Task Force on Religion and Democracy in the United States

Task Force Members
  • Allison Calhoun-Brown, Georgia State University
  • Rosa L. DeLauro, U.S. House of Representatives
  • John J. Dilulio, Jr., University of Pennsylvania
  • Bette Novit Evans, Creighton University
  • James L Gibson, Washington University, St. Louis
  • John C. Green, University of Akron
  • Fredrick C. Harris, University of Rochester & Columbia University
  • Amaney Jamal, Princeton University
  • Ira Katznelson, Columbia University
  • Geoffrey C. Layman, University of Maryland
  • David L. Leal, University of Texas, Austin
  • Mark Lilla, University of Chicago
  • Nancy L. Rosenblum, Harvard University
  • Kenneth D. Wald, University of Florida
  • Clyde Wilcox, Georgetown University
  • Alan Wolfe, Boston College, Chair
To contribute to a more informed public debate within the United States over a subject that cries out for fair and dispassionate analysis, and to inform political scientists themselves of work undertaken by some of their colleagues with which they may not be familiar, the American Political Science Association is creating a task force on "Religion and Democracy in the United States" that will be chaired by Professor Alan Wolfe of Boston College.  It will examine how relevant disciplinary knowledge can help Americans understand the role that religion plays in their public life, and consider both the opportunities and dangers to democracy that flow from the presence of significant numbers of citizens who possess strong religious convictions. 

There is perhaps no subject more important to the future of American democracy that has received so little scholarly attention from political scientists as religion.  Whatever the reason the conviction that modernization had brought secularization in its wake, concern about objectivity in a subject as filled with subjective meaning as faith, or the sense that the subject is better served by other social science fields the discipline largely missed one of the most important political developments of our time.  As religious Americans began to make their voices heard and shift public policy in directions they favored, too few political scientists were paying attention.

Fortunately, religion is no longer a subject that political scientists shun.  One indicator is the growth of the Association's Organized Section on Religion and Politics, which has expanded from 388 members in 1996 to 594 today.  Scholars of international relations and comparative politics recognize the crucial role that religion plays in ethnic conflict and issues of war and peace.  Political philosophers now understand that issues of justice, citizenship, belonging, and equality cannot be discussed in the absence of religion.  Within the field of American politics, a small but nonetheless vibrant and growing community of scholars has been examining religion and its relationship to public opinion, voting, and policy. 
       
While recognizing the huge importance of religion in global affairs, and sensitive to issues involving religion and public life that have become increasingly important in other countries, including those in Europe, the task force is concentrating on the United States, and particularly on the implications of the country's commitment, from its founding, to a broadly liberal approach to the relationship between religion and politics.  The United States was the first society to take the then radical step of separating church and state, as much to protect religion from politics as the other way around.  Without a state church indeed, without any one faith constituting a majority of believers the United States committed itself early on both to religious liberty and religious pluralism.  This broadly liberal political order has been grappling, for more than two centuries with three central puzzles that have affected our politics and jurisprudence, as well as the character of our heterogeneous society.  These are the meaning and scope of toleration; the makeup, contours, and dispositions associated with religious pluralism (and its intersection with other forms of cultural and demographic pluralism); and the location, "height" and degree of permeability of the boundary designating the "separation" of church and state.  These features provide a big opportunity to locate American patterns in a larger context defined comparatively, relationally, and theoretically.

Many Americans are passionate about the choices the country makes about toleration, pluralism, and boundary-setting.  Their active participation in politics raises questions that empirically oriented political scientists can help answer.  Are more Americans motivated to vote by "values" than they were in the past?  Have Americans become more polarized and, if so, is this polarization directly connected to their religious beliefs?  Is it true that the divisions within religions between traditionalists and progressives have become more accurate predictors of voting that the divisions between religions?  The task force can help assemble existing data on the role on religion in shaping public opinion, influencing voting, and contributing to political participation.

What is true at the individual level is also true at the organizational level.  Scholars of interest groups and of American associational life have much to contribute to our understanding of the role of religion in American public life.  Is religious activity an exception to the American inclination to "bowl alone?"  How effective are interest groups which mobilize to become active on issues that define the "culture war"?  It would be useful to examine these behaviors and patterns of political participation, which are bread and butter matters for many political scientists, in terms of a focus on religion and the liberal tradition.  At a time when political scientists have come to appreciate the role that self-interest plays in motivating individuals and interest groups to press for legislation, it is important as well to consider the role that convictions inspired by faith play as well.

Interest, opinion, and influence have as their goals the shaping of lawmaking and jurisprudence; and these, in turn, define the rules of the game at any particular moment concerning toleration, pluralism, and boundary-setting.  For some, separation of church and state requires that religion be treated primarily as a private matter.  For others, including those whose faith calls upon them to share the good news of salvation, free citizens must have the right to bring religion to the public square.  Without taking normative positions on where the line between religion and politics ought to be drawn, political scientists can help clarify the issues at stake in debates of this sort.  What obligations do public and private schools have in educating students for citizenship? What kinds of institutions are public and what kind are private?  Under what conditions can individuals and groups rightly ask for exemptions from general rules meant to apply to everyone?   Political philosophers have been examining questions like these from all the major traditions in the field, including the Rawlsian and Straussian traditions.  The task force aims to bring their questions, insights, and arguments into a robust conversation with the findings of empirically oriented political scientists.

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