Interview - Friend or Foe?

Bettina Krause January/February 2022
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A surprisingly optimistic view of the complicated relationship between faith and democracy in the American republic.

In his 2018 book The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America, America’s leading sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow exposed the seams of anger in small-town America that helped fuel Donald Trump’s successful presidential bid. In his most recent publication Wuthnow takes on another challenging topic: the role religion plays in shaping America’s democratic values and institutions. 

Wuthnow is Gerard R. Andlinger professor of sociology emeritus at Princeton University and the former director of the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion. Now retired, Wuthnow continues to publish, adding to the more than three dozen books he has written over the course of his career that have explored the complex relationships between religion, culture, economics, and politics in America. 

Bettina Krause, editor of Liberty magazine, recently talked with Professor Wuthnow about his new book, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2021). The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Bettina Krause: The idea that religion is actually good for democracy is not something we hear often these days. Can you expand on why you decided to tackle this topic, and why now?

Robert Wuthnow: I focused on democracy because I believe, as many other people do, that our democracy is under threat, and has been for the past five years or so. And religion, which is something that I’ve worked on for many decades, was the natural point of entry for my own thinking about this. 

In discussions about the role of religion in public life, there’s a lot of commentary that says religion is bad. Some people say, “Let’s just get away from that. Let’s get rid of that.” Then there are other folks who want to focus on “good religion,” and they say, “If we just had more of that, it would be wonderful.”

I have difficulties with both of those approaches, and one difficulty is that each way of thinking asks us to live in a world we’d like to live in, and not the world we actually do live in. In the world where we actually live, people hold very different views about religion—and these are views they’re willing to contend for and feel strongly about. 

And so, for me, the question is: If we think about the actual world in which we live—the actual America in which we live—what are some constructive ways in which religion contributes to democracy?

Krause: I wonder if another threshold question, then, is what we mean by democracy—its purpose. For instance, are we aiming for some kind of society-wide consensus? Do you think there are misunderstandings about what we’re trying to achieve with democracy? 

Wuthnow: Yes, absolutely. The important question here is what, precisely, we mean by “democracy.” Once again, there are different theories and views. Consensus is, in fact, one of those ideas. This is the belief that democracy works because we all basically hold the same values. Therefore, religion contributes best when it encourages those basic consensual values. You see arguments for that perspective all the time. It’s one view, but it’s not my view.

A second view is the one called “deliberative democracy.” People who argue for deliberative democracy understand that disagreement is part of the mix, but the hope is that people will—once again, in a kind of ideal world—sit down together and deliberate, talk back and forth, and come to a consensus. That isn’t happening either.

The argument I pick up on in the book is the one that a Belgium theorist named Chantal Mouffe has, in my view, articulated best. It’s called agonistic democracy. Agonistic democracy recognizes that people are combatants. People fight about what they believe, usually not violently. But they will disagree in their actions as well as their words. They contend vigorously for what they believe. This is an idea that’s very compatible with the notion of democracy held by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, and even many of the thinkers before that. Democracy is, in fact, the political system that allows us to disagree and still live with one another.

If you think about agonistic democracy as the framework, then the question becomes: How does religion fit in with agonistic democracy? My argument is that diversity of religion leads us to advocate for or against one thing or another. And it’s that interaction, that agonistic interaction, that contributes to making democracy what it is and, in fact, makes it stronger for all of us.

Krause: So how does this work in practice? Say, for instance, in the context of the current pandemic? Some churches complied with restrictions on in-person worships; others defied public health measures. And now disagreements are also playing out around the question of religious exemptions for vaccines. This level of controversy is causing angst for many people, but are you saying it’s actually an example of this whole system working as it should?

Wuthnow: It’s an example of the diversity of religion working as it should. As difficult as this is and as dangerous as it is to have a pandemic spreading, we, as a society, are also having to confront our values, the values that we claim are built into our democracy. Those values include preserving the safety and well-being of the public, because this is a part of what a democracy is supposed to do.

But perhaps just as important, we’re having a discussion between what I would call “civic responsibility” or “social responsibility” on the one hand, and individual freedom on the other hand. You have some people saying, “No, no, it’s totally up to me. It’s my freedom. I’m not going to pay any attention to anybody, especially the government telling me to mask or take a vaccine.” Other people are saying, “That’s fine, but you’re endangering me and my children. You’re not going to get away with it, so I’m going to ask the government to pass laws or to impose a mask mandate or a vaccine mandate.”

In the short run, it’s dangerous. Those of us who think there ought to be vaccines and masking wish the other side would just go away. But what we do see, at least, is a very vigorous discussion of these fundamental values. And those values are getting discussed in schools and communities and, of course, in legislatures and governors’ offices and, to some extent, in the courts. 

What I’ve tried to do in my book is to look at a series of case studies from the past century and to show that this is the same kind of thing that has happened in other situations. It happened, for instance, when we were debating conscientious objection, or public welfare, or immigration. The debates themselves were contentious. People disagreed, they fought about it. They brought in religious arguments, which was a good thing in most cases. What happened was that sometimes the courts simply had to adjudicate and say, “All right, we’ve heard both sides. This is what’s happening.” More often, though, there was not only a refurbishing of the values—because they were being debated publicly—but also some innovative thoughts about what those values meant and how they should be implemented.

Krause: So religious contention, in some ways, drives adaptation of our democratic values? 

Wuthnow: It’s absolutely a driver of adaptation, in much the same way that other folks have argued for the diversity of ideas in science or in higher education or in public education. In these areas, bringing diverse ideas into the mix often forces people to think outside the box and to come up with new ideas. I think the best example of that in the book is actually the one on conscientious objection. That, by the way, is where Seventh-day Adventists make a brief cameo in the book. That whole debate about conscientious objection started out with the arguments being pretty much “All right, if you belong to one of the traditional historic peace churches, Mennonites, Brethren, and a few others, then you could apply for conscientious objection.” 

Then as things moved forward, as we moved beyond World War I toward World War II, it became obvious that there were a lot of folks who believed in peace and were eager to embrace conscientious objection, but who didn’t belong to any of those traditional groups. Our ideas about what conscientious objection meant had to be deliberated, and those debates then sharpened and changed what we meant by “conscience” and “freedom of conscience,” ideas that are so important to democracy. Now, freedom of conscience wasn’t something that could be legitimated just by holding membership in a historic peace church. It now had to be based much more on the sincerity and the depth of the convictions of the individual. Then those had to be affirmed and had to be supported by churches and secular groups and so forth. The short version of that story is that diversity of religion played a big factor in the changing ideas of freedom of conscience.

Krause: When people talk about religious diversity today, one of the emerging demographic trends that’s often mentioned is the decline in those claiming affiliation with institutional religion—the rise of the so-called nones. If this trend continues, how do you see that impacting the future role religion will play in American democracy?

Wuthnow: I’m not as worried about those trends as a lot of folks are. Worries about this tend to come from two sources. One is from folks who believe that we should have a consensus in our democracy, and especially those who believe that we should have a Christian consensus. They see Christianity declining as a percentage of the population, and they say, “That is not good for our society.” The other source of concern is a little more nuanced. The argument there, which comes from a lot of studies of social capital and civic engagement, is that people who are actively members of a faith community are more likely to vote, more likely to get involved in good works, volunteer activity, and so forth. If we don’t have as much churchgoing, then we don’t have as much of those good civic activities. All right. That’s a concern.

But the reason I’m less concerned is that the data suggests those folks who are not affiliated with a religious organization—and they tend to be younger rather than older—are also engaging very actively in civic activities. In fact, let’s say some of the ones who are the most adamantly anti-religious, the most adamantly secular, they’re playing a good role by criticizing the religious folk.

Krause: That’s very counterintuitive.

Wuthnow: Yes, right. If you take Black Lives Matter—and I haven’t really talked about this in the book—but the Black Lives Matter started up in 2014. The leaders of Black Lives Matter were actually very critical of the churches. They were younger people, they were intersectional, they wanted to be loosely organized. They were critical of the churches, even the Black churches, for not having done as much as should have been done to protect against police violence or racial injustice.

That was a way in which younger people who were not religiously involved had a way to protest and advocate for racial justice. For a while you saw a division of labor where Black Lives Matter was really good at getting people out on the streets, but the Black churches and some White churches were really good at following up and working on police review committees. Then over time there has also been a convergence so that you see people like Reverend William Barber and Reverend Raphael Warnock embracing Black Lives Matter ideas. You see that synergy that goes on when people are coming at it from different perspectives and with different constituencies.

Krause: It’s a great example of what you’re describing throughout your book.

Wuthnow: Right, yes. This has been recognized or argued by political scientists for a long time, that religious diversity is a way to mobilize people with very different constituencies and ideas. The prime example is from the 1970s. When Jimmy Carter came along, born-again evangelicals, especially fundamentalists, were really not involved in politics at all. They were just hanging out and saying, “No, we’re not going to sully ourselves getting involved in politics.” Jimmy Carter, and then especially Jerry Falwell on the religious right, managed to mobilize that constituency. As much as people on the left don’t like the fact that that happened, it did encourage those folks to be involved in political participation, which I think overall is a good thing.

Krause: So, jumping forward to today, and this same question of the interplay between religion and partisan politics. I’m wondering what your thoughts were, as a sociologist of religion, as you watched the events of January 6 at the Capitol. What were your reactions as you saw the religious symbolism, the religious language, that was being used that day? Was that a surprise to you?

Wuthnow: I would have to say that it was a surprise. I remember just a few days before I was thinking, “OK, we’ve had an election and we’re moving ahead.” I totally didn’t see this coming. I was surprised and I’m disconcerted, as much as anybody else, about the role religious symbols and beliefs played among the protesters. I have difficulty understanding where some of those individual protesters were coming from.

One way to think about that event, and this isn’t original to my thinking, is that when you see people feeling that they are really marginalized and really subjected to injustice, they are, whether their feelings and beliefs are legitimate or not, more likely to take violent action. We see that in many studies of social movements, which again is an argument for inclusive democracy. If you can include people and say, “OK, you think the election was stolen. Let’s talk about it. Let’s have meetings. Let’s discuss it.”

You will have the extreme fringe groups who will say, “I’ve been trying to make my point, and nobody’s listening to me, and the whole society depends on me taking up arms.” You do have those outbreaks. They happen from time to time, and they have throughout our history. Again, we have to trust in our basic institutions, in our safeguards. I think right now what we have to do is rebuild trust and transparency as much as possible. If we can do that, then I think we begin to move beyond the situation that led to January 6.

Krause: Final question. I’m wondering how optimistic or pessimistic you are about the resilience of American democracy and the role religion plays in it. 

Wuthnow: I’m actually quite optimistic. I don’t say that lightly, because I’m a pessimist about most things. For example, I’m a pessimist about the pandemic right now, and I’m a pessimist about climate change, and a lot of other things. In terms of the religious situation and how it’s influencing democracy, I’m actually optimistic. On the one hand, at the grassroots level, I see a lot of energy in American congregations across the theological spectrum, a lot of vitality there. A lot of that activity is focused on caring for people’s needs, and that’s great. Then at the same time, I see a lot of advocacy happening that doesn’t require a lot of grassroots support back in the congregations. It involves protesting racial injustice, and it involves working for affordable housing or a whole variety of things. That advocacy is interfaith, it’s ecumenical, it’s interracial. And in many, many cases it involves collaboration among religious groups and nonreligious groups, which I think adds to the strength of everything that’s happening.

Article Author: Bettina Krause

Bettina Krause is the editor of Liberty magazine.