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Pluralism and politics: seeing democracy at its best

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During spring break, I co-led an Alternative Spring Break trip to Washington, D.C. on the theme of “Pluralism and Politics: Exploring Faith-Based Advocacy in American Society.” Before the trip, I wrote a reflection on my preliminary understanding of the role of faith in public life, hypothesizing that religion “illuminates our moral commitments,” “motivates us to act on our values” and “galvanizes productive engagement in democracy.” However, whenever organizations or individuals undermine the equality of others in the name of religious freedom — for example, by refusing service to LGBTQ+ customers — liberal democracy must serve as a “corrective mechanism” and bar such unfair practices. In D.C., we visited over a dozen organizations across a wide range of faith backgrounds and ideological leanings. Every meeting and conversation served to challenge my assumptions about religious freedom, deepen my understanding of polarization or further elucidate the moral and political role of faith groups in the democratic process.

From our first day, it became clear that the goals of religious freedom and civil rights are not inherently in conflict. For many communities, religious freedom is a civil rights issue in itself. To safeguard civil rights is to ensure that all people can partake fully in society without being degraded or mistreated for any aspect of their identity. The ability to safely wear a hijab in any setting, decorate a graduation cap with traditional tribal symbols or serve in the military while wearing a turban are all matters of religious expression that enable people to participate in every facet of American life without sacrificing any element of themselves or being disrespected because of their religious practice. To respond to marginalization, discrimination and exclusion, religious advocacy groups amplify the struggles of their community members, win legal protections, gain political recognition and extend the American guarantee of religious freedom to apply to their faith practices.

Many faith-based advocacy organizations, especially those that represent minority faith groups, are civil rights organizations above all else. In addition, they may work to advance public policy that aligns with the core tenets of their religion. A representative of the Hindu American Foundation explained that the organization strives to be a big-tent group and represent people of all political leanings, but it will advocate on policies that reflect the most intrinsic aspects of the Hindu faith. For example, the principle of ahimsa, or respect for living things and avoidance of intentional harm, compels the organization to take an especially strong stance on gun control.

Navigating ideological difference while authentically representing politically diverse communities is one of the most pressing challenges for faith-based advocacy organizations, but also a source of strength. Originally, I proposed that people of faith are more likely to have worldviews that cut across political dogma and compel them to speak with an independent moral voice that does not clearly fall along party lines. While the consciences of individuals can certainly help to mitigate partisanship, faith-based advocacy organizations can also serve as macro-level bulwarks against partisan sorting. They are committed to gauging a wide array of opinions within their communities and distilling core principles that represent the people’s values. The deliberation and consensus-building processes underlying the faith voice in politics translates into trust and moral weight on the Hill.

In my assessment, the respect for faith-based advocacy organizations does not stem from the religious content of their political claims, but rather, from their access to people who might not otherwise participate in politics. They take the pulse of their communities, mobilize people of faith to act on their values and serve as ambassadors to elected officials. Faith groups take political stances because they feel some combination of intrinsic moral obligation and grassroots community pressure. Unlike corporate lobbyists, faith-based advocacy organizations lack material interests in political outcomes; unlike political party activists, they are not seeking to get elected, but rather, to inform public policy regardless of who is in office. They make the political process more accessible to their community members and reinvigorate politics with the voices of intrinsically motivated citizens, representing democratic participation at its best.

Notably, secular community associations such as the American Humanist Association can serve the same purpose and are seen with the same credibility; I use faith-based advocacy as a proxy for civil society organizations that represent communities whose shared purpose or common identity is not purely political.

Despite this optimistic portrayal, there is reason to worry that hyper-partisanship will corrode the independence of faith-based advocacy organizations and splinter faith communities along partisan lines. In some cases, religious affiliation is already a proxy for party affiliation. According to the Public Religion Research Institute, only 12% of Mormons and 14% of white evangelical Protestants identify as Democrats, while only 6% of Muslims, 4% of black Protestants, and 3% of Unitarian Universalist identify as Republicans. When religious and partisan identities coincide, faith communities can be pulled to the extremes and fuel, rather than mitigate, hyper-partisanship—as exemplified by the political juggernaut of the evangelical right, a loosely defined coalition of conservative Christian groups that rose to political prominence in the 1970s and advocates for socially conservative policies, including anti-choice and anti-LGBTQ legislation.

Political divides can also lead to the proliferation of advocacy organizations that adopt a particular partisan agenda. We primarily visited consensus-based organizations that advocate on behalf of politically diverse constituencies, but as these groups face pressure from the left and the right to emulate party lines, they may find their community members gravitating toward smaller organizations with policy agendas more tailored to liberal or conservative blocs within particular faith groups.

In the face of this trend, it is important to appreciate the unglamorous yet essential work of big-tent advocacy organizations that represent diverse communities, distill common principles across partisan lines and mobilize people to participate in politics. When popular opinion equates faith in public life with division and discrimination, most people are left without a window into the political victories achieved through interfaith coalitions, the empowerment of everyday citizens through their community associations and the gradual inclusion of religious minorities in our common understanding of religious freedom.

As I reflect on our ASB experience, I am optimistic that our participants will continue to share their perspectives on the ideal role of faith in public life, challenge the way it is popularly portrayed and inspire others to pursue social change through their community associations. By elevating the positive contributions of civil society organizations and engaging in the political process through our own communities, we will help guard against the troubling possibility that polarization will pull us apart and undermine the unique role of faith-based advocacy in our democracy.

Contact Courtney Cooperman at ccoop20 ‘at’ stanford.edu.