Princeton Professor emeritus Robert Wuthnow has written yet another book about religion, Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy (Princeton U. Pr, 2022) makes and develops his claim "that religion is good for American democracy less because of the unifying values it might provide and more because of religion's capacity to bring diverse values, interests, and moral claims into juxtaposition with one another." Drawing on studies of religion in ordinary life, he conceptualizes "religious practices in terms of action, conviction, and contention, meaning that they are something people do because they are convinced that what they are doing is right, and they hold these convictions in contention with behavior considered less desirable and indeed wrong."
B far, the more interesting parts of the book are Wuthnow's compelling accounts of historical and recent examples of how religion has played this role in American democratic politics. The first such account concerns the New Deal period. Wuthnow recounts the history of religious responses to the New Deal. He particularly highlights religious-based opposition to the New Deal, which coincided with the fear "that local control of the kind present in families, churches, and communities would be replaced by government, codes, rules, and regulations." Probably the most famous Catholic opponent of the New Deal was, of course, the infamous Fr. Charles Coughlin, while Southern Democrats' resistance "occasioned the return of a Christian-based populism that would surface repeatedly in small-government appeals." Wuthnow contends that the religious reactions to the New Deal contributed "to the debate about what democracy should be, how it should be practiced, and what it implied for American values and for religion."
In a similar way, Wuthnow examines the wartime debates about pacifism, war, and conscientious objection, and postwar worries about social conformity and dissent. "Although it is true that religion in the 1950s was conformist," the author argues, "it was organized around diverse traditions and its growth was realized not only in membership but also in an expansion of the institutional forms it had been developing since the end of the nineteenth century. Its contribution to democracy was less a consensus around an Americanized ideal and more a convergence of perspectives about the strengths of American democracy and the challenges facing it.." Thus, for Wuthnow, the freedom of religion hailed by Americans in the 1950s created spaces "for a much wider variety of forms and ideas to take root."
Wuthnow continues this approach, bringing the discussion up to date, with accounts of religious perspectives and debates about the roles of the state and private charity in welfare provision and the religiously fraught issues of immigration and citizenship and of wealth and economic inequality, ending with a chapter on faith communities and the pandemic. He concludes that "much of the past century's religious history has been dominated by the tension that ran through all the various traditions between upholding the distinctive rights and freedoms of religion, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, joining with nonreligious groups and government in the interest of making a difference in the wider world."
What Wuthnow calls "underappreciated contribution of the various religious groups and coalitions," he contends, "has been their role in filtering, digesting, and in many instances countering the dominant national rhetoric - doing so through local networks and by focusing on practical concerns inadequately addressed through electoral politics."
One area in particular which "religious diversity has contributed least to resolving is systemic racism." Therefore, he considers it particularly important "that Black churches and coalitions of African-American civil rights and community service organizations have contributed significantly to all the major deliberations the nation h as faced in deciding what it means to be a democracy that upholds liberty and justice for all."
Wuthnow's account and analysis of how religious groups have been participants in important debates in American history offers a helpful background for our current climate in which religious identities have increasingly become symbolic and tribal markers in our contemporary political polarization, while religious organizations and institutions have themselves sometimes become antagonists in contemporary culture war politics. Even without and apart from such seeming distortions of religion for political purposes, this book should highlight our appreciation of religion's past and present contributions to important political conflicts and so encourage proponents of a lively democratic pluralism.