In just a few days, winter quarter will be a fading memory and I will be on a plane to Washington, D.C. — the spring break destination of every political science major’s dreams. Over a year ago, my close friend Eliza Steffen ’20 and I decided to apply to lead a brand-new class for Alternative Spring Break (ASB), a program that offers a variety of intensive service-learning trips centered on a particular issue area or community experience. By integrating some of our favorite political science coursework with insights from advocacy experiences in our own faith communities, we sketched out an aspirational syllabus and itinerary for “Pluralism and Politics: Exploring Faith-Based Advocacy in American Society. ” To our pleasant surprise, the ASB team took a chance on our brainchild; a Google Doc that we’d dreamed up during spring break 2018 was to become a one-unit course and weeklong trip for up to a dozen students.
When we designed our syllabus, Eliza and I sought out to engage our group with a number of difficult questions: What is the optimal relationship between religion and involvement in democratic processes, and how ought it to be limited? Are politics an essential expression of faith commitments? What are the limits to religious freedom? As we have crafted lesson plans, facilitated class discussions and constructed a jam-packed itinerary, I have started to piece together my own hypothesis about the ideal role of religion in American politics. Overall, I am optimistic that faith, when embraced alongside core democratic values, can play a reinvigorating, healing and mobilizing role in political life.
A liberal society must uphold the rights of all people to practice their religion without state imposition, discrimination or unreasonable inconvenience. Religious groups that constitute a small minority of the population will fall within the “blind spots” of those in power. Ignorant of a particular group’s practice, society will fail to accommodate it — unless its adherents lobby for recognition and protection. Some forms of faith-based advocacy, particularly essential to minority faiths, stand up to bigotry and religious intolerance. When acts of hatred or challenges to free exercise
Faith-based advocacy can also apply a religious tradition’s teachings or values to a non-religious political issue, providing a faith voice on a matter of general public concern. Although houses of worship must remain nonpartisan, clergy members often speak out about political issues and encourage their congregants to vote. Just as the Black church drove the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, the language and aspirations of Reverend Dr. William Barber’s movement to end poverty (the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for a Moral Revival) are explicitly rooted in Biblical imperatives. Religious groups that vote reliably Republican also play an essential role in positive social transformation. Centering the values of mercy and redemption, evangelical Christians were a driving force in the passage of the First Step Act, the prison reform legislation that is perhaps the Trump administration’s most important bipartisan achievement.
Of course, most religions developed over millennia and are constantly reinterpreted across time and space. They are not designed to provide authoritative, clear-cut answers to hot-button political issues of the 21st century. No organization or party can definitively claim that a faith mandates its own worldview on a particular subject matter. On most issues, you will certainly find voices from within the same religious tradition on both sides of the aisle.
Too often, conversations about faith in public life are framed as an inevitable tension between religious freedom and civic equality. In a liberal democracy, all are free to hold their own worldviews (as the political philosopher John Rawls would call it, their comprehensive doctrines), but not to impose their ideas on others. No group’s dogma can dictate the way the rest of us live our lives. In the wake of Supreme Court decisions such as Masterpiece Cake Shop (2017) and Hobby Lobby (2014), which give license to discriminatory treatment and denial of essential services under the guise of religious freedom, some might imagine that faith in politics solely serves to undermine the freedom and equality of all people. These cases bring up existential questions for a diverse society with a deep-rooted ideal of religious freedom, but they do not reflect the entire relationship between religion and American democracy, and tend to obscure the ways in which religion invigorates civil society and contributes to positive social change.
Faith plays a positive role in public life when it illuminates our moral commitments — and motivates us to act on our values. Religious communities can empower us to take part in politics, bring us into networks of passionate individuals and provide support when the work gets difficult. In a time of division, religion can advocate the universal dignity of human beings and encourage mutual respect. At times, conflicting interpretations and mutually irreconcilable faith claims —especially those that call the dignity and equality of a particular group into question — will make religion a source of antagonism, rather than unity, in political life. In this case, the guarantees of liberal democracy ought to serve as a corrective mechanism. All people can make their values known, but faith interpretations cannot override society’s fundamental commitment to the freedom and equality of all its citizens. Religion sometimes assumes a frustrating and divisive role in American public life, but this ought not overshadow its potential to reinvigorate politics and contribute to positive social change. Involvement in faith communities can push us to take principled stances, resist partisan sorting and mitigate polarization.When we risk slipping into apathy, religious traditions, teachings and collective histories can compel us to take action.
In D.C., I am excited to investigate how the reality of faith-based advocacy stacks up against this idealistic vision and to see whether religion truly galvanizes productive engagement in democracy. Even more so, I can’t wait to see how our group members continue to learn from and challenge each other, and draw inspiration from the advocates and public officials we’ll be meeting. Full of contradictions and frontier challenges for liberal democracies, the intersection of religion and politics just may offer some ways to cut through disillusion and transcend division. Even if D.C. proves my optimism wrong, I hope that “Pluralism and Politics” will inspire our participants to continue taking part in democratic processes as an authentic expression of their own values and identities.
Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.