WSJ – October 2, 2021

‘Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy’ Review: Big Tent Revival

A sociologist makes the case that the spectrum of America’s faith traditions is a marker of civic health. By Barton Swaim | 1026 words

Religion, runs an old argument, is bad for democracy. The basis of religious belief and practice is an appeal to divine authority, and modern democracy arose from the Enlightenment-era insight that we can solve our problems by reason and dialogue and without reference to God or the afterlife. I tend to think the argument unworthy of refutation, among other reasons because it relies on loaded and muddled definitions of “enlightenment,” “religion” and “democracy.” But as an indictment of religion it is now so much a part of intellectual life in Europe and North America that scholars who take a more favorable view of religious outlooks understandably feel that they must address it.

Robert Wuthnow, a professor emeritus of sociology at Princeton, is one such scholar. In “Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy,” he wants to move past the more familiar claims for and against religion in this debate: that religion is good for democracy because it assimilates immigrants and encourages law-abiding behavior, or that it’s bad for democracy because it encourages division between sects and urges believers to think of themselves as unassailably right. A more fruitful approach to the subject, he contends—for both religion’s critics and sympathizers—is to think of religion as the diverse multiplicity it is, at least in the American context. Similarly, Mr. Wuthnow urges, let’s treat democracy not as a political system designed to yield ideal results but as a messy arena of competing interests. Democracy, he writes, consists of people “mixing it up, arguing, debating, mobilizing, and negotiating with those with whom they disagree and yet treating them as adversaries rather than as enemies.”

Borrowing a term from the Belgian political theorist Chantal Mouffe, Mr. Wuthnow calls this conception of religion’s role in American life “agonistic pluralism”—agonism, in political theory, referring to the potential benefits of conflict. “Democracy does not necessitate everyone believing the same thing,” he writes. “Democracy is strengthened more by citizens acknowledging and accepting diversity—and willingly contending for different beliefs.”

I am not sure why Mr. Wuthnow, in a book on American politics, needed the locution of a Belgian post-Marxist political theorist to describe an idea famously and clearly expressed by James Madison in Federalist No. 10. I conclude from this that Mr. Wuthnow has written the book to persuade his fellow academics on the political left to take a more charitable view of American religion. To that end, Ms. Mouffe’s agonism is perhaps better suited than a canonical text of the American founding. In any case, Mr. Wuthnow relates several crucial episodes in American history when religious sects grappled with one another over some great public question and everything turned out fine.

In the chapter “Human Dignity,” for example, Mr. Wuthnow notes that religious conservatives warned in the 1960s against the Great Society’s expansion of the welfare state. They claimed that the new programs would crowd out the humanitarian work of churches and other private charitable activity. Religious liberals, by contrast, took the view that the poor were so oppressed by modern capitalism and other “isms” that the state was obliged to step in to protect their dignity as human beings. In the 1990s and early 2000s, similarly, conservatives allied with President George W. Bush fought to allow government funding of religious charitable work. Liberals, always preferring state action, disagreed. Black leaders in particular were skeptical, Mr. Wuthnow writes, because “Black communities faced continuing systemic racism, which they had seen Bush’s predecessors—his father and Reagan—do little to combat.”

In the end, the American polity arrived at the right answer—from the liberal point of view, anyway. Religious sects of all kinds, allowed to contend with one another, eventually found practical solutions. “Dignity meant generally that society had an obligation to . . . the needy and disadvantaged,” Mr. Wuthnow writes. “It was a mark of democracy that deliberation about how that obligation was fulfilled should be conducted fairly and with openness toward alternative perspectives.”

Hmm. Conservatives who participated in debates over welfare-state expansions from the 1970s till now may not recall so much fair and open deliberation. Some of them, this reviewer included, may remember being defamed as racists simply for doubting the wisdom of government transfer payments as a means of alleviating poverty.

Another chapter, “Inclusion,” concerns 21st-century disputes over immigration, legal and illegal. Mr. Wuthnow means to show how religion “was part of the process of deliberation and policy making through which the United States figured out yet again, as it had done before, who should be welcomed as citizens.” The trouble is, religious conservatives—who by this point in the book are termed “White evangelicals”—played no significant role in the contentions Mr. Wuthnow chronicles. They said little about the sanctuary-city movement, the Trump administration’s travel ban or its child-separation policy. I don’t see much evidence of agonistic pluralism here; just a lot of left-wing religious organizations saying what the media, Hollywood and Democrats were already saying.

But the point of Mr. Wuthnow’s analysis is not, I think, to heap scorn on conservative, evangelical or other right-wing religionists. The point, rather, is to reassure the book’s highly educated liberal readers that religion, especially conservative religion, hasn’t assaulted American democracy in the way they have been led to believe. Conservative religion is one interest vying among many, Mr. Wuthnow wants to say, and in time American democracy gets to the right answer.

The problem with the book’s central argument isn’t so much  that it’s wrong as that, even for its intended audience, it lacks cogency. Somebody who thinks religious belief vitiates democratic society is unlikely to find it reassuring that a diverse assemblage of intermittently quarreling religious sects can sometimes assist secular society in finding workable solutions to its problems.

Mr. Wuthnow’s marked preference for liberal social and political solutions, moreover, has the effect of emphasizing religion’s redundancy: Left-leaning religious organizations in the late 20th century were advancing positions—on state welfare, say, or on corporate social responsibility—that America’s elite liberal consensus was arriving at without any assistance. A skeptical reader might wonder: Why not cut out the middle man? In the end, Mr. Wuthnow’s religion isn’t so much good for democracy as incidental to it.

Mr. Swaim is an editorial-page writer for the Journal.■

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