Our nation is more divided than it has to be. It is both possible and urgent to reduce polarization, division, and the tensions they create. Healing these divides is not a utopian aspiration. Nor does this hope entail denying that citizens in a democratic republic will always have disagreements.
They will treasure their freedom to argue about them, to persuade and convert each other—and ultimately to win the debate at election time and with the public. A free society cannot escape, and shouldn’t want to evade, the legitimate clash of interests. Although we sometimes think so, anger in politics is not unique to our moment, or to our country. And anger over injustice can be a productive emotion when it is linked to considered action. Some of the struggles of our time are inevitable and necessary, none more so than a reckoning with a four-century history of racial injustice.
One can believe all these things and still recognize that misunderstanding and mistrust have reached toxic levels in the United States. Large groups of Americans currently fear that the triumph of their opponents will render the country unrecognizable and inhospitable to their deepest beliefs. Many have said we are in the midst of a cold civil war, which implies the possibility of violence. Religion defines only one dimension of our coming apart, but it is the source of some of our deepest divisions. Faith defines the ultimate concerns of many of our citizens even as others, who do not count themselves as religious believers, fear that their rights will be overlooked or violated by the pious and the devout. And of course, there are sharp divides among those who belong to the same religious traditions and read the same scriptures.
Consider how these issues often present themselves: One side fears that marriage equality and Roe v. Wade will be reversed and that Americans will be denied basic health care, commercial goods and services, and government-funded benefits based on an individual’s gender, sexual orientation, or gender identity. The other side fears their government will brand them as bigots for their religious opposition to marriage equality, close their colleges and universities, press them to engage in activities that violate their consciences, and strip their institutions’ tax-exempt statuses because of their beliefs.
Religion has become more polarizing for another reason: As religious conservatism has become an important force inside the Republican Party, the proportion of Americans who do not identify with any religious tradition has skyrocketed, especially among the young, and these nonbelievers are an important part of the Democrats’ constituency. Americans’ religious commitments have often had an impact on their political views over the course of our history, but religious and partisan loyalties now reinforce each other more than ever.
“When the next administration takes office, it will confront a pandemic, the scourge of systemic racism, a deep economic recession, and a dangerously warming planet. Government must act boldly in all these spheres, yet government will not succeed alone.”
A president cannot instantly alter these underlying forces, but he (and, some day, she) can acknowledge that the weaponization of such divisions for political purposes is dangerous to the nation’s long-term stability; give fellow citizens across religious traditions and religious divides evidence that their views and concerns are being taken into account, even when their policy preferences are not enacted into law; and take seriously the powerful contributions that religious groups make to problem solving and community-building as part of the United States’ vibrant civil society—while also honoring work done in this sphere by secular and resolutely nonreligious institutions working on behalf of charity and justice.
The task begins with respecting the dignity of all citizens and being candid about how deeply divided we are. As Pete Wehner, a top official in George W. Bush’s administration put it: “Giving voice to what each side fears can help us make progress. An administration should never underestimate the importance of people feeling like they are heard.”
Our leaders should also never underestimate the power of a call to service as they confront a pandemic, the scourge of systemic racism, a deep economic recession, and a dangerously warming planet. Government must act boldly in all these spheres, yet government will not succeed alone. At the outset, the president should recognize the work of community-serving leaders and organizations, both religious and nonreligious—and seek their help to move forward. “Our nation is hurting and dangerously divided,” said the Rev. Brian McLaren, channeling what a president might say. “We ask you to represent not only your own interests but also to help us seek the common good together.”
Religious institutions and congregations, with their deep roots in communities across our nation, have a special opportunity and responsibility to help address the profound racial disparities revealed by the pandemic. These include, as the Kaiser Family Foundation has documented, the “disproportionate burden of COVID-19 cases and deaths” on communities of color. Joshua DuBois, the director of the Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships Office in President Obama’s first term, sees the task of addressing these disparities as a “focusing lens” for partnerships between government and civil society. An effort to remedy the nation’s racial injustices may provide a path for healing some of our divisions around religion even as the quest for racial justice might also bring home the ways in which religious bodies themselves have been complicit in racism and discrimination.
We offer this report to encourage the next administration to understand how important government’s relationship to both religion and civil society will be in bringing our nation together. It must staff itself properly to deal with these questions and reflect in its actions the genuine respect for the careful balances that the First Amendment requires. Issues related to faith and faith-based institutions will only occasionally be top-of-mind for those organizing a government, given the range of challenges the country faces. But issues related to religion are implicated in a wide range of policy issues, both domestic and foreign, and they need to be surfaced and addressed. Mishandling church-state issues (often because they have been overlooked) can be terribly damaging, both to religious freedom and to a president’s other projects. You might say that even when public officials are not particularly interested in religion, religion will find a way to be interested in them.
“These issues may seem tertiary, until they aren’t,” said Denis McDonough, who served as President Obama’s chief of staff. Yet matters related to the First Amendment’s religion clauses are not always treated with the consideration they require. From the start, the next administration must have a considered and detailed plan for meeting the challenges of issues implicating the relationship between church and state. We offer this report to suggest ways in which an administration might deal with these issues—and avoid unforced errors. And we hope it might contribute to a new public discussion of these questions that is less divisive and more inclusive.
We should be candid about our own perspective. One of us served as the director of the Office of Faith-based and Neighborhood Partnerships in President Obama’s second term and is a Baptist committed to religious freedom and church-state separation. The other is a columnist, an academic, and a Catholic who writes from a broadly liberal or social democratic perspective. Both of us identify with the social justice and civil rights orientations within our religious traditions, and we embrace America’s commitment to pluralism and openness.
Yet while we take our political and religious commitments seriously, we have both tried in our work in this area over the last two decades—both together and separately—to take seriously the views of the many people of good faith working in this sphere whose perspectives differ from ours. We have long believed that it is possible to find wider agreement on the proper relationship between church and state, and government and faith-based organizations—and to get good public work done in the process. We have shared the hope that although differences on church-state matters will inevitably persist (our nation, after all, has been arguing about some of these questions since the beginning of the republic), those differences can be narrowed, principled compromises can be forged, and the work of lifting up the least among us can be carried out and celebrated across our lines of division. That hope lies behind what we have tried to do here.
(By: E.J. Dionne, Jr. and Melissa Rogers at the Brookings Institute: The above is the introduction to “A Time to Heal, A Time to Build,” a report from the Center for Effective Public Management at The Brookings Institution. Authors E.J. Dionne and Melissa Rogers offer recommendations on how the executive branch should approach issues related to religion and civil society and highlight opportunities for the next administration. Download the full PDF report here.)