We the People image with Bible verse in background
By Sharif Azami

As part of our efforts to engage all segments of American society, the Fetzer Institute collaborated with the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC), the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, to understand the current state of democracy from a Christian evangelical perspective.

The project supports Fetzer’s democracy initiative by exploring fundamental questions around social cohesion and polarization. It will also help us identify pathways for how civil society might facilitate the formation of healthy relationships and connections across difference and foster civic virtues essential for a flourishing democracy. 

The idea for this project came about following my participation in MLK50, a conference organized by ERLC on the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination. During the event, Dr. Russell Moore, ERLC’s president, spoke powerfully about racial justice in his speech. I was moved by ERLC’s commitment to addressing issues of race and social justice within the Southern Baptist Convention and wondered if there might be a connection with Fetzer’s interest in democracy.

Since then, we’ve established a partnership with ERLC on a project that pursues three objectives: 1) conduct seminars, in-depth interviews and public polling on how American evangelicals might contribute to healing political and cultural divides; 2) engage a broad evangelical community with the findings of the study; and 3) prepare toolkits as a capacity-building measure to empower evangelical individuals, churches, and seminaries to engage with their communities on issues of civic participation.

Faith and Healthy Democracy,” a comprehensive report on faith and democracy from an American evangelical perspective, is now publicly available. Compiled by lead researcher Paul D. Miller and a team at ERLC and LifeWay Research, it is the result of extensive research, two seminars, interviews with 48 senior evangelical leaders, and a statistically relevant survey of 1,317 individuals who identify as evangelical.

This report raises important questions about the state of our democracy. As I was reading, I found myself contemplating three basic questions:
1) Is political tribalism our response to a growing need for belonging?
2) How does a fear of losing our heritage and sense of identity contribute to the polarizing dynamic; and
3) How do we address our distraction—especially by digital media and the click-bait industry—and be authentically present in our local spheres?

We deeply appreciate the ERLC’s courageous exploration of critical challenges to supporting a healthy public square. And while this is a report for evangelicals and about evangelicals, I want to highlight some of the specific challenges and possibilities that I find are ahead of us all, no matter our religious affiliation, as we shape the next chapter of democracy in a pluralistic society.

Causes of a Polarized Public Square…

All interviewees in the report unanimously voiced concern about the state of the American public square, describing it as caustic, toxic, ignorant, and corrosive. The report identifies the following three causes as major drivers for increased polarization in America:

Technology and Social Media: The report suggests that social media has not only led to increased anxiety and loneliness but has also contributed to an increase in polarization. According to the report, in the public square, social media gives us a false sense of freedom to engage without consideration for the welfare of people with whom we disagree. Moreover, the report asserts that social media is fundamentally shallow: it does not require “accountability, or restraint;” it distorts our perception of reality or facts, allowing us to remain in “echo chambers” that perpetuate our own set of facts.

Loss of Moral Consensus: The report notes that “public Christianity played an important social function: It provided a point of moral consensus,” and that “today, neither Christianity nor the Enlightenment provides a common frame of moral reference for public discussion.” In a sense, as America evolves, we do not have a common moral language to engage in the public square. We have varying conceptions of justice and morality, which in turn may lead to a lack of shared meaning, making reasoned discourse impossible, and thus “public discussion deteriorates into a shouting match, a performative exercise, or a joust rather than an exchange of ideas.”

The Atrophy of Civil Society: As the report indicates, “with the loss of shared meaning, citizens are far less apt to gather together in voluntary associations for a common purpose, or even common hobby.” Among participants of the survey, less than 15% participated in any type of organization, including sports clubs and affinity groups. Because civil society is the bedrock of a thriving democracy, a central question we all must explore is how does a weakened civil society affect democratic participation? Does it keep us from contributing to a flourishing society?

Where Should We Go from Here?

The report identifies important areas of focus for how evangelicals can contribute to healing and reviving democracy in America. Here are some that I think can resonate with everyone.

Create a culture of trust and appreciate difference. The report finds that in the current public square, evangelicals generally do not believe that being civil is productive. Interestingly, there was also this sense of existential threat among survey participants as “over half of evangelicals believed that if their political opponents were able to implement their agenda, democracy would be in danger.” As Dr. Miller notes, we are sort of “cultivating a martyrdom complex, always imagining ourselves to be taking the high ground compared to our opponents’ mendacity. We say we believe the best of others, but we use that belief to justify feeling superior to them.” Moreover, the fact that over “half of evangelicals report that they do not reveal their political beliefs in environments where those beliefs are unpopular” shows that there is deep mistrust in the public square. The report notes that “a healthy public square is one in which citizens are not only legally allowed to express their views but feel cultural permission to do so—or have courage to speak up when they do not.”

An important question for us all is, how might we create such a public square?

Get involved locally. Flourishing local communities are vital for a thriving democracy. The report notes that in the absence of shared meaning around community, “when we lose one kind of community, we invent others to take its place.” The report also stresses that “polarization in voting behavior and among elected officials is only one part of the tribalization of American politics. More worrying is our tendency to sift ourselves into geographically-distinct, politically- and culturally-homogenous neighborhoods and even states.”

It is imperative to explore how might we tend to our local communities instead of abandoning them or self-selecting different communities. At the same time, we should also explore creative and innovative ways of engaging local communities in ways that revive a culture of local civic participation.

Break out of our echo chambers. As noted in the report, “it is good civic hygiene to know and befriend people of a different race, religion, and income level, but Americans are increasingly choosing to live in neighborhoods and go to schools and churches where we never have to meet them.”

How we seek and engage difference is a serious challenge. It requires intention and effort and the incentives to do so are minimal in the current state of polarization. Being in our own tribe is comfortable, but navigating ways to move beyond our own echo chambers is critical for bridging divides and building a robust public square.

Understand pluralism. What diversity means for an increasingly pluralistic America is a critical question that needs serious exploration. The report asserts that “trying to root American democracy in one particular identity, even a Christian identity, fundamentally misunderstands the ideals of the American experiment. It would serve to undermine, not strengthen, democracy in America by exacerbating our culture war and trying, fruitlessly, to work against the established pluralism.”

To these points specific to the report, I would add:
Explore a shared language for what it means to be an American today. What is our new American dream? Without a shared narrative for living in a democracy and without committing ourselves to a set of demanding civic virtues, the revival of American democracy will be a daunting challenge. If we cannot begin to articulate the complex story about ourselves, our individual groups, and the country at large, and find a way to articulate to ourselves that we belong to this nation, we will not be able to champion a shared national narrative. We will also continue to have conflicting notions of justice and freedom.

My takeaway from this report is that not engaging diversity in a cohesive manner leads us to tribalism, echo chambers, and loss of shared meaning, which in turn leads to the atrophy of civil society and heightened polarization. We can do so much more to explore and understand the impact of a growing diversity and pluralism on American democracy. As Eboo Patel of Interfaith Youth Core notes, America needs to explore how to become a potlock nation, how to appreciate and live with deep difference. This will require us to do the hard spiritual work to develop the muscle for appreciating difference.

Two important points in the report are also critical to the Institute’s work on personal and societal transformation, namely the building of a pluralistic moral ecology and creating conditions for human flourishing through the lens of human dignity.

And while Fetzer’s immediate concern might be political and social polarization, in the long term, we understand our challenges in American democracy as fundamentally spiritual. To that end, Fetzer is committed to exploring diverse perspectives from multiple angles to inform our learning and support for a flourishing democracy. In addition to our work on this report with the ERLC, for example, we are also working with groups like:

Moreover, engagement with our local community will remain as an integral element of our programmatic efforts.

There are no easy answers to reviving a healthy public square in America. However, active participation in the democratic process coupled with trust building and a sense of goodwill to the “other” are good starting points. As the report concludes, exposing ourselves to different narratives and sources of information and intentionally engaging diversity is critical.

Sharif Azami is a program officer at the Fetzer Institute.