Home / Comment / In brief

Why we need to be discriminating about diversity

Why we need to be discriminating about diversity

In his latest blog, Jonathan Chaplin considers how we can engage with diversity discourse in a way that aids our common search for public justice. 08/02/2022

The language of ‘diversity’ is everywhere. It’s heard on everyone’s tongue and seen on every organisation’s Values page. We are becoming fluent in diversity talk without ever having taken the course. Not everyone is equally happy about that. For some, the spread of diversity talk points to a society becoming more tolerant and equal, less monochrome and repressive. Others worry that if they baulk at the widening imperatives of diversity, a diversity officer will soon be on their case signing them up for a day of diversity training.

Cultural conservatives often scornfully toss diversity concerns aside, along with other forms of supposed ‘wokeness’ (the new all–purpose scare–word which seems to have replaced the older term ‘politically correct’ but without adding anything to its intelligibility). But if we are to assess the usefulness of diversity for public discourse, we need to distinguish the many layers of meaning it bears. It is not enough just to criticise its excesses. We need to dig into it to grasp its humanising possibilities.

One place to begin is to recognise that, for many people, respecting ‘diversity’ means honouring everyone’s human ‘dignity’. This is an aspiration Christians should strongly uphold given their belief that every human is equally made in the ‘image of God’, however else they may be distinct. To those who have been alienated from or threatened by one or other societal ‘mainstream’, diversity language can serve as a source of restored dignity, even emancipation. This is true for women experiencing the still–pervasive if often invisible power of male–dominated institutions and thought–patterns. It is true for sexual, racial and ethnic minorities, and the differently abled, who confront social prejudice, legal discrimination or physical violence.

Diversity policies – such as laws mandating equal pay for equal work for women, proscribing racial discrimination, or penalising ‘hate speech’ – seek at their best to give such people an institutional foothold whereby they can gain equal respect and recognition in settings where they have hitherto experienced exclusion, humiliation or invisibility. For such people, when others affirm diversity, they stand in solidarity with them in resisting one or other ‘dignitary affront’.[1]

So those who are critical of the inflation of diversity language should take care, when they speak, not to belittle such people’s recovered sense of public worth or give succour to the forces that would undermine it. This applies especially to those who have not personally experienced the relevant affronts, or perhaps no affronts at all. When you hear ‘diversity’ belittled, consider the source. If we are prepared to read diversity as at least potentially expressing a rightful aspiration for restored dignity, we will attend to it with greater sensitivity and intelligence.

Treating diversity intelligently also means recognising that the issues it raises can be highly complex. One reason is that people have complex ‘identities’ – another load–bearing word now joined at the hip to ‘diversity’. Diversity talk is supposed to protect an increasingly wide range of identity–markers that are experienced by some as under threat (the law calls them ‘protected characteristics’). Whether all claimants to such legal protection truly merit it is a matter of fierce debate, to which there are often no easy resolutions.

Further complexity is introduced when we recognise that some people experience simultaneous affronts to more than one of their identities – their ethnicity and gender, for example. This linkage is alluded to in the sociological term ‘intersectionality’, which seeks to uncover how one form of discrimination can compound another.

What we might call the ‘flip side of intersectionality’ is seen where those enjoying privileges so pervasive as to be invisible even to themselves (such as being white in a white majority society), distract attention from that privilege by accentuating other aspects of their identity they feel are under pressure (such as their culture).

Others find themselves on the receiving end of overt prejudice for one aspect of their identity – say their faith – when covertly it is another – say their race – that is the trigger. One drawback of generalised diversity talk, as used by both defenders and critics, is that it too easily conflates distinct aspects of identity, thereby failing to do justice to one or other of them. The Labour Party’s 2019 Race and Faith Manifesto said a great deal about racial and ethnic discrimination (much of it, in my view, compelling) but not much about religious discrimination. It appeared not to register the independent importance of the latter or to have at hand a language to talk about it confidently.

The frequent tendency to collapse faith identities into some other identity was one reason for writing Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity. The book zeroes in on one type of diversity – the diversity of religions, worldviews or philosophical and moral visions of life that exist in a pluralistic liberal democracy like Britain. The book critiques forms of secularism that misunderstand or trivialise faith and argues on theological grounds for maximum public respect for diverse faiths, compatible with the basic rights of others and with the public good – a model I term ‘Christian democratic pluralism’.

Its argument certainly needs to be complemented (and perhaps critiqued) by those addressing other of our diverse identities. For example, the challenges and possibilities of maintaining a public Christian identity in the UK today cannot be adequately understood without paying close attention to the growing proportion of British Christians with BAME identities.

Given the diversity of our identities, we short–change ourselves if we define ourselves, or allow ourselves to be defined, solely in terms of just one identity. Some seem to elevate one identity–marker – such as race, gender, nationality or sexual orientation – to the point that it overwhelms others, risking damage to others aspects of their humanity. Inordinate attention to just one identity–marker risks fuelling the wrong kind of ‘identity politics’.

It’s true, of course, that where one of our identities is seriously disrespected, we inevitably commit more of ourselves and our resources to shoring it up. We might spend a lifetime campaigning against racism, sexism or Islamophobia. But we do so in order that the disrespected identity can then take its honoured place alongside other aspects of what makes us this particular human being (or a member of this particular community).

From a Christian point of view, however, there is one feature of our humanity that is primary, and that is our faith commitment – what we take to be of ultimate significance in life. In Faith in Democracy I describe faith commitments as giving rise to ‘deep’ diversity because they rise up from the most fundamental wellsprings of our humanity. Faith should not, after all, be seen simply as one identity among others but rather as the inner dynamic that should inspire, integrate and, where necessary, discipline the others.

The picture gets yet more complex when we recognise that different faith commitments may also give rise to divergent conceptions of identity and of how diverse communal identities can live peaceably together. There are diverse stories of what diversities are important and how diversity should be publicly managed – as seen, for example, in the acrimonious clash between some feminists and some trans rights campaigners.

The risk is that these differences escalate to the level of intractable conflict where, to pick another example, faith communities’ religious conscience claims seem irreconcilable with the prevailing consensus on matters of gender, dress or sexual orientation. This is why deep diversity needs to be ‘framed’: channelled through open democratic forums in which difference is respected and scrutinised, yet through which workable political agreements can nevertheless emerge.

Diversity discourse is here to stay. Rather than cheaply pillorying it, we should find a more discriminating way to engage in it so that it aids our common search for public justice.

Faith in Democracy can be purchased here for the reduced price of £16.99 with the offer code FAITH22 (until 28th February)

Interested in this? Share it on social media. Join our monthly e–newsletter to keep up to date with our latest research and events. And check out our Supporter Programme to find out how you can help our work.


 [1] The phrase is Martha Nussbaum’s.

Jonathan Chaplin

Jonathan Chaplin

Dr Jonathan Chaplin is a member of the Divinity Faculty of Cambridge University and a Senior Fellow of Cardus, a Canadian public theology think–tank. He was first Director of the Kirby Laing Institute for Christian Ethics from 2006–2017. He is a specialist in political theology and he has taught at higher education institutions in the UK, Canada and the Netherlands. He is author of two Theos reports, and of ‘Faith in Democracy: Framing a Politics of Deep Diversity’ (SCM 2021).

Watch, listen to or read more from Jonathan Chaplin

Posted 8 February 2022

Faith in Democracy, Identity


See all

In the news

See all


See all

Get regular email updates on our latest research and events.

Please confirm your subscription in the email we have sent you.

Want to keep up to date with the latest news, reports, blogs and events from Theos? Get updates direct to your inbox once or twice a month.

Thank you for signing up.