As Christians prepare to celebrate Easter, they are facing a challenging environment in which church doors will be closed and families will be gathered over FaceTime and Zoom rather than in person. Some families have loved ones suffering from the novel coronavirus — and thousands are mourning a loss of someone they love.
But no matter the obstacles, faith leaders play an important role in strengthening community connections — not just within their own congregations, but within the wider world.
For the past three years, Democracy Fund’s Faith in Democracy initiative has engaged with and empowered faith leaders around building bridges, overcoming polarization, and promoting pluralism. As we have listened to leaders at the intersection of faith and politics, we have consistently heard that Christians in the United States have an opportunity to lead our country toward a future in which everyone feels like they belong. Making up roughly 70 percent of the population, Christian leaders and their organizations can often play a harmful role in driving polarization in our country, but they also have an opportunity to play an important role in efforts to overcome those divisions.
At Democracy Fund, we wanted to understand more: where do common ground and aligned visions exist when it comes to engaging in politics through the lens of faith? Where do divisions persist? Most importantly, we wanted to know how we and our partners could support Christian leaders to make pluralism a priority in their ministries and in the ways they engage in public life.
Trinity Forum fellow Michael Wear and Wheaton College Professor Dr. Amy Black have conducted significant research around these questions. On February 24th, Trinity Forum released their report, “Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States: Insights from Christian Leaders,” with financial support from Democracy Fund. Wear and Black interviewed a diverse group of more than 50 Christian leaders from across denominational, racial, and political lines about how they engage with our public institutions, and their views on the topic of pluralism.
In addition to providing a framework for religious leaders to engage in politics, the report also sheds light on how philanthropy and our civic institutions can empower Christian leaders to achieve the shared goal of a stronger, more pluralistic democracy.
The Mutual Benefits of Promoting Pluralism
While there are deep disagreements among Christians themselves in the United States — from theology to political leanings and policy stances — Wear and Black “were somewhat surprised to find such commonality” as it relates to pluralism and bridge-building.
They found that Christians have a shared moral language and vocabulary that span across denominations and perspectives. This framework as well as the way their houses of worship are rooted in their communities means that Christian leaders are in a unique position to conduct bridge building work at the local level. According to the report:
“One of the most resounding themes…was the importance of working at the local level. Although local communities are not immune from some of the negative effects of polarization, direct service and grassroots activism provide opportunities to work across political, racial, socio-economic, religious, and other differences.”
Funders have an opportunity to identify effective models of local bridge-building in Christian communities, invest in their long-term development, and use lessons learned to scale them across the country.
We are used to thinking about the ways in which religious pluralism can serve as a bedrock for better civic engagement, greater social cohesion, or desirable policy outcomes. While interviewees shared this sentiment, they also expressed something else: religious pluralism strengthens individual faith communities in their own right. Rather than supporting religious pluralism simply as a framework for policy advocacy or their own religious freedom, these leaders said that religious pluralism actually strengthens the practices of their individual faith communities. In other words, when individual Christian denominations seek to understand their neighbors from different faith traditions, they grow stronger in the knowledge and practice of their own faith.
This finding creates an important opportunity for both religious and nonreligious funders: investing in religious pluralism simultaneously strengthens our democratic institutions, creates a greater sense of belonging in our communities, and strengthens individual faith traditions.
Opportunities for Funders
With their report, Michael Wear and Amy Black have created a compelling framework for the ways in which Christian leaders, institutions — and funders — can strengthen American pluralism. Funders without a religious mandate often shy away from investing within specific faith traditions. But at Democracy Fund, we have learned that one of the best ways to support pluralism and belonging — which are critical to our democracy — is to invest in credible, influential faith leaders who can make the case for pluralism through values and language that resonate with their denominations. This report confirms that this leadership exists in America, and we know from experience that their efforts are under-resourced.
In 2020, faith leaders can play a crucial role in protecting our civic institutions when it is needed most — and funders should seize the opportunity to engage with faith-based communities to protect our democracy. Together, we can empower faith leaders to build stronger communities and a more inclusive America.