Leap of Faith: Empowering Faith Leaders to Strengthen Democracy

Chris Crawford
September 17, 2018

American politics is characterized today by gridlock that paralyzes our political institutions and a rise in extremism that dominates our national dialogue and drives Americans further apart. Religious engagement is often thought to be a driver of many of these challenges. But while ideological religious advocacy can feed political tribalism through polarizing “culture wars,” the moral framework that faith provides can also help to build community and promote understanding across partisan lines.

In her latest analysis of Democracy Fund Voter Study Group data, Emily Ekins of the Cato Institute found that religious participation may help moderate Americans’ views, particularly on issues related to race, immigration, and identity. For example, Ekins says that Trump voters who attend church more regularly tend to have more favorable opinions of racial minorities, support making it easier to immigrate to the United States and want to provide a pathway to citizenship for those who are unauthorized immigrants living in the United States. Additionally, church-going Trump voters are half as likely to support a travel ban on Muslims entering the United States as those who never attend church.

Although some partisanship is to be expected in a democracy, it is also true that civil debate and principled compromise are essential to governing a large, diverse, and complex society like ours. As part of our effort to foster more constructive politics, we undertook the task of conducting a “faith in democracy” field scan—interviewing over 40 religious leaders, political leaders, and academics about the ways in which faith communities interact with Congress and other institutions in our democracy. We started with a simple question:

As a foundation committed to creating a more constructive political system, what are we missing?

Some of what we learned revealed major, cross-field implications and provided more specific context to inform our work, including:

  • faith voters engage more in line with their religious, racial, and partisan identities than they do on specific religious doctrines or beliefs;
  • important interfaith work can be supplemented by work within specific faith traditions;
  • “Religious Left” is not a term favored by many religious social justice activists on the Left who do not want to be seen as a mirror image of the Religious Right; and
  • almost everyone we spoke with mentioned the overwhelming polarization in our political system and the way in which religion can both feed and help overcome tribalism in our political system.

As a result of this deep thinking, Democracy Fund is investing in innovative efforts that empower faith leaders to build bridges, break through polarizing paradigms, and create a more inclusive America. Through this multi-level approach, we hope to identify new ways funders can contribute to strengthening our democracy and help fix the problems in our political system.

To foster deeper understanding among elites and disrupt hyperpartisanship in local communities, Democracy Fund is proud to support:

  • The Faith and Politics Institute in their work to convene political leaders at the intersection of their moral foundation and their public service through events on Capitol Hill and pilgrimages to historic civil rights sites throughout the country.
  • The Ethics and Public Policy Center which has, for the past 19 years, helped hundreds of reporters increase their religious understanding through the Faith Angle Forum conferences.

In addition, Democracy Fund’s Governance program and Just and Inclusive Society project have joined together on the following grants:

  • The Freedom to Believe Project brings together conservative members of Congress with their Muslim constituents through holiday meals and mosque visits in their home districts.
  • Sojourners’ Matthew 25 Project empowers faith leaders to build a more inclusive, respectful America through building new coalitions across the country.

As a result of our field scan, we have multiple grants focused on empowering leaders within individual faith traditions to combat polarization within their ranks, and to exercise their moral authority to speak out against the forces that divide us as Americans.

  • The Initiative on Catholic Social Thought and Public Life at Georgetown University has hosted a dialogue series on Faith, Democracy, and the Common Good. Earlier this year the Initiative also hosted a conference that focused specifically on the ways in which Catholics can lead the way in overcoming polarization in our country.
  • The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention hosted “MLK50 Conference”, a conference focused on racial healing and unity in Memphis, Tennessee on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. We are supporting ERLC’s efforts to turn the energy from the conference into long-term action. We believe that faith leaders can play an important role in combating the white supremacist Alt-Right movement, white supremacy more broadly, and other forms of extremism.

These initial investments complement our existing partners such as Welcoming America, The Socrates Program at the Aspen Institute, and other grantees who are conducting important work to create a more inclusive America.

Over the past year, we have learned a great deal about the ways in which religious Americans interact with our democratic institutions. Across religious traditions, we have found a hunger for a more inclusive America in which our political system respects the dignity of every individual and serves the needs of the American people. In supporting bold leaders who are working to unify Americans and promote our shared values, we hope to experiment with and scale models to further strengthen and improve our democracy.

We look forward to continuing to share our learnings as we evaluate these initial grants and plan our future investments.

Democracy Fund
1200 17th Street NW Suite 300,
Washington, DC 20036