The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Can religion strengthen democracy?

The Cathedral of the Holy Cross in Boston. (Bill Sikes/AP)

Is religion good for us?

You could argue this is a foolish question. Most of us would regard a faith that promotes, say, love, compassion and justice differently from a belief system that encourages violence, intolerance and hatred.

Debates over religion in the United States have been sharpened in recent years as large sections of the Christian right embraced Donald Trump, the antithesis of Christian values. The fusing of strains of religious conservatism with racism and nativism — it’s happened before in American history — has pushed many away from faith altogether, particularly among the young.

Friends of religion emphasize faith’s “wonder-working power,” as the old hymn taught — its capacity to move people to acts of mercy and justice toward the poor and the excluded, the homeless and the stranger. Critics point to wars fought in religion’s name and the intolerance and persecution bred by absolute certainty.

Cardinal Blase J. Cupich, the archbishop of Chicago, whom I have long admired, worries about soaring rates of religious disengagement. A strong supporter of Pope Francis, Cupich resists a Catholicism rooted in culture wars, and he opposes misguided efforts to deny Communion to President Biden.

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Last month, he took to the pages of Chicago Catholic, the newspaper of his archdiocese, to address “young people” who “are becoming disenchanted with religion.” He posed the question: “What will become of our democracy if so many young people disengage from both religion and politics?”

He turned, as many have before him, to Alexis de Tocqueville, the brilliantly perceptive student of 19th-century America, for clues about what “religion contributes to democracy.” Cupich’s thesis is that “faith can have a moderating influence in a democratic state.” It’s a perspective I have long shared but have begun to question.

I agree with Cupich that “religion correctly frames worship as worship of God, as opposed to any human project.” The idea, well expressed many years ago by the theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, is that “radical monotheism dethrones all absolutes short of the principle of being itself.”

Which is to say, as Cupich argues, that believers — in principle, at least — resist deifying political leaders and enthroning ideologies as flawless guides to action, since all are the creation of flawed human beings and thus necessarily imperfect or incomplete. Believers, Cupich insists, should resist an “idolatrous” attitude toward politics.

“De Tocqueville,” he writes, “worried that if we did not worship God, we might be tempted to worship the powers of this world.”

By setting the absolute as a standard, religion (again, in principle) encourages humility, an especially useful virtue at this moment. It reminds us that our opponents might be right about some things and we might be wrong. The same humility calls us, he writes, “to conversion — and also forgiveness.”

And religion, says Cupich, “brings us together in community … where burdens are shared” and “we experience the comfort of depending on one another.”

Cupich’s vision of religion is attractive, and it’s accurate about a particular form of religious faith. But the use of religion by a hard, often authoritarian right suggests that religion is not always democracy’s friend, and not always a positive social force.

And the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan since Cupich wrote his essay reminds us that certain fervent forms of theism are implacably opposed to the tolerance and openness he preaches.

The Chicago archbishop’s faith is, at heart, a liberal version of Christianity (we can also see its characteristics in liberal forms of Judaism and Islam) that breaks with absolutism, accepts pluralism — the need to live with and respect those with very different worldviews — and resists using the state to impose forms of orthodoxy on others.

It’s no accident that Cupich joins Pope Francis in defending the achievements of the Second Vatican Council, held during the 1960s. It was a time when the Catholic Church, after a long period of resistance, embraced many of the gifts that liberalism has to offer while still maintaining a critical posture toward the hyper-individualism that liberalism can encourage.

The forces contesting this more liberal approach, however, are gaining traction. In the case of Catholics, a significant number of intellectuals are turning away from Vatican II’s spirit with calls for an embrace of pre-Enlightenment thinking. And many rank-and-file conservative Christians have come to see their faith as a form of identity threatened by the forces of secularism and diversity. This accounts for their embrace of Trump.

Cupich’s witness is a reminder to critics of faith that religion can provide democracy with spiritual and intellectual resources it can draw on in times of challenge. But the link between religion and democracy is far from automatic. Supporters of liberal democracy have work to do — in society at large but also within their own religious traditions.