Why Religion is Good for Democracy

We hear a lot these days about how religion threatens American democracy. The view almost amounts to a consensus in some parts of the academy. But that was not always the case. For most of American history, observers have thought that religion, and religious communities especially, help promote democracy. That was Tocqueville’s view, obviously, and he wrote the most insightful description of American society ever.

A new book from Princeton, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy, by leading sociologist Robert Wuthnow, picks up the theme. Anything from Wuthnow is worth reading, and this new book looks like no exception. Here’s the description from the publishers website:

Does religion benefit democracy? Robert Wuthnow says yes. In Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy, Wuthnow makes his case by moving beyond the focus on unifying values or narratives about culture wars and elections. Rather, he demonstrates that the beneficial contributions of religion are best understood through the lens of religious diversity. The religious composition of the United States comprises many groups, organizations, and individuals that vigorously, and sometimes aggressively, contend for what they believe to be good and true. Unwelcome as this contention can be, it is rarely extremist, violent, or autocratic. Instead, it brings alternative and innovative perspectives to the table, forcing debates about what it means to be a democracy.

Wuthnow shows how American religious diversity works by closely investigating religious advocacy spanning the past century: during the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, the debates about welfare reform, the recent struggles for immigrant rights and economic equality, and responses to the coronavirus pandemic. The engagement of religious groups in advocacy and counteradvocacy has sharpened arguments about authoritarianism, liberty of conscience, freedom of assembly, human dignity, citizens’ rights, equality, and public health. Wuthnow hones in on key principles of democratic governance and provides a hopeful yet realistic appraisal of what religion can and cannot achieve.

At a time when many observers believe American democracy to be in dire need of revitalization, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy illustrates how religious groups have contributed to this end and how they might continue to do so despite the many challenges faced by the nation.

Defer to the Experts? Think for Yourself?

Think for yourself! Follow the Science! How do we know when to trust expertise and when to be skeptical? What measure of confidence should we place in institutional and disciplinary knowledge in an age of institutional and disciplinary breakdown? What is knowledge, fundamentally, and what is its value?

Here is an interesting historical and philosophical treatment of these difficult questions: Don’t Think for Yourself: Authority and Belief in Medieval Philosophy (Notre Dame Press) by Professor Peter Adamson, forthcoming this fall. It focuses on the relationship of authority and knowledge in the medieval world, arriving at something of an intermediate position on the merits.

“How do we judge whether we should be willing to follow the views of experts or whether we ought to try to come to our own, independent views? This book seeks the answer in medieval philosophical thought.

In this engaging study into the history of philosophy and epistemology, Peter Adamson provides an answer to a question as relevant today as it was in the medieval period: how and when should we turn to the authoritative expertise of other people in forming our own beliefs? He challenges us to reconsider our approach to this question through a constructive recovery of the intellectual and cultural traditions of the Islamic world, the Byzantine Empire, and Latin Christendom.

Adamson begins by foregrounding the distinction in Islamic philosophy between taqlīd, or the uncritical acceptance of authority, and ijtihad, or judgment based on independent effort, the latter of which was particularly prized in Islamic law, theology, and philosophy during the medieval period. He then demonstrates how the Islamic tradition paves the way for the development of what he calls a “justified taqlīd,” according to which one develops the skills necessary to critically and selectively follow an authority based on their reliability. The book proceeds to reconfigure our understanding of the relation between authority and independent thought in the medieval world by illuminating how women found spaces to assert their own intellectual authority, how medieval writers evaluated the authoritative status of Plato and Aristotle, and how independent reasoning was deployed to defend one Abrahamic faith against the other. This clear and eloquently written book will interest scholars in and enthusiasts of medieval philosophy, Islamic studies, Byzantine studies, and the history of thought.”

Ben-Johanan, “Jacob’s Younger Brother”

I’m delighted to join Marc in re-starting our Scholarship Roundup feature here on the Forum. The feature highlights new books and articles on law and religion (generally speaking) that we think will interest our followers. A few of you have told us you miss the feature–so now it’s back!

Here’s a new book from Harvard, out this month, on Jewish-Catholic relations after Vatican II: Jacob’s Younger Brother: Christian-Jewish Relations after Vatican II, by Karma Ben-Johanan (Humboldt). The author suggests that, behind the scenes, each side of the relationship has continued to have reservations about exactly what the 20th-century rapprochement between these two great religions means. Here’s the publisher’s description:

A revealing account of contemporary tensions between Jews and Christians, playing out beneath the surface of conciliatory interfaith dialogue.

A new chapter in Jewish–Christian relations opened in the second half of the twentieth century when the Second Vatican Council exonerated Jews from the accusation of deicide and declared that the Jewish people had never been rejected by God. In a few carefully phrased statements, two millennia of deep hostility were swept into the trash heap of history.

But old animosities die hard. While Catholic and Jewish leaders publicly promoted interfaith dialogue, doubts remained behind closed doors. Catholic officials and theologians soon found that changing their attitude toward Jews could threaten the foundations of Christian tradition. For their part, many Jews perceived the new Catholic line as a Church effort to shore up support amid atheist and secular advances. Drawing on extensive research in contemporary rabbinical literature, Karma Ben-Johanan shows that Jewish leaders welcomed the Catholic condemnation of antisemitism but were less enthusiastic about the Church’s sudden urge to claim their friendship. Catholic theologians hoped Vatican II would turn the page on an embarrassing history, hence the assertion that the Church had not reformed but rather had always loved Jews, or at least should have. Orthodox rabbis, in contrast, believed they were finally free to say what they thought of Christianity.

Jacob’s Younger Brother pulls back the veil of interfaith dialogue to reveal how Orthodox rabbis and Catholic leaders spoke about each other when outsiders were not in the room. There Ben-Johanan finds Jews reluctant to accept the latest whims of a Church that had unilaterally dictated the terms of Jewish–Christian relations for centuries.

“Christianity and Constitutionalism” (Aroney & Leigh, eds.)

We are delighted to announce that the Forum will bring back the tradition of occasional posts on interesting looking new books in law and religion and related areas.

And here is a fascinating new volume to kick us off: Christianity and Constitutionalism, edited by constitutional scholars Nicholas Aroney and Ian Leigh (OUP 2022). The book contains contributions (by an impressive group) on historical influences; political concepts including sovereignty, rule of law, democracy, conscience, and many others; and theologically informed ideas relevant to constitutionalism (e.g. natural law and subsidiarity).

Collegium Institute Event on Catholics in America with Breidenbach, Bruenig, and Maier

Just a quick announcement for what looks like a very worthwhile Collegium Institute event at the Penn Club in New York: “How Catholics Became American,” discussing Professor Michael Breidenbach’s recent book, Our Dear-Bought Liberty: Catholics and Religious Toleration in Early America (HUP 2021). The event features Elizabeth Bruenig of the Atlantic, Francis Maier of the University of Notre Dame, and Prof. Breidenbach. The date is March 16 and further details are at the link.

On the Leak in Dobbs

In First Things today, I argue that the leak of the Dobbs draft opinion this week differs from past SCOTUS leaks and poses a real danger for the Court. Here’s an excerpt:

Past leaks from law clerks typically have come after the Court has issued a decision. They often seem explained by desires to set the record straight for history or, perhaps, to demonstrate the leaker’s own significance (which, as a former clerk, I can attest to be typically little). If they come before a decision, leaks are usually spare and vague, hints at a likely vote tally or outcome. Such leaks do little to change the day-to-day workings of the Court.

But the leak of an entire draft opinion in the middle of deliberations in a vitally important case suggests something very different, a desire either to bully or destroy the Court as an effective institution. After this episode, justices will feel less secure about the confidentiality of their deliberations and think twice about what they put in drafts. The work of the Court will inevitably suffer. That is what makes this leak so damaging, however one feels about the ultimate issue at stake.

You can read the full essay here.