To construct the theory, I analyzed existing literature on RSSIs in higher education using a modified version of Jones’s (2019) conception of “third-wave” identity theories, which place “an emphasis on emancipation and social transformation” (p. 11). I then synthesized the results of that analysis with a study of existing critical theories, including critical race theory, Latina and Latino Critical Theory, and a variety of writings that explicitly center religious identity within critical frameworks. In doing so, I asked how the strengths from each literature base could fill the gaps within the other.

As a result of this process, I proposed seven tenets for CRPT. Tenet five is perhaps most immediately relevant for readers of this column: “At the institutional level, CRPT advocates for the field of higher education to utilize a religiously pluralistic lens in all areas of research, policy, and practice, accounting for power, privilege, marginalization, and oppression” (Small, 2020, p. 62). In the text, I also provide seven corresponding guidelines for educators employing the model in their own work. Guideline 5 suggests:

    Research, policies, and professional practices that excel at this guideline question basic assumptions that may actually be oppressive, resisting the natural urge to continue the work as it has always been done. This means disrupting very common practices in higher education, including normative language, if they are indeed built upon power, privilege, or marginalization. It also means vigilantly modeling pluralistic practices going forward, so as not to fall back into tendencies that seem neutral but are actually marginalizing. Succeeding at this guideline also entails addressing people of all religious, secular, and spiritual identities through the same pluralistic lens, as only pluralism has the capacity to transform systems toward full equity and inclusion. (Small, 2020, p. 68)

What are some practical examples of how tenet and guideline five could be used? In the book, I provide a detailed example of the academic calendar, which is built upon Christian assumptions of both major holidays and the weekend. I take this example to an almost extreme length, demonstrating how a calendar that removes all Christian normativity would look wildly different. A narrower example involving academic time would be revisiting institutional exam scheduling and related religious accommodations, thereby removing from students the burden of proving the validity of their religious conflicts and placing the responsibility of creating inclusive policies with academic leadership. In the realm of research, tenet and guideline 5 should prompt scholars to audit the theories, models, and research methods they use for any embedded Christian values or efforts toward neutrality which actually favor the religiously privileged.

Although tenet and guideline five are highly relevant for college and university educators because they focus on the institutional level of change, the other six tenets and guidelines also illuminate important means for ensuring RSSI equity and inclusion in higher education. As Harper (2012) notes, social subordination occurs at the individual and societal levels as well, and CRPT responds to this understanding by positing related tenets. Additionally, the remaining four tenets speak to the subordination of non-Christian individuals to Christian individuals being foundational in the U.S. and in higher education; the intertwined nature of religious identity with all other forms of social identity; the understanding that secularism is a “false neutral” (Small, 2020, p. 51) that in fact advantages Christians; and the need to prioritize the voices of those holding minoritized religious and non-religious identities. Each of these tenets speaks to a variety of aspects of higher education and the wider society.

My hope for CRPT is that scholars and practitioners engage with it as a living theory. I did my best to incorporate as much relevant previous research and theory as I could find, and I chose what I thought to be the most appropriate methodology for analyzing it. I am proud of what I have created. And yet, I may have missed the mark in some capacity. I welcome the first round of pointed questions and constructive criticisms of the work. I do so because I know critique will only strengthen my ideas and increase the likelihood and scope of their impact.

I aim for this column to open up a broader dialogue on CRPT and related topics. If you are interested in contributing a piece, please email me at [email protected]. I very much look forward to engaging in conversation with you.


Harper, S. R. (2012). Race without racism: How higher education researchers minimize racist institutional norms. The Review of Higher Education, 36(Suppl. 1), 9-29. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1353/rhe.2012.0047

Jones, S. R. (2019). Waves of change: The evolving history of student development theory. In E. S. Abes, S. R. Jones, & D.-L. Stewart (Eds.), Rethinking college student development theory using critical frameworks (pp. 7-16). Stylus Publishing.

Small, J. L. (2020). Critical religious pluralism in higher education: A social justice framework to support religious diversity. Routledge.