US Bishops and the January 6th Capitol Attack on Democracy: A Pillars of Support Caselet

*This article was written by Research Assistant Adam Fefer.

This caselet is about US Catholic bishops’ responses to the January 6th Capitol attack. Why did some bishops denounce the attack as anti-democratic while others merely called for peace or stayed quiet? On the one hand, Catholic teaching on the sanctity and protection of life places bishops on the traditionalist side of issues like abortion and physician-assisted suicide. On the other hand, Catholic social and economic teaching places bishops on the progressive side of issues like universal healthcare, the living wage, debt reduction for developing nations, and immigration (Fichter et al. 2019). Bishops focused on so-called “life issues” (especially abortion) seem to have been less likely to view the attack as anti-democratic. By contrast, bishops who take a broader “seamless garment” approach to Catholic social and economic teaching seem to have been more likely to take a strong stand against the attack.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) occupies a unique role in American religion: no other denomination has an authoritative, ecclesiastical body like it. The temporal focus of this caselet is mostly January 2021, the month where many bishops issued condemnations of the attacks and of Donald Trump’s incendiary behavior. The geographical focus is largely on archdioceses of the most populous US cities. The conclusion offers other examples of Catholic political activity that are relevant to pro-democracy organizing.

I. Catholics’ Right Turn and Persistent Divisions

The January 6th attack exemplified the US’ increasing democratic backsliding, especially since 2016 (Williamson 2023). US backsliding is largely a Republican Party-led phenomenon. This is true nationally, where leaders like Donald Trump have undermined the integrity of elections and checks on executive power. It is also true sub-nationally, where Republican-led state legislatures have furthered voter suppression and racial gerrymandering (Grumbach 2022). 

The US Catholic clergy and laity are divided on partisan lines (Audi & Rocca 2015). Roughly 48% of Catholic voters self-describe as Republican while 47% self-describe as Democrats (Smith 2020). These divisions are relatively new, tracing to the late 20th century. In the early 20th century, by contrast, Catholics supported the Democratic Party. For example, between 70-80% of Catholics voted for FDR in 1936 (Rozell 2022, Catholic University of America 2023). As a predominantly immigrant, working class bloc, Catholics were key beneficiaries of FDR’s New Deal (McAndrews 2021). Official Catholic doctrine is also progressive on many issues: support for a strong welfare state and immigration as well as opposition to the death penalty and nuclear deterrence (Feldman 2006). During the early 20th century, the Catholic clergy was relatively apolitical; parish-specific issues like education and spiritual guidance dominated the Catholic agenda (Sammon 2008).

By the mid-twentieth century, Catholics had more fully integrated into American society and the middle class (Massa 2021). These trends were exemplified by JFK’s 1960 presidential campaign and the decline of overt anti-Catholicism. During this time, Catholic clergy and their upwardly mobile laity became more politically engaged (McAndrews 2021). For example, liberal Catholics spoke out against the Vietnam War and in favor of civil rights. Meanwhile, an increasingly vocal conservative clergy focused on issues of perceived moral decline, like abortion and contraception. 

The 1973 Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision was a landmark in US Catholic history (Sammon 2008). Catholic clergy and laity mobilized vigorously against the decision. In doing so, Catholics found common ground with Evangelical Christians in their mutual hostility toward abortion, school desegregation, LGBTQ+ rights, and feminism. Since then, conservative Catholic activists have worked to make abortion a “non-negotiable” part of Catholic political identification. This is especially the case among white, church-going Catholics (Feldman 2006). These changes upended previous patterns of Catholic support. For example, Reagan obtained between 54-61% of the Catholic vote in his 1984 reelection campaign (Prendergast 1999). Abortion has become a central part of Catholic politics. 

Despite being split on partisan lines, Catholic majorities have consistently supported winning presidential candidates. This includes both Reagan campaigns, both Bill Clinton campaigns, and both Obama campaigns. However, these patterns break down when examining ethnicity, religiosity, and income (Gray & Bendyna 2008). For example, despite Donald Trump winning the Catholic vote, Hispanic Catholics supported Hilary Clinton by a margin of 67-26 (Martinez & Smith 2016). The Trump presidency energized many liberal Catholics, who detested his “Muslim travel ban” and anti-LGBTQ+ rhetoric (Barb 2022). However, progressive Catholic interests are relatively marginalized in institutions like USCCB.

II. The January 6th Campaign and Catholic Bishops’ Tactics

The 2020 election campaign witnessed “unprecedented levels” of polarization among Catholic bishops and the US population writ large (Gayte 2022, 113). This culminated in the January 6th attack, which exemplified many Republican elites’ disdain for a key tenet of democracy, namely that parties accept election results (Williamson 2023).

The bishops’ pro-democracy responses to January 6th consisted of multiple tactics. These included signed public statements, declarations by organizations and institutions, letters of opposition or support, and interviews with journalists. 

It should first be noted that Catholic leaders and institutions outside of USCCB also spoke out against the January 6th attack. For example, Father James Martin wrote an op-ed denouncing the attack, while Catholic laity held commemorative vigils for January 6th a year later (Martin 2021, Jenkins 2022). The Leadership Conference of Women Religious (2021) released a newsletter denouncing the attacks. And the Catholic lobby NETWORK also issued a response (2021) to the “violent effort by extremists to overthrow the United States government.” Finally, Catholic media including America Magazine (2021) and National Catholic Reporter (2021) also denounced the attacks.

We can begin our analysis of bishops with Los Angeles Archbishop José H. Gomez, also USCCB’s president. Gomez expressed that “peaceful transition of power is one of the hallmarks of this great nation. In this troubling moment, we must recommit ourselves to the values and principles of our democracy” (USCCB 2021a). Gomez’s response was noteworthy given his statements both before and after January 6, 2021. For example, on January 20, Gomez authored a letter stating, “that our new President [Biden] has pledged to pursue certain policies [related to abortion] that would advance moral evils and threaten human life and dignity” (USCCB 2021b). Gomez’s letter furthered divisions among US bishops. For example, Chicago’s Cardinal Blase J. Cupich authored his own letter in response, which called Gomez’s statement “ill-considered” and issued without other bishops’ prior consultation (White 2021). This exchange highlights the centrality of abortion politics in USCCB.

In Chicago, Cardinal Cupich lamented “the deliberate erosion of the norms of our system of government [and] violence in the service of a falsehood,” prayed for “the peaceful and orderly transition of power” and implored elected officials to “recognize threats to democracy, no matter their source” (Archdiocese of Chicago 2021). Philadelphia’s Archbishop Nelson J. Perez affirmed that “Regardless of political affiliation, we are united by democracy,” expressing his gratitude to those who “worked through a dark day in our history to ensure the peaceful transition of power” (Archdiocese of Philadelphia 2021). And in one of the most forceful statements, San Diego’s Bishop (now Cardinal) Robert McElroy said “We must be clear in identifying this moment as the logical trajectory of the last four years of President Trump’s leadership of our country…we have stood by without giving greater witness to the terrible danger that leadership rooted in division brings to a democratic society” (White 2021).

Other archbishops’ responses are noteworthy for their omissions. For example, New York’s Cardinal Timothy Dolan condemned “the man [Trump] who should be leading us…[for] stoking these flames” (Lavenburg 2021). Although Dolan omitted mention of the attack on democracy, his direct criticism of Trump was surprising in light of his behavior during the 2020 campaign. Indeed, Dolan had called Trump a great friend, “salute[d] Trump’s leadership” on Fox News, and gave a prayer at the 2020 Republican National convention (White 2020, Warren Davis 2020).

In addition to Dolan, San Antonio’s Archbishop Gustavo García-Siller, Dallas’ Bishop Edward J. Burns, and the Diocese of Austin all tweeted for “peace” without explicitly mentioning the attack on democracy (Gledhill 2021, Guidos 2021). Meanwhile, Houston’s Cardinal Daniel DiNardo and Phoenix’s Bishop Thomas Olmsted were noteworthy for their silence, unsurprising in light of their conservative views on social issues. These omissions cohere with Reese’s (2020) finding that across 160 USCCB press releases between 2019-20, bishops were unlikely to criticize Trump by name and instead make references to his “administration.”

What patterns can we glean from these varied responses? Consider first the bishops who diagnosed January 6th as an attack on democracy. One thing that stands out is their broad political agendas that encompass more than just abortion. For example, both Bishop McElroy and Cardinal Cupich have been strong advocates for immigration, anti-poverty, and the environment, lamenting the church’s narrow focus on abortion (O’Loughlin 2015). Archbishops Perez and Gomez also have strong records on immigration and poverty, although they seem content with the USCCB’s prioritization of abortion (Gayte 2022). Looking at the neutral or silent responses, one finds bishops who are more singularly focused on abortion, including Cardinal DiNardo (Reese 2019).

III. Beyond USCCB and January 6th

Looking beyond USCCB and January 6, there are several domains of Catholic political activity that may be relevant to pro-democracy organizing. To begin, bishops and parishioners have criticized prominent Catholic politicians with anti-democratic sympathies. Ron DeSantis in Florida and Greg Abbot in Texas have faced Catholic backlash, albeit more for their stances on immigration and capital punishment (Scanlon 2023, Guidos 2022, Nowlin 2020). It is crucial that Catholic organizers recognize the threats DeSantis and Abbot pose to democratic practices such as voting rights and lawful protests (ACLU 2023, 2024). 

A second domain is higher education, where Catholic leaders at universities like Notre Dame, Fordham, and Villanova have denounced Donald Trump’s immigration ban and racist rhetoric (Jenkins 2020). As with Catholic governors, university leaders could go further by identifying Trump’s threat to democracy. Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics (2021) was exemplary in this respect, providing a host of analyses that linked the January 6th attack to narrow self-interest, charismatic demagoguery, and disinformation. 

Finally, Catholic podcasts have become important forums for articulating pro-democracy agendas and shaping parishioners’ beliefs via digital video and audio art. For example, The Commonweal Podcast and Just Politics have broadcast episodes entitled “Should Catholics Promote Democracy?” and “Actual Strategies for Saving Democracy,” respectively. NETWORK, a Catholic lobby for social justice, has sponsored a three-part “White Supremacy and American Christianity” series. Organizing via podcasts and universities may help reach youth voters, a key demographic, yet one that is more religiously disengaged. 

IV. The Future of Pro-Democracy Catholic Politics

The USCCB’s right-wing orientation that prioritizes abortion may generate pessimism that Catholics can be a pillar of democracy. However, there are several sources of optimism. First, Catholics are more liberal than Evangelicals –and many mainline Protestants– on issues like immigration, affirmative action, and social welfare (Sammon 2008). Relatedly, the Catholic church is among the US’ most racially integrated and diverse Christian denominations (Lipka 2015). This cluster of issues may serve to push Catholics toward politicians who emphasize inclusive, multiracial democracy.

A second reason for optimism is that Catholics are a key swing constituency. Because official church doctrine pushes them in opposite political directions, strategic political parties cannot expect unwavering Catholic support. In addition, Catholic voters are concentrated in midwestern swing states. That Donald Trump courted fringe Catholic elites –like the conspiracist Carlo Maria Viganò– during his 2020 campaign may serve to further push Catholics away from leaders who propagate conspiracies about elections (Anti-Defamation League 2023).

Finally, and concerning bishops specifically, Pope Francis appointed many bishops who wish to broaden USCCB’s agenda and prioritize social and economic issues (Allen 2016). Although these bishops currently constitute less than a quarter of the USCCB, they have been outspoken in attempting to change the conference’s priorities. Especially in the post-Roe environment, many USCCB bishops have taken a conservative hard line on issues like trans rights and the religious liberty to discriminate. So long as such issues continue to direct the conference’s agenda, many bishops and parishioners may continue to support anti-democratic politicians.

Discussion Questions 

  1. Catholicism is a very hierarchical denomination. How might bishops best use these hierarchies to engage priests and deacons in pro-democracy activity?
  2. In addition to abortion, some Catholic parishioners prioritize “culture war” issues (e.g., related gender and racial identities) over issues relating to US democracy. How might these priorities be reversed? 
  3. How might Catholic organizations educate more Catholics to consider issues beyond abortion when deciding who to vote for at the local, state, and national level?

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References

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How you can more effectively advance multi-racial democracy

On March 3, 2024, Maria J. Stephan, co-lead of the Horizons Project, discussed her work to strengthen multi-racial democracy in the US and globally to the Forum at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church. Since 1943 the Forum has served as a platform for discussing significant issues especially those involving ethical values in the Contemporary World. The full interview is embedded below. You can find and edited version with links to resources mentioned in the interview that was broadcast on 90.1 KKFI FM on their website as well as an exerpt on the Effectiveness of Nonviolence on Soundcloud.

Introducing Our Race and Democracy Portfolio

Chief Network Weaver, Julia Roig, and Director for Race & Democracy, Jarvis Williams, have a conversation about why the Horizons Project created this new role and portfolio of work and our goal of supporting partners to break down siloes to place racial equity and racial healing at the center of our pro-democracy organizing. To find out more check out these resources.

Can Multiracial Democracy Survive?

*This article was written by Chief Organizer Maria J. Stephan and was first published on Sojourners.

Racial justice and pro-democracy advocates share a common agenda.

DEMOCRACIES OFTEN DIE by a thousand small cuts. The slide from a robust, if unfinished, democracy to an authoritarian government is incremental and uses inherent weaknesses in a country’s institution and culture. In the U.S., racism has been a core weakness debilitating progress toward a vibrant inclusive democracy, exploited by autocrats to maintain power no matter the cost to human dignity and freedom.

Since 2015, the U.S. democracy score has slid from 92 to 83, according to Freedom House’s global index, lower than any democracy in Western Europe. At a point when pro-democracy and anti-racism movements need to be strongest in the U.S., we find them at odds.

I work in many pro-democracy coalitions committed to political and ideological pluralism where it is challenging to identify the role of white supremacy and Christian nationalism in undermining democratic norms. Conservatives see these as “leftist” issues and moderates fear dividing an already fragile coalition. I also work with political progressives who often see police brutality and mass incarceration as aberrations in a functioning democracy rather than direct attacks on democracy itself, as political scientists Vesla M. Weaver and Gwen Prowse have laid out in their analysis of racial authoritarianism and as Black intellectuals and activists have understood for decades.

Authoritarianism is a system that concentrates wealth and power in a relatively small group of unaccountable people. Authoritarian systems are made up of authoritarian leaders and their institutional enablers, including members of political parties, media outlets, businesses, and religious institutions who provide autocrats with critical sources of social, political, economic, and financial power. Authoritarian systems engage in a range of anti-democratic behaviors to consolidate or expand power, such as weaponizing disinformation, gutting institutional checks on power, subverting free and fair elections, undermining civil liberties, and condoning political violence.

Notwithstanding our country’s powerful founding ideals of liberty and justice for all, both our main political parties are rooted in white supremacy, the historical, cultural, ideological, and institutional practices that benefit white people and disadvantage people of color. Since our country’s founding, there has been a struggle over who is allowed to participate fully as a citizen, particularly through the right to vote. It took the U.S. civil rights movement — the greatest pro-democracy struggle in our history — and the passing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 to establish a legal foundation for inclusive democracy. Only in 1965 did the U.S. achieve full adult suffrage.

But with every advance has come backlash. In the U.S. this has included expanding the state repressive apparatus via policing, mass incarceration, and prison labor, followed by a “war on drugs” aimed at Black and brown communities. The election of our first Black president advanced a multiracial democracy on many fronts, but also activated authoritarian forces ready to exploit America’s racism.

Ex-president Donald Trump became the political vehicle for that vengeance and used the Republican Party to advance an authoritarian agenda. The MAGA faction has now captured the GOP to such an extent that the party, which in earlier eras fought to end slavery, has now abandoned democracy all together. An endemic American authoritarian faction that was once anchored in the Democratic Party in the early 20th century is now dominant in the Republican Party in the 21st century. In both cases the parties built their authoritarian rise around racism.

If racial authoritarianism is a politically ascendant trait in the U.S., what does this mean for the pro-democracy movement?

First, don’t silo strategy on racism away from strategy on democracy and authoritarianism. See them instead as two sides of the same coin. If we are countering polarization and its corrosive effects on U.S. democracy, how does that work address racism as the most virulent form of toxic polarization? If we are working to build resilient institutional democratic norms, are we grappling squarely with how the Electoral College, a relic from the period of slavery, is an impediment to multiracial democracy? Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt confront these structural questions in their new book, Tyranny of the Minority.

Second, talk honestly about how racism and white supremacy prevent the U.S. from developing as a democracy and see these conversations as strengthening citizenship. We must grapple with why, as Rev. Otis Moss III puts it, “Black conceptions of democracy are radically different from those that have participated and are privileged in the democracy.” Racial grievances have been used as a pretext to undermine democratic norms and principles, whether during the fall of Reconstruction, the enactment of Jim Crow, or the Jan. 6 coup attempt.

Third, invest in and amplify practices that simultaneously address racism and strengthen democracy. We need joint strategy-setting across a broad-based democracy movement that incorporates racial justice into political education, organizing and advocacy efforts, and in community dialogue. For example, labor unions significantly reduce racial wage gaps and racial wealth gaps between Black and white workers. Because of this, unions play a critical role in pushing back against authoritarian practices and strengthening an inclusive democracy.

Churches and religious institutions — particularly Black churches — have been pillars of support for democratic norms in the United States. Now, too many white evangelicals and Catholics are supporting the rise of authoritarianism and, in some cases, providing cover for political violence in the U.S. And those Christian leaders who stand against rising authoritarianism, such as former leader of the Southern Baptist Convention Russell Moore, are forced to step down because of threats from within their own community when they condemn white Christian nationalism.

However, as we witnessed in 2020, other faith organizations played a key role in upholding basic principles of democracy by countering misinformation, protecting the sacred right to vote, and deterring political violence. These roles will be critically important amid contentious national elections in 2024. Faith leaders can draw on moral authority and organizational power to highlight the urgency of this moment, support free and fair elections, insist on pro-democratic behaviors in politicians, and hold individuals accountable for political violence and other anti-democratic behaviors. Beyond the elections, faith organizations can speak prophetically about the awesome challenge and opportunity of building a multiracial democracy in the United States, grounded in mutual flourishing, and backing that vision with concrete action. In states that have become laboratories of democratic backsliding, faith leaders and communities can employ tactics such as public statements, symbolic protests, protective accompaniment of vulnerable community members, and (where necessary) acts of nonviolent noncooperation to apply principled pressure on those actively working against democracy. Churches can lead and support local and state-based efforts to advance truth, racial justice, and racial healing while grounding these efforts in a transformative pro-democracy movement. In this way, faith-based efforts to combat racism and strengthen democracy would instill hope and rejuvenate religious imagination for drawing us closer to the Beloved Community.

This article, Can Multiracial Democracy Survive?, was originally published in Sojourners magazine, April 2024. Reprinted with permission.

Defending Democracy by Expanding the Agenda

*By Research Assistant Sivahn Sapirstein and Director for Race and Democracy Jarvis Williams.

As 2024 continues, all eyes are on the Presidential election. Many Americans are focused on the colossal task of ensuring our democracy can survive another crucial election without descending into violence. Yet, as we become increasingly focused on such a pivotal election, it is also important to remember that defending democracy neither starts nor ends at the ballot box. In fact, defending democracy is a far more expansive project. Louis Brandeis, former Supreme Court justice, once proclaimed that the most important office in a democracy is the office of citizen. Pro-democracy organizers agree with these words, and it is their constant practice to put these words into action.

It would be an understatement to say that practicing democracy is easy. American history is littered with testimonies reminding us that it is not. Like all worthy enterprises, defending democracy is fraught with challenges and sheer disappointments. Pro-democracy organizers would do well to spend some time considering this history. In the face of our current democratic crisis, and its more visible authoritarian manifestations, pro-democracy organizers would benefit from recognizing the manifold ways Americans have compromised democracy in the past. This knowledge would help pro-democracy organizers identify the current threats to democracy more clearly and expand their imaginations about the possibilities of democratic engagement. In this moment, establishing racial justice as the foundation for all pro-democracy work, seeing what multiracial visions emerge from that foundation, and crafting strategies that embed that learning into every aspect of our pro-democracy playbook is the challenging work that must be done.

Protecting and expanding access to voting is one of the most prominent strategies for defending democracy being modeled across pro-democracy organizations. Many organizations develop grassroot networks and work tirelessly encouraging citizens to participate in the electoral process. The New Georgia Project and ProGeorgia are two such organizations which have been particularly effective in registering and mobilizing new constituencies. These organizations see voter registration and mobilization as a key step towards a multiracial democracy. Other organizations such as America Votes, Common Cause, and Movement Voter Project, alongside think tanks and policy groups such as States United Democracy Center, Brennan Center for Justice, or Protect Democracy, are all equally engaged (amongst a host of other activities) in defending democracy by exposing efforts to undermine elections and advancing new mechanisms to safeguard election systems.

While appreciating the importance of all these efforts, the authoritarian threat confronting the nation requires that pro-democracy organizations embrace a more expansive display of democratic agency. To be sure, many pro-democracy organizations are aware that democratic participation exists beyond the ballot box; some are also engaged with civic education programs or policy campaigns around gerrymandering, while others are bridging voter registration campaigns with issue specific organizing such as reproductive rights and raising the minimum wage. These are all critical elements of expanding the playbook for democratic defense beyond participation in electoral politics. Nonetheless, the nature of the authoritarian threat requires that we go even further.

A more expansive defense of American democracy begins with the understanding that the seeds of our current democratic crisis can be found in our past. Our current threat emerged by exploiting unresolved narratives of white supremacy and its unspoken acceptance of systemic racism. Ta-Nehisi Coates drew a link between these unresolved narratives and their capacity to produce electoral success. After Trump’s election in 2016, Ta-Nehisi made this observation, “it is often said that Trump has no real ideology, which is not true—his ideology is white supremacy, in all its truculent and sanctimonious power.” Other writers do not see these unresolved narratives as causative but merely correlative. In their view, seeing Trump as merely a mirror is the most constructive way to understand our current democratic dilemma.

The overarching point is that one presidential election should not be viewed as the source of our current democratic crisis. It is critical for pro-democracy organizations to see this moment in relationship to our larger history of tolerating anti-democratic laws and norms based on race. This history shows the emergence and maintenance of “authoritarian enclaves” up until 1968. Following 1968, a revised framework for excluding groups from accessing democratic rights, opportunities, and resources emerged. The new framework mobilized social prejudices and sought to legitimize them in our institutional practices. Of critical significance was the decision in Terry v Ohio that made stop and frisk constitutional (something people today are demonstrating violates the 4th amendment). The ongoing refusal to practice democracy with integrity in America is what Weaver and Prowse have labeled as “racial authoritarianism.” Constantly engaging American history is critical for understanding the true nature of our current threats and resisting their cancerous effects in our current moment.

As it stands, the conversations and organizing around democracy and racial justice remain largely distinct. One way to bridge these spaces is by advocating for the acknowledgement of racism as a critical “animating factor” within our current democratic crisis and integrating that awareness into existing pro-democracy spaces. Another way to bolster the pro-democracy efforts is by seeing what themes racial authoritarianism and racial justice can illuminate within the American democracy conversation. Through this approach, several new categories emerge under the banner of pro-democracy organizing work in America: confronting structures of policing and mass surveillance, reforming the justice system, and addressing economic inequality (specifically access to housing). For each category, there are passionate organizations advancing what could be considered a more expansive democratic defense strategy. Yet, these defense strategies remain mostly outside the traditional framework of pro-democracy work.

The absence of policing, mass surveillance, and criminal justice reform from most discourses on defending democracy is particularly glaring. While the relationship between policing and democracy in America may not seem apparent at first glance, it is worth noting that, when analyzing other countries, we typically assume a relationship between policing practices and structures of authoritarianism. Why not probe that relationship in the US? For example, in the spirit of defending American democracy, we should interrogate police militarization, the proliferation of SWAT teams and their disproportionately high use in Black neighborhoods, how racial profiling deepens a distinct experience of citizenship, and the worrying trends in police education which deepen the divide between police and the communities they are supposed to protect. Campaign Zero and Southern Center for Human Rights are two organizations working to develop clear steps for advancing community safety and strengthening accountability and fairness – key concepts in our fight against authoritarianism. Civilian review boards – though often stymied by politicians and police – can serve as a foundational concept for future initiatives demanding the democratization of police departments and their relationships to local communities.

The other component is mass surveillance, and specifically the increasing practice of data sharing between major companies and the police, which poses a threat to our freedom of movement. Project South is one organization working on addressing the way mass surveillance erodes democratic norms through their report on state surveillance of Muslim communities. Reform Georgia, Southern Center for Human Rights, and Justice Reform Partnership are just a few of the organizations working on criminal justice reform issues such as private probation, cash bail, decriminalizing poverty, and, more broadly, ending mass incarceration. Even though voting isn’t the whole story of democratic defense, it is useful to highlight that each of these issues is intimately related to the question of who can physically participate in our democratic system.

Addressing economic inequality must become more squarely situated within pro-democracy discourse. Linking economic inequality to rising authoritarianism is not itself a novel idea; one common narrative explaining the rising support for a more authoritarian type of leadership amongst Americans is the dramatic and persistent level of economic inequality. From another angle, research on democratic participation has found empirical evidence showing that socio-economic status is the clearest indicator for a person’s level of democratic engagement (the poorer the individual the less likely they are to participate in a variety of democratic activities). Adding to the conversation the stark reality of the racial wealth gap in America, itself a legacy of racial authoritarianism, enables us to see why economic justice must be a key component of our pro-democracy organizing. Partnership for Southern Equity incorporates housing and economic justice as central pillars of their racial justice work. Atlanta Civic Circle also incorporates both housing rights and democracy within its strategic playbook. While addressing economic inequality may seem beyond the scope of pro-democracy organizing given the urgency of the upcoming election, our defense of democracy must be both audacious and expansive.

Admittedly, defending democracy is challenging work. And when you include the impact of policing and mass surveillance, the criminal justice system, and economic inequality in the assessment of our democracy a more disconcerting picture appears. Nevertheless, defenders of democracy must confront this picture with calm resolve. They must be assured that we can resist the authoritarian trends compromising our democratic aspirations. And it must never be forgotten that civil resistance works. In truth, we have an expansive democratic playbook bequeathed to us by social movements both within the US and around the world. Therefore, we must resolve to weave together all the strategies of democratic defense and unapologetically engage in pro-democracy work grounded in an unwavering commitment to racial justice.

Race and Democracy

Within the broad ecosystem of social change in the US, we often find a lack of alignment between racial justice and pro-democracy agendas. At best, there are siloed efforts of potential allies—and at worst, considerations of race are left out of democracy reform or civic revitalization work because it is seen as too “divisive” or ideological. At the Horizons Project, we seek to help break down these siloes, and we want to support our partners in placing racial equity and racial healing at the center of our pro-democracy organizing. We believe that addressing both historic and current racial injustice is an essential part of building healthy connective tissue among actors and strategies working to confront the latest manifestation of the authoritarian threat in the US and working towards a shared democratic future.

Stoking racial divides and fear is a tried-and-true element of the Authoritarian Playbook. The antidote to this tactic is to come together within broad-based movements across many lines of difference, including race, class, religion, geography, etc. Horizons is committed to supporting a pro-democracy united front that is working to block, bridge, and build at the same time. We must organize to block the most harmful effects of the authoritarian resurgence that continues to fall predominantly upon BIPOC communities; we must bridge amongst sectors to find common cause across all lines of identity and mobilize our collective action for change; and we must tirelessly work to build a multi-racial, pluralistic, inclusive democracy where all people can thrive.

There are many entry points to working on race and democracy, at times in tension with each other—prioritizing different time horizons, different target audiences, and deploying different theories of change. As systems-level organizers, the Horizons Project commits to highlighting this diversity of perspectives and naming the points of tension in service to our ability to collectively synergize and strategize our efforts. In this spirit, we’ve compiled a list of resources (that is surely not meant to be comprehensive) that we hope helps to shape the contours of organizations and tools to help navigate this essential topic:

RESOURCES

What Does It Mean to Have a Strong Multi-Racial Democracy? Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation

“Racism, rather than being the exception to the rule of American democracy, was fundamental to how many of the country’s founders understood themselves and conceptions of citizenship, argues Khalil Gibran Muhammad. Speaking with Archon Fung, Muhammad describes the often-tortuous path the United States has taken towards building a more inclusive, multiracial democracy. ‘So, when you ask the question about how racial conflict or solidarity advance or don’t advance the American project, first we have to recognize that conflict or solidarity are not these moments where we’ve either gone wrong or we’ve come together. But indeed, moments where we’ve responded to the fundamentals of our political nation.’”

Racial Authoritarianism in US Democracy, by Vesla Weaver and Gwen Prowse

“Recently, casual and savage violence of police against peaceful protesters and images of police in military gear sweeping up residents into unmarked vans has led journalists to question whether U.S. democracy is in peril. Many observers described these recent actions as authoritarian. But racial authoritarianism has been central to citizenship and governance of race-class subjugated communities throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries. It describes state oppression such that groups of residents live under extremely divergent experiences of government and laws. Yet when police engage in excessive surveillance, incursions on civil liberties, and arbitrary force as a matter of routine patrol, many scholars of American politics are reluctant to consider it a violation of democracy and instead deem them aberrations in an otherwise functioning democracy. This mischaracterization is not limited only to intellectual discourse but also affects the public sphere. By obscuring evidence of racial authoritarianism, reforms will not land where needed.”

11 Terms You Should Know to Better Understand Structural Racism, The Aspen Institute

“Structural racism is not something that a few people or institutions choose to practice. Instead, it has been part of the social, economic, and political systems in which we all exist. It is part of America’s past and its present. This glossary describes terms related to structural racism and terms used to promote racial equity analysis. It was created by the Aspen Institute’s Roundtable on Community Change, a group that worked with leading innovators to produce strong and reliable frameworks for successful and sustainable community change and development.”

Equity vs. Equality: What’s the Difference? by Stephen Menendian

“To summarize: Equality means that the law and government treats everyone the same, irrespective of their status or identity. Equity means that, in some circumstances, people must be treated differently to provide meaningful equality of opportunity. Neither “equality” nor “equity” guarantee equality of outcomes. Equity is primarily in service of equality of opportunity, not outcomes. But achieving equality of opportunity requires both equality (formally equal treatment) and equity (situationally different treatment), depending on the circumstances.”

Racial Equity Tool Kit, Government Alliance on Race and Equity

“Racial equity tools are designed to integrate explicit consideration of racial equity in decisions, including policies, practices, programs, and budgets. It is both a product and a process. Use of a racial equity tool can help to develop strategies and actions that reduce racial inequities and improve success for all groups.”

Racial Equity Impact Assessment, Race Forward

“A Racial Equity Impact Assessment (REIA) is a systematic examination of how different racial and ethnic groups will likely be affected by a proposed action or decision. REIAs are used to minimize unanticipated adverse consequences in various contexts, including the analysis of proposed policies, institutional practices, programs, plans and budgetary decisions. The REIA can be a vital tool for preventing institutional racism and for identifying new options to remedy long-standing inequities.”

Let’s Get to the Root of Racial Injustice, by Megan Ming Francis

This short video captures Megan Ming Francis challenging the idea that education alone can adequately address the lingering reality of racial injustice. In a beautifully cogent presentation, she argues that to combat continuing racial injustices today, we must expand our vision and responsibility to what civil rights means. By this she means that the battle against racist violence is inherent in protecting civil rights.

The Structural Racism Remedies Project, The Othering & Belonging Institute

This “open-source, searchable repository of policy-based recommendations for addressing structural and systemic racism or advancing racial equity drawn from a vast array of published material…This project finds significant challenges and barriers to a reform agenda aimed at addressing systemic and structural racism due to: 1) budgetary and fiscal limitations on spending and appropriations, 2) ideological and political opposition to the goals of racial equity or particular proposals, 3) legal and constitutional limitations on consideration of race in policy-making, and 4) systems resistance to policy implementation that undermines policy intentions. Any thoughtful and effective agenda must grapple with these challenges.”

Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Implementation Guidebook, W.K. Kellogg Foundation

“This Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) Implementation Guidebook will help communities, organizations and individuals plan, implement and evaluate TRHT efforts. It includes specific guidance on implementing the different areas of the TRHT framework and ensuring inclusion of a decolonization agenda in the work. It has been updated based on learnings from the first five years of TRHT implementation.”

A Dream in Our Name, Liberation Ventures

“This report is intended to accelerate ongoing conversations about how all of us stand to benefit from Racial Repair. Through this framework, we apply a new lens on what comprehensive reparations can mean, who it is for, and what role we each can play. We clarify the component parts of “repair” to translate it from being an abstract term to an implementable action. Fundamentally, we’re broadening the vision for reparations to ensure that all people see themselves in the work of repair, and we’re calling forth our collective responsibility to do this necessary work.”

Race, Arts and Democracy, The Center for the Study of Race and Democracy, Arizona State University

“The Race, Arts and Democracy series underscores the vital connections between race, the arts and the work to sustain, imagine, understand and document democracy. Programs feature acclaimed and emerging artists in and beyond the United States whose work illuminates the complexities of race and the possibilities of democracy. This [program] series explores the power of creativity and how the arts enable us to see and learn more together about justice, access and equity, civil rights, economic inequality and the multifaceted work to achieve social justice in our world today.”

Talking About Race, Living Room Conversations

“The motto of Living Room Conversations is respect, relate, connect. We know that in the pursuit of racial equity, individual conversations are not the final stop in the journey. Conversations can help us better understand individual bias and racism, as well as consider how racism is part of our systems and institutions. Living Room Conversations has created this resource page in response to increased demand and design to have conversations about race.”

On Talking to Kids About Race, Multiracial Democracy and EmbraceRace, Outside Conversations Podcast

The Co-Founder and Co-Director of EmbraceRace, Andrew Grant-Thomas talks about the organization’s founding, “its work in the world, the future of a multiracial democracy, advocacy and how we can talk (and listen!) to our children about race.”

Global Democracy Supporters Must Confront Systemic Racism, by Ashley Quarcoo

In the article written in 2020 during the rise of racial justice movements world-wide, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace published this piece directed to the global democracy promotion sector. “If Western democracies wish to maintain some credibility as lead advocates for human rights and democratic governance, they must seek to fully understand and address the role that racism plays in undermining the legitimacy of their institutions.”

More Resources:

From Scarcity to Solidarity Toolkit, Showing Up For Racial Justice

Martin Luther King’s Multiple Lanes to Multiracial Democracy by Maria Stephan

Stony the Road: Reconstruction, White Supremacy, and the Rise of Jim Crow by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson

The Rediscovery of America: Native Peoples and the Unmaking of U.S. History by Ned BlackHawk

The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together by Heather McGhee

The 1619 Project: A New Origin Story by Nicole Hannah-Jones

Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Davis

Between The World And Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Our History Has Always Been Contraband: In Defense of Black Studies edited by Colin Kaepernick, Robin D.G. Kelley, and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi

Tyranny of the Minority: Why American Democracy Reached the Breaking Point by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt

The Source of Self Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations by Toni Morrison

The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought by Melvin L. Rogers

Where Do We Go From Here?: Chaos of Community by Martin Luther King Jr.

Asian American Histories of the United States by Catherine Ceniza Choy

Dancing in the Darkness: Spiritual Lessons for Thriving in Turbulent Times by Otis Moss III

Let America Be America Again by Langston Hughes

From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation by Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor

Understanding Pillars of Support

Horizons has been focusing on how various Pillars of Support, notably faith-based organizations, businesses, unions & professional associations, and veterans/military groups, have contributed to authoritarian systems and how they have supported pro-democracy movements in the US and globally.

To complement our pillars-focused research and organizing, we have developed this short, 5-min video focused on what pillars of support are, why they matter, and what it means to both engage and pressure key pillars as part of pro-democracy organizing that reaches beyond the base.

We hope that activists, organizers, trainers, educators, bridgers, funders, and other democracy practitioners will find this tool helpful in your daily work. Please feel free to share the video with interested folks.

Thanks, and we look forward to joining forces in this critical year for democracy in the US and around the world!

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.

Calling in Calling Out

Building powerful movements for a just and democratic society requires tearing down the walls separating people and welcoming new people into the movement. It takes recognizing that individuals, shaped by their lived experiences, are in different places along their journeys towards growth and change. Call-out culture, which includes public shaming to hold people accountable and oftentimes claiming one’s own moral high ground, can generate antagonism and challenge our ability to make progress together. But what other strategies do we have to hold people accountable for saying and doing harmful things?

Social justice and women’s rights activist Loretta Ross makes a case for the need to “call-in” instead of call-out. This approach prioritizes relationship-building over shaming. By “calling-in” someone who makes a harmful comment, a person may take them aside to share why the comment was harmful or inappropriate and offer alternative framing instead of calling them out in front of a large group. It creates a compassionate space for the person to reflect, hold themselves accountable and grow, instead of a space in which they may deny or deflect responsibility, retreat and/or not return out of shame or embarrassment.

However, not all situations lend themselves to calling someone in. Urgency, power dynamics, and individual safety are all important factors to consider when choosing how to respond to someone engaging in harmful behavior. In other words, calling out may sometimes be the more appropriate approach, especially if the individual in question has more power or is a repeat offender that has not been open to change. Yet, too often, we resort to calling out as the first and/or only option when this is not always the case, and we do so in ways that can cause additional harm and shame. By taking the time to pause and reflect on our intended outcome and how it will serve our larger goals for positive social change, we can create opportunities for people to reflect, grow and re-engage with accountability and new understanding.

Constructive methods of calling in and calling out both involve holding individuals and institutions accountable for harm while centering human dignity and embracing individuals’ capacity to change. However, calling in usually involves a private conversation with a small group or 1:1, while calling out means engaging in a more public space or forum. Based on the larger goal, an individual may choose either approach, or a mix of both—all while centering these approaches around care and a common humanity. At the Horizons Project, we work with networks of academics, social justice activists, bridge-builders, and democracy advocates to better understand how and when to use calling in and calling out methods in a way that will prevent harm, inspire collective learning, and hold people accountable with love.

*We would like to thank Tabitha Moore, a Vermont-based racial justice trainer and activist, for her thought leadership and contributions to this area of exploration as part of The Horizons Project research team.

RESOURCES

Interested in learning more? Check out these resources on calling in and calling out that are inspiring us right now.

Calling In and Calling Out Guide, Harvard University’s Office for Equity, Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging

“In fostering spaces of inclusion and belonging, it is important to recognize, name, and address when individuals or groups with marginalized identities are experiencing harm, such as bias or discrimination. The concepts of “calling out” or “calling in” have become popular ways of thinking about how to bring attention to this type of harm. Knowing the difference between these concepts can help us reflect, then act, in the ways we feel will best promote constructive change. This guide is a continuously evolving document that we plan to improve over time.”

Interrupting Bias: Calling Out vs. Calling In, The Vermont-NEA Racial Justice Task Force and Seed the Way

A quick tips guide for when you might choose to call someone in or out and how to do it.

#ListenFirst Conversations Complete Guide, #Listen First

“A #ListenFirst conversation is any conversation that helps us see each other across differences and discover human connection. It might be between two friends or among many strangers. It might be on a park bench, in a classroom, in the workplace, at home, or online. Regardless of where you are or who you’re with, here are our favorite principles and tips!”

Shame, Safety and Moving Beyond Cancel Culture, The Ezra Klein Show

“When is cancellation merited or useful? When is it insufficient or harmful? And what other tools are available in those cases?”

Loretta J. Ross: “Don’t call people out – call them in”, TED Talk

‘We live in a call-out culture, says activist and scholar Loretta J. Ross. You’re probably familiar with it: the public shaming and blaming, on social media and in real life, of people who may have done wrong and are being held accountable. In this bold, actionable talk, Ross gives us a toolkit for starting productive conversations instead of fights — what she calls a “call-in culture” — and shares strategies that help challenge wrongdoing while still creating space for growth, forgiveness and maybe even an unexpected friend. “Fighting hate should be fun,” Ross says. “It’s being a hater that sucks.”’

How to talk to insurrectionists and conspiracy theorists, Nafees Hamid, CNN

“I’m a cognitive scientist who has been studying the drivers of political violence for the better part of a decade. My work has involved interviews, social network analysis, psychology experiments, and surveys of jihadists, white nationalists, and conspiracists. My colleagues and I also conducted the first-ever brain scan studies on jihadist supporters. Our findings point to one thing that ordinary people can do if they feel that someone they know might be getting radicalized: Stay connected.”

Narrative Competency

As we continue the collective work towards a just, inclusive and peaceful democracy, it is important to be able to understand and talk about the shared values and ideas that underpin it. We often use frames to help us make sense of these ideas and values, and we share stories to illustrate how these ideas and values might show up in everyday life. Narratives offer ways for us to package these stories and “provide a coherent view of the world based on our lived experience, our culture, and our education.” Narrative competency is the ability to collect and understand these narratives and share them in a way that can help make meaning of the world around us.

At the Horizons Project, we know that the narratives we use matter, especially during times of deep division. How we communicate can either invite or block collaboration; build or break down trust; uncover or bury shared values and goals. As agents of social change, we have our own cognitive biases that are based on our own stories and experiences. These biases influence how we and others perceive narratives, regardless of how they were intended. To develop narrative competency, it is important to start from a place of self-reflection, to explore our own biases so that we may be curious of other narratives and how we can engage with them. The purpose of developing narrative competency is not to change narratives we disagree with or prove them wrong. It is to better understand how they came into being and describe the current ecosystem. Rather than simplifying complex stories into “black or white” frames, an approach to narrative competency embraces complexity and nuance to better understand how different people make sense of the world.

Developing the competency to cultivate and share narrative frames of our country’s past, present and future is critical to inspiring and mobilizing people towards a society in which everyone feels a sense of belonging and can thrive. It will require curating insights from a diverse array of organizers, community and civic leaders, and activists representing different ideologies, geographies and backgrounds. At The Horizons Project, we are committed to leveraging existing platforms and sources of cultural influence to galvanize the larger ecosystem of social change around inclusive narratives that will help us form the broadest coalition possible to work towards a pluralistic, just and peaceful democracy.

RESOURCES

Interested in learning more? Check out these resources on Narrative Competency that are inspiring us right now.

Healing US democracy starts with understanding our values, norms, and narratives, The Horizons Project

“What are the common values that underpin US democracy? What is the “big story” we all share about how society should work and how we fit together as citizens? In the US today, with levels of toxic polarization astoundingly high, the narratives we use to make sense of the system and the sacred values we hold around democracy seem to be as divergent as ever. But by understanding these narratives and values, we can begin to rediscover how to respect different world views and commit to America’s future together. Experts shared some of their latest research and practice in a recent session on Democracy Narratives and Sacred Values co-convened by the Horizons Project with the Alliance for Peacebuilding for their Spring Series on Preventing and Reducing Conflict and Instability in the United States: Shaping What Comes Next.”

Engaging with Narratives of Peace, Toda Peace Institute 

“Narrative competency must be a fundamental aspect of our work as peacebuilders in the modern age. The term narrative is ubiquitous today and commonly used interchangeably with story. However, within the peacebuilding field there is currently a lack of understanding of the concept of narrative fundamentally as a cognitive framework that resides at the level of our unconscious minds, which allows human beings to make meaning of the world. While much has been written about how activists can address narrative change, peacebuilders have a special calling to engage with narratives in a way that is self-reflective, curious, seeks complexity and constructs meaning with others.”

Short Video on Restorative Advocacy & Narrative EngagementNarratives and Civic Space Convening by OXFAM and the Ford Foundation 

“Julia Roig, in her segment, focuses on PartnersGlobal Engaging Narratives for Peace research and approach. She explains that social change agents must acknowledge their own cognitive biases and mental models. This affects how social change agents engage effectively with narrative change, and/or can further polarization and isolate potential allies by how issues are framed. She also explores how narrative engagement can contribute to Restorative Advocacy when our goal isn’t to change others’ narrative understanding or identity, but rather when we seek to “complexify” narratives, especially in the public sphere.”

A Call for Investment in Narrative Competency in Divided Times (Part One), Alliance Magazine 

“Narrative is a central and cutting-edge topic in a variety of well-established academic fields…  The study of narrative bridges the artificial divides between rationality and emotion or interests and identity that were once typical in the scientific literature and it offers important insights that need to be more widely embedded within the philanthropic ecosystem. To summarize a complicated topic: ‘narrative‘ is an abstract template for sensemaking, the central intersection of multiple, related stories that makes it possible for us to see the world in a meaningful way. Narrative is the lens through which human beings see the world and understand how it operates, and for whom it is the basis of political and moral decision making.”

How to Invest in Narrative Competency to Combat Toxic Polarization (Part Two)Alliance Magazine 

In Part One of this series, Horizons’ Chief Network Weaver, Julia Roig, argued the importance of investing in Narrative Competency. In Part Two, she and co-author Melanie Greenberg offer recommendations for how. “By using a cultural lens for programming, philanthropy can help overcome the oversimplification of narrative and identity arising out of deep polarization and can help sustain curiosity about the other.”

Narrative Power & Collective Action, Conversations with people working to change narratives for social good, Oxfam Part I and Part II 

Narratives are a form of power that can mobilize and connect, as well as divide and isolate. Social, public or dominant narratives help to legitimize existing power relationships, prop them up or make them seem natural. As an anthology of perspectives this knowledge offering is one way to amplify different and diverse ways of knowing and doing narratives.”

The Role of Narrative in Managing Conflict and Supporting Peace, Institute for Integrated Transitions

“A helpful way to visualize narratives is as trees making up a narrative landscape. The roots contain a mix of facts, stories, and parables about a common collective past. These are the foundation for people’s political/moral views or their identity/history. The trunk is the central framing that grows from all or a bundle of these roots. The branches are the policy preferences, actions, and outcomes attached to the truck, which are resilient, but liable to change.”

How to Use Stories to Bring ‘Us’ and ‘Them’ Together, Annie Neimand & Samantha Wright, Stanford Social Innovation Review

“Advocates often recycle the same type of stories to build a base of support, but this can create story fatigue among supporters and lose the opportunity to engage new ones. Choosing the right kind of story depends on your audience’s exposure to the issue and your opposition’s power. A familiar plot structure can help an audience understand complicated dynamics, but if they are familiar with the topic, an unexpected framing can make it feel new again. Issues with strong organized opposition pair better with stories that humanize or offer new insights.”

The Role of Narrative Change in Collective Action

This short webinar from the 2021 Collective Impact Action Summit is a Master Class on narrative change. Melody Barnes (Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions) interviewing Crystal Echo Hawk (IllumiNativeRashad Robinson (Color of Change), and Nayantara Sen (Real Food Real Stories.)

“The metaphor actually begins with a story, the story as a single star in the night sky. If a story is like a star in the night sky, it is the singular unit of change….a narrative is like a constellation because it is a pattern of stars congregated together to create a mechanism that brings stories together as a whole, so then an individual story has more meaning when it sits within the narrative that you see as a constellation in the sky…There’s more to culture than just narrative but the critical thing to know is that you can’t change culture without changing narrative. We work on individual stars. We change the pattern that they sit within a constellation, and we change the cultural conditions or the galactic conditions…for what actually allows narratives to stick.” – Nayantara Sen

How America Fractured Into Four Parts, George Packer, The Atlantic

An essay exploring four dominant narratives in US that since the 1970s, emerged around four moral identities:

  • “Free America,” which focuses on individual rights and freedom from government intervention and draws on elitist traditionalism and anti-communism.
  • “Smart America,” which embraces capitalism, meritocracy, and globalism, but not patriotism.
  • “Real America,” which encourages popular democracy, anti-intellectualism, and nationalism, and is primarily white.
  • “Just America,” which is critical of institutional injustice and oppression, but has its own trappings.

Our Futures Now: Turning Imagination into Narrative Power, The Narrative Initiative 

This article describes how we can use imaginings of the future in narrative work. “Once we know the history, power and role of today’s dominant narratives we understand our present assumptions…then we can really name, describe and even map paths towards possible futures that aren’t dependent on today. That’s where this work gets exciting.” Márquez Rhyne, Program Manager at Transmedia Story at the University of Chicago

Keeping Democratic Ideals Alive During the Pandemic, Frameworks Institute 

The way we talk about leaders, leadership, and institutions now sets the context for what comes next. We won’t revitalize democracy by leaving people to assume that politics is, and always will be, broken beyond repair. But if we remind people of our democratic ideals—and show how they connect to this crisis and our future beyond it—we can rebuild demand for leaders and systems that put people first. Framing advice: (1) Lift up democratic values; (2) Make the truth compelling and clear; (3) Show how issues and incidents are connected. Frameworks also has valuable materials on Shifting Mindsets and how we can think about advocacy in both the short and long term.”

The Larger Us Podcast with Karen Stenner on Why Some People Are Primed to Be Authoritarians

“The exploration of narrative and sense-making is informed by many disciplines, and Karen Stenner has spent years researching why some people seem to have a psychological predisposition towards authoritarianism on both the right and the left (in the right conditions,) which has led her to argue that “liberal democracy has now exceeded many people’s capacity to tolerate it.” The podcast interview discusses why support for authoritarianism is so widespread, what we can do about it, and what’s next in countries like the US where right wing populism has been surging.”

Changing the Narrative about Narrative: The Infrastructure Required to Build Narrative Power, Rashad Robinson, Nonprofit Quarterly 

“Narrative is now a big buzzword in the field of social change. That is more a testament to people wanting to understand narrative, however, than it is a testament to people actually understanding it. This paper presents a high-level outline of just some of the components of strategic thinking required to create the right story about narrative change within the progressive movement, with a focus on the components related to building the infrastructure we need to build what I call narrative power.”