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Why a healthy, functioning democracy needs religion

A new book by renowned scholar Robert Wuthnow explains why religious groups provide an extra set of checks and balances for America’s democratic system

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The simple, straightforward title of Robert Wuthnow’s latest book, “Why Religion is Good for American Democracy,” is not only of-the-moment but particularly thought-provoking in the wake of Jan. 6 — a moment when religion was being invoked to upend one of the cornerstones of our democracy: elections.

Wuthnow, an emeritus professor of sociology at Princeton University, is the author of dozens of books and articles exploring the intersection of faith and the public square. Though he earned his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley and, following a short stint at the University of Arizona, spent four decades at Princeton, the Kansas native has kept his finger on the pulse of rural and small-town America throughout his career.

His book “The Left Behind: Decline and Rage in Rural America” digs into some of the most important questions and sociological issues of our time, including the urban-rural divide and why rural America, which was once reliably Democrat, became Trump country. Similarly, in “Small-Town America: Finding Community, Shaping the Future,” Wuthnow draws from hundreds of interviews to bring readers a riveting portrait of oft-overlooked corners of the country.

He might be considered the working man’s sociologist (a description that made him chuckle).

He recently sat down to talk about his most recent book and the role of religion in today’s society with the Deseret News.

His interests are rooted in his own childhood in rural America, Wuthnow explained to the Deseret News. His father was a farmer who left school after the eighth grade. His mother was a schoolteacher, he said, adding, “and it took her a very long time to eventually get a college degree.”

Married since 1968 to Sara, Wuthnow and his wife have lived in northern Virginia since he retired from Princeton. There, he said, they’re close to two of their three children; the grandfather of seven added that “four of the seven live within walking distance.”

“A lot of my work has been concerned with the kind of America that my children and grandchildren are living in and are going to be living in the future,” he reflected. “This book grew out of a deep concern over the past few years about the strengths and weaknesses and the future of democracy in America.”

The transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Deseret News: In layman’s terms can you explain your new book, “Why Religion is Good for American Democracy?” 

Robert Wuthnow: The book is about religion’s contribution to democracy, thinking especially the state of democracy that we’re all worried about now. My argument is that religion encourages us to talk about our values, and it gives us a language to talk about our values and it also gives us a platform from which to talk about our values. So, in my view, all of that is good for democracy, and that is especially the case because religion in America is pluralistic. When we talk about our values we’re not all talking in one voice. We don’t all agree … that diversity enhances the give and take that democracy is set up to benefit from. 

DN: In other words, religion energizes the system? 

RW: Absolutely. 


Robert Wuthnow, a scholar at Princeton University, is pictured in 2003.

Denise Applewhite, Princeton University

DN: I understand that your book starts around the New Deal era. So has religion been a boon to democracy in recent decades more than it was in the past? What about in the earliest days, the foundation, how was religion important back then?

RW: One of the things that religion has done from the very beginning is to provide Americans with a language in which to discuss “should we be this kind of democracy or a different kind? Should we follow a certain denomination or should we not?”

Now in those early years of the American republic, let’s say the nation was primarily Christian and so there was that broad framework, but within that broad framework there were certainly Catholics and Protestants and then there were a variety of Protestants, as well. So one of the reasons why we have religious freedom in the First Amendment is to guarantee — hopefully, to guarantee — that no one of those religions becomes an established religion. 

Going forward, what I argue is that we have continued to have that diversity and that diversity has even increased, certainly increased a lot. … We now have more Muslims than ever before, more Hindus and more Buddhists and various new denominations and nondenominational organizations. … We do know that an increasing proportion of Americans, especially younger Americans, do not claim an affiliation with any particular religious tradition. That doesn’t mean they are not interested in religion. It doesn’t mean they are necessarily without religion, but the composition has changed. And my argument is that part of the reason we continue to have these discussions about religion is precisely that change. 

We also have the continuing discussion of what the First Amendment means. It’s never set in stone, and that’s partly because we have different ideas within the judiciary, of course, but we also have different voices weighing in from the religious communities and those voices are one of the ways those religious communities, faith communities, express their values and participate in being part of the American citizenry. 

DN: Why was the New Deal era your starting point? 

RW: I was especially interested in trying to put ourselves — to put myself and readers — into a position other than the one that we have currently been living through, in which many Americans were concerned about authoritarianism.

By 1933, when some of the New Deal’s initial policies were declared unconstitutional, (some Americans) worried and they worried especially then when (President Franklin D. Roosevelt) tried to pack the Supreme Court and then when he ran for a third term and then when he ran for a fourth term. And that’s a story that many of us never learned in school. 

We learned — many of us at least — that the New Deal was wonderful. It saved us from the Great Depression. It brought us Social Security and many other good things. But at the time many people, even people who supported FDR and were part of the inner circle, were worried that this could get out of hand, that America might go authoritarian just like Germany had. And so what I trace in that part of the book is a very vigorous debate among religious leaders about authoritarianism. 

They said, “We are headed towards tyranny” and some said, “No, no, this is wonderful. Capitalism didn’t work. We need a new world order.” Others said, “No, this is dangerous. This is curtailing our freedoms.” So what the religious communities did in that period was to add to that debate. They added questions about history, morality, their understandings of government, that animated the economic and policy discussions that were happening. And they didn’t do that only in the abstract. They did that in church basements. They did that in forums where clergy would get together with labor union leaders. And that was a very lively time of grassroots engagement.

DN: As white evangelicals coalesce around former President Donald Trump, has it fueled some sort of move toward totalitarianism? 

RW: Yeah, absolutely. And once again I’m very glad that we have religious diversity in this country so that it isn’t evangelicals on the one hand arguing against people who are totally secular on the other hand. But it is a lively conversation among religious leaders among faith leaders themselves. One concrete example: Think about June 1, 2020, when Donald Trump stood in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding up his Bible. 

Well, the lead story was evangelicals are really happy about that he’s making a statement of faith. The backstory (of) the picture with St. John’s Episcopal Church is a mainline Black church and many of the Black churches were supporting the Black Lives Matter protests that were happening right at the moment. 

That’s another vivid example of the way which religious groups serve almost as checks and balances — there’s a protest and there’s a counterprotest. We can certainly be on one side or the other of those huge debates … but we also have to be very thankful (that) we have the kind of diversity that we do have. 

DN: How is the impact of religion on American democracy changing today as the religious landscape shifts? 

RW: I argue in the book that we have of course seen a great deal of political polarization in recent decades and that has also encouraged religious polarization between … religious conservatives and religious liberals. And I do not regard that as healthy either for religion or democracy and I argue that in the book. 

DN: Reminds me of Michele Margolis, a bit, who says that ultimately people’s politics determine their religious affiliation. I wonder then if you’re saying that the political polarization fuels the religions polarization and not the opposite?

RW: Yes. yes. And there are a number of reasons for that, some of which are obvious and some of which are counterintuitive. 

The political landscape does tend to shape religion. You know there’s a debate here about who’s the stronger party: religious leaders or political leaders? No question in my mind it’s the political leaders, and so you’ll see religious leaders currying favor with one kind of political leader or another, but they often don’t get what they want. 

But, on the religious side, this is maybe the counterintuitive part, a lot of people say, “Well, you know, American religion is so strong. It’s way stronger than anything in Europe. More people attend church, even though that may be declining, than participate in any other voluntary organization. ... Religion is a trilliondollar industry.” All of which is true. But a lot of the religious community isn’t terribly interested in debating political questions. You know, they may be voting one way or another depending on what they heard in their religious community, but for them religion is about their kids and their family and going to services or helping out at the soup kitchen or whatever it might be. 

And so it’s more the organized religious advocacy groups that are in there debating issues, filing amicus briefs to the courts, organizing protests whatever it might be — that’s where we see religion contributing and all of that, of course, does take place within the framework of the political landscape.

DN: Arguably, on Jan. 6, we saw religion exerting a negative influence on American democracy? Is that something you’re concerned about? 

RW: Well, yes, absolutely. I’m concerned about that trend. What gives me some reason to be optimistic is that there are many other faith communities and faith leaders who are outspokenly against that kind of Christian nationalist insurrection.

DN: What about young people — should they claim a religion for democracy’s sake? Should they get involved? And what to do about the “nones?”

RW: My view is that young people should get involved in some civic organization for the sake of democracy. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a religious organization and the reason for that is that many of the most effective advocacy groups and issues have been coalitions among religious and ostensibly nonreligious organizations. So, for example, the ACLU might be an organization that a young person would say, “You know, if I had an hour a week or $10 to give right now I think that’s going to be more influential than giving that to the local church.” That’s fine. 

The concern is for the folks who say, “I’m just giving up. There’s just no reason to get involved. Everything is fake news, everything is fraudulent, I should just stay at home and have a good time.” And that’s not helpful.