Acton Institute Powerblog

Religion in the public square strengthens public discourse

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Robert Wuthnow’s new book demonstrates that religion has provided, not a moral majority, but innumerable moral minorities that uphold free expression and a vibrant culture of dissent.

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Religious expression in the public square is currently challenged by two competing concerns. On the left, some worry that religion is an anti-rational monolith, quietly subverting legitimate expressions of democracy. Others, on the right, worry that religious diversity destroys cultural cohesion, which they see as necessary to democracy. In his latest book, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy, Robert Wuthnow eases both worries. He argues that religion is good for democracy precisely because of, not despite, its diversity. Rather than a theoretical treatise, Wuthnow provides a historical analysis of precisely how interreligious dialogue has taken place over the past 100 years. Religion has provided, not a moral majority, but innumerable moral minorities that uphold free expression and a vibrant culture of dissent. His analysis gives hope but also a warning for the future of democracy in the United States.

Debate and dissention are inevitable. One means of exchange is for competing parties to engage in open fighting, as we have seen on the streets of Portland and Charlottesville. This has been the default for most of human history. A highly appealing alternative is for institutions in civil society to provide a structure for peaceful dissent on contentious issues. For instance, during the debates surrounding the New Deal, different religious denominations coalesced either in support or in opposition to it. Some argued that the New Deal aligned with Christian teachings on serving the poor, while others feared that the increase in government power would lead to authoritarianism, squashing religious expression. Both groups vehemently disagreed. Cross-denominational partnerships eased tensions and allowed room for dissent, furthering the democratic process. Without religion, the debate around the New Deal would have been far less robust.

How do religious groups uniquely administer this space for disagreement? By providing an alternate center of gravity for debates on various issues. For these groups, political realities are secondary to spiritual realities. Political debates can occur in the context of a preexisting agreement on the ultimacy of the transcendent. When individuals believe the government is the totality of reality, they are willing to take certain radical actions to impose their will in that sphere. Religious groups provide an alternative set of higher goods. Political solutions are only part of what is important in the world.

Despite what some naysayers might think, religion has had a profound impact on defending freedom of conscience, for both the religious and nonreligious. Thomas Jefferson’s famous “Wall of Separation” letter was written not to deists but to Baptists fearing their loss of religious freedom to a state church whose tenets they did not embrace. And debates over pacifism resulted in a strong protection of freedom of conscience in the United States. Wuthnow shows how the idea of religious freedom, beginning with strong protections for various Protestant groups, have been broadened and strengthened over time.

Through providing alternate moral framing, religious diversity guards against collective opinion. During the COVID-19 pandemic, religious practitioners displayed a variety of responses. The vast majority adjusted their meetings and practiced social distancing. Their networks were a crucial way of communicating important information to parishioners. A vocal minority, however, strongly objected to laws concerning social distancing. The back and forth between various groups, Wuthnow explains, helped ensure a “balance of freedom and collective well-being.” Without the crucial input of religious groups, the response to the pandemic might have been quicker, but it would not have adequately weighed relevant trade-offs. The moral frameworks provided by religious traditions lend a greater depth to the types of arguments used in such debates.

Religion’s role in democracy, however, has not resulted in one great campfire “Kumbaya” sing—far from it! Religious disagreement does not guarantee a workable compromise, as is the case in the legislative process. Instead, it allows for both sides to hold opposing views while providing a way to express those differences. “Democracy depends on these opposing groups making themselves heard—rather than timidly adopting a let’s-all-be-friends” attitude,” Wuthnow argues. Democracy does not create a trade-off between peace and dissent; it allows both to exist concurrently. This point is often lost on those who champion diversity. Diversity itself is not the goal; it is a mere necessity of a structure wherein various groups can fully exercise their religious beliefs. The focus for religious groups is always on the importance of their respective beliefs, not on diversity itself.

Wuthnow certainly inspires confidence that religion has been a net benefit for democracy in the past, but what about the future? The U.S. continues to weather fundamental disagreements among religion practitioners, including over government power, war, and health. For those concerned about censorship of ideas, religious institutions remain a significant arena for open discussion to occur. Religion has been and will continue to be a boon to democracy. The plethora of different perspectives ensures that all sides of issues are heard and that the eventual impacts on different groups are thoughtfully considered.

Yet there remains a question: Can religion be a force for good in American democracy if it ceases to be a significant force at all? In the U.S. there has been a precipitous rise in the “nones,” those who adhere to no religion. This group will undoubtedly influence the way we view religious expression. Adding to this, many denominations in the U.S. are being rent apart, not by theological issues, but by political ones. In many congregations, political issues are perceived as the highest good. What happens when political priorities become more important to practitioners of faith than matters of basic doctrine and belief? The ability of religion to provide a platform for debate and to create alternative priorities and moral framing is certainly diminished by such shifts. When politics becomes all important, each political victory becomes more crucial, making violence more and more appealing. For the benefits of religion to democracy to be felt, faith communities must continue to be significant forces in society. The future of religion in the U.S. is uncertain, but Wuthnow’s excellent new book makes a convincing case that our ability to navigate complex and contentious issues in our society is greater with a robust religious sphere than without.

Noah Gould

Noah Gould is the Alumni & Student Programs Manager at the Acton Institute, where he oversees Acton’s Alumni Association and leadership development programs, including the Emerging Leaders Program. He also writes on topics of economics, politics, religion, and culture. He studied Economics at Grove City College.