Manual Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?

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  2. Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?
  3. Alan Wolfe - Political Science Department - Boston College

The United States remains a deeply religious country and religion plays an inextricably critical role in American politics. Controversy over issues such as abortion is fueled by opposition in the Catholic Church and among conservative Protestants, candidates for the presidency are questioned about their religious beliefs, and the separation of church and state remains hotly contested.


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While the examination of religion's influence in politics has long been neglected, in the last decade the subject has finally garnered the attention it deserves. In Religion and Democracy in the United States, prominent scholars consider the ways Americans understand the relationship between their religious beliefs and the political arena.

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This collection, a work of the Task Force on Religion and American Democracy of the American Political Science Association, thoughtfully explores the effects of religion on democracy and contemporary partisan politics. Topics include how religious diversity affects American democracy, how religion is implicated in America's partisan battles, and how religion affects ideas about race, ethnicity, and gender. We have been spending our moral capital with the same reckless abandon that we have been spending our financial capital.

For Rabbi Sacks, the charred ruins of London neighborhoods are a symptom of a process of civilizational decay that is affecting, to one degree or another, all of the established democracies of the West. The very existence of democracy, in other words, is tied to the reinvigoration of religious faith.


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  5. The issue of religion and its relation to democracy is a central issue in the thought of Jean Bethke Elshtain, though she places more emphasis on a revival of civil society activism than of religious faith. Elsewhere, though, she writes that that such struggles are not self-generating but are inspired by religious faith.

    We see that every major social movement in American history until recent decades, perhaps has been interlaced with religious language, inspiration, and enthusiasm. Social movements may generate the moral purpose and common action that a healthy democracy requires, but they themselves are the product of religious faith. Vaclav Havel, the playwright and former President of the Czech Republic, has spoken eloquently on this point.

    But in and of themselves, they cannot guarantee his dignity, freedom and responsibility. I think the fathers of American democracy knew this very well.

    Religion and Democracy in the United States: Danger or Opportunity?

    The view that democratic society depends very powerfully on the influence that religious faith exercises on the individual and on society as a whole was set forth in the most compelling way by Alexis de Tocqueville in his seminal work Democracy in America. And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?

    Tocqueville writes about three ways that religion prepares people for democratic citizenship.

    Rather, his entreaties were addressed to the clergy in Europe, where the Christian church had formed a union with the temporal powers, for which it was paying the price. He wonders if the vaunted human-rights ideals contained in the preamble to the European constitution can survive in a culture of moral relativism that has lost any connection to its roots in Christianity. It is also inconsistent with the way Tocqueville properly understood the relationship between religion and democracy as a finely balanced system of institutional separation and mutual inter-dependence, with religion helping democracy by preparing the people to assume the obligations of citizenship, and democracy helping religion by giving it the freedom to minister to the people and to uplift their spirits.

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    Alan Wolfe - Political Science Department - Boston College

    Nowhere today is there a greater need to understand and appreciate the necessary link between religion and democracy than in the Middle East and the larger Muslim world, where a debate is raging over the proper relationship between politics and faith. Stay tuned and prayerfully get ready.

    Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. Follow Jim on Twitter JimWallis. Skip to main content. By using sojo. Magazine Current Issue Write for Sojourners. Subscribe Magazine Preaching the Word Newsletters. Jim Wallis.

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