The intersection of religion and politics has been a key focus of the Social Science Research Council’s (SSRC) Program on Religion and the Public Sphere (RPS), though sometimes the engagement would come through “small-p” politics, and other times, not so small. In 2019, building on rising concerns that democracy was under threat and that religion and spirituality have both positive and negative roles to play in (or against) its revitalization, the SSRC partnered with the Fetzer Institute to support early-career research focused on religion, spirituality, and democratic renewal in the United States. In early rounds of funded work, fellows engaged a range of topics, calling special attention to ongoing struggles with Islamophobia and the unique place of smaller denominations within Christianity. In the post–January 6 era, researchers have increasingly focused on the growth and rising popularity (and populism) of Christian nationalism, a phenomenon to which scholars of religion have rightly been pointing for much longer.

In building this new program of research, there was always a desire to support work that could foster new paths of cooperation, mutual understanding, and overcoming differences. But examples of such positive dialogue and mutuality became rarer as the initial unity in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic quickly gave way to further polarization and social distress. While the program still holds out the goal that democratic renewal is possible, and that many people of faith have a role to play in realizing a free and just world for all, the essays from our Postdoctoral Research grantees illustrate the depth of understanding which must be attained if we are to overcome the differences brought about over the past several years, based in fear, inequality, and ideologically driven disagreement. As the former director of the RPS program, it is my pleasure to introduce this collection of essays from our grantees.

In the spirit of beginnings, Brett Bertucio’s work examines the educational foundations of civic moralism, arguing that far from there being a firm separation between church and state, US legal frameworks have frequently been informed by religious ideas. While perhaps not purely drawn from Protestantism, Bertucio shows how the legal opinions of Supreme Court justices long before the Roberts Court illustrated a strong religious moral bent. These views significantly influenced Americans, as evidenced through fine-grained analysis of civics textbooks. Invoking the core US values of individualism with a sense that “True American religion was deeply personal and personalized,” the high court of the mid-twentieth century set the stage for what was to be viewed as “normative” religious practice, White Protestant Christianity in all but name.

The question of “who belongs?” continues to disrupt the shared faith potential of US democratic institutions and social change. In seeking a historical lens on the contemporary relationships in the United States between Muslims and evangelicals (both large and diverse groups), Roger Baumann examines the significant literary corpus of evangelical “experts on Islam” within US publishing. Noting the growth in the market since 9/11, Baumann draws a line even before then, between those who have a stake in describing Islam in terms of its threats to Christianity (and therefore the United States) and those who are “interested in peacebuilding, reconciliation, and interfaith dialogue and cooperation.” While those in the latter group were largely missionaries who had spent significant time living in Muslim communities overseas, the members of the former were more likely to be writers of the “armchair” variety, with a different set of motives and goals.

The notion of “welcoming the stranger,” as well as a desire to “bring the good news,” animates evangelical Christian participation in refugee settlement programs in the United States, seemingly in contradiction to reports of rising anti-immigrant sentiments among this diverse group. Emily Frazier’s investigation of this phenomenon illumines important connections: like the missionary authors of Baumann’s study, evangelical participation in refugee settlement programs is driven by values of “love, care, and [to] share the gospel, [and] also to hasten the coming of Jesus Christ.” While acknowledging the troubled colonial legacies of missionary work, whether at home or abroad, Frazier emphasizes the importance of not essentializing the loudest and most negative voices in the evangelical community.

There are other examples of complexity within Christian nationalism. Rosemary Al-Kire’s essay notes that some proponents view limitations on the democratic process as necessary and supportive of their hope for a nation explicitly driven by what are, in their view, Christian values. However, other supporters of a Christian nationalist outlook “show greater civic engagement and other pro-democracy ideals.” Survey research like Al-Kire’s does show a significant and rising correlational relationship between Christian nationalist principles and anti-democratic values, but this relationship may not be causal. Further research is needed to better understand factors that can mitigate anti-democratic movements, and when religious allies can help advance democratic aims.

There is a tendency in politicized and daily discourse to essentialize and analogize, rather than seek deeper understanding of religious behavior that does not cohere with the mainstream left. Najwa Mayer’s work illustrates a particularly keen example often undertaken by those on the US political left, even as they express concern for anti-democratic movements. Epidemiological analogies of contagion rooted in racism and colonialism are common, as are the purportedly clever, meme-ready terms conflating white nationalism, Christianity, and all “radical” religious forms. As Mayer notes, “when white supremacy is formally ideologized via an analogical grammar of extremism, the systematized white supremacy and Christian hegemonies foundational to US secular statehood remain unmarked.” In other words, Mayer posits, Christian nationalism is not extremism, it’s one logical extension of certain of this country’s founding principles.

So where to go from here? The final two contributors to this series discuss tools for countering the anti-democratic strains of Christian nationalism within our grasp. R.G. Cravens’s analysis shows that contrary to some discourse on the right, most LGBTQ Americans maintain their religious affiliations even after they come out. Exploring the contours of religious LGBTQ activism, Cravens describes acts of faith that are intersectional, embrace diversity and difference, and suppor broad values of social acceptance and pluralism. Through their religious engagement, these activists provide what Cravens deems not just a counter-narrative, but an accurate narrative of American religious life and democratic action.

Finally, Sharmin Sadequee’s exploration of placemaking through the establishment of a Muslim cemetery shows how religious leadership can serve one community and build bridges to others. The strengthening of a community through the establishment of cemeteries is not only a religious act, but one which speaks to the need for places where the dead can be visited, remembered, and communed with in safety and, ideally, a calm and beautiful environment. Serving much the same role as public parks would come to fulfill, US cemeteries have been green spaces accessible to the larger community since the rural cemetery movement of the mid-nineteenth century, creating the possibility of both social and ecological transformation. As Sadequee notes, to deny the presence of a Muslim-run memorial site is to deny non-Christians a place in the United States twice over, as families seek to keep their deceased members close to where they now reside. Tapping into religious values to resolve social conflict through collaborative means, and to maintain traditional burial practices, a local imam practiced ideologically consistency as well as modeled for his community how to ally with positive shared ecological norms around open spaces and green burials.

Sadequee’s essay points us toward a more hopeful future, one where religion and spiritual beliefs support a peaceful and collaborative democratic space in the United States. The depths of understanding provided by the essays in this forum offer a beginning for further conversation, collaboration, and informed debate to construct this future.