Faith in Democracy: Mobilizing Religious Communities for Democratic Change

*By former Research Assistant Sama Shah

Promoting Democracy, Protecting Faith

The importance of a robust democracy in safeguarding the rights and fostering the civic participation of the religious cannot be overstated. Throughout history, it has become evident that nations that veer off the democratic path, or that never developed strong democratic institutions, often exhibit the troubling dominance of a single faith community over marginalized others, or the systematic suppression of religious belief altogether. In India, for example, the erosion of democratic values under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been characterized by the oppression of religious minorities, particularly Muslims, who have been the subject of hijab bans, victims of vigilante violence, and scapegoated for the spread of COVID-19, in addition to having their very citizenship rights threatened following the passage of the 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act.

Meanwhile, in Europe, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has adopted the notion of “Christian democracy” as a cover for what has been a steady process of undermining civil liberties and weakening the country’s democratic institutions, including the formerly independent judiciary and free press. Stoking fears regarding the Islamization of Europe, Orbán erected a border fence amid the 2015 European migrant crisis to keep Syrians and other asylum seekers from entering the country. And, whereas Muslim refugees and migrants have been constructed as an external threat to Christian Hungary, internally, Orbán and his allies have appealed to bigoted notions of wealthy Jews conspiring to destroy Western Christian civilization to solidify Hungarian nationalism.

Taking a page from Orbán’s playbook, in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has successfully portrayed the non-Muslim West as a foreign enemy and existential threat which seeks to “bring [Turkey] to heel.” Calling on the general public to be patient with respect to the government’s domestic failures, given this looming existential crisis, Erdoğan has steadily infused Turkish politics with ethnoreligious references and attempts to unify the country under a singular Turkish Muslim identity, consequently marginalizing and portraying non-Sunni Muslim and non-ethnically Turkish minorities as potential insider threats. In the end, Erdoğan’s unification of ethnic and Islamic nationalism has empowered Islamist and far-right parties to further erode Turkey’s democracy, resulting in a weakened parliament, limited press freedoms, and a society polarized along religious-conservative and progressive-secular lines.

In these cases, it becomes evident that the erosion of democracy often leads to the targeting of both minority faith communities and members of majoritarian faith communities who hold unorthodox or non-mainstream views, as in the case of progressive Christians in Hungary or non-Sunni and liberal Muslims in Turkey. However, this should not signal to religious groups that security lies in disengaging from the political or public sphere as a means of avoiding state attention; rather, for faith-based communities, strength lies in actively participating in and defending democratic life, which can ensure that protections for diverse and minority religious groups remain in place.

American Religious History

American religious communities have played a complex role in the formation of the country’s democracy, with the history of these communities also telling the history of both right- and left-wing social and political movements, the fight for civil rights, and the ever-evolving landscape of religious freedom. From the early days of Colonial America, when religious persecution in England led Puritans to seek refuge across the Atlantic, to the transformative accomplishments of the Civil Rights Era to the current challenges presented by a rising White Christian Nationalist movement, faith communities have emerged as powerful and controversial agents in shaping the trajectory of American democracy.

As early as its settlement by the English, America has struggled to remain steadfast to the very ideals of religious liberty that motivated the first Puritans to establish the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A theocratic state, Massachusetts Bay Colony and its Puritan government did not tolerate people of other faiths, persecuting and banishing religious outsiders who attempted to settle and worship in Puritan towns. In spite of the hostility with which religious others were met, members of the recently formed Religious Society of Friends, the Quakers, began arriving in Boston in 1656, demanding the right to live and practice their religion. Yet, despite the Puritans’ own experiences with religious persecution, they met the Quakers with severe violence, often imprisoning and beating them before forcing them onto ships leaving the colony.

Still, Quakers continued to arrive in Boston by ship and foot, becoming bolder in their protests against Puritan oppression. They began rising to speak following Puritan sermons and during the trials of other Quakers arrested for preaching and practicing their faith. They held unlawful meetings, published pamphlets, and spurned authorities by leaving fines unpaid and refusing to work in jails, even when punished with food deprivation. Ultimately, the years of torture, imprisonment, deportation, and execution, and the Quakers’ commitment to their faith despite it all, deeply impacted many in Puritan society, some of whom came to support their Quaker community members by bribing jailers into feeding starving Quaker inmates and even converting to Quakerism themselves. Eventually, by 1675, after two decades of protest, the arrival of diverse groups of settlers, and the intervention of King Charles II at the plea of a Quaker messenger, Quakers and other religious communities were freely living and practicing in Massachusetts.

That it was, from the very outset, a minority faith group that ultimately forced the Puritan government to extend the principle of religious liberty to all is a testament to the important role that religious actors play as checks on faith-based extremism, as well as the inaccuracy of characterizing the struggle for tolerant, open societies as exclusively at odds with the political and personal aims of the religious. However, even as ideas of community and belonging stretched to accommodate different groups of white Christian settlers, one group was consistently excluded not only in the realm of religious liberties, but all human rights – enslaved Africans.

Yet, even as they grounded their pro-slavery positions in readings of the Bible that ostensibly sanctioned the practice of slavery, American slaveholders ultimately and unintentionally introduced the very people they enslaved to what would become a powerful force in driving abolitionist movements. These slaveholders, who had correctly assumed that portions of the Bible may inspire slave rebellions, going as far as to print special “slave Bibles” with sections, including the Exodus story, removed, ultimately could not prevent early Black churches from raising and shaping preachers whose fight for freedom did not eschew scripture but rather embraced it. From Sojourner Truth to Federick Douglass to Harriet Tubman, many icons of the abolition era were raised within Black churches that, particularly in the North, offered a space free from the white gaze. In these churches, Black people not only found solace and meaning through worship, but also planned slave rebellions, supported the Underground Railroad, and nurtured their talents as future spokespeople of the abolitionist movement. In the end, it is these liberation-oriented re-readings that have achieved broad acceptance, with the notion of a Biblical justification for slavery relegated to America’s past.

Nearly a century later, during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, Black churches and faith leaders would again serve as pivotal institutions and actors in the fight against racial injustice. These churches not only served as spiritual safe havens for Black Americans, but also became centers of community organizing and empowerment. They provided spaces for activists to strategize, learn the tactics of nonviolent resistance, and coordinate grassroots movements. When school boards refused to desegregate, they opened their doors to Black and white students, running freedom schools that taught Black history and civil rights. They were responsible for the spiritual and moral training and often offered the first platforms and leadership positions held by iconic Black religious leaders and activists, including but not nearly limited to Martin Luther King Jr., Andrew Young, Fred Shuttlesworth, Joseph Lowery, Wyatt T. Walker, Jesse Jackson, and John Lewis.

Moreover, during a time in which women lacked positions of authority in religious institutions, they continued to take inspiration from church teachings to create leadership opportunities for themselves elsewhere. One such woman was Fannie Lou Hammer, a devout Baptist known for infusing her political rhetoric with spiritual hymns and Biblical references. One of the women leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, Hammer organized extensively with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, also co-founding the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and the National Women’s Political Caucus, both organizations aimed at increasing Black and female voices in government, with Hammer herself running for Senate seat in 1964. Other faith-driven Black women during this time also leveraged their skills outside the church to support the movement for civil rights, like Mahalia Jackson, whose wealth and influence, a significant portion of which she used to back various civil rights causes, came from her highly successful career as a gospel singer.

Faith Communities and Right-wing Nationalism

Yet, despite the enduring ties between faith, democracy, and justice, present-day American religious communities, and specifically Christian communities, must also confront the lasting connection between faith and right-wing nationalism. While the term White Christian Nationalism (WCN) has seen an increase in use, particularly from the 2016 elections and onwards, the phenomenon itself is nothing new. According to sociologists Philip Gorski and Samuel Perry, authors of The Flag and the Cross: White Christian Nationalism and the Threat to American Democracy, WCN in the U.S. can be traced back to the late 1600s, when the first American colonies, alongside their institutions and laws, were being shaped around Protestant ideals and calls to spread the faith among non-whites and non-Christians. Emerging in this era, according to Gorski and Perry, WCN would remain an important force in American politics, gaining influence in moments when white Christians feel threatened by forces outside their control, such as war, increased immigration, and economic depression.

Given that recent years have involved heated national and political debates on these very conditions, it is not surprising that WCN has once again emerged as an appealing answer to the various challenges of modernity, including the rising cost of living, rapid technological and societal change, and the increasing alienation many Americans feel from their communities. WCN, with its emphasis on a return to a past of triumphant Christianity, in which the term ‘Christianity’ denotes a particularly hierarchical and exclusive societal structure designed to benefit the present-day downtrodden white Christian family, then offers a solution reassuring to many white Christians who have experienced a loss of power due to America’s shifting demographics and decline in Church membership.

As witnessed in 2016, WCN is not a movement restricted to American churches; rather, as detailed in a recent report commissioned by the Kairos Center and MoveOn Education Fund, All of U.S.: Organizing to Counter White Christian Nationalism and Build a Pro-Democracy Society, white Christian nationalists have embarked on a “visionary, organized, well-funded, and multi-generational effort to secure white, Christian, minority rule.” Ultimately, this movement has successfully captured key political leaders; influential churches, including many evangelical and, increasingly, Catholic churches; and large voting bases within the Republican Party. This rightward shift among a faction of America’s religious institutions has inspired various acts of political violence and rollbacks of civil rights, making it critical that religious actors concerned about growing polarization within their communities work to target the roots of this fanaticism as first-responders.

Fortunately, to the benefit of the pro-democracy movement and to religious actors seeking ways to get involved in countering WCN in their communities, many religious groups have long identified the problems of polarization and democratic erosion in the U.S., searching for solutions that encourage the co-existence of healthy Christian identities and commitment to democracy. One such group is the American Values Coalition (AVC), which organizes small group courses, conferences, and other meetings to educate conservative Christian communities on the dangers of political polarization and consistent exposure to disinformation. What makes AVC’s programming so powerful is that their course instructors and event speakers are often other conservative Christians, particularly pastors, who are able to effectively challenge WCN using moral and theological frameworks familiar to their audiences. After successfully drawing away the communities they work with from extremist ideologies, participants in AVC programming are able to embody a more inclusive Christianity, forming communities that continue to provide a sense of belonging and purpose, while rejecting religious radicalism.

Similarly working to reduce polarization and, in particular, interreligious conflict, the organization Peace Catalyst International (PCI) trains Christian and other faith leaders in conflict resolution and peacebuilding strategies so they are better equipped to manage both intra and intercommunity conflicts. PCI and PCI-trained peacemakers have worked extensively with Muslim communities both in the U.S. and abroad, hosting social events, collaborating on service projects, and engaging in dialogues on a variety of political, social, and faith-related issues. From the U.S. to Bosnia, PCI’s work demonstrates the potential of faith groups to create understanding and mitigate conflicts via shared religious commitments.

Faith-based organizations have also played an important role in get-out-the-vote (GOTV) initiatives, particularly in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election. The Faithful Democracy coalition, for example, coordinated a multifaith GOTV campaign by providing religious organizations with GOTV messaging, resources, and social media strategies to increase political participation among the religious. Similarly, the groups Faith in Public Life and Bend the Arc have organized various faith organizations to support the Count Every Vote campaign, a nonpartisan effort that was aimed at protecting the integrity of the 2020 election. And, before the 2020 election results were announced, another faith organization, Faith Leaders United to Support Free and Fair Elections, released a statement encouraging acceptance of the election results and a peaceful transfer of power.

However, when calls for peace following the announcement of the election results were met with an attack on the U.S. Capitol Building on January 6, 2021, it was actually many faith leaders that took the lead in identifying and condemning the WCN ideology that motivated the attackers. In fact, following the insurrection, a group of Christian leaders, including the heads of major denominations, sent a letter to the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack, in which they specifically asked lawmakers to investigate WCN’s role as a motivator of the insurrection.

Following the turbulent 2020 election cycle, and in response to complaints lodged by members of low-income and communities of color around intimidation and violence at polling locations, faith communities acted to improve democratic norms and procedures during the 2022 midterm elections. One woman, Reverend Barbara Williams-Skinner of Faiths United to Save Democracy, recruited faith leaders across religious traditions to serve as a poll chaplains, whose roles were to keep the peace at polling locations frequented by marginalized communities. Ultimately, as prominent as ethno-religious and Christian nationalist language has been in far-right spaces, leaders within this same faith community have also been at the forefront of efforts to preserve democratic norms by working within and outside of their churches.

Call to Action

At their best, faith communities promote values of compassion, tolerance, and justice, which are essential to a flourishing democracy. Their contributions extend far beyond places of worship; they act as catalysts for positive change, building strong, happy communities and promoting civic engagement. Religious practice is also consistently the behavioral variable most associated with charitable giving, with the religious being more likely to give to religious and secular causes than the less or non-religious.

Religious communities often also embody diversity, embracing individuals from various backgrounds and beliefs, providing the physical space and spiritual guidance needed for both intra-faith and interfaith dialogue and understanding. In doing so, they are well-positioned to bridge divides and foster a shared commitment to democratic ideals. Conversely, the faltering of democracy often results in the loss of the rights and freedoms of people of faith, or the distortion of diverse religious traditions and scriptural interpretations in service of authoritarian agendas, making it all the more critical that faith communities are actively included in the work of protecting and promoting democracy.

However, the work of challenging WCN and other forms of faith-based radicalism and violence in service of broader pro-democracy goals cannot be the duty of religious actors and organizations alone. Many secular activists and organizations possess key resources, connections, and organizing experience from which religious groups may benefit when working within their communities. Concurrently, many religious leaders have a wealth of experience in spiritual (and general emotional) care, community building, deradicalization, and political organizing, all of which secular groups can learn from and leverage in broader pro-democracy activism.

Given the importance of building a broad-based movement to counter rising authoritarianism, which has always been integrally linked to racism and white supremacy in the United States, here are a few recommendations for advancing that goal.

Strengthen the connective tissue between faith organizations, democracy coalitions, and social justice movements: Faith leaders are powerful sources of moral guidance and have the ability to inspire their followers toward change. They can and have led movements within their congregations to promote positive civic engagement and deradicalize fringe members. By getting involved in the efforts of secular organizations to create democratic change, faith leaders can use their theological training, particularly in ethics, community care, and community building, to bring together diverse groups and contribute to shaping movements that reflect the principles of justice and human dignity.

However, secular activists should exercise some caution in their outreach to faith groups, particularly with regards to speaker requests and other event invitations. Referred to by some faith leaders as “rent-a-collar” requests – in which religious officials are asked to participate in actions to provide a moral cover for whatever position an activist group may hold – this form of outreach may be perceived as insincere. Rather, secular activists should remain open to learning from what faith leaders have already achieved within their congregations and take seriously the desire of the religious to translate their religious beliefs into action, including in volunteer, community organizing, and planning roles. Not only does this work grant faith actors a new level of investment and ownership of pro-democracy spaces and causes, but it also addresses the problems of alienation that lead many vulnerable communities toward religious and political radicalization.

Address the crisis of loneliness by creating spaces that allow both political organizing and human connection to flourish: As political philosophers have long posited, and recent scholarship has come to affirm, social exclusion and isolation are leading forces behind radicalization. A powerful strategy for preventing religious and political extremism from taking root in white Christian communities, then, is creating non-partisan, non-denominational forums through which people can gather and find community. Organizing in low-income small towns in Southern Indiana, a region under the influence of aggressive right-wing ideologies, the community organization Hoosier Action has already identified the power of this strategy in driving down allegiance to extremist and exclusionary political movements. By providing these communities a forum to connect around issues and activities that do not give into partisan ideologies, such as ritual prayers, gardening, sharing meals, physical movement, and storytelling, Hoosier Action members create social connections that they may have otherwise sought out in more exclusionary groups. In this way, the spiritual and social needs of participants are met without WCN being presented as an answer to the difficulties faced by white Christian communities. The group United Vision for Idaho uses a similar approach grounded in dialogue and deep listening to build community with those who are vulnerable to being recruited by white nationalist groups.

Taking lessons from this work, pro-democracy groups can similarly aim to move beyond strict political organizing to address deeper human needs, perhaps by incorporating multifaith prayers, spiritual writings, and/or discussion of potential faith-based motivators bringing people to organizing work. By being open to collaborating with faith-based groups and acknowledging the values of the religious as legitimate motivators for pro-democracy activism, and not simply nationalist bigotry, secular groups can begin the work of countering polarization within their own movements, as an example to broader society.

Strengthen intra-faith dialogue on religious extremism and democratic erosion: As demonstrated by the work of the American Values Coalition, white Christians have an important role to play in combatting polarization and authoritarianism. White Christian pastors and faith leaders often have direct experience and relationships with white Christians at the point of or on the journey toward radicalization. They also possess the theological sophistication necessary to help congregations distinguish between positive and reactionary manifestations of Christian identity. Here, pro-democracy groups are well-suited to support the work of priests, pastors, and other religious leaders in dismantling WCN as these secular coalitions can offer their organizing experience, technical assistance, and educational resources on authoritarianism. Going beyond the provision of resources, secular activists themselves can meet with faith leaders to learn the language and methods they use to pull their members away from far right and nationalist ideologies. In this way, secular activists can expose themselves to models of healthy Christian identities, ones that they may disagree with on certain foundational principles or on specific policy positions, but that still hold the belief that democracy and the freedoms it offers are in the interest of all to preserve.