American religion, humility, and democracy

Americans have increasingly sorted ourselves into different camps—we live, work, eat, socialize, pray, read, and talk with others who share many of our experiences and viewpoints. Members of each camp perceive events differently, look to different people as credible sources of information, and view different groups as allies and enemies. We do not even share a basic set of facts about what happens. In this context, calls for more dialogue come up against a problem: participants present themselves as unquestionably right and act as if they have nothing to learn from one another. Moreover, many people view those with whom they disagree as not only wrong but even brainwashed, stupid, and incapable of reason; not only different, but undemocratic and treasonous. There is, in short, nothing to discuss.

Some religious communities have contributed to this crisis of arrogance, encouraging their flocks to enter public life with moral certainty, unwilling to hear others’ concerns or compromise on partial solutions. Yet a view of public religion as intolerant ignores those religious communities whose strong moral convictions have led them to protest on behalf of causes that are now widely viewed as central to American democracy, like abolition and civil rights. Religious communities can also supply members with practices, rituals, and habits that encourage intellectual, or epistemic, humility—in other words, which encourage them to view their fellow citizens as equal members of their shared community, striving together for better responses to shared problems.

In this series, authors attend to these varied ways in which religious individuals and groups engage in public life, and in particular how they balance their responsibilities as members of particular faith communities and as citizens of a religiously diverse nation. They consider how strong religious conviction can encourage greater political arrogance, but also greater humility; can encourage the building of walls, but also of bridges. They also challenge the assumption that the former qualities are necessarily problematic, revealing how moral righteousness has supported prophetic resistance and encouraged demands for equality, just as moral relativism has made it difficult to define even deeply undemocratic behavior as problematic.

The lessons these essays offer also matter beyond religious groups, as they shed light more generally on how people overcome political, moral, interpretive, and epistemic disagreements. Although the essays vary significantly in their level of optimism about Americans’ capacity to resolve the issues that currently divide them, they nonetheless offer grounded examples of how a range of groups are trying—sometimes with success—to do so.

This forum was guest curated by Ruth Braunstein, Korie L. Edwards, and Richard L. Wood and emerged out of a conference sponsored by the Humility & Conviction in Public Life Project of the UConn Humanities Institute. For more information about this project, visit: http://humilityandconviction.uconn.edu.

Image credit:
william cordova + Luis Gispert
“walls turned sideways are bridges”
2015, mixed media on cardboard
limited edition of 10 for Arts for Learning, Miami, FL

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