Religious Diversity’s Benefit for Democracy
Robert Wuthnow

The following is a modified except from Robert Wuthnow’s Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy (2021), out now from Princeton University Press.

Religious advocacy is not the answer to the political challenges confronting the United States at this critical juncture in its history, any more than religious conviction is their cause. But religious organizations are so thoroughly intertwined with our national traditions and the foundations of our democracy that they too must be scrutinized. Whether we are among those who think democracy was founded on religious principles, or are convinced that reasonable people would be better off putting religious convictions aside, the reality is that millions of Americans practice religion in one form or another. They enact it in churches, synagogues, mosques, ashrams, and temples, coming together in hundreds of thousands of places of worship large and small. Additionally, many Americans who do not identify with any religion hold considered opinions about how religion should or should not be practiced. Although religious faith is for many a personal matter, it is also demonstrably influential in public affairs. Faith informs who people trust, the issues they care about, and in many cases how they vote. 

I suggest that religion is good for American democracy less because of the unifying values it might provide and more because of religion’s capacity to bring diverse values, interests, and moral claims into juxtaposition with one another. Through its diversity religion contributes to the contending beliefs, values, arguments, and counterarguments that constitute the debate about how to order our lives together. The fact is that people who care about religion – including those who doubt its value – vehemently disagree with one another and take adversarial positions toward one another. This diversity – these diverging practices and the moral convictions they imply – animates American democracy, sometimes in ways that pose questions about whether we can agree on anything but more often with robust outcomes that reflect advocacy and counter-advocacy. Contention about what we hold dear is central to democratic processes: voicing strong convictions about what is unequivocally right, advocating for conflicting definitions of the common good, affirming and modifying basic points of agreement, and refining the procedures that make living together possible. Religious diversity is woven into this contention, augmenting it and supplying it with competing ideas, practices, and values.

…Religion is good for American democracy less because of the unifying values it might provide and more because of religion’s capacity to bring diverse values, interests, and moral claims into juxtaposition with one another.

One might think that everything possible to say about religion’s place in the life of our nation has already been said. Histories abound, polls measure it, and ethicists ask if it could be practiced better than it is. We know that religious beliefs have inspired both good and ill. Religiously-inspired activists have both supported and resisted social reform. We also know that religious practices in the United States have always been diverse and that they are now more diverse than they have ever been. Diversity is one of religious practices’ most salient features. Indeed, it is impossible to understand American religion without closely considering its diversity. The best descriptions of American religion emphasize this diversity. And yet while many arguments have celebrated (or deplored) religious diversity, much confusion remains.

The reasons for this confusion are not new. A century ago, when organized religion in the United States was less diverse than it is today, it was taken for granted that Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and the leaders of other denominational and interfaith groups would speak to the issues of the day. Yet by the middle of the twentieth century, most academics believed that religious beliefs and values were either a kind of implicit cultural subfloor that quietly supported the basic democratic norms on which everyone agreed or was so weakened by secularization that it served mainly as a palliative in personal life. When religious activism appeared to have re-entered public life in the 1980s, its association with the anti-abortion, anti-gay “Christian Right” concentrated interest on the twin questions of how such political engagement was possible and what could be done about it. Specifically, how was it conceivable that traditionalists of this sort had become so politically active almost overnight? And how could those who disagreed with them counter their influence? These were interesting questions and they deserved to be studied, but they have not served us well in the long run. The very nature of the questions scholars asked about the Christian right limited, rather than illuminated, the larger question of religious diversity’s relation to democracy. Indeed, those questions implied that division is usually a problem rather than contemplating what it may contribute.

Two ways of thinking about religious diversity and democracy have taken hold, neither of which provides a satisfactory answer to the broad question of how diverse religious practices might contribute to democracy. On the one hand, much of the commentary focuses on organized religion but neglects the importance of its diversity. Such arguments include the view that religious commitment benefits democracy because this commitment generally undergirds a shared belief in justice, equality, human rights, and compassion; that it encourages people to engage in civic activities; or that it is bad because it breeds intolerance, promotes irrationality, and inhibits the reasoned give and take democracy requires. “Religion” in these discussions usually means Christianity or, if not that, then Judeo-Christian or Abrahamic religion or some kind of organized religion, neglecting the fact that institutional religion in the United States takes many forms – some of which are highly individualized – and this diversity of approaches impacts how people practice their various faiths. On the other hand, some discussions focus on diversity without paying much attention to religion per se. In these discussions, diversity – meaning differences of race, ethnicity, gender, and sexual orientation – is variously conceived as being good for democracy because it generates new ideas and sparks economic innovation or is a problem that must be resolved for democracy to survive. Religious observance in its many varieties sometimes come up as one of the many real but problematic diversities with which democratic governance has to contend. Whether it contributes to a healthy democracy is harder to say.

Examining what religiously oriented individuals and organizations have actually done puts the lie to these ways of thinking. Religious conviction hasn’t contributed to American democracy simply by providing a sacred umbrella under which to huddle with our fragile unifying beliefs. Religious claims certainly haven’t been sidelined or excluded from public life. They haven’t been reanimated only by the Christian right. Nor have they been a positive influence on democracy only in those historical instances in which activists advocated for abolition and civil rights. And religious identities haven’t contributed only by influencing elections or giving candidates and public officials a toolkit of sacred idioms with which to speak.

Investigating what has actually been done shows that religiously oriented citizens have played an active role when important national issues were being debated. Their actions reflect their diversity, as they put diverse ideas of faith into practice by vigorously proposing and defending alternative ideas, mobilizing constituents to be engaged in civic activities, and checking one another through criticism and dissent. Over the past century, religious groups and their leaders have contributed to American democracy in these ways, not in spite of their diversity, but because of it. People have been propelled into action because they vehemently disagreed with one another. They were forced to contend with their disagreements, seeking and sometimes finding common ground, but in the process posing the hard questions about who we want to be, what our values should be, and how to get along with those who see things differently.

Religious practices, so considered, connect to democracy in ways best suggested by what Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe terms agonistic pluralism. Democracy, she argues, is fundamentally messy, divided, and of necessity representative of diverse interests and values that can never be fully reconciled. While it may be conceived of as an ideal, democracy must be understood concretely as the political practices in which groups contend with one another. For this reason, she says, democracy cannot be understood sufficiently as a set of procedures through which people deliberate in the hope of arriving at a rationally articulated consensus. It consists instead of people mixing it up, arguing, debating, mobilizing, and negotiating with those with whom they disagree and yet treating them as adversaries rather than as enemies. What distinguishes an effective democracy is thus not consensus on deeply held shared convictions but a willingness to abide by norms of respect and civility and truthfulness, thereby making it possible for people who disagree to nevertheless live and work together.

Democracy is weakened by conditions that impede these processes of contentious disputation. Authoritarianism, under which agreement is coerced or inspired from fear and resentment, is the most serious threat to democracy. It cuts off the free expression of dissent and the give-and-take from which innovative ideas originate. Hegemonic subscription to a dominant taken-for-granted ideology, religion, or set of economic principles is a second threat. That, too, cuts off debate. Apathy and disenfranchisement, both of which enable rules to be set by the few against the interests of the many, comprise a third threat. Extremism that radically interdicts the civil back and forth of adversarial constituencies is a fourth. Democracy is endangered in each of these circumstances less by disagreements – even by heated contention about rights, representation, and the meanings of democracy – than by too much agreement with prevailing hierarchies of power.

Diversity’s further contribution lies in the fact that it brings alternative ideas about the common good to the table (even ones that challenge received wisdom about the meanings of democracy) framing them less as incommensurable truths than as practical strategies of action.

Hegemonic, authoritarian religious practices undercut democracy in all these ways. Yet the reality of religious diversity is that it limits these dangerous tendencies even as they persist. Religious convictions threaten democracy mainly when adherents claim to have superior unquestionable knowledge from on high that derives from a particular source yet applies to everyone in ways that define the common good. But under conditions of religious diversity, those arguments are subject to the criticism, debate, challenge, refutation, and revision that are essential to the health of a democracy. When diversity yields claims and counterclaims, even in instances when it generates factions and conflict, it is beneficial for democracy because it reduces the chance that any one majoritarian religion will command the bully pulpit that facilitates its hegemonic authority. Diversity’s further contribution lies in the fact that it brings alternative ideas about the common good to the table (even ones that challenge received wisdom about the meanings of democracy) framing them less as incommensurable truths than as practical strategies of action. Democracy is strengthened by contention of this kind, which mobilizes civic participation, poses hard questions, and gives expression to dissent.

Thinking of religious practices as groups of citizens acting and contending on the basis of their convictions necessitates acknowledging just how diverse American religion truly is. To be sure, many people look to religion for quiet solace, personal inspiration, and peace of mind in the midst of a world seemingly divided about everything else. Religion provides hope that everyone can live together in harmony. But religion is a source of disharmony too, as it necessarily reflects its differing traditions and locations. It is the diversity of belief and practice that matters, not simply an underlying consensus. As Michael Kazin observes, “To take one’s religion seriously almost requires a certain amount of conflict with those who seriously disagree.”

A few years ago, it would have seemed unnecessary to write about threats to American democracy other than from foreign powers and perhaps from domestic apathy. We have been awakened to the soft spots that autocrats can exploit to their advantage, and to the dangers posed by the rampant repetition of untruth, disrespect for common decency, and disregard for the widening gap between the privileged few and the majority. Those matters need to be addressed through political activism, protests, legislation, and litigation – a process that would revitalize the institutions upon which American democracy was built. Also needed is sober reflection about the constructive roles that diverse religious organizations can play when they contend vigorously with one another about the meanings, practices, and implications of democracy.♦

Robert Wuthnow is the Andlinger Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Princeton University, a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a founding Director of the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion. He is the author of numerous books and articles about religion, culture, and politics, including most recently Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy (2021) and What Happens When We Practice Religion? Textures of Devotion in Everyday Life (2020).

Recommended Citation

Wuthnow, Robert. “Religious Diversity’s Benefit for Democracy.” Canopy Forum, October 31, 2022.