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.