Is Religion Good for Democracy? An Interview with Robert Wuthnow

By Kenneth E. Frantz | October 5, 2021

(Sandy Huffaker/AFP/Getty)

Debates over whether diverse viewpoints are an asset or a hindrance are prevalent in American politics. On the one hand, different views can allow for new ideas to develop, and old modes of thinking to be challenged, altered, and maybe abolished. On the other hand, they can create disunity, so evident today in culture war debates and our contentious polarized politics.

Robert Wuthnow argues that diverse points of view are a good thing for society, and he believes that religion is central to a thriving democracy. In his most recent book, Why Religion is Good for American Democracy, Wuthnow argues that the United States’s religious diversity has encouraged debates over values and customs that have allowed its democracy to evolve over time and stay robust. He writes, “Through its diversity, religion contributes to the contending beliefs, values, arguments, and counterarguments that constitute the debate about how to order our lives together.”

Now retired, Wuthnow is Gerard R. Andlinger ’52 Professor of Sociology Emeritus at Princeton and the former director of the Princeton University Center for the Study of Religion. He has written more than three dozen books on American religion and culture. Kenneth E. Frantz interviewed Wuthnow over email. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Religion & Politics: Your book is about how America’s religious diversity has improved and expanded our concept of democracy. Why did you consider this an important topic to write about?

Robert Wuthnow: Like many of the observers of American society whom I read and respect, I have been increasingly worried in recent years about the strength of American democracy. Our democracy is always fragile, and it is always endangered externally by threats such as terrorist attacks, Russia meddling in our elections, and China posing economic as well as military challenges. But in recent years, democracy is also endangered from developments within, such as malfeasance and corruption at the highest levels of the federal government, partisan gridlock in Congress, and even the kind of attacks we experienced on our nation’s capital on January 6.

So, this book began about eight years ago and went through various preliminary outlines, but over the past five years its focus increasingly turned to democracy. I am a student of religion and I have always been interested in religion and politics, so it was natural for me to focus on religion and democracy rather than on democracy and its relationships to other realms of our society. Despite separation of church and state, religion is very much in the public mind as we think about the current challenges to American democracy. I have felt that much of this discussion is less than satisfactory because it leans in one of two directions. One direction argues that we should have more religion because religion makes us better people by giving us better values and promotes cohesion which is good for democracy. The other direction argues that we should have less religion because religion encourages people to believe in values that cannot be discussed or debated within a democracy. Both of those approaches are wishful thinking. They do not confront the reality of American religion. American religion is quite diverse. We are a relatively religious society. But we have deep disagreements about religion. So, my question in writing the book was what is possibly good about the kind of religion we have. And my argument briefly is that democracy is an agonistic enterprise in which we contest one another’s ideas. And religion can contribute to that kind of democracy because it does encourage people to contend for what they truly believe. In this respect, diversity is good for democracy because it encourages back-and-forth exchanges among people who disagree with one another and in so doing, it clarifies the values that are at stake.

R&P: You’re a sociologist by training, but you used the historical method alongside sociological theory to support your arguments. What about the historical record did you find pertinent to the ideas you cover in your book?

RW: I am a sociologist by training whose training included historical sociology as one of the methods we use to tackle large questions. And so, in tackling questions about religion and democracy, those are big questions. They are big questions because democracy and religion are social structures or social institutions, if you will. Democracy is not something that can be understood by conducting a survey and asking people whether they believe in democracy or not. Nor is religion something that can be understood by conducting a poll and asking people how often they attend religious services. To understand how religion and democracy intersect requires looking at action and the social contexts in which action takes place. By focusing on historical contexts, it also becomes necessary to abandon the idea that sociology can produce generalizations that apply to all times and places. What I have tried to do in the book is use many different kinds of historical materials to look in-depth at a number of important episodes over the past century in which religion played a role in discussions and contention about democratic values.

R&P: In your book, you talk about a wide range of groups and topics. For example, you talk about everything from minority religious groups (namely the black church) having the right to meet in a building to the debates surrounding Covid-19. What prompted you to choose the topics you chose?

RW: The structure of the book and the main topics it addresses follow a historical trajectory that begins in the 1930s with discussions prompted by the New Deal, moves through a discussion of conscientious objection during the 1930s and 40s, a discussion of voluntary associations in the 1950s and 60s, a discussion of debates about public welfare mostly during the 1980s and 90s, a discussion of immigration and citizenship more recently, and then finally a discussion of the wealth gap and a discussion of the coronavirus pandemic. I selected those cases because they represented major debates involving religion and democracy during their respective time periods.

The topics were also selected because they address key ideals that have always been part of our understanding of American democracy. For that reason, the discussion of the New Deal era focuses on the perceived threat to democracy of tyranny. The discussion of conscientious objection provides an opportunity to look closely at how freedom of conscience has been understood and how that understanding has changed as a result of religious diversity. Similarly, the discussion of voluntary associations provides an occasion to look at how freedom of assembly has been discussed and how freedom of assembly changed from the relatively peaceful 1950s into the social movements of the 1960s. The focus of the chapter on public welfare is human dignity, which of course is a primary concern of democracy and has been deeply debated in terms of how to provide public welfare and also to preserve the dignity of welfare recipients. The discussion of immigration and immigrant rights provides a window into recent discussions about citizenship and the fundamental question of who counts within our democratic framework. The wealth gap has been regarded as a threat to democracy and has been debated in terms of how to redress severe economic inequality. And finally, the coronavirus pandemic has posed deep questions about the health and safety of all of us and our responsibility to one another as opposed to exercising our individual freedom.

R&P: You say religious diversity forces Americans to engage in difficult debates around ideals they hold dear (poverty, pacifism, immigration, etc.). What is it about these debates that makes American democracy stronger?

RW: The primary literature about democracy in America, and indeed about the history of Western democracy, has always assumed that the value of democracy is that it is a mode of government that enables people who do not agree with one another to nevertheless get along with one another. Democracy developed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in response to the years of wars between Protestants and Catholics and among different varieties of Protestantism. So, to imagine that democracy could somehow be strong without people debating what they hold dear is almost to pose an impossible scenario. Nevertheless, there are several answers. One answer, which comes up in discussions even about diversity within academic circles, is that diversity and the debate arising from diversity bring out new ideas which respond to new challenges and therefore provide for better solutions to whatever those challenges may be. That is also true to some extent in democratic debate. The idea is not that people will arrive at a consensus about what they think. That is the view expressed in arguments about deliberative democracy, but it’s not the one advocated in theories of agonistic democracy. Agonistic democracy assumes that there are basic institutionalized norms in place that encourage debate, but that debate and indeed action that goes beyond debate will be contentious, that people will differ deeply about what they believe, and that being confronted with people who believe differently will force them to sharpen their ideas in some cases and perhaps develop new ideas in other cases.

An additional benefit to democracy is that religious diversity is the vehicle through which people are included in discussions about the kind of society in which we want to live. One can probably think of religious groups that we would just as soon not have to hear from, but those religious groups give their participants a way to express their values, and that is what democracy is all about. Another point that should not be lost track of is that religious diversity, as Thomas Jefferson pointed out, is the form of checks and balances from which we benefit. If one religious constituency makes a strong argument about a policy decision, whether that policy is about abortion or immigration or voting rights, we are fortunate that there are other religious groups ready and willing to contend against those arguments.

R&P: An argument from the right against promoting religious diversity might be that it creates disunity; they might say that having different values doesn’t encourage productive debate, but it produces strife and upheaval. How would you respond to his argument?

RW: An argument from the right that suggests diversity creates disunity is perhaps on the surface disingenuous or ill-informed. Who on the religious right would deny that the history of American religion has been contentious and disunited? Baptists and Pentecostals have fought each other, different branches of Methodism have fought each other, Presbyterians and Episcopalians have fought each other, and so forth. But the point about diversity is that if someone on the religious right argues that diversity is a bad thing because it produces strife, then it is up to that person to defend that argument. It is not up to a sociologist to say that the argument is wrong. It is simply an aspect of diversity that people have the right to argue that everyone should share the same values and other people can argue that different values are important.

R&P: An argument from the left against this type of diversity and debate might be that it would force victims to engage with their oppressors—that this engagement would only further the victim’s trauma. How would you respond to this argument?

RW: Suppose one takes as an example a case in which someone who is gay has been the victim of discrimination by someone who argued that providing healthcare to a gay person was against their religion. One could argue that religious diversity is a bad thing because this situation would never have occurred in the first place unless there were religious people who felt that helping someone who was gay was against their religion. But once again we have to confront the reality of the world in which we live, not the one in which we might wish to live. We are fortunate that under our democratic system we have courts in which to bring lawsuits, and we are fortunate that the courts are places in which diversity and debate about religion and other rights can be discussed. In a situation in which neither side might be content, the role of diversity is that both sides have been able to express their values and by doing so have brought their values into the public arena, where they can be considered as features of our democratic life together.

© 2011 Religion & Politics