Better Democracy Through Disagreement?

Why Religion Is Good for American Democracy
By Robert Wuthnow
Princeton University Press, pp. 328, $29.95

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Reviewed by D. Stephen Long

Robert Wuthnow’s informative work is filled with insights about religions’ role in American democracy. Religions, he claims, oppose tyranny because of the conflicts they generate (chapter 1); contribute to liberty of conscience through the “multiple options” set forth on participation in war (chapter two); require freedom of assembly to accommodate their diverse forms (chapter three); promote human dignity across the political spectrum by addressing indignities (chapter four); keep alive discussions of inclusion on emigration and citizenship (chapter five), and on wealth disparity through the prosperity gospel, philanthrocapitalism, faith-friendly initiatives, and Catholic social teaching (chapter six); and lead debate on health and vaccines through “resistance, adaption, and advocacy” (chapter seven).

Reading this too hasty summary should produce confusion in the reader. One might have presumed that religions are good for American democracy because of their unifying or reconciling character, but Wuthnow makes the opposite claim. The diversity and disagreements religions produce, internally and externally, require democratic means for their accommodation. Religion is good not as a unifying force but “because of religion’s capacity to bring diverse values, interests, and moral claims into juxtaposition with one another.”

Religions are less useful because they promote peace, truth, or goodness, and more because they are sites of contestation. Wuthnow’s argument is framed by the agonistic pluralism set forth by political philosopher Chantal Mouffe. Democracy flourishes when it is agonistic.

Deliberative democracy that seeks to ground it in reasonable consensus (John Rawls or Jürgen Habermas), or a neo-Aristotelianism that affirms a rational, comprehensive conception of the good to which politics can be ordered (Alasdair MacIntyre), he says, diminishes democracy by preempting messy, divergent, and irreconcilable interests for a premature unity. Contra Plato’s noble lie, Augustine’s tranquility of order, or even R.J. Rushdoony’s Christian nationalist Reconstructionism, religion serves democracy best not through its unifying potential but in its divisiveness. The argument is intriguing, but one must accept Mouffe’s noncognitive political philosophy, with its paradoxical claim that conflict integrates, for it to work.

Wuthnow’s work is a sociology of religion; it is neither a theology nor an ethics. He can describe events without moral evaluation, such as J.C. Penney and Conrad Hilton’s affirmation of faith because it was good for business, the U.S. Supreme Court’s use of Paul Tillich’s ultimate concern to define religion, or the fact that sex workers regularly set up business at revivalist camp meetings. There is much more to learn in his well-crafted narrative, but do not expect him to make theological or ethical evaluations, or at least to make them too explicit. They are present. After all, good is in the title.

Description and evaluation are finally inseparable, even to a careful sociologist like Wuthnow. He is rightly concerned about “autocratic tendencies” in Western democracies that have led to an unhealthy “polarization.” He does not let the reader know about this concern until the concluding pages, but I think it sets the context for the work and offers two possible interpretations.

On the one hand, Wuthnow alleviates the anxiety of those who think religions in America are contributing to the decline of democracy. We need no more handwringing over how to fix religion if it is to be good for democracy. Messy religions contribute to democracy by their messiness.

On the other hand, Wuthnow acknowledges that authoritarian tendences in religion threaten democracy. This second interpretation is not in tension with the first. They work together because of his alternative prescription on how to address these tendencies. Democracy is agonistic pluralism. Religions should take their place within it.

The advantage of Wuthnow’s analysis is that it steers clear of pious, sentimental claims like “Let’s just find common ground,” or “Can’t we discover what unites us?” He also avoids the all too common bland appeal to centrism. Refreshingly, he does not ask us to “meet in the middle.” Give us the edges, let them present their arguments, and let’s debate what is right or wrong about them.

The disadvantage is that it might underwrite the claim that expressions of interest alone, rather than truth, reason, or goodness, form the basis for political society. It might be too descriptively accurate. If so, we may have no rational means to adjudicate our differences, even our polarization.

Dr. D. Stephen Long is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at Southern Methodist University.


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