Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life

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Christianity, Pluralism, and

Public Life in the United States



Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 1

2 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States



We are tremendously thankful for the support of the Democracy Fund for making this

project possible. We are especially grateful for Chris Crawford, without whose vision,

support, ideas, and guidance this report would not have been produced. We are also

thankful to The Trinity Forum and Cherie Harder, who provided insight and advice

every step of the way, and whose contributions to a healthy pluralism enrich public


Thank you, also, to Melissa Wear, who provided critical assistance throughout this


We are especially grateful to the men and women who graciously agreed to be

interviewed for this project and whose contributions make up the heart of this report.

Every individual we spoke to has significant demands on their time and attention as

they seek to steward their roles, responsibilities, and influence, and we are humbled

that they so graciously chose to share their time with us.

Michael thanks his colleagues and clients for their partnership and the opportunity

to do work he loves. Amy thanks her departmental colleagues for their prayers and

encouragement and thanks the Wheaton College Sabbatical Fund for its support.

Finally, we acknowledge our families and their tremendous support throughout our

work on this project. Michael will always associate this report with his daughter’s

first year of life, and he’s ever thankful for the love and confidence of Melissa. Amy is

grateful to Dan and Anna for their love, good humor, and patience.

Michael Wear is the founder of Public Square Strategies,

LLC, a consulting and research firm at the intersection

of faith and public life. He served in The White House

Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships

from 2009-2012, and led religious outreach for President

Obama’s re-election campaign. Michael is a Senior

Fellow at The Trinity Forum, and has written for The New

York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Catapult

Magazine and Christianity Today.

Amy E. Black is Professor of Political Science at

Wheaton College (IL). A specialist in American

Politics, her research interests include religion and

politics, fostering civil dialogue, and Congress. She

is a past president of Christians in Political Science

and served as an APSA Congressional Fellow in the office

of Melissa A. Hart (R-PA). She is the author or editor of

six books and has written for Capital Commentary, The

Review of Faith and International Affairs, International

Journal of Public Opinion, The Christian Science Monitor,

and Christianity Today.

This report is funded and made possible by the Democracy Fund.






The Religious Landscape in the United States 6

The State of American Democracy 12



Interview Methods 17

Insights into Christianity and Public Life 18

Christians and Bridge Building 21

The Role of Christianity in Public Life 27

Are Christian Leaders and Lay People Aligned? 33

Politics and Christian Community 35

How Politicians and Other Public Leaders Can Support a Healthy Pluralism and

Christian Political Engagement 38


Christian Practices and Teachings that Support Healthy Public Engagement 43

Encouraging Positive Christian Contributions to Public Life 47

Recommendations for Political and Other Public Leaders 49




Ready or not, here it comes: America is about to become much more diverse. The racial composition of the nation is

changing: by 2045, it is estimated that the nation will become “minority white,” and Hispanics will account for about

a quarter of the population. The nation’s religious makeup is changing as well: over three-quarters of senior citizens in

America identify as Christian—but for those under 30, only about half do. The largest religious shift of the last decade has

been described as the rise of the “nones”—those who claim no religious affiliation.

Meanwhile, a very different set of trends is at play in other corners of the world. In contrast to the US, the percentage of the

religious disaffiliated is declining. While there are fewer Christians who report faith as important in their lives in Europe,

Christianity is spreading rapidly in Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa and China.

These changes have brought both good and bad; they have solicited both celebration and lament, hope and fear. And

indeed, we are in uncharted waters. This important and insightful report authored by Trinity Forum Senior Fellow Michael

Wear and Wheaton College professor Amy Black, and made possible by a grant from the Democracy Fund, explores

the consequences and implications of these trends through the perspective of Christian church and ministry leaders

in America. Its findings are based on in-depth interviews with more than 50 Christian leaders (mostly, but not entirely,

pastors) from a variety of denominations, traditions, locales, and political and theological perspectives. The findings,

not surprisingly, show sharp political divides in some areas between groups, but also reveal a broad consensus around

the value of pluralism in America, and the opportunities it brings for Christians to live out their faith, and contribute to

the common good and formation of civic character. The resounding message of the report is that Christian thought and

practice has much to offer America in this new pluralistic moment.

America was founded on religious freedom and pluralism—and that freedom was the soil from which revivals and

renewals sprang. Where the codified and institutionalized religious traditions of western Europe grew brittle and calcified,

America proved to be fertile ground for the Christian faith—as well as many other faith traditions—as America’s religious

freedom allowed the religiously entrepreneurial to make converts as they may. But against those who sought to “protect”

religion from heresy or decline by institutionalizing it, the founders grounded religious freedom in the conviction that

freedom of conscience is paramount to human dignity—and in the confidence that what is true will endure. In the years

ahead, as America’s religious landscape shifts, the importance and value of religious freedom will only grow. We hope this

report will be a useful tool to those who proclaim and live out the Good News in every sector of life, a resource for public

leaders navigating this ever-changing landscape, and an encouragement to all Americans of the ways in which religious

freedom and pluralism has undergirded our civic character and contributed to the common good.

Cherie Harder

President, The Trinity Forum

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 3


Pluralism, the presence of socially or politically meaningful diversity of various kinds in a society, is a defining

feature of 21 st century American life. It is the source of great tensions and movements that ripple through our

society and our politics. How to contend with diversity is one of the great questions of our day for political

leaders, religious leaders, and the American people.

One source of meaning from which Americans have drawn wisdom, answers, and direction in the past is Christianity: its

spiritual resources, its teachings, its intellectual tradition, its institutions, and the people who claim the faith for themselves.

Today, however, as Charles Taylor describes in A Secular Age, the value of faith in public life is increasingly contested. We

live in a pluralized, pressurized moment which stems from a “move from a society where belief in God is unchallenged and

indeed, unproblematic, to one in which it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to

embrace.” 1 Such a change does not mean that religion is no longer relevant, but rather that new questions are now salient,

such as whether religion has answers to today’s problems. 2

We believe faith—and this report is focused specifically on Christianity in its diverse and varied expressions in this country—

has much to contribute, and this report explores many of those resources. Prior to discussing the benefits of Christianity

to public life in this pluralistic, modern age, it is important to establish more simply and unequivocally that faith is an

undeniable and pervasive force in American life. That is to say, there can be no debate, particularly in a democratic society,

as to whether faith and Christianity will play a role in the political life of our nation, because Christianity is so prevalent. A

majority of Americans identify as Christians; Christian institutions make up a significant part of the life of our communities;

and Christian ideas and motivations continue to shape the public imagination. The desire for a politics or society that is not

influenced by religion is a desire in some quarters for a politics and society without religious people. Obviously, this would be

a profoundly anti-pluralist sentiment, and we reject it.

This report reflects conversations with 51 Christian leaders from across the country. Together, they represent many different

Christian traditions, backgrounds, and political and theological perspectives. We asked them about their views of the role

of Christianity in public life today, the way politics and faith interact, and what pluralism means for their community. We

received deeply thoughtful, informed, and sometimes provocative responses to our questions.

We share this report with several audiences in mind. First, we hope to equip Christian leaders, institutions, and church

communities with ideas and practices for living out their faith in a pluralistic context in a way that is faithful to their tradition

and oriented toward the good of the community and nation in which they live.

Second, we hope this report will spark a renewed imagination among leaders in secular institutions—government, secular

philanthropy, news and other media, business, cultural institutions, and more—for the positive contribution Christianity has

made and can make in American public life, even in a pluralistic society.


Charles Taylor, A Secular Age, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 2007. Pp 3. Print.


Art Swift, “Majority in U.S. Still Say Religion Can Answer Most Problems,” Gallup, June 2, 2017, Accessed February 6, 2020. Available at:


4 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

Third, and finally, we hope this report will provoke conversations and activity at the local level, where people live out their

lives and interact with diverse groups.

Our report offers several leading takeaways from our

interviews with Christian leaders:









Christian leaders are overwhelmingly positive when they talk about diversity and say that pluralism

provides new opportunities for Christians to strengthen and live out their faith.

While there is certainly significant disagreement among Christians on various issues, some of which

is central to questions related to pluralism, we were somewhat surprised to find such commonality.

Christians share a moral language and vocabulary, even across denomination and political and

theological perspectives, that provides a foundation for working together.

Christian leaders are highly cognizant of popular criticisms of their faith’s role in public life, understand

most of the criticisms, and share many of them.

The capacity of Christianity to support bridge-building work across various divides—religious, racial

and political, among others—is significant, and there are robust pockets of this kind of work going on


Perhaps the greatest contribution Christians can make in this moment is at the local level. This is for

reasons inherent to Christianity—it is an embodied, incarnated faith that is deeply concerned with the

person. Additionally, barriers to bridge building, public involvement, and service are much lower at the

local level, because the needs of individuals and communities are felt most acutely there.

The American Christian institutional landscape and American Christians’ own self-understanding

were formed in what was broadly experienced as a Christian society. As the nation grows increasingly

diverse and Christian assumptions less widespread, existing Christian institutions need to adapt, and

there is likely need for new kinds of institutions to address the challenges and opportunities posed by


Christianity offers theological resources that can contribute to the formation of strong, healthy civic

character in a pluralistic context.

Political and other public leaders significantly affect the nature of the role Christianity plays in

American life. The way that they address, or neglect to address, Christianity (and faith, in general) has

an impact on how the public perceives Christianity, as well as how Christians think about themselves

and engage in the public arena.

We look forward to hearing how the ideas in this report influence your thinking and your actions. We believe that Christians

have resources that can be of great benefit to America’s pluralistic future, and that the contribution of Christians in American

public life should be welcomed and supported.

Thank you for reading and discussing this report.

Michael Wear and Amy E. Black

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 5


What We Know—Data and Context

Concerning Christianity, Pluralism, and

the Health of American Public Life

The Religious Landscape in the United States

Religion has played an important role in American society from its very beginnings, and the United States

remains one of the most religious industrialized nations. Christianity is the most common religion, but religious

diversity is increasing.

Religion researchers often classify people using three broad categories: belonging, beliefs, and behaviors. Belonging

captures religious affiliation, if a person identifies with a religion or not. Measures of beliefs and behaviors offer a clearer

understanding of religious commitments and practice. When considered alongside one another, these measures help chart

the religious landscape of the United States.

6 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


Although many surveys ask Americans about religion, few include enough questions and large enough samples to identify

percentages of many religious subgroups. The most comprehensive such study to date is the Pew Research Center’s 2014

Religious Landscape Study, which showed that Christianity remains the dominant religion in the United States, with seven of

ten Americans (70.6 percent) identifying as some form of Christian. Evangelicals are the largest Christian group (25.4 percent

of the population), followed by Catholics (20.8 percent), mainline Protestant (14.7 percent), and black Protestant (6.5 percent).

About 1 in 12 (7.4 percent) Americans identify with other religions, including 1.9 percent Jews, .9 percent Muslims, .7 percent

Buddhist and .7 percent Hindu. Although most Americans choose a religious affiliation, 22.8 percent of the respondents in the

Pew survey do not. Some of the unaffiliated described themselves as Atheists or Agnostics, but many people (15.8 percent of

all respondents) said their religion was “nothing in particular.” 3




5.9 % 70.6%







<1 % HINDU

1.9 % JEWISH

<1 % OTHER





1.6 % MORMON








“America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Report, Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, p. 4, Accessed September 20, 2019. Available at:


Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 7

These religious demographics show some significant changes over the past decade. Between 2007 and 2014, Pew found that

three traditional Christian groups all experienced decline: mainline Protestants decreased by 3.4 percentage points, Catholics

decreased by 3.1 points, and evangelicals dipped 0.9 points. Two religious groups grew significantly: non-Christian religions

grew from 4.7 percent to 5.9 percent, and the religiously unaffiliated jumped from 16.1 percent to 22.8 percent. 4

More recent data compiled from an aggregate analysis of Pew

Center surveys in 2018 and 2019 shows continued declines in

percentages of Christians and continued increase in percentages

of religiously unaffiliated adults. The numbers of Catholics dipped

slightly, falling from 23 percent in 2009 to 20 percent in 2018/2019.

The percentage of Americans who describe themselves as “born

again or evangelical” also fell three percentage points in the last

decade, falling from 28 percent to 25 percent. Even so, “the share

of all Protestants who are born-again or evangelical is at least

as high today as it was in 2009,” 5 suggesting that the sharpest

decline in Protestants has been from mainline congregations. The

most striking change was the increase in those who are religiously

unaffiliated: more than one in four (26 percent) Americans say they

are atheist, agnostic, or nothing in particular, up seven percentage

points since 2009. 6

Given the rate of change in such a short time period, the rise of

the religiously unaffiliated is particularly noteworthy. Journalists

and some academics often refer to this phenomenon as the “rise of

the Nones,” as the percentage of the religiously unaffiliated increases and eclipses percentages of most religious subgroups.

Although the United States is still predominantly Christian, those who identify as secular and with religions other than

Christianity are growing quickly even as the percentage of Christian adherents is falling.

These patterns look different on a global scale. Christianity has more adherents than any other religion, representing 31

percent of the world’s population in 2015. 7 The global percentage of religiously unaffiliated is expected to decline in coming

decades. 8 Christianity is declining in the West, especially in Europe, but it is growing rapidly in Latin America and Sub-

Saharan Africa. Researchers estimate that about 60 percent of the world’s Christians will live in Latin America and Africa by

2050. Although the global nucleus of Christianity is clearly shifting southward, the United States will remain an important

center of Christianity. As Pew Center researchers summarized: “Despite a decrease in the share of Americans who are

Christian, the U.S. is projected to remain the country with the world’s largest Christian population, with an estimated 262

million Christians in 2050.” 9




“In U.S, Decline of Christianity Continues at a Rapid Pace,” Pew Research Center, October 17, 2019, p 4. Accessed October 18, 2019.

Available at: https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.


Ibid, p. 3.


Conrad Hackett and David McClendon, “Christians Remain World’s Largest Religious Group, but They are Declining in Europe,” Pew

Research Center, April 5, 2017, Accessed October 18, 2019. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/04/05/christiansremain-worlds-largest-religious-group-but-they-are-declining-in-europe/.


“The Changing Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, April 5, 2019. Accessed October 18, 2019. Available at: https://www.



David Masci, “Christianity Poised to Continue its March From Europe to Africa,” Pew Research Center, April 7, 2015, Accessed October 18,

2019. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2015/04/07/christianity-is-poised-to-continue-its-southward-march/.

8 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


Even though religious adherence is on the decline, the United States remains one of the most religious nations in the West.

Consider some common measures of religious practice: 55 percent of Americans in a 2018 study said they pray every day,

more than double those in Canada (25 percent), and far exceeding numbers in Great Britain (6 percent), France (10 percent),

and Germany (9 percent). A majority of Americans (53 percent) also said that religion was “very important” in their lives,

compared with 27 percent of Canadians, 10 percent in Great Britain, 11 percent in France, and 10 percent in Germany. More

than a third of adults in the United States (36 percent) attend religious services weekly, more than double the percentage in

Europe (14 percent). 10

Other measures show the significance of religion in American life. In December 2018, the Gallup poll asked respondents to

rate the importance of religion in their life on a scale from very, fairly, to not very important. A majority of respondents (51

percent) said religion was very important, and another 21 percent said it was fairly important. 11 In a 2017 study, Pew Research

Center asked respondents an open-ended question: “What about your life do you find meaningful, fulfilling, or satisfying?”

Although family was the most common answer, one in five respondents (20 percent) mentioned spirituality or faith. More

than two of five evangelical Protestants (43 percent), 32 percent of black Protestants, 18 percent of mainline Protestants, and

16 percent of Catholics mentioned something related to their faith or religion. 12


Religious affiliation correlates highly with partisanship and voting. Two religious groups, black Protestants and the

religiously unaffiliated, are an important part of the Democratic base. One religious group, evangelicals, are an essential

Republican voting bloc. 13 Catholics and mainline Protestants are more evenly divided and have been swing voters in recent


Consider the results of a Pew Research Center survey of validated voters, those confirmed to have participated in the 2016

presidential election. Hillary Clinton received support from 96 percent of black Protestants and 65 percent of the religiously

unaffiliated. In contrast, 77 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. The two religious groups of swing voters

slightly favored Trump; 56 percent of mainline Protestants and 52 percent of Catholics voted Republican. 14

Although religious identity and partisanship correlate highly in contemporary American politics, the nature of cause and

effect is not completely clear. Some researchers have demonstrated ways that religious elites help shape the political views of

people in the pews. Yet research on life cycle effects shows that many people develop firm partisan attachments earlier in life

than when they form firm religious commitments. As partisanship and religion have become more connected and polarized,

the results of some recent studies suggest that, at least for some people, partisanship influences their religious identity.


Ibid, pp. 64-66. Available at: https://assets.pewresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/11/2018/06/12094011/Appendix-B.pdf.


Megan Brenan, “Religion Considered Important to 72 percent of Americans,” Gallup, December 24, 2018, Accessed September 22, 2019.

Available at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/245651/religion-considered-important-americans.aspx.


“Where Americans Find Meaning in Life,” Pew Research Center, Report, November 20, 2018, Accessed September 23, 2019. Available at:



Polling organizations vary widely in how they identify and define evangelical Christians. This survey constructs the category based

on answers to detailed religious affiliation questions, likely the best way to distinguish between Mainline and Evangelical Protestants

with surveys. Each methodology has particular strengths and weaknesses, and each will return slightly different results. Despite these

challenges, the general trends reported about evangelicals and politics are quite similar across studies and reveal consistent patterns.


“An Examination of the 2016 Electorate, Based on Validated Voters,” Pew Research Center, August 9, 2018, Accessed September 23, 2019.

Available at: https://www.people-press.org/2018/08/09/an-examination-of-the-2016-electorate-based-on-validated-voters/.

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 9

Those who identify as Republicans tend to be drawn toward religion, while Democrats think they would be out of place in a

church. 15


As would be expected given the sharp partisan divides between many religious subgroups, views on political issues vary

widely by religion. Consider a few examples.

A Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) poll in September and October of 2019 shows stark differences in how members

of different religious groups view Donald Trump. At a time when overall approval of Trump’s presidency was 39 percent and

disapproval was 60 percent, white evangelical Protestants were much stronger supporters of the President. More than three of

four white evangelicals (77 percent) approved of Trump’s performance, compared with 54 percent of mainline Protestants, 48

percent of white Catholics, 31 percent of those from other religions, 30 percent of religiously unaffiliated voters, 28 percent of

Hispanic Catholics, and 9 percent of black Protestants.

Researchers at Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) created an index to measure opinions on restrictive immigration

policies. Support for such restrictions was strong among many religious groups including 85 percent of white evangelical

Protestants, 66 percent of white mainline Protestants, 68 percent of white Catholics, and 53 percent of Hispanic Protestants.

In contrast, only 39 percent of Hispanic Catholics and 34 percent of the religiously unaffiliated supported restrictive

immigration. Not all immigration restrictions are popular. Majorities of all religious groups expressed opposition to President

Trump’s policy of detaining and separating families at the border when a parent seeks to enter without permission. Support

for such policies was largest among white evangelical Protestants, 39 percent of whom favor such family separation,

compared with 28 percent of white mainline Protestants, 24 percent of Catholics, 18 percent of black Protestants, and only 12

percent of those without a religious affiliation. 16

Religious voters also have a range of perspectives on cultural issues. In a Pew Research Center study in 2019 that asked if

abortion should be legal in all cases, legal in most cases, illegal in most cases, or illegal in all cases, responses varied between

religious groups. As expected, white evangelical Protestants were the most conservative, with almost three of four (77

percent) saying abortion should be illegal in all or almost all cases. Several other religious groups favored legality: 56 percent

of Catholics, 60 percent of mainline Protestants, and 64 percent of black Protestants said abortion should be legal in all or

most circumstances. The religiously unaffiliated held the strongest views; more than four of five (83 percent) favored legal

abortion. 17

Views on LGBT issues have undergone a transformation over the last several decades. Researchers at PRRI summarized their

findings on religion and LGBT issues from their 2017 survey, describing a national “emerging consensus” in favor of same-sex

marriage and growing support for other related issues. Although significant religious opposition remains, all religious groups

have shown increased support for gay marriage in recent years, with the youngest voters registering the greatest support.

Large majorities of some Christian groups favor same-sex marriage, including 67 percent of white mainline Protestants, 66

percent of white Catholics, and 65 percent of Hispanic Catholics. Religiously unaffiliated voters express the strongest support,

with four of five (80 percent) supporting marriage equality.


Michele F. Margolis, From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity, University of

Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, 2018. Print.


“Fractured Nation: Widening Partisan Polarization and Key Issues in 2020 Presidential Elections,” Public Religion Research Institute,

October 20, 2019, Accessed October 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.prri.org/research/fractured-nation-widening-partisan-polarizationand-key-issues-in-2020-presidential-elections/.


“U.S Public Continues to Favor Legal Abortion, Oppose Overturning Roe v. Wade,” Pew Research Center, August 29, 2019, Accessed

September 23, 2019. Available at: https://www.people-press.org/2019/08/29/u-s-public-continues-to-favor-legal-abortion-opposeoverturning-roe-v-wade/

10 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

Opposition remains strongest among white evangelical

Protestants, 58 percent of whom oppose same-sex marriage,

and Mormons, with 53 percent opposed. The views of black

Protestants, who have traditionally been more socially

conservative, are changing: in 2013, 57 percent of black

Protestants opposed same-sex marriage, but by 2017, 43 percent

opposed it and 48 percent expressed support. 18

As we have seen, some religious groups tend to favor Republican

politicians and conservative issue positions, while others favor

Democrats and more progressive stances. Because religious

principles and partisan affinities tend to reinforce each other in

contemporary American politics, it is difficult to isolate distinctly

religious motivations from other factors that affect political



The changing religious landscape reveals important trends with direct implications for politics. The largest demographic shift

is the rise of the religiously unaffiliated, a number that continues to increase rapidly even as the percentages of Christians

decline. At the same time, immigrants, who are often religiously fervent, help bolster and revive existing congregations

and expand religious diversity. Although most immigrants to the United States are Christian, immigration has contributed

significantly to the growth of Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism.

Both political parties face challenges adapting to these shifts. As religiously unaffiliated voters have become an essential

Democratic voting bloc, the party has crafted issue positions and expanded outreach efforts designed to court the religiously

unaffiliated. Such tactics are not without risk: if the party distances itself too much from religion, it risks alienating the

many Democratic voters who are religious. Democrats will have difficulty winning national elections if they are seen as the

“godless” party.

In contrast, Republicans directly court evangelical voters, a key Republican voting bloc. Although such religious outreach is

strategically important, if Republicans become identified too closely with religious conservatives, they risk alienating other

important partisans. According to aggregate data from recent Pew Center studies, one in six Republicans are religiously

unaffiliated (16 percent) or identify with non-Christian religions (4 percent). 19 As white evangelicals and other core Republican

voting blocs age, the party needs to expand its appeal to win national elections.


Alex Vandermaas-Peeler, Daniel Cox, Molly Fisch-Friedman, Rob Griffin, and Robert P. Jones, “Emerging Consensus on LGBT Issues:

Findings from the 2017 American Values Atlas,” Public Religion Research Institute, May 8, 2018, Accessed September 23, 2019. Available

at: https://www.prri.org/research/emerging-consensus-on-lgbt-issues-findings-from-the-2017-american-values-atlas/.


“In the U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.”

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 11

The State of American Democracy

As we have seen, the United States is one of the most religious nations in

the West. Religious diversity is growing, and religion and politics are deeply

connected. Several important aspects of American political culture provide

context for understanding the role of religion in public life.


Pluralism is becoming an ever more prominent feature of American public

life. By pluralism, we mean the socially or politically meaningful presence

of diversity and difference—including religious, racial and ideological

diversity. To recognize pluralism is to recognize that we must contend with

In a diverse society, to provide

space for other perspectives

on religion is not to deny the

truth of your own or affirm

the truth of another’s. Instead,

religious pluralism reflects an

acknowledgment of the existence

and dignity of others.

our deepest differences. Societies with healthy pluralism provide space for all people to feel welcome to be full participants in

public life. A healthy pluralism is one in which “we can,” as law professor John Inazu offered in his book Confident Pluralism,

“retain some modest unity in our diversity.” 20

Religious pluralism, in particular, reflects the very freedom that Christians believe has been granted by God. Some reject

religious pluralism, because they do not wish for religion to be present in public life at all. Others reject it, because they

believe that by accommodating the presence of religious difference entails diminishing the importance, or even the existence

of, religious truth at all.

Contrary to these perspectives, in a diverse society, to provide space for other perspectives on religion is not to deny the

truth of your own or affirm the truth of another’s. Instead, religious pluralism reflects an acknowledgment of the existence

and dignity of others. It is also a reflection of an appropriate level of personal humility and confidence that undergirds the

understanding that the truth of one’s faith does not rely on the coercive force of the law or the stifling power of societal

pressure. Religious pluralism, like pluralism generally, is about how we coexist given our differences. 21

The American commitment to pluralism historically has been at turns extraordinary and tragically inadequate. From her

beginnings, the United States was home to people of many faiths. Although Christianity was the dominant religion, the young

nation also included Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and others.

The Declaration of Independence boldly asserts that “all men are created equal,” and draws a direct line from the person

to the government, arguing government derives its power from the consent of the governed. In sharp contrast to most state

constitutions at the time, the U.S. Constitution did not create an established church and explicitly prohibited the use of

religious tests for public office. Even more remarkably, the Constitution created a secular national government. The Bill of

Rights codified essential civil liberties, including freedom of speech and freedom of religion.

Even as they laid a foundation for equality and liberty, these documents allowed for the exclusion of many people—

essentially all who were not property-owning white men—from public and political life. America’s commitment to its stated

ideals has been broken in ways that have excluded people by race, religion, gender, nationality, ideology and a range of other

characteristics or identities, from public life. Over time, however, the United States has grown more inclusive. Legal and

constitutional changes have helped expand voting rights and remove other barriers to full political participation.


John Inazu, Confident Pluralism: Surviving and Thriving Through Deep Difference, Chicago University Press, Chicago, IL, 2016. Pp 7. Print.



12 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

To say that questions involving pluralism are becoming increasingly salient in our politics today is, in part, to recognize that

more people of various backgrounds have access to the public square in a meaningful way. Due to several factors, including

the democratization of media and communication, the reality of our pluralism is more difficult to ignore or miss. Americans

must decide—in this moment, drawing from the nation’s best ideals and the most difficult lessons of the past—how to contend

with differences, and how we ought to live together.

One problem, of course, is that pluralism opens the opportunity for groups of people to be pitted against one another. Current

political trends tend to facilitate and incentivize such divisiveness.


Religious freedom is necessary for a healthy religious pluralism and is a fundamental human right. Article 18 of the Universal

Declaration of Human Rights defines it well: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right

includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or

private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.” 22

Religious freedom has been a central American ideal since the Founding. As with other areas regarding difference,

institutions and political actors have at times violated principles of religious freedom, yet America has been an international

leader in promoting this important human right.

In recent decades, as the United States has grown increasingly diverse and cultural issues have moved into the national

political spotlight, religious freedom—its reach and its very meaning —has become hotly contested. Less than 30 years after

the Religious Freedom Restoration Act was passed almost unanimously by Congress and signed into law by President Bill

Clinton in 1993, the politics of religious freedom have shifted dramatically. There is increasing disagreement over the scope of

religious freedom and its place in relation to other civil liberties. Some observers view religion as a completely private matter

and assume it has little to no place in the public arena. But such a limited understanding misses the centrality of religion as a

transformative way of life. For some individuals, religion is simply a preference or cultural marker that has little effect on their

daily lives, but for many people of faith, religion is an essential identity that naturally shapes all aspects of life, private and


Many of the individuals we interviewed raised concerns about growing division over religious freedom, the general state of

American politics, and the ways various religious communities participate in public life.


Another important trend in American politics is increasing political polarization, the widening ideological distance between

political parties, and its spillover effects. In recent decades, the two parties have become more ideologically cohesive and

more distant from one another, and the most politically engaged Americans are now deeply divided into two distinct partisan


Party polarization has been growing in Congress since the 1970s. For most of the 20 th century, many Members of Congress

were ideological moderates. Now, all Republicans and all Democrats in Congress cluster together ideologically, and neither

party has many moderates.


“Universal Declaration of Human Rights,” UN, December 10, 1948, Accessed December 10, 2019. Available at: https://www.un.org/en/


Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 13

This polarization is reflected at the grassroots level as well. The ideological distance between self-identified Republicans and

Democrats is widening and is greatest among those who are most politically active. Researchers disagree about the nature of

this growing distance—some say that the masses are moving more to the ideological extremes like the elites, others say that,

given increasing party cohesiveness, voters’ views are not changing as much as they are sorting more clearly into the two

parties. 23

Although party and ideology are of course connected, ties to party are often stronger than ideology. When a party shifts

its focus on some issues, as the Republican party has done under Donald Trump on issues like free trade, strong partisans

continue to support the party and switch policy positions to maintain alignment.


Ideological distance between the two parties has some benefits. Increasing party cohesiveness creates stronger national

parties that offer well-defined policy alternatives. More clearly defined parties also simplify vote choices.

When polarization becomes severe, however, negative effects emerge. One result has been growing affective polarization,

the tendency for people to distrust and dislike those with opposite political views. Researchers note that Americans are

increasingly viewing political parties as part of their social identity, and such group consciousness leads to increased crossparty


A wide range of studies show rising partisan animosity. In a recent Pew Research Center survey, for example, 91 percent of

Republicans had unfavorable views of Democrats, and 86 percent of Democrats had unfavorable views of Republicans. More

than two of five Democrats (41 percent) and Republicans (45 percent) said the other party’s policies “threaten the nation’s

well-being.” In a 2017 study, almost half of all partisans

said they “hate” the other party. 24

In a recent Pew Research Center survey,

for example, 91 percent of Republicans

had unfavorable views of Democrats,

and 86 percent of Democrats had

unfavorable views of Republicans. More

than two of five Democrats (41 percent)

and Republicans (45 percent) said

the other party’s policies “threaten the

nation’s well-being.” In a 2017 study,

almost half of all partisans said they

“hate” the other party.

The lack of social sanction likely reinforces affective

partisanship. Whereas social norms strongly discourage

disparaging others based on race, ethnicity, or gender,

the current political culture condones or even encourages

contempt for those who disagree politically. Researchers

examining the role of implicit bias against groups not

only found strong anti-partisan sentiments, they found

that “the level of partisan animus in the American public

exceeds racial animosity.” 25


For a good overview of the polarization thesis, see Alan I. Abramowitz, The Great Alignment: Race, Party Transformation, and the Rise

of Donald Trump, Yale University Press, New Haven, CT, 2018. Print. The party sorting thesis is best demonstrated in the work of Morris

Fiorina. See, for example, Morris Fiorina, Unstable Majorities: Polarization, Party Sorting, and Political Stalemate, Hoover Institution Press,

Stanford, CA, 2017. Print.


“Partisanship and Political Animosity in 2016,” Pew Research Center, June 22, 2016, Accessed September 10, 2019. Available at: https://



Shanto Iyengar and Sean J. Westwood, “Fear and Loathing across Party Lines: New Evidence on Group Polarization,” American Journal of

Political Science, Vol. 59. No. 3, July 2015, Pp. 690-707. Print.

14 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

As enmity for the other party grows, elites are less willing to work with members across the aisle, leading to gridlock.

Partisans at the elite and grassroots levels adopt more divisive rhetoric, which feeds cross-partisan distrust and scorn.

These patterns have spillover effects in churches and other religious organizations. Although ideological views and

theological views need not overlap, many theological conservatives are also politically conservative, even as those with more

modernist or liberal theological views tend toward more progressive politics. Some of the negative effects of party polarization

seem to be reflected across theological divides—in some circles, theological conservatives and liberals mistrust or even have

contempt for one another.


As American politics have grown increasingly polarized, the public is growing divided in other ways. 26

One growing trend is that liberals and conservatives increasingly live in different places. Neighborhoods, cities, and even

entire states are growing more and more ideologically distinct in what journalist Bill Bishop describes as “the big sort.” 27

Many people have choices about where to live, and, if so, they opt to reside in states, cities, and even neighborhoods that

reflect their values. People are also more and more unlikely to marry someone who aligns with a different party. The result is

that increasing numbers of Americans are surrounded only by people who share their ideological views.

Studies also demonstrate the prevalence of “confirmation bias.” People naturally seek out and interpret things in ways that

confirm what they already believe, and they naturally look for exceptions and problems with arguments they don’t like.

Voters are increasingly willing to overlook facts that go against their predispositions, even as they are very alert to even minor

discrepancies in the views of their opponents. In an age of polarized media, voters can choose from a wide range of sources

for political information, self-selecting only those outlets that reinforce their ideological and partisan views.

These trends also affect American Christians. Liberal and conservative Christians likely apply different moral lenses as they

discern the proper relationship between faith and politics and which issues to prioritize. Although some congregations are

politically diverse, many Christians choose to worship in churches that seem to align with their political views. In many ways,

Christianity has become polarized and sorted like political elites and voters.


The changing political climate also appears to be affecting public trust. Recent survey data suggest that levels of public trust

and confidence are reaching historic lows.

The Pew Research Center compiled data on political trust from several polling organizations over many decades. In 2019, only

17 percent of respondents said they “trust the government in Washington” always (3 percent) or most of the time (14 percent).

In the 1980s, trust levels hovered between 40 percent and 44 percent. In the 1990s, trust levels declined somewhat, but by the

early 2000s, about a third of Americans again had high levels of trust in government. In the mid-2000s, trust numbers began

to dip again, reaching a record low in 2019. 28


See, for example, Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided By Politics and Religion, Vintage, New York, NY, 2012.



Bill Bishop, The Big Sort, Houghton Mifflin, New York, NY, 2008. Print.


“Trust and Distrust in America,” Pew Research Center, July 22, 2019, Accessed September 11, 2019. Available at: https://www.people-press.


Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 15

Trust levels vary between different groups in society. An index of trust scores from several different survey questions shows

that overall trust tends to increase with age, education, and income. Racial disparities are common as well: Whites are much

more likely to have high levels of trust (27 percent) than blacks (13 percent) or Hispanics (12 percent). 29

The Gallup organization regularly asks respondents to rate their levels of confidence in various institutions in society using

the scale “a great deal, quite a lot, some, or very little.” Their data show that confidence in governing institutions has trended

downward in recent decades. In 1999, 49 percent of respondents had a great deal or lot of confidence in the presidency

and the Supreme Court; confidence in both decreased to 38 percent in 2019. Congress fared even worse. Only 26 percent of

respondents expressed confidence in Congress in 1999, and the number dipped to a mere 11 percent in 2019.

Some other institutions consistently rate higher than the federal government. Majorities of Americans have expressed

confidence in the military, small business, and the police for several decades. Majorities also used to have confidence in the

“church or organized religion,” but these levels have declined significantly in recent years. In 1999, 58 percent of respondents

had a great deal or a lot of confidence in religion, as did 52 percent in 2009. By 2019, however, the confidence level in religion

had declined sharply, reaching an all-time low of 36 percent. 30

Concluding Thoughts: The Pursuit of a Healthy Pluralism in our

Changing Society

As we have seen, the American public is growing more polarized, and distrust and disdain are growing between partisans.

Greater numbers of people surround themselves with

like-minded peers, and public trust is eroding. These

divides are crossing over into congregational life,

complicating interactions within and between churches and


While politics has grown more divisive, the religious

landscape is transforming. The percentage of Americans

who call themselves Christian is decreasing, and the

numbers of religiously-unaffiliated Americans are growing

at a rapid pace. America is still robustly religious, but

Americans now operate in a context of contestation,

competition, and transition.

Indeed, diversity, in many forms, is increasing, and with it

many distinctions and differences that affect our common

life together. Is a “modest unity” still possible?

Amid such change and political turmoil, we asked religious

leaders to help us understand the role of Christianity in public life, probing ways that Christians have made positive

contributions, and where things have gone wrong. This report shares their wisdom—exploring challenges, highlighting best

practices, and offering recommendations for ways Christians can make positive contributions to public life and a pluralistic



“Trust and Distrust in America.”


“Confidence in Institutions,” Gallup, Accessed September 11, 2019. Available at: https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidenceinstitutions.aspx.

16 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


How Christian Leaders Are Thinking

About Pluralism and Public Life

Interview Methods

This report brings together ideas and insights gathered from 51 interviews with religious leaders conducted

between March and September 2019, with one final interview conducted in October 2019. Almost all the

interviews were conducted using videoconferencing software; a few were conducted in person. The interviews

ranged in length from 25 to 50 minutes, with most lasting 40 to 45 minutes. All interviews were transcribed to

ensure accuracy. Respondents spoke to us on the record, with a few choosing to make occasional off-the-record


We created an interview guide of 14 questions to direct the conversations. Topics included the role of religion in public life,

what Christians are getting right and wrong, pluralism, bridge building, the church’s involvement in politics, and motivations

for Christian political engagement.

The interviewees are leaders in a broad spectrum of Christian institutions and denominations. Many of the respondents

have served in significant leadership roles for decades, but we also chose to include some emerging leaders to speak to

likely challenges ahead. Our invitation list included Catholic, Mainline Protestant, Evangelical Protestant, Historically Black

Church, and Orthodox leaders from a range of sectors including pastoral ministry, denominational leadership, religious

non-profit organizations, higher education, and media. 31 We sought to include participants from a wide range of theological

perspectives and diverse backgrounds. Appendix A includes a complete list of interviewees. All the participants shared their

views as individuals; they were not speaking on behalf of their organizations.


Interviews included multiple people from each of the traditions listed. We also included an interview with one leader in the Church of

Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a group that is often categorized as “Other Christian” in surveys.

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 17

Insights into Christianity and Public Life


The Christian leaders we interviewed were reflexively positive about pluralism. Their consensus view is that, when properly

understood, religious pluralism is an essential and just arrangement in the midst of difference, of benefit to society broadly as

well as Christians specifically.

The fact of religious pluralism was stated as a reflection of a reality that is core to American ideals and congruent with

Christianity. Many of the Christian leaders we spoke to also suggested that religious pluralism is not just a fact to be accepted,

but a good for which Christians (and others) can be grateful. Religious pluralism, and the religious freedom that makes

religious pluralism possible, provide a context for true belief and practice.

Jenny Yang, Vice President of Advocacy and Policy at World Relief, suggested that religious pluralism is “a bedrock principle

of our democracy…for any person to be able to practice their faith freely, or even if they have no faith at all, is fundamental to

our country and the way that we live.” Rev. Jim Wallis, President and Founder of Sojourners, echoing Yang, said that religious

pluralism is “necessary.” He explained, “in our founding as a nation, we wanted to protect any and all religions and even

people with no religion from state intrusion into those questions.”

Rev. Canon Peg Chamberlin, Lead Consultant at the Justice Connection Consultancy and former President of the National

Council of Churches, like several others, tied religious pluralism and religious freedom together. “Religious pluralism,” she

said, “is a fact of religious freedom and imperative to the founders, and I think imperative to any of us who want to have

a religious freedom in our lives.” Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, argued that religious

pluralism is “first of all, biblically, it’s well-grounded, but secondly, it’s just a fact of our reality…There would be no

Christianity without religious pluralism. Jesus was Jewish. And Jesus lifted up the Good Samaritan as a model of faithfulness,

and they were of two different religions.” Rev. Diana Butler Bass, a Christian author, speaker, and independent scholar,

simply stated, “If it worked for Jesus, it really should work for us.”

In our interviews, religious pluralism was broadly recognized as good for what it allows in a context of diversity: the

protection of conscience and belief and for the right to share one’s faith. Collin Hansen, Editorial Director for the Gospel

Coalition, raised this most directly when he explained

that, in his view, religious pluralism “is an accommodation

to the already not yet where the kingdom of God has

dawned and yet it’s not yet been consummated. So I would

say perhaps it’s not an ultimate eternal good, but it is a

provisional common good. Let’s be honest, Baptists like

me didn’t exactly thrive in environments without religious

pluralism.” Rev. Tish Harrison Warren, Writer-in-Residence,

Church of the Ascension, observed that “it just feels like

pluralism is the only way we’re going to preserve peace in

society.” Rev. Dr. Gabriel Salguero, President of the National

Latino Evangelical Coalition, told us that “religious

pluralism helps us avoid the dangers and the perils of the

imposition of religion by a government or the state.” In

different ways, Hansen, Salguero, and Warren affirmed

religious pluralism—and the religious freedom protections

18 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

they view as essential to it—as enlarging the

ability of Christians to live out their faith, not

limiting it.

In addition to this way of looking at the value

of religious pluralism, many of the Christian

leaders we interviewed did not simply view

religious pluralism as acceptable or good

because of what it allowed Christians to

do, but argued that a religiously pluralistic

context can help to deepen and sharpen the

faith of Christians and improve the health of

Christian communities. Dr. CJ Rhodes, Pastor

of Mt. Helm Baptist Church, represented this

perspective well when he said that religious

pluralism “forces us to really come to terms

with: Are we really believers are not?... it’s also

good for us to interrogate ways in which some

of our theological framings have been rather

sophomoric; so because we’ve been sheltered in

many ways, we’ve not seen the diversity of the

world.” Dr. Bob Roberts, Global Senior Pastor

at Northwood Church, echoed this sentiment,

saying that “there’s nothing better that you can

do for your faith than live next door to Muslims,

Jews, Buddhists. I think it also makes us ask

hard questions. Why do I believe what I believe,

and how do I explain it to someone else?”

Q: “Is Pluralism a good thing for


A: I personally think it is, which is why I helped

to plant a church in a city like Washington, D.C.

because I believe we are better for it when we

are refined in our faith, knowing exactly what

we believe in when we’re challenged to live

with charitable spirits in our relationships with

our neighbors, when we’re not forced to live in

enclaves and fortresses of faith, sealed off from

neighbors that are different from ourselves. And

so, again, that’s not just for the sake of mission

in terms of bringing the gospel to our neighbors,

but it’s also in the neighbors bringing themselves

to us in a way that actually challenges and refines

our faith, not to mention our conviction that God’s

truth is sprinkled all over the place through all

kinds of institutions, all kinds of people’s lives.

And so we actually do encounter some version of

God and some aspects of God, even in things that

we might disagree with.

—Rev. Duke Kwon, Lead Pastor, Grace Meridian Hill,

Washington, D.C.

Dr. Catherine Orsborn, Executive Director of

Shoulder to Shoulder, personally reflected that

her “encounters with Eastern Christianity made

me ask…how American is my Christianity and how Christian is my Christianity?” She continued, “I think my encounters with

Muslims and Jews since then…have really strengthened my own Christian commitment.” Professor Aristotle Papanikolaou,

Archbishop Demetrios Chair in Orthodoxy, Theology, and Culture at Fordham University, affirmed the point, noting that

religious pluralism “forces those who take their Christian conviction seriously to actually embody those convictions in ways

that perhaps they didn’t think was possible without being in the midst of that kind of religious pluralism.” Sister Simone

Campbell, SSS, Executive Director of NETWORK Lobby for Catholic Social Justice, told us that in her work with people of

different faiths, “I haven’t found a compromise. I’ve found it totally enriching, but I think the thing is that it’s more about

spiritual maturity than it is about doctrine…And that spiritual maturity then is not a threat for my own. It’s opening. It’s

interesting. It enriches. But it requires a spiritual practice that is more than a... I don’t know, what? A garment you put on

Sunday morning and then take off.”

Although the Christian leaders we spoke to were overwhelmingly positive about religious pluralism, several people we

interviewed discussed challenges to a viable religious pluralism. Pluralism can mean different things to different people. As

Bishop Claude Richard Alexander, Jr., Senior Pastor of the Park Church in Charlotte, N.C., noted: “It is our view of pluralism

that can be healthy or not.”

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 19

The leaders we interviewed identified two main sources of concern regarding a healthy religious pluralism, one from within

the Christian community and the other more general. Some expressed that Christians who view their faith as an affiliation

or as a tribe, but do not hold to the ethics of the faith, might lack the resources or the will to view religious pluralism as

anything other than an inconvenience or a threat. When considering possible challenges Christians might have with religious

pluralism, Dr. Christina H. Edmundson, Dean of Intercultural Student Development at Calvin University, raised the possibility

that “we may not have enough love for the people who represent theological and religious traditions different than our own.

And so our way of dealing with them is to just wish they were gone.” A few other leaders expressed similar concerns. Because

tribalism and social fragmentation are such prominent features of our current political and social context, and political,

media, and news technologies and systems often reinforce such thinking, the theological and ethical rationales for religious

pluralism can get crowded out.

The second source of concern is with the idea that the presence of religious diversity requires that we flatten public discourse

or justifies attempts to disadvantage or even legally limit Christian expression. When discussing religious pluralism, Deacon

Charlie Echeverry, National Chair of Communications for the Catholic Association of Latino Leaders, argued that it was in line

with the Catholic Church’s teaching that “people can come to faith and God through reason alone, that nobody can be forced

against their conscience to believe any particular thing.” He also noted how religious pluralism has allowed for distinctly

Catholic contributions to the social good through the work of various charities, institutions like hospitals and schools, and

local parishes. Yet, he cautioned against a view of pluralism that leads to syncretism, where people “kind of blend things into

this kind of mush” that makes them unable to value distinctly religious expressions. A religious pluralism that minimizes or

dismisses the claims of faith—rather than one that provides for a robust marketplace of ideas—is hardly pluralism at all.

In many of our interviews, leaders from various denominations and backgrounds insisted on the unique value of their faith

tradition and then went on to defend religious pluralism. Dr. Mark Labberton, President of Fuller Theological Seminary, spoke

of ways pluralism deepens faith: “[Pluralism] creates the opportunity to see and understand your faith in ways that we can’t

otherwise and to be able to grow in our ability to see life and meaning and even religious truth claims through a variety of

different lenses.” Their comments and experiences also suggest that a vibrant faith can support a healthy pluralism.

This is a critical insight. It is sometimes suggested that the way to promote religious inclusion is to emphasize similarities

between different religious traditions or try to reduce the salience of religion altogether. However, our interviews suggest that

a respect for difference can be grounded in the Christian faith itself. We must be able to communicate that religious difference

does not require the compromising of one’s faith, but instead that religious difference, difference of any kind, provides an

opportunity to live out one’s faith.

This was essentially German Chancellor Angela

Merkel’s claim during a debate in her country about

an influx of Muslim migrants. At a town hall forum in

front of the Christian Democratic Union party she led,

she said “We don’t have too much Islam. We have too

little Christianity. We have too few discussions about

the Christian view of mankind.” Germany, she argued,

should view this moment as an opportunity to have a

more robust conversation about the “values that guide

20 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

us and about our Judeo-Christian tradition. We have to stress this again with confidence, then we will also be able to bring

about cohesion in our society.” 32

Our Takeaways:



Christian leaders see and embrace the value of religious pluralism for religious minorities and American

society at large, as well as for Christians specifically.

Christians who are confident in their understanding of their faith may be better equipped to support

a healthy religious pluralism. Likewise, a healthy religious pluralism may help Christians better

understand their faith.

Christians and Bridge Building

Clearly, there are resources within Christianity to navigate diversity, but how do Christian leaders think about their faith as it

relates to partnerships across diversity?

Christians have great opportunity and resources to serve as bridge builders in their congregations and communities. Many of

the leaders we interviewed described bridge building as central to the Christian ethic, talked about its importance in the life

of the church, and offered many examples of such work in practice.

Bridge building is fundamental to the Christian ethic, beginning with the gospel story itself and the sacrificial work of Jesus

Christ. As Ruth Padilla DeBorst, Rector of the Center for Interdisciplinary Theological Studies (CETI), Costa Rica, explained,

“at the core of the gospel is reconciliation. It’s God in Christ reconciling the world... The greatest divide was bridged by Jesus.

No divide is bigger than the one separating sinful humanity from the Creator’s perfect God... He showed what reconciliation

looks like: it’s giving Himself away for the sake of others.” Christians are called to follow Jesus’ model, identifying gaps and

divides and finding ways to reconcile them.

Several of the leaders we interviewed connected bridge building with the biblical command of love for neighbor, discussing

ways Christians can reach out across a range of differences and seek to bring people together. The Rev. Joseph A. Darby,

Senior Pastor of Nichols Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church, summarized: “if we are who we claim to be, if we are

devotees of Jesus who said, ‘Love your neighbor as you love yourself,’ we ought to be able to offer a voice of moderation

and an extended hand and a tolerant spirit.” Such themes connect with the related call for Christians to love their enemies.

Dr. Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, described the challenge this way: “It’s

our fundamental duty to love our enemies. We have to bless those who persecute us... And we have to make our enemies

recognize or understand or feel that we love them. And when we do that, it becomes easier to engage with people we disagree

with or who were themselves advancing causes that we think are contrary to the human good, contrary to justice, contrary to

the common good, contrary to what’s right.”

Other tenets of Christian theology provide important foundations for bridge building. Andy Crouch, Partner for Theology and

Culture at Praxis, pointed to original sin as one essential doctrine that makes everyone level and equally in need of salvation.


Tom Heneghan, “Merkel urges Germans: stand up for Christian values,” Reuters, November 15, 2010, Accessed December 10, 2019.

Available at: https://in.reuters.com/article/us-germany-cdu-christianity/merkel-urges-germans-stand-up-for-christian-valuesidINTRE6AE3K520101115

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 21

“Christians, if you look at the Gospels, are

called to love your neighbor as yourself, love

everyone. And if you have this fundamental

Christian belief that God created us all as

equal, there’s absolutely no human being that

you should look down on or turn your back

on or in any way reject. So we should always

be reaching out in gestures of love. I think

that sometimes the church can get confused

and think that those gestures of love mean

actually accommodating to the views of

someone who you believe is espousing hurtful

and destructive views. And so, reaching out in

love... doesn’t mean ignoring the differences

and the deep conflicts that separate us.”

—Rev. Dr. Serene Jones, President, Union Theological


He also explained the powerful effect of living out

unity in Christ: “when you actually live the theology

of being one body and with others who you would

never be related to in any way…I just think it gives

you resources for relationships with other people

no matter what their faith may be. It gives you kind

of an imagination for what a real relationship of

restored trust can be. So I think to the extent that

Christians have actually experienced those kinds

of bonds and the bridges that are built because of

these bonds, I think it gives us an imagination that

is really hard to get any other way.”


Bridge building offers an important counter to the

tribalism so common in today’s society. As Rev.

Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli, Senior Pastor at Foundry

United Methodist Church, noted, “the core of our

narrative is the story of a God who wants to tear

down walls and help us have the courage and the

grace to cross boundaries and create relationship

across tribal lines, instead of starting one place and

then wanting to spread that into the surrounding

communities.” Aristotle Papanikolaou echoed

similar themes, suggesting “Christianity offers the kinds of practices where we can engage with the other, the one who does

not agree with our own religious beliefs or political views, and to engage in a way that doesn’t result in diametrical opposition

or demonization.”

Bridge building also offers a powerful antidote to cynicism. Catherine Orsborn explained, “there’s a lot of cynicism. And I

think that the belief that things can be better, that we can love each other better, that we can go beyond this sort of mutual

toleration into building communities that actually embody respect for one another, respect for difference, I think those

teachings very much come out of Christianity and are embodied in many, many Christian communities.”

The Most Reverend Michael Bruce Curry, Presiding Bishop and Primate of the Episcopal Church, described the powerful

results of bringing people together to learn from one another: “the thing that I’ve learned... is that creating context where

people, whatever the difference is, get to know the other people as children of God and experiencing their stories in their lives

and then sharing some life together, and reflecting on that out of whatever the spiritual condition they come from... has the

potential to create a kind of community and a kind of ongoing light that actually does knit relationships, that has long-lasting


22 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


Bridge building is difficult, time-consuming work. By definition, it is only necessary because of a significant breach or gap. As

Rev. Canon Dana Corsello, Canon Vicar at the Washington National Cathedral, explained, “To be a bridge builder, there has to

be some deep water in between.” It is not a simple process, so it requires arduous work and serious dedication to the task. It

also requires that those engaging each other reflect deeply and confront their own shortcomings in preparation for the work

of reconciliation. Corsello described the task: “We have to do the work on ourselves first to understand the bridge we actually

need to build, for it to be authentic, and strong, and have a real foundation.”

One essential component of effective bridge building is taking the time needed to listen to one another carefully and hear

each other’s stories. Mark Labberton described it this way: “So I think the first part of bridge building is actually listening,

and actually not stepping on somebody else’s voice and not trying to control the conversation and not trying to presume that I

or people like me get to define power.” Such listening is difficult but essential to understanding people across differences and

building trust. It also requires great humility. As Robert George explained, “we need to be willing to listen, to entertain what

the other person has to say. Consider whether we might be the ones who are in the wrong, have a truly honest discussion, but

expect and even demand the same from those on the other side.”

Another important element of bridge building is bringing people together in person. Several interviewees talked about

the power and effectiveness of such gatherings. Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman, Pastor at St. Luke Lutheran Church and former

Director of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America Domestic Mission, described the act of assembling together as “holy,”

explaining: “... there’s something holy about propinquity, about being in the same space together with others, without

any other agenda but to be there with them.” Several others echoed the theme of leaving agendas aside to promote deeper

listening and more humble interactions.

Gathering together has other benefits as well. Aristotle Papanikolaou explained, “What I do see is, when people are on social

media, they tend to speak and to post and to engage in ways that tend to be much more aggressive and kind of a diametrical

opposition sort of engagement than when it’s face to face.” It is far easier to demean others when alone at a computer or other

device than when sitting in a room interacting personally with them. Papanikolaou continued: “And when I see a face-to-face

engagement and I know people are serious about their Christian convictions, I do see people drawing on those convictions as

a way of relating to the person in front of them with whom they really very strongly disagree.”

Although a range of models exist, most of the leaders we interviewed thought that bridge building tended to be most effective

at the local level. Congregations are a natural starting place, as members already know one another and have existing

relationships on which to build. Tish Harrison Warren discussed her congregation as an example: “People actually have

relationships with people that are ideologically different in our church, and there’s just very, very few places that that still

happens in America.” Once parishioners have succeeded in the hard work within their own community, they can then look

outward to help bridge divisions in the wider community.

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 23


Examples of Christian bridge-building work abound. Historically and to the present day, the church has been at the forefront

of caring for the needs of the community and providing essential social services. As CJ Rhodes noted, “Hospitals and schools

and colleges and universities and the basic political system we operate in are founded in large measure on principles and

ethics that were shaped by the Christian conscience.” Peg Chamberlin directly connected the legacy of such Christian

organizations to bridge building: “I think there have been bridges built in a lot of places where the Christian community is

doing service work, whether that’s resettling refugees or serving meals or after school care for kids; that kind of engagement

with folks certainly helps us build some bridges with one another, too.”

Many other Christian leaders offered

examples of successful projects,

particularly at the local level.

Shirley Hoogstra, President of the Council for Christian

Colleges and Universities, talked about the powerful effects

of Christian colleges providing classes inside prisons: “So

we have twelve institutions currently under their own dollar

educating prisoners in federal and state penitentiaries,

and faculty being paid by colleges and it’s only being done

because people believe that it’s the right thing to do.” She

described the range of people who benefited from these

partnerships including the inmates, the professors, and the

students who assist them. Sister Simone talked about the

unifying effects of NETWORK’s “Nuns on the Bus” model that

invites participants from all walks of life: “when we do the

bus, and the idea with the bus is that all are welcome, that

becomes a healing community in that time... So at the end,

it’s not just Nuns on the Bus, it’s everybody on the bus.”

Several interviewees offered examples

of interfaith bridge building.

Most Reverend Wilton D. Gregory, Archbishop of

Washington, pointed to the public witness of the leaders

of the Catholic and Orthodox churches: “Pope Francis and

Patriarch Bartholomew have given a wonderful example of

collaborative efforts in the world of the environment and

ecology, in talking about the challenges that the Middle

East faces.” Rev. Luis Cortes, Jr., Founder and President,

Esperanza, described how an interfaith group responded

when a local mosque was vandalized in his community: “we

all rallied to that mosque and we protected the mosque. We

set up our people to protect the mosque externally and it was

interesting, Jewish and Christian people and organizations

apologized though we didn’t do it, we apologized on behalf

of the city and we held our press conferences and we

condemned the act and we... actually set up patrols to protect

so it wouldn’t happen again...”

Others noted the importance of working

to foster mutual understanding.

Stephanie Summers, Chief Executive Officer of the Center

for Public Justice, described the results of efforts to develop

public policy to secure LGBTQ civil rights: “having that be a

mutual ongoing back and forth, and then trying to actually

knit together positive solutions that would address that scope,

that make it, I think, really beautiful in its bridge building

because... it comes through as a place where people sought

to understand and sought to be understood, and all along the

way kept coming back to the table to say, ‘Tell me again, help

me understand.’” Partners in the discussions set aside their

political calculations and focused foremost on learning from

one another.

Ruth Padilla DeBorst offered a formula

for successful bridge-building work,

pointing to the importance of beginning

work in a community without an agenda

in advance:

“It’s not us dictating the way things are going to be, it’s just

coming together and finding the common ground, and then

working out of it for the well-being of our neighborhood. All

these things are born out of the conversation with others,

not just following our own little agenda, and trying to build

our sphere of influence, but more by bringing spheres of

influence together.”

24 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


We spoke with religious leaders about a range of cultural divides, seeking insights into ways Christians have bridged each


Leaders from across the ideological spectrum saw great opportunities for Christians to help bridge political divides. As Rev.

Samuel Rodriquez, President of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, explained: “But what about the

issues dividing us? ... Shouldn’t the Church provide safe space to have a loving, truth-telling conversation? We should. We are

the quintessential reconcilers... Let’s provide the table where people can interact respectfully, yet without sacrificing your

convictions, and where we believe the Holy Spirit can show up and bring people together. So that’s what we can do. On every

given controversial issue, the church should lead the way in bringing people together.”

Peg Chamberlin offered an example of successful bridge building across political divides. Respectful Conversations, a

program sponsored by the Minnesota Council of Churches, created a model that worked well: “We very intentionally

developed this process. It’s really very simple—it’s just a listening process, a respectful process in which we hear people and

try to look at the values that are below the rhetoric if you will. And we found that when people intended to be respectful

and had a format for that respectability... we could actually increase the empathy among folks who felt differently than one

another.” The process worked so well in initial discussions that they expanded the program and convened forums on a range

of issues that built respect and understanding across ideological differences.

Several interviewees noted challenges in working across the secular-religious divide. Many of them, especially evangelical

Protestants, raised concerns about a cultural shift where some in society now see religion as a negative influence. Dr. Timothy

Dalrymple, President and Chief Executive Officer of Christianity Today, expressed his view that, “we have gone into a new era

in some ways where it used to be the case that even those who were irreligious personally or areligious granted nonetheless

that religion was by and large a beneficent force. And these days, I think religion has come to be so associated with

intransigence against the cultural developments... it’s [now] the obstacle standing in the way, and the less influence of

religion in the public square, the better.”

Rev. Johnnie Moore, President of the Congress

of Christian Leaders and Founder of the

Kairos Company, also identified this tension

and suggested the best way to build bridges

in this context is to enter discussions with an

openness to one another, beginning with an

awareness of differences in beliefs but not

demanding people set their beliefs aside. As

he explained: “I think those leaders that are

making the biggest difference are leaders who

listen as much as they talk, who seek out the

other, whoever the other is, who are willing

to collaborate, partner with those who are

different than them [theologically].”

Author and speaker Frederica Matthewes-

Green suggested a helpful way to reframe

conversations and build bridges across the

religious-secular divide. Instead of talking

about the religiously unaffiliated or secular

In the recent decades, Catholic-Evangelical

cooperation on a host of things has been good,

particularly when it moves past just cooperation for

public policy and to deeper levels of engagement. I

think the Catholic-Protestant situation has actually

never been better, in theological terms and very

often in practical terms. But again, seeing the

Catholic and Protestant cooperation as important

for Catholic and Protestant cooperation, not for the

political outcomes of that cooperation, would be

the ideal.

—Dr. Mark Noll, Emeritus Professor of History, University of

Notre Dame

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 25

Americans as a group, she suggested: “I always like to think in terms of secular individuals because there’s never a mass of

[them]. It’s always a photo or mosaic, do you know, it’s always all these people [who] are making up what looks like a huge

mass of the culture.” Once people see the individuals who together comprise the larger mosaic, they can seek ways to build

meaningful relationships. As Matthewes-Green continued, “A bridge between that and Jesus Christ, I would say, that’s the

bridge we’re trying to build.” Bridge builders, she argued, should seek to interact with secular people on a personal level and

share faith stories with them.

Other leaders interviewed talked about the challenges of bridging racial divides and the need for education and internal

reflection to prepare participants. As Dana Corsello explained, “We as Christians have to become educated and want to do the

hard work and then want to be receptive in really uncomfortable conversations with people who are different than we are.”

Bridge building often demands people confront their own blind spots and prejudices so they can be more receptive to hearing

from experiences outside their own context.

Some churches and other organizations have a long history of

building bridges across racial and ethnic divides within their own

communities, and outsiders see the fruits of that labor. In such

cases, leaders can share from their experiences to help others

engage in racial reconciliation. Tom Lin, President and Chief

Executive Officer of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a national

organization devoted to interdenominational campus ministry,

offered multiple examples of colleges reaching out to InterVarsity

campus leaders to help them with racial issues. As Lin explained,

“we’ve been asked by a few universities, even Division I schools, to

help them bring about change to their NCAA sports programs. They

see us as a leader in the racial reconciliation space. They see our

group is multi-ethnic, so they say, ‘Help us, we’ve got racial issues

on our sports teams, we want to train our coaches better in terms of

engaging with race, we know that you guys are Christians, we want

you to do this.’” Building on lessons learned from their years forging strong multi-ethnic ministries, InterVarsity members

became powerful agents of transformation. As Lin summarized, “I think we can bring something to help change systems that

we believe are inequitable, unjust, or are not compatible with our faith.”

Galen Carey, Vice President for Government Relations at the National Association of Evangelicals, pointed to ways diverse

churches have paved the way for bridge building across racial and ethnic divides. He explained: “I think congregational life in

diverse churches that have diverse membership, that’s probably the best example. I think of a church like Vineyard Columbus

that has like 120 different nationalities represented in the church... I’m part of a very small church... And just in our small

handful of people, we have almost as many nationalities represented as people. And so, every Sunday and every Thursday,

whenever we get together, we’re learning how to relate to one another and how to learn from each other respectfully.”

Kevin Palau, President of the Luis Palau Association, echoed this truth as he talked about the importance of Christians

bridging racial and ethnic differences. Explaining “that the status quo isn’t okay and that we have to work a lot harder to

listen to the voices of brothers and sisters of color,” he pointed to demographic changes that will facilitate the learning

process. “Frankly, what it’s going to take more than anything else is just the body of Christ becoming predominantly nonwhite...

Hopefully, my voice still matters, but it doesn’t matter more than the voice of my Latino and African-American and

Asian brothers and sisters that have so much to teach us about what it really looks like to be the hands and feet and voice of


26 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


Although our interviews demonstrated many ways in which Christians are successfully bridging divides, perhaps one of the

most important places for future bridge building is between Christian groups.

In addition to racial, economic, and political divides, it’s important to note that Christians disagree about what Christianity

entails. There is a need for bridge-building work between Christian denominations, but also within Christian denominations

and even individual churches. Theological distinctions around issues like marriage and sexuality, and the ordination of

women have contributed to denominations and churches breaking apart. In some ways, Christian denominations and clergy

are constantly doing bridge-building work among their own constituents.

The theological imperatives for bridge building discussed in this report are relevant when Christians navigate theological

disagreements between themselves as well.

Our Takeaways:




Across Christian traditions, bridge building and seeking the good of those who are different than

yourself are recognized as core teachings of the faith and an important part of Christian practice.

The Christian faith can motivate people to reach out and serve across difference in a way that is deeply


Bridge building must be truly reciprocal and involve real listening and attentiveness to the actual needs,

desires, and disposition of other parties. No one can force bridge-building work or impose it on others.

The Role of Christianity in Public Life

We asked each interviewee to reflect on the overall role of Christianity in public life. Their responses generally revealed a

confidence in the value of Christianity to the public, but they also raised significant misgivings about the reality as well as the

general public’s perception of Christianity’s influence in society.


Christian leaders believe their faith, what it has inspired in the past, and the good works it motivates in the present provide

much of the glue that holds society and communities together. Several leaders point to the role Christians played in the very

creation of the social service sector in America. Bishop Curry identified the centrality of social service in the Christian public

witness: “Where Christians and Christian churches have been involved in means of human service, whether that was in the

old days, founding hospitals, which outgrew the mother church and became hospitals on their own…hospitals and schools

and universities and other human service institutions, many of which are not affiliated with the religious tradition that gave

birth to them anymore, that was a way Christians…provided human service delivery that was a living out of the ethical and

moral teachings of their faith. For us as Christians to love your neighbor as yourself.” Bishop Curry went on to acknowledge

the work of a well-known Christian leader whose political views he disagrees with, praising the organization’s work to

advance justice and address human need.

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 27

Another facet to the Christian motivation to service is

that it can act as a counter to an isolating individualism

and promote stronger and healthier communities.

“There is something, particularly in cities, where folks

are actually thinking about the well-being of their city,”

Stephanie Summers suggested. “There’s fruit that’s

being borne by church movements that have planted

themselves in cities. This is kind of the fruit of years of

intentional effort to help people think about the wellbeing

of their neighbors.”

Perhaps one of the most well-known examples of this kind of engagement, particularly among evangelicals, is coalition

work in Portland, Oregon over the last decade. Kevin Palau, who helped with these efforts, explained: “Portland, I think, is

a good example of churches saying, ‘We know we have a problem, we’re willing to do the hard quiet work of rebuilding trust

by consciously sitting down with our civic leaders to find out what they would perceive the needs as and then find the places

where the church can serve.’”

Some of our interviewees contrasted their experience and knowledge of Christian service with public perceptions of

Christianity. Dr. Ed Stetzer, Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism and Director of the Billy Graham Center at

Wheaton College said, “There are a whole lot of Christians doing wonderful, faithful presence ministry, not grasping for the

brass ring of power, but grasping for the towel of service.”

Deeper, and harder to measure than local service delivery are the personal and community-building interactions prompted

by the Christian faith. John Garvey, President of the Catholic University of America, said perhaps the most effective form of

Christian witness is in “our own lives, we’re person-to-person, face-to-face, friend-to-friend within our own communities, our

own activities, the way we live our own lives, the example we set for other people, the encouragement we give to them on a

personal, one-to-one level.”

Later in this report, we will discuss some of the Christian ideas that might be particularly valuable in this moment in our

nation’s history, but it’s worth identifying here that interviewees spoke often about the Christian influence at or near the

center of social movements like those for workers’ rights, civil rights, women’s suffrage, and other American and global

movements for human rights and dignity around the world. Whether it is the Christian contribution to America’s social

service landscape, important social movements, or key values and ideas, interviewees largely view their faith to be essential

to these developments, not incidental.


While Christian leaders we talked to were quite positive about local expressions of Christianity in public life, they were more

circumspect about the role of Christians in national politics.

Dr. Anthea Butler, Graduate Chair and Associate Professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of

Pennsylvania, offered this blunt assessment: “The role of Christianity in public life right now is either distorted because

it’s political or it’s invisible, and that’s a real problem.” Mark Noll, Emeritus Professor of History at the University of Notre

Dame, raised similar concerns, noting the complicated political space Christian leaders need to navigate: “Religious leaders,

in general, have the obligation to help their people who must live in the world. And trying to do that in a way that’s not just

partisan, I imagine it’s very difficult. And the easy thing is to be completely partisan or completely saying nothing about

public life.”

28 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

Some of our respondents raised concerns about the shrinking footprint of religion in American life and culture. “Religion

used to be very prominent, and if you look back to the 19th century and earlier, religion was very prominent. And we have a

decreasing role in a more and more pluralistic society,” said Jacqueline Rivers of the Seymour Institute for Black Church and

Policy Studies.

Resonant with the recent work of Philip Gorski, 33 Dr. D. Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College, warned about the

“eroding possibility for Christians to articulate their conscience in a way that draws upon the riches of the theological

traditions and the church’s teaching.” The decreasing salience of religious language, relative to even our nation’s recent past,

is viewed by many as a challenge for both evangelism and public life.

Still, the influence of Christianity is pervasive. Johnnie Moore observed that religion “finds its way in everything and I think

people always underestimate the role of religion generally speaking, but especially Christianity in this country, in lots and

lots of different areas, especially in public life. So whether it’s stated or unstated, it lingers back there in influencing the

decisions people make, the way they talk, what they do, how they engage, how they choose not to engage, when they choose

to engage, when they choose not to engage.” Tom Lin praised Christians for “boldness and sharing authentically who we are

and using our voice…to bring about change to systems that are unjust or systems that we feel like are incompatible with our

faith. And now there are many different types of Christians, so they’re using their voice in different types of ways, but I think

that’s a good thing... And whether it’s engaging in the public square around religious liberty, if that’s your thing, or whether

it’s immigration because that’s important to who I am as a Christian, or whether it’s engaging against racism…I think we’re

getting it right or more right, I would say, than we have before. We are using our voice to bring about change to systems—

university systems in my world—but other systems as well.” Still, Lin expressed concern that some Christians were using their

voice in “silos and isolation.” He suggested Christians should be more comfortable speaking and partnering with others, both

Christians and those outside the Christian faith. Lin argued that to fail to do so is not only a missed opportunity, but it makes

Christian public engagement less effective.

A media environment that is ideologically driven and thrives on conflict can lead to a mischaracterization of the role

Christianity plays in this country. As Mark Noll pointed out, every day Christian churches and organizations provide “housing

for the homeless, medical care for the indigenous people…out of religious motivations and often fairly broad ecumenical

religious activities, and these [kinds of services] are happening and are good, but don’t receive the kind of publicity that the

polarized political allegiances receive.” Tim Dalrymple added, “I think, in the midst of all the stories of public falls from grace

and failures to live according to Christian principles by ostensibly Christian leaders...that every day on the ground story is

quite different.”


When reflecting on the role of Christianity in public life, a common concern was that the wrong leaders and voices receive

attention. No one really feels their tradition is represented well. More progressive Christians tend to claim that a politically

right-wing brand of conservative Christianity that is overly focused on social issues is overrepresented. Joseph Darby said that

“what the church is getting wrong is that too many people are sitting back and saying nothing…ceding the Christian ground

to folk who used to be called the Christian Right but who ain’t very Christian and definitely ain’t right. I think we have to

reclaim that moral ground that we had during the ‘60s, that moral ground that preceded all of the present craziness.”


Philip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ,

2017. Print.

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 29

According to Dana Corsello, “What has changed the landscape, I think significantly, is that the extreme right-wing evangelical

Christian tradition has created an atmosphere that is narrowly focused, and it’s been culturally focused around abortion and

homosexuality for the most part. Because the loudest voices in Christianity are the ones that are often the most conservative,

restraining, and, in my estimation, not as inclusive.” Bishop Karen Oliveto believes this focus on evangelicals has colored

the public’s perception of all Christians: “I think that because it’s the evangelical wing of the church that’s getting all the

publicity, it diminishes the rest of us, because not all of us are supporting…the kind of politics that have emerged in the last

couple of years. So it diminishes our ability to reach out into our neighbors, and it causes our voice to be questioned in ways

that, because we’re seen through the lens of society hearing evangelical Christians only.” Rev. Jennifer Butler, Founder and

We need to come together. The

Christian institutions, various streams

and tribes of evangelicalism need

to come together. And it’s difficult;

it’s not easy. It’s because of the

polarization. I think those who are

on the far edges…are going to try to

polarize people around them, but I

think those of us [not at the edges]

need to find ways to strengthen each

other and to come together.

—Tom Lin, President/CEO, InterVarsity

Christian Fellowship

Chief Executive Officer of Faith in Public Life, said plainly,

“There are two roles being played by Christianity right now in

public life, and the one that I hope wins out theologically and

publicly is that moderate to left coalition.”

More conservative Christian leaders tended to believe their

views were represented by spokespeople who are unnecessarily

harsh or overly partisan. Collin Hansen described this

perspective well: “I’m just saying some Christian leaders, they

want Christians to be seen in political terms.” Hansen pointed

to a well-known, long-time political activist who has been a key

figure in mobilizing evangelicals as an example. He continued,

“But on the other hand…maybe the default media setting is to

only see religion as a utility with political implications. And

so it seems like there are two sides that mutually reinforce one


Rev. Duke Kwon, Lead Pastor of Grace Meridian Hill, also said

representation is a major problem: “the public image of the

church has been badly marred, unfortunately, by a relatively

small subset of Christian leaders. And as more and more of

the sort of Christian public reputation has been associated

with a very politicized version of the Christian faith, tribal, partisan lacking Christian character, or even just common moral

virtue, let alone Christian ideals…unfortunately, I think the sad state of the Christian presence in the public square is one

of significant damage both to society, as well as to the reputation of the church and of the Gospel itself.” Several others we

interviewed lamented that important, more moderating voices avoid speaking publicly about politics. As Michael Lindsay

expressed: “I’m also frustrated that some voices who I think have a lot of moral suasion have chosen not to engage in political


Some of the leaders we interviewed voiced another perspective regarding media and were encouraged by aspects of Christian

representation in culture. “I tend to think media, just because it’s my world, we actually, in some ways, have more Christian

voices of the kind I would want present in the major opinion sections than maybe ever in my life,” offered Andy Crouch.

When it comes to politics, our interviewees expressed appreciation for the presence of like-minded Christian figures who

are politically involved. Anthea Butler and Diana Butler Bass noted the work of Rev. William Barber and the Poor People’s

Campaign. Several interviewees, including Fr. Larry J. Snyder, Vice President for Mission at the University of St. Thomas,

praised a recent action by a group of religious leaders who were arrested in the Capitol while protesting anti-immigration

policies. “That’s what we’re supposed to be doing,” Fr. Snyder said. “We’re supposed to be also involved socially with feeding

the hungry and clothing the naked and housing the homeless and Christians do that to a great extent, so I think we had a lot

of things right.” Others noted the influential work of Cornel West and Robert George speaking together to a range of audiences

about racial reconciliation.

30 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

There are three ways to look at this widely shared concern about the public perception and representation of Christianity. The

first, most cynical way, is to see in these kinds of complaints a desire for there to be “less of them and more of me.” Naturally,

most leaders want their “brand” of Christianity to take up more space and competing forms of the faith to take up less. To the

extent that this is the case, it might be worth considering that both conservative and progressive Christians could learn from

one another. For instance, a conservative Christian might note that progressive Christians’ public advocacy work is often part

of a larger interfaith or secular coalition. Even though progressive Christians often have distinctly Christian motivations for

their political activism, it is difficult for media, politicians, and the general public to identify them if activists do not share

their religious motivations clearly and explicitly. 34

Similarly, if Christian conservatives concerned about representation asked progressives for advice, progressives might tell

them that they will not get credit for simply not engaging in politics like those they deem to be the worst actors; they must

directly confront the behavior and views they find problematic. Conservative Christian leaders may hope to undermine those

they find offensive by not joining them, but if they want more accurate representation of conservative Christians, they need to

provide positive counter examples of how to engage in the public square.

A second way to consider this shared concern about public perceptions is to recognize that both conservatives and

progressives have a point and take both claims seriously. It is no wonder that some elites and much of the broader public

perceive Christians as driving conflict when media outlets are drawn to cover the most conflict-prone Christians. The same

enticements that shape so much of our politics and other realms of public life also affect the public representation of

Christians: the most extreme, eye-catching and spectacular expressions garner the most attention, while the quieter, humbler

expressions of the faith as lived out in millions of individuals’ lives every day become harder to see and capture.

Finally, instead of looking at Christians as somehow uniquely divided, our discussions with Christian leaders showed us

many examples of Christians working out the complexities of pluralism between themselves. In a country with such a

robustly large and diverse Christian population, many people are simply trying to find their place, to be heard and to be

respected. One “side” need not silence the other: the public square has room for airing multiple views if people are willing to

listen with respect.


While many of the leaders cited concerns about representation and perception, most spent much more time diagnosing what

they believe is not a matter of perception, but reality. Tribalism was deemed a major concern.

Archbishop Gregory described the situation in this way: “Across the human spectrum, there are great divisions that separate

us, that separate the wealthy from the poor, that separate cultures, religious communities. So it’s very important that the

Christian church be engaged in the mission of being a healing presence, and a unifying presence in today’s society, and to the

extent that we can set aside some of our own internal disorder and present a unified front, that’s helpful. But when we allow

our own fractious conversations, we become no better than the society in which we are hopefully trying to make some kind of

positive contribution.” Larry Snyder said that Christians are “very deeply divided on what the Gospel actually calls us to do.”

F. DeKarlos Blackmon, Secretariat Director of Life, Charity, and Justice, Roman Catholic Diocese of Austin, pointed directly to

political tribalism, and said that “one of the things that’s really, really painful to see are leaders who will be quick to condemn

one particular party, but are silent when the party of choice is doing the same thing. And I think that the American public is

seeing the duplicity in that. And so, we’re not helping anyone, because we’re not being authentic.”


This observation is not to be misconstrued as an instruction for progressive Christians--or anyone else for that matter--to make up a faithbased

motivation for their public activity when there is not one, nor is it to suggest that there are not downsides or drawbacks to a more

faith-forward approach. However, one drawback to not identifying more explicitly and distinctly as Christian is that you cannot expect for

news media, for instance, to connect the dots for you.

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 31

Luis Cortes described what he saw as a “decline in the moral fiber of Christian leadership within the two-party structure.”

Christianity, Cortes said, “has been co-opted by two political parties who have demanded that even the Christians within the

parties toe the line…And so that’s a problem because we were a medium for dialogue within the political structures and that

medium has been lost.”

Politics loomed large in leaders’ analysis of what is going wrong with Christians’ witness in public in several other ways. The

way Christians have and are perceived to have responded to President Donald Trump was a concern. Andy Crouch pointed,

in particular, to Trump’s most vocal and prolific evangelical supporters, and explained that “there’s this celebration and

aiding and abetting of his fundamental untruthfulness and arrogance that I just think is... It’s almost incalculably damaging,

given how ready the media is to use them as representatives of an entire movement.” Even though the Christian leaders most

directly connected to Trump are not particularly representative of the wider Christian community, they do speak for some

Christians. As Crouch continued, “But of course, it seems that the movement... That they really represent something, it’s not

just three guys who happen to have stages. Their followers really do, by and large seem, as near as I can tell, to share their

willingness to kind of wink at what makes him, to me, just such a singularly unqualified person to be president.”

Some leaders argued that Christians are too dependent on politics and government. Ed Stetzer, for example, said that

Christians on both the right and left have the false assumption that “political power will ultimately save us.” Andy Crouch

also described this phenomenon: “Politics has always been contested and high stakes in various ways, but it didn’t used to

be thought of as the realm of ultimate concern…And it just feels like it has become the ultimate thing for all sides and has

displaced religion in claiming a kind of ultimate allegiance. So people who have a different allegiance that puts them out of

alignment find themselves in a really tough spot.” From the vantage point of Crouch and several others, many Americans now

put more faith in politics than in God.


Aside from politics, leaders worried about the impact of scandal and corruption on how Christians are perceived in the public

square. Many took responsibility for addressing it and rebuilding trust, while also acknowledging the long-term damage and

loss resulting from stories of scandal. Archbishop Gregory noted that “in our society, organized religion has taken a big hit

over the past generation. Much of it has been self-inflicted with the awful scandals that have erupted in the Church. But also,

we have not been able to present, I believe, an effective response to the secularization, I should say, of our society.”

Christians are running scared

right now, and so they are

reacting. We’re having a

politics largely run by fear of

the other, as opposed to faith,

hope, and love.

—Rev. Tish Harrison Warren,

Priest, Church of the Ascension,

Pittsburgh, PA

Some leaders criticized Christians for their lack of courage in the public

square. Tony Perkins, President of the Family Research Council, identified

a spirit of timidity that led Christians to not be active enough out of a

“lack of confidence to speak boldly out of fear” of public reprisal. Charlie

Echeverry spoke of other Christian leaders being “very tentative about

even mentioning things that are principle-based because of the fear of

being somehow associated with ‘you’re making a political point.’”

Fear also arose in a different context from Diana Butler Bass, who argued

that “issues of power and privilege and fears about demographic change

are creating an environment in which many white Christians are failing

to see the moment clearly.” Tish Harrison Warren expressed a similar

sentiment, saying that she felt like Christians are running scared right

now, and so they are reacting. “We’re having a politics largely run by

fear of the other, as opposed to faith, hope, and love. Evangelicals, in

32 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

particular, don’t have a political vision…Some of it’s been bad teaching, and some of it’s just been no teaching for 70-someodd

years, and so they have no idea how the Gospel informs politics.”

Most of the time Christian leaders mentioned fear, it was to reject it. But we also heard earnest concerns that the public

environment was growing increasingly inhospitable to certain expressions of religiosity. Earlier in her life and career,

Frederica Matthewes-Green said that she thought “public life was arranged so that everyone has a right, if they can speak

well, if they can speak with civility, to enter the public space and stand in the public arena and speak out.” She continued,

“But I found, increasingly and through the oughts, that just being a Christian disqualified me from speaking. I had thought

that if I could qualify myself, then I could speak about Christianity. It was like they perceived the Christianity, and that

disqualified me from speaking about anything. I think even that just showing up as a person of faith is enough for them to

take the microphone away...There’s just an underlying hostility there. I think we shouldn’t underestimate the depth of that

desire to hurt Christians as hard as it is to explain.”

Our Takeaways:




There is significant concern about the role of Christianity in public life across Christian denominations,

across race and the political and theological spectrums.

Politics—as a cultural force, not just through public policy—is unquestionably affecting Christianity and

Christian institutions in America.

The increasing influence and presence of various non-Christian influences and centers of power, and

the reality that Christianity is no longer assumed in public discourse, complicates how Christians

navigate public life. They must be attentive to “inside” and “outside” forces and disagreements to a

greater degree than ever before.

Are Christian Leaders and Lay People Aligned?

When asked if they see any gaps between religious leaders and the laity, the leaders we interviewed answered with a

resounding “yes.” Most notably, respondents from a wide range of theological and denominational backgrounds said

religious leaders were at times out of touch with their congregants.

One common theme was that some leaders were not aware enough of the real needs and concerns in the communities they

serve. Sister Simone offered this blunt assessment: “In our tradition, many of the leadership don’t have a clue about the lived

experience of say, folks at the economic margins or the challenge of families or, just kind of everyday life.” Other interviewees

raised similar concerns about leaders not knowing enough about their congregants and their experiences. Dana Corsello

warned against the dangers of pastors assuming to know what people are thinking: “We can’t make any assumptions about

where people are on certain issues, we just can’t. We need to be talking and having discussion.” She offered a practical charge

to herself and other pastors to help them stay in touch with what is happening on the ground: “I think that we just have to get

out of those pulpits sometimes and get with our people and figure out, really, what’s going on.”

Many of those we interviewed also raised concerns about a gap between the views of clergy and laity on pressing issues of

the day. Some raised concerns about clergy staking out positions that are too definite or too extreme for their congregations.

Samuel Rodriguez described it this way: “I think religious leaders, pastors from the pulpit, I think they really do believe that

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 33

their constituents are equally lined up with them 100% in their advocacy, be it on the African-American community side or be

it on the white evangelical side. And the vast majority of people in our pews are actually more centrist and more moderate…

the vast majority of our parishioners are both Billy Graham and Dr. King. And pastors don’t get that. They either do Billy

Graham exclusively or Dr. King exclusively.” Bob Roberts offered a simple corrective to such thinking: “we, as pastors, we’ve

got to give people more space and grace, and do less thus saith the Lord.”

Yet, for others, this gap reflects a crisis of authority. They described the laity taking their political cues from secular sources—

talk radio and cable news—rather than applying the teachings and values of their faith to public issues. Clergy, some

expressed, are no longer respected as leaders who have knowledge that is useful and needed in public life, but viewed at best

as sources of encouragement, inspiration, or guidance on more personal issues.

A few respondents raised the particular concern that hyper-partisanship can alienate younger believers. James Padilla

DeBorst, President & Co-founder, Casa Adobe, Costa Rica, observed: “I don’t see young Christians...wanting to be led by that

kind of partisan, really hyper-committed to a political party stance. And I really see a whole set of new issues that they want

to or need to engage in to figure out how their faith works in public life.” DeBorst’s comments reflect findings from opinion

surveys that show younger generations of Christians are concerned about a wider range of issues than older generations and

that they want the church to be engaged more broadly across political issues. 35

Even as many of the interviews raised significant concerns about gaps between religious leaders and the laity, a few

offered an important reminder that some gaps are, at times, inevitable. By nature of their positions, leaders are entrusted

to make wise decisions and help point their followers in the best direction. They have a different vantage point and access

to additional information that can expand their awareness and long-range thinking. As Tony Perkins explained: “we have

a sense of alarm, maybe a greater sense of alarm, over directions that we’re headed in than the person who was following

because in one way, they’re trusting the leader to lead them in the right way. So there’s a greater responsibility that comes

with the leader, and you don’t expect people that are following and in the pew to completely understand or necessarily care

about. That’s the role you’ve been given.” The leaders we interviewed seemed mindful of the responsibilities and burdens

that come with their positions and sought to be accountable for their efforts.

Our Takeaways:


Christian leaders across traditions are concerned about differences in outlook between leaders and the

laity, especially ways that leaders are growing more distant from those they serve.


See, for example, “Could Trump Drive Young White Evangelicals away from the GOP?” American Enterprise Institute, August 20, 2019.

Accessed December 12, 2019. Available at https://www.aei.org/articles/could-trump-drive-young-white-evangelicals-away-from-the-gop/

and Jeff Diamant, “Though Still Conservative, Young Evangelicals are More Liberal than their Elders on Some Issues,” Pew Research

Center, May 4, 2017. Accessed December 12, 2019. Available at: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/04/though-stillconservative-young-evangelicals-are-more-liberal-than-their-elders-on-some-issues/.

34 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

Politics and Christian Community

Politics often came up in our interviews even when we did not specifically ask about it, but we also asked interviewees a few

questions directly related to politics and Christianity. Christian leaders felt that politics affects their ministries significantly,

and they expressed deep unease about how politics is affecting those they serve.


Several Christian leaders raised concerns about how to address politics in their congregations. As CJ Rhodes said, “Any time

you speak or don’t speak it is a political act. And you’ve got some people who will say ‘Amen’ to what you say and others who

will say, ‘I thought you were a man of God? How could you?’” Larry Snyder suggested that “You have to be…very cautious

about what you say because one of the things you don’t want to do is to alienate a huge portion of people so that they no

longer even listen to what you’re saying.”

Interviewees reported that politics looms large, larger than it should, when people think about faith. Galen Carey said that

“we [the National Association of Evangelicals] deal with a lot of people from other faiths or other parts of the Christian faith,

who assume, when they meet us and they hear the word evangelical, assume that we are a political group, a voting bloc.” Bob

Roberts relayed a story from a pastor he knows who said that, in the past, when people in his community would ask to meet

to learn more about the church, they would want to know where he stood on theological questions like why God allows evil

in the world. Now, when the pastor gets a meeting request, it is more than likely because “they have a whole list of political

litmus test questions that they want to ask me before they can decide if they want to go to my church or not, which is just a

brand new thing.”

Some of our interviewees raised concerns that religious leaders can focus so much on politics that they lose sight of their

central purpose and ministry. Gabriel Salguero described the phenomenon of “an over-exposure that doesn’t let us be

reflective because we’re so engaged that we don’t pull away to be deliberative, we’re over-exposed to the political landscape

and under-exposed to our own deepest convictions.” Bob

Roberts warned of the dangers of seeking too much political

power, calling on religious leaders to step back so they

can speak with a prophetic voice. He offered this specific

example: “If we can’t challenge the President, regardless of

party, about morality and integrity and justice and honesty,

then nothing else should matter. Because that’s the role of a

religious figure. It’s not to gain control and power to push an

agenda. It’s to call the power that is into accountability on

Biblical values.”

Joseph Darby contended that politics is inescapable for the

church, not only for its theological and public implications

but because of how politics affects the life of the church.

“Politics profoundly affects my work, and any clergy person

who says otherwise is walking in the dark with their eyes

closed. To my mind, politics began in the church,” he said.

“People cannot focus on spirituality if they’re worried about,

‘How I’m not going to pay my bills, why don’t I have a roof

over my head?’”

Politics profoundly affects my work, and

any clergy person who says otherwise

is walking in the dark with their eyes

closed. To my mind, politics began in

the church. People cannot focus on

spirituality if they’re worried about, ‘How

I’m not going to pay my bills, why don’t I

have a roof over my head?’

—Rev. Joseph A. Darby, Senior Pastor, Nichols

Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church,

Charleston, SC

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 35

Several leaders of Christian institutions raised concerns about religious freedom and what they view as unjust government

intrusion into the mission and integrity of their organizations. President Garvey, for instance, described the Department of

Health and Human Services contraception mandate as an instance when “the federal government was taking an active role in

directing people to think a particular way that was at odds with our vision of the Christian life.”

So how should Christian leaders speak to political issues? Answers to this question diverged, likely due in part to social

location, tradition, political theology, and other factors.

Bishop Curry responded that it is his job “to identify and become a voice for the values that we hold as followers of Jesus of

Nazareth, to clarify those values and then to help people figure out, ‘How do I apply those in my life personally and in terms

of my life in public?’ And not me telling them how to do it, but telling them, ‘Let’s work, let’s clarify the values, give voice to

them, and then let’s figure out how we can live them out,’ and then to help people live them out without me telling them how

to do it and giving them ways to do so.”

Bob Roberts related a story involving Dr. Shahid Shafi, a leader in the Republican party of Tarrant County who some sought

to remove because he was Muslim. Roberts’ church is in Tarrant County, and on Easter Sunday Roberts “had [Shafi] at our

church. I had him stand. Everybody clapped for him.” Roberts tied this story into a broader message of how he views his role

as pastor: “So what I have to do is to try to de-enculturate your politics from how you love other people. I’m always having to

do that. So I think that’s very difficult.”

DeKarlos Blackmon offered his advice for how churches ought to engage with public officials. He tells new pastors every year

that they are likely to have a member who runs for public office, and while they might face pressure to support that candidate,

it is important to invite every major candidate to address the parish or invite no one at all, including the candidate who is a

parishioner. “And one priest, one year, kind of challenged, ‘But this is one of our own.’ I said, ‘I understand that, but it is not

for you or even leaders in your parish to make a determination as to who is going to be de facto endorsed, we have to offer the

same playing field to everyone.’”

Duke Kwon said it is essential for pastors and teachers to dig down deeper beneath the surface of political issues of the

day and instead “Speak to issues and disciple the flock in a way that is thoroughly and unimpeachably Biblical rather than

partisan.” He continued, “In other words, it’s just really hard not to slip into parroting how politics is typically spoken about

or engaged, whether in the media or in more partisan churches or as heard from the voices of more partisan Christian leaders.

You almost have to re-work and re-package and re-study actually what needs to be taught and what needs to be brought to

people. And it takes a certain moral and Biblical vigilance, and it also is easy just to throw your hands up and be like, ‘It’s too

hard…I’m just going to keep silent on these issues.’”

When asked about how politics affects his role, Archbishop Gregory responded, “first of all, I am a Pastor, but I have to be in

dialogue with the political realities that are so much a part of this local church. It seems to me that no matter what I might

suggest by way of social policy I’m going to offend someone and be applauded by others. But that goes with the office. I have

said and I’m on record stating that I think that discourse, public discourse has degenerated...And that we all—religious,

political individuals, the public—need to find ways of speaking to and engaging in discourse that is not destructive of a

person’s humanity simply because we disagree with a policy or a procedure or a political position.”

Overall, the Christian pastors and leaders we interviewed reported they were wrestling with the need to speak to politics

as a matter of discipleship, pastoral care, and prophetic witness, even as they struggled with their ability to do so without

misusing the authority of their pulpit or position or worried about being dragged into a partisan fight that harms their

congregation and their Christian work.

36 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


We were also interested in how our interviewees felt politics was

affecting those they serve. Some raised specific concerns about politics in

the Trump era. Christina Edmundson described what she sees as a “very

real unhealthiness that has happened leading up to Trump and Trump’s

election. And so, people are speaking from a place of great hurt and fear

and confusion, and we’re just... We are not as sharp, because when a

bear is chasing you, that’s not when you necessarily want to write your

research paper. All your resources are going into protection, protection,

protection. And I think that’s one of the things that’s impacting some of the polarization that’s happening.”

Diana Butler Bass spoke of an unhealthy dogmatic approach to politics she sees gaining hold on the political left: “I think

that there is among some progressives a kind of political fundamentalism that has developed. But that if you don’t hold to

particular ideas exactly as you are supposed to, even with the right, what is kind of like the orthodox language, then they

expel you. And that really is worrisome to me to see people who are progressives create a culture of purity that has as part of

its DNA expulsion and shame. So there are people who are fans of mine, who I think need to be reminded that they are not

fundamentalists, and that there is a different kind of call, [a] spiritual call towards love.”

Here again we heard about the formative power of various forms of media and the political culture shaping Christians more

than the church. Gabriel Salguero explained: “we have a way to go to regain the discipleship and formation of Christians in

the public sphere, because I don’t think their engagement is predominantly being formed by the church.” Duke Kwon picked

up on this idea as well, especially as it pertains to young people, who have been “discipled politically by social media talking

heads, or mobs, rather than by teachers of the Word of God or even by personal mentors in areas of public life.”

We also heard from some interviewees that political involvement was a positive force in the lives of the people they serve.

Galen Carey told us about how his organization, the National Association of Evangelicals, equips people for political

involvement. He described a positive policy impact from involvement on issues like criminal justice reform and noted seeing

personal development as “they realize all the problems and the challenges that they see. They become more aware because of

their service.”

Sister Simone said that by offering people the opportunity to engage politically in community, as opposed to an

individualistic endeavor, has been healthy. Referring to the young people who serve with her organization, she said that,

“I think it’s the hunger that brings them to this. And then they find kindred spirits, where they can do something discreet

together. And hope is a communal virtue, and if you’re not in community, you’re not going to have hope. And so, the fact of

being in relationship, having discrete tasks that they can do, finding ways of engagement together, I think that makes a world

of difference.”

Another common theme of our interviewees on this question of how the people they serve are interacting with politics

was the tension between wanting to empower and equip people for political involvement, while also encouraging a level

of ambivalence or separateness from political systems and thinking that can become unhealthy. Stephanie Summers,

interestingly, pointed out that “those who are in public office in some way, I think find themselves in a position where they

rarely feel their calling is affirmed.”

This sentiment is paired with that of Jim Wallis, who told us that Christians need to ask of themselves, “Are we willing to raise

hard questions of political leaders or parties that we would more often support or lean toward?” Luis Cortes warned that the

“role that religion could play, it can’t play if we’re so partisan.”

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 37

Our Takeaways:





Clergy and other Christian leaders feel significant and varied pressures due to politics. Many clergy are

wrestling with the relation of politics to their calling and role as pastors, and there is a common concern

that they steward their authority and influence responsibly.

In a polarized context, Christian leaders want to ensure that to the extent that they speak into politics,

their views are—as a matter of both reality and perception—grounded in theology and Christian

principle, rather than temporal partisanship or tribalism.

Many Christian leaders understand that politics is shaping Christians in powerful ways, in some cases

perhaps more powerfully than Christian institutions and practices.

Still, Christian leaders reported that many Christians are motivated by their faith to make a positive

influence in politics, and believe that political engagement rooted in Christian thought and practice is

uniquely powerful.

How Politicians and Other Public Leaders Can Support a

Healthy Pluralism and Christian Political Engagement

While most of our interview questions focused on Christian institutions and Christian practice more generally, we were also

interested in their ideas about leaders in other areas, principally politics. We asked our interviewees: What can political

leaders do to encourage healthy Christian political participation in 21 st century pluralistic America?


Several of our respondents encouraged political leaders to listen more to people of faith. Catherine Orsborn offered, “I

think that doing deeper listening to faith communities is a really important part of how political leaders can engage more

effectively.” Bob Roberts agreed, saying “the biggest thing they could do is listen.” Roberts noted this listening might require

political courage, a willingness to engage different faith communities and treat them seriously. While it might be controversial

in one congressional district to meet with the Jewish community, in another it will be controversial to meet with Muslims, just

as it might be more controversial to meet with white evangelicals than with the black church in one district, and vice versa in


Joseph Darby expressed his view that too often politicians’ engagement with churches is solely about getting elected, rather

than listening to and learning from people of faith as they carry out their duties. “I think what they could do is to engage the

church in off election years,” Darby said. “Politicians can, at least with the historically black church, come and love us up

coming up on an election, but then be less than responsive once in office. I think they need to be more willing to listen.” He

continued, “Politicians need to encounter and respect the church, and Christians need to hold politicians accountable.”

38 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


Political leaders should also talk about their own values, and if they are religious themselves, consider speaking to how

their faith influences their lives and work. Claude Alexander said that “if a politician is a person of faith, he or she should be

willing to speak to how that informs them as individuals and as servants of the public good. That’s number one. They have to

be seen and heard saying that. Because without that, then all that one hears are those who believe that faith has no place or

is antithetical.”

Aristotle Papanikolaou expressed similar ideas, explaining that it is vital to hear from elected leaders of different political

and religious backgrounds about their view of faith. “It’s not so much that we need to keep religion out of public life, what we

need to hear is a variety of voices, a variety of religious voices within the political sphere.”

Interviewees also suggested political leaders could serve as exemplars. CJ Rhodes said, “we need to see more politicians be

assertive, people of good courage…be willing to stand up publicly and to say what must be said in love.” DeKarlos Blackmon

called for political leaders to “speak out clearly and consistently about what is right, what is true and correct, what is moral.”

Duke Kwon agreed, saying that “we need our public leaders, especially those that publicly self-identify as Christians, to be

morally consistent, even at political cost to themselves.”


Several interviewees were concerned that politicians approached Christians with presumptions that they were on the

ideological right. Sister Simone observed that “politicians, because they often use shorthand to put people in categories too

often put faith on the conservative side. So my hunch is, faith makes [Democrats] nervous, and Republicans think they have

a lock on it.” Catherine Orsborn noted that “Christians self-identify in a lot of different ways,” and advised that politicians

“hold back from putting those labels on, trying to cleanly categorize Christians, in particular, as Christian left versus Christian


Jennifer Butler agreed: “On the left, I think they need to understand that religious communities are very diverse and that they

should be directly engaging in a really positive, open minded way and speaking to whatever religious values or ethical values

they bring to the public square. So I think they should engage. They have a tendency to write off a lot of different religious

groups and make an assumption that they’re not going to be with them or not interested in what they have to say.”

Each of the themes identified above—to listen, to speak, to be consistent—reflects the interviewees’ understanding that

political leaders’ actions impact culture and shape the imaginations of the American people. As Bishop Curry explained,

“Their leadership is not just public policy. It’s public life. It is in the life of the commonweal.”


For several interviewees, supporting religious pluralism requires support for religious freedom and active efforts at religious

inclusion. Galen Carey argued “a key responsibility for political leaders is to preserve the freedom and space that all citizens,

including religious citizens, have to engage in the public and not to ostracize or sideline people or groups because of their

religion. And we can see, even here in our country, that there are issues where people of faith are sometimes not welcome in

the public square, and they need to be.” Collin Hansen said, “it’s disdainful to treat people and to look down on people who

have these sincere beliefs. It’s condescending, it’s certainly not loving, and it’s very contrary to the notions of tolerance and

openness that characterize the self-understanding of liberal elites.”

Stephanie Summers encouraged political leaders and others to “acknowledge that every individual and every institution is

motivated by some kind of worldview, and that those things should have equal treatment under the law.”

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 39

Some respondents brought up specific examples from public policy and decisions made by institutions like colleges and

universities that they viewed as barriers to healthy Christian civic participation. Jacqueline Rivers criticized such “attacks

on religious freedom. I’m not talking about so much cake bakers, but the attempt to say to Christian groups at colleges, for

example, your leaders cannot necessarily be Christians. I think that that also tends to push people out of the public sphere.”

Many of the Christian leaders we interviewed expressed a desire for political leaders to speak up for religious freedom, even

when it is inconvenient to them politically. At the same time, some Christian leaders acknowledged the difficulty of the task

and admitted they are at times reluctant to defend religious freedom in such a divisive political culture. Political and religious

figures should reflect on the feedback loop that is created in this kind of environment.

Several interviewees said political leaders on both the right and the left can help. “It would be a movement of bold

leadership,” Tim Dalrymple argued, for Republican and Democratic leaders to say to their party’s voters that “‘it is intrinsic

to the American experiment that we respect each other’s ability to hold fast to fundamentally different convictions, and that

those different convictions should not squeeze them out of meaningful participation in public life.’ That would be an act of

leadership that would be profoundly helpful, and not just to religious communities, but to others.”

Political leaders and others need to recognize that religious freedom is not just one issue among many for Christian leaders

and many religious Americans. Religious freedom is both existential and practical, a matter that affects the daily routines

of life, shapes one’s aspirations for society, and quite literally has eternal value. Religious freedom is a fundamental human

right. The contours of that right have always been debated and adjusted, but such changes are never merely theoretical.

Political leaders need to be attentive to religious freedom concerns and consider how religious freedom is affected by other

policies they might pursue.


Political leaders’ inclusion of other faiths, and of various traditions within Christianity, was integral to religious pluralism as

well. Several interviewees questioned what they viewed as narrow religious engagement by the Trump Administration. Jenny

Yang expressed her view that both Presidents Bush and Obama “understood the role of faith in the public imagination…

And so the fact that Bush created the faith-based offices within each of his departments, that Obama continued that with

a multi-faith approach to bringing all the faith traditions into the White House. I think they both did a really good job in

understanding the role that faith played in the public square.” Yang continued, “I think this administration is a bit unique in

that they only had evangelical leaders of a certain stripe inform them about certain decisions.”

Tish Harrison Warren observed “there are people on the right that are only tolerant of religious faith that will kowtow to

Donald Trump and his people…I think they’re not actually okay with pluralism, they’re just okay with religious faith that

affirms what they’re for anyway. They need to totally rethink that the most important pieces of pluralism are the pieces you

find most egregious or most unacceptable. That’s actually where pluralism begins.”

Dr. Arturo Chavez, President of the Mexican American Catholic College, argued against what he viewed as the Trump White

House’s exclusionary focus on white evangelicals, as well as a comparable tendency among secular leaders and institutions.

“Instead of a diverse group of faith leaders, [Trump] has selected a particular viewpoint against our constitutional prohibition

of that. He really has made evangelical Christianity and a certain type of evangelical Christianity his state religion.”


Others expressed concerns about philanthropic organizations excluding or filtering out certain faith communities from

funding and engagement. Stephanie Summers offered that “one challenge is much of secular philanthropy is not…religiously

40 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

literate in the very basic sense that they gate keep religion.” Luis Cortes referred to foundations who wanted to reach his

constituency to advance a shared goal, but would not fund his organization because his membership was not in alignment

with all of the foundation’s priorities. “Foundations have tended to be very partisan in what they fund. They never fund

dialogue, they never fund a group from the other side, to participate in something that they agree in,” Cortes said. “Today, the

foundations are doing litmus testing, it’s wrong,” he added.

The failure to include faith communities in the work of government, philanthropy, and other key institutional areas is a loss

for the public. The Christian leaders we spoke to made clear that they desired a relationship with other leaders out of a spirit

of public service and sought partners who viewed them in the same way. Archbishop Gregory offered this call to political and

Christian leaders: “Let’s stop using one another. Political officials using church leaders to promote a particular political or

social program, and church leaders allowing ourselves to be manipulated by political officials.”

Larry Snyder suggested public officials should “be open or even perhaps reach out to the faith groups that are active in that

person’s area and see that there’s a natural ally here and we can work together on specific things. It’s a huge resource. It

could be a huge resource for public officials.” Peg Chamberlin said working with faith leaders can help others understand the

communities they seek to help: “I think anybody who believes in the intersectionality of public life will want to have some

religious leaders in their network.”

Michael Lindsay spoke specifically to the

value of public leaders viewing faith as a

positive, unifying force: “I think that our

society is craving a generation of political

leaders who can thoughtfully draw upon

the benefits of religious pluralism and the

strength of religious traditions to actually

bring the nation together in ways that we

have not experienced over the last 30 years.

And it is my hope and prayer that they

will see the religious community and the

diversity of religious expression as an ally in

the larger important and noble work of, to

quote Cornel West, ‘Treating justice as love

expressed in public,’ and in helping us to do

that in a more thoughtful way.”

Jenny Yang asked public officials to think

even more deeply than viewing the faith

community as a helpful vehicle for reaching

communities, but as equal partners with

unique assets to bring to the table. Yang

explained, “the church is not just a vehicle

for delivering your medicine, they can

transform people’s beliefs and values and

that in turn actually affects change in the

local community. So when you talk about

Ebola or HIV/AIDS as a public health crisis,

you can’t change those things unless people

are thinking differently about the disease.

First, if a politician is a person of faith, he or she

should be willing to speak to how that informs them

as individuals and as servants of the public good.

That’s number one. They have to be seen and heard

saying that. Because without that, then all that one

hears are those who believe that faith has no place

or is antithetical. Harmful, injurious, etcetera…So the

appreciation for people involved, people of faith

involved in the public arena, that was the second.

The third piece is that when public officials are seen

being intolerant of people of faith, it is important for

other politicians to check them. Right? Intolerance

is intolerance. And so, you can’t check someone on

what you perceive to be intolerant in one thing and

then allow intolerance in another. I think the fourth

piece is the belief that a fully engaged electorate is

good for everybody. Now, whether that’s people with

whom I agree or not, the communication that a fully

engaged electorate is beneficial for everybody.

—Bishop Claude Richard Alexander, Jr., Senior Pastor, The Park

Church, Charlotte, NC

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 41

And you can fund all the medicine you want, but then especially for Ebola you

need to work with a big community to transform people’s behaviors.”


Several of the leaders we interviewed expressed concern for public leaders’

personal well-being. Diana Butler Bass expressed her hope that they “go to church

and have a big community and I would pray that they’d have a spiritual director,

wouldn’t that be great?” She went on to describe her visit to a local church function

to celebrate a pastor’s retirement. She noticed that there was a U.S. Senator

attending the event who was treated indistinguishably from the church’s janitor. A

congregant remarked to her with appreciation: “This is a Christian community. The

title senator is no better and no worse than the title janitor.” A community oriented

toward the worship of God can be a healthy and humbling space for powerful and

authoritative leaders who command deference in other areas of life.

Although they certainly recognized the way politics and culture can influence

Christians for better or for worse, some of our interviewees suggested elected

officials may be less to blame for unhealthy political engagement than the people

themselves. For instance, when it comes to toxic polarization and a politics of

contempt, Christina Edmundson said, “polarization is a political strategy and

if you have the numbers, it’s effective. So I don’t... Apart from the burden to do

what’s right, I don’t see people relinquishing that. Is it political leaders’ fault? I

think it’s the populace. Because, at the end of the day, the political leaders are

taking their cues from the people now.” Jacqueline Rivers said simply, “I think the

responsibility is so much more on the church and church leaders than on political

leaders.” James Padilla-DeBorst agreed: “In a way, leaders are followers, right?

Especially politicians. We need to build the grassroots first.”

Our Takeaways:


Political leaders should be aware of the effect of their words and actions on Christian communities.

Whether public figures seek it or not, they hold positions of moral leadership.


Political and other institutional leaders should consider the role religion is playing and can play, as

they go about their work. Faith and faith-based actors should be viewed as sources of knowledge and

potential partners in both addressing challenges and pursuing new opportunities.

42 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


A Way Forward: Recommendations

Christian Practices and Teachings that Support Healthy

Public Engagement

Ultimately, Christian political engagement requires determining how best to apply Christian principles to public life.

This process requires great discernment, and leaders across traditions and social locations vary significantly in their

interpretations of what is best. Our interviewees pointed to several Christian beliefs and practices they found helpful for

promoting healthy political engagement.


Many of the leaders we interviewed talked about the importance of the Christian tradition and the central theological

commitments that provide a basis for all political activity. Indeed, it was striking to us that despite the wide range of

perspectives and responses, at some point in their reflections, almost all of those we interviewed talked about the centrality

of one or both of what are often called the great commandments —love of God and love of neighbor. Bishop Curry offered a

powerful analogy about the great commandments, describing the law of love as “the Marbury v Madison of the Bible, that is

the supreme law of God. Everything must be tested by love of God and love of neighbor, and if it doesn’t meet that test, it’s not

of God.”

This ethic of love offers an essential starting point, according to many of our interviewees. As Samuel Rodriguez explained:

“So all of our political engagement must begin with a foundational premise that every single human being is created in the

image of God. We must begin with that. It shouldn’t be defending something. It should be elevating the image of God. If the

defense of something does take place, that defense should be a positive ramification or outcome, a tangential derivative to

elevating the image of God.”

In a variety of ways, many leaders connected love for neighbor with the importance of serving the common good. Galen Carey,

for example, explained that love of neighbor means that Christians “seek the good, not just of ourselves, but of our whole

community.” Christina Edmonson described this motivation as “a deep love of people that is rooted in a humility about our

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 43

own helpless state apart from Christ that helps us to

want to see our neighbor, wants to love our neighbor,

see ourselves as our neighbor.”

Several of the leaders we interviewed spoke of the

centrality of Jesus Christ, pointing to the cross as the

ultimate symbol of love for neighbor. Duke Kwon

explained it this way: “I think a commitment to the

common good, which, put another way, is simply

love of neighbor. I think Christians more than anyone

should be willing to vote for or labor towards interests

that might actually come at the cost of their own

because that is the basic cruciformity of life, bearing the cross and loving others, even at the cost of ourselves.”

Bishop Curry referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s principles of non-violent engagement as an example, noting “the very first

one read, ‘Before you march, meditate on the life and teachings of Jesus.’” As Curry explained, this principle is “pointing

people to the teachings of Jesus, as well as the whole of Scripture. But paying attention to what the Master said and how He

did it, how He lived and then going into the additional practices to flesh that out to the point where you go to bless.” Tom Lin

raised the Christian conceptions of forgiveness and reconciliation as two other valuable contributions to the public.

Leaders on the political left and right spoke about the importance of grounding their political positions in Biblical principles

and Christian traditions. Religious leaders at times face criticism for leading with politics instead of scripture, but our

interviewees made clear that biblical principles should come first. Ginger Gaines-Cirelli explained a tension she faced

shepherding her congregation: “After the election in 2016, I began to really try to lean into how we teach and preach at

Foundry theologically and biblically that grounds our witness and our resistance. Because my concern was that what I didn’t

want was for the critiques from the so-called-right to be true... And so for me, in my particular context right now, the biggest

challenge has been trying to make sure that we are staying deeply grounded in the Christian tradition and that everything

that we’re saying and doing is grounded there first and then we’re super clear about that that.”


Christian sacraments, particularly baptism and the Eucharist or communion, provide an important foundation of unity

in Christ. As Tish Harrison Warren explained, “The ultimate political practices of the Church are always baptism and the

Eucharist. It’s baptism because it relativizes all of our other identities, so it relativizes our political identity, but it even

relativizes our American-ness, that we are born into this new global family, and we use a liturgy that connects us to a global

family.” Christina Edmonson talked about the social implications of baptism, commenting “we’re all baptized into Christ

together. So I’m baptized into Christ with the people that I don’t like, and the people I know that don’t like me...We’re all

baptized into Christ.” Baptism unites the people of God, creating a bond that is far greater than social, cultural, or political


In much the same way, celebration of communion is a public reminder of Christian unity in Christ. Christina Edmonson

talked about the political implications of this practice: “The Lord’s table is a huge political act. When you think about who is

around the table, who comes to the table, all around the world, our acknowledgement that Jesus is king, the king who had his

body broken on our behalf, that we say that and we do that publicly, as our worship is public.”

44 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States


Many Christian leaders we interviewed raised concerns that today’s churches are not doing enough to disciple their members

and train them in Christian catechism. They worried that parishioners in the pews do not know the faith well enough to apply

Christian principles to politics.

Ed Stetzer summed up a concern raised by several of the leaders we interviewed: “Too many Christians today are being

discipled by their cable news choices and spiritually shaped by their social media feed, and the end result is pretty ugly to

watch.” Duke Kwon talked about the same problem, describing the need for deep discipleship as “urgent.” Bombarded with

so many messages on social media and other platforms, Kwon worried that Christians “are becoming more and more a mirror

image of what is out there and what people are hearing. There’s an inability to discern and discriminate between what’s good,

right, true, and beautiful and what’s fluff or even cancerous ideas. And people are just taking all of it in and then calling it

their Christian view of things, and that’s a problem.”

Collin Hansen echoed a similar theme, worrying that too many Christians are shaped more by their politics than church

teachings: “I find American Christians to be primarily discipled by their political agenda... [using] theological justifications

for their predetermined, reflexive, intuitive, political, tribal beliefs, that’s the biggest problem I run into. It’s people’s

imagination: they cannot expand their spiritual, theological imagination beyond a party platform.” Hansen offered a solution

to the problem, saying “one of the most important things that we have to be able to do is to catechize people to have biblical,

scriptural reflexes.” Christians need to know their faith and understand how to apply it to political questions and concerns.

Although some of the leaders we interviewed expressed worries about the divisiveness of politics from the pulpit, others

exhorted pastors to have the courage to speak directly to congregants about how their faith should inform their political

views. Bishop Karen Oliveto, Mountain Sky Conference of the United Methodist Church, said many Christians are eager for

deeper discipleship and challenged clergy to rise to the task: “People are hungry for ways to live that mark them different

from the rest of the world, and to really sink into the gospel’s demands, but pastors often shy away from controversial issues

and topics, and don’t give our laity the tools to live out their faith in profound, powerful ways. So I really look at the role of

clergy to help people grow in their discipleship in ways that impact the world.”


Another common theme was the importance of

rooting political engagement in prayer and the careful

interpretation of Scripture. Frederica Matthewes-Green

captured this sentiment well, exhorting Christians to

“cultivate a deep part of prayer, spend a lot of time in

prayer, a lot of time in scripture, read the lives of the

heroes of the faith before and think about what they

went through.” Christian prayer is a dynamic process;

believers raise their concerns to God, seek wisdom

from the Holy Spirit, and listen for God’s response.

As Galen Carey described: “Prayer is a good place to

start because in prayer, especially prayer where we’re

listening, not just talking, we’re seeking to understand

from the Holy Spirit, how does God see our world and

then, what specific things would God call us to engage

in—we’re certainly not called to do everything.”

People are hungry for ways to live that mark

them different from the rest of the world, and

to really sink into the gospel’s demands, but

pastors often shy away from controversial

issues and topics, and don’t give our laity

the tools to live out their faith in profound,

powerful ways. So I really look at the role

of clergy to help people grow in their

discipleship in ways that impact the world.

—Bishop Karen Oliveto, Mountain Sky Conference of the

United Methodist Church

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 45

Particular types of prayers, especially lament and confession of sin, are an important starting point for political engagement.

A few of the interviewees raised concerns that the current cultural climate makes very little room for discussion of sin and the

need for repentance. People are far more likely to cast blame on others than look inward to their own failings. The tradition

of confession offers an important corrective. Duke Kwon described the power of public confession: “we need to cultivate

in people this idea that it is, not only okay, but it is vital for us to be able to admit when we have been wrong. Individually,

corporately, historically, privately, publicly, Christians just need to get used to saying out loud, ‘We screwed up, we’re sorry.

How can we do better?’ And I really think our inability to do that in the public square starts with the absence of lament and

the absence of confession in our liturgies, in our churches, and in our private lives.” Confession is particularly helpful when

confronting issues shaped by historic patterns of injustice. When addressing such concerns, Stephanie Summers encouraged

Christians to begin with confession, “acknowledging historic sin and working towards forgiveness and healing,” a process

“that has both a personal, corporate, and structural dimension to it.”

Scripture also offers guidance for approaching politics. Several of our interviewees talked about the need to ground political

engagement in a deep understanding of the Bible and its teachings. Claude Alexander encouraged Christians to engage with

“faithfulness to the full and consistent witness of the Scriptures. There are things that are consistent throughout the Old and

the New Testament that I think we cannot and should not ignore.” Although many leaders point to scripture as a guide, some

raised concerns that Christians focus too narrowly on a few biblical passages and concepts and lose sight of the totality of

Scripture and what it teaches. As Jenny Yang explained: “And I think this inconsistent application of the whole biblical truth

basically means that we, I think as a church need to be better about understanding what is the narrative of Scripture, what

does it actually say about God’s mission in the world, and how do those principles actually apply to how we are to operate in

the public square.”


For Christians, service is deeply tied to Christian theology and practice.

Practical service can also inform how Christians think about issues of public import, and give greater meaning to their

political engagement in the eyes of the broader public. Christian views on political approaches to homelessness, for instance,

are received differently by the public when informed by Christian service to the homeless. “That’s one tremendous way to

build bridges, is just to serve,” Tony Perkins suggested. “Because I think our viewpoint is: if you serve, then you have the

right to speak. And so then you can speak into their lives, you can speak truth into the community, but I think it begins with

serving, and it goes back to the old saying, it doesn’t really matter how much you know until they know how much you care.”

Service also sends a message about the kind of role Christians see for themselves in the broader public square. Elder

Jack Gerard of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints said, “Christians need to step up and say, ‘We want to be

contributing, constructive parts of society.’ Faith makes a major contribution. It helps us to hold people together. If we’re truly

living as Christ would live, we’re helping the poor and the needy, we’re helping the homeless. The challenges of our days in

many ways can be addressed through true Christ-like behavior.”

46 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

Encouraging Positive Christian Contributions to Public Life

In addition to directing us to Christian practices and teachings

that can enhance public engagement, our interviews pointed us

to several ideas and recommendations of ways Christians can

contribute positively to public and civic life.


One of the most resounding themes repeated in our interviews

was the importance of working at the local level. Although local

communities are not immune from some of the negative effects

of polarization, direct service and grassroots activism provide

opportunities to work across political, racial, socio-economic,

religious, and other differences.

In localities, communities—including their political leaders—have practical problems they must confront: homelessness,

hunger, failing schools, child welfare, human trafficking, sickness, environmental degradation, and many more. National

political dynamics have fewer direct effects at the local level than individuals and groups offering to help and serve. Christian

individuals and communities can organize and partner with non-Christians, local non-profits, and local governments to

meet critical needs. This work can be even more powerful when various Christian communities, even those with significant

theological, racial, political or other differences, are able to join together and work side by side.


Although local work is essential, national-level institutions also play an important role in cultivating Christians for civic life.

Many Christians, as attested to by this report, are not well equipped to connect the teachings of their faith with its

implications for public life. The theological and political differences within Christianity are vast, so Christians will not easily

come to agreement on a single, “right” way of approaching these questions. Such differences are understandable and at times

may even enrich public engagement. What is vital is that Christians think Christianly about politics and public life.

We encourage Christian leaders and institutions to assess how well their particular communities are equipped to connect

their theology to questions of public life. Further, we encourage support of institutions that can develop both thought

and practices to help Christians consider public life in community with one another and to broaden conversation among

Christians to promote humble and deep engagement of different, but theologically rooted, views. In some communities, these

kinds of efforts exist, but could be expanded. In others, new efforts may need to be initiated.

Similarly, as religious disaffiliation grows and the percentage of Christians declines, the need grows stronger for broadly

Christian institutions that can articulate Christian principles in a publicly accessible way. Institutions like The Trinity Forum

are oriented toward this purpose and doing valuable work. We believe this essential work should be embraced, supported,

and even expanded.

Finally, if public life and politics are important, as we believe they are, Christians and churches may want to partner with

political organizations—explicitly faith-based and not—who align with their values and mission, in a similar way as they

partner with organizations focused on missionary work, global development, disaster relief, and other areas of concern.

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 47


Building on this idea of what pluralism requires of Christians, we believe Christians should view rising religious disaffiliation

and secularism as not just a challenge, but an opportunity. Christians can no longer rest on the assumption that their

neighbors understand what it means to be Christian, but this means that they have the opportunity to introduce their

neighbors to Christian principles and practices. This is a historically significant moment. Much of what presents as cultural

antagonism or cold indifference may derive from a lack of understanding of Christianity. This situation creates an opportunity

for Christian individuals and institutions to educate others about the faith and encourage meaningful dialogue with those

who do not identify as Christian.


In a pluralistic environment, diverse relationships and interactions are essential to living out the command to love your

neighbor. It is impossible to show love for neighbors without knowing them and expressing interest in learning more

about them. Christian leaders and organizations should focus on building bridges across various kinds of difference as an

expression of the expansiveness and transcendence of God’s love and of their concern for the communities in which they are


Christians and Christian organizations can seek to build bridges for the sake of relationship alone, but, as many of the leaders

we interviewed noted, building bridges is easier when it is oriented toward some shared goal or purpose. Some of the most

fruitful efforts are built around service and a pursuit of the common good.


Diversity alone does not make for healthy pluralism. Pluralism is healthy when people feel they can enter the public as they

are, free to express themselves without fear. Christians have made and can continue to make contributions in a pluralistic

America that are not uniquely Christian. Such contributions

offer great benefits. However, we believe Christians who are

willing to take up the call should also be welcomed to make

distinctly, identifiably Christian contributions in public.

Christians—like anyone from any faith background or none

at all—need a place in the public square to express their

views and make distinct contributions that result from living

out their faith commitments.

48 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

Recommendations for Political and Other Public Leaders


Healthy religious pluralism requires robust religious freedom. 36 We encourage political leaders to affirm the importance of

religious freedom as a foundational human right and to be clear about what they believe religious freedom entails. It is more

difficult for religious communities, as with any other community, to think about and act in politics in a healthy way if actual

or proposed public policies infringe upon their fundamental freedoms, including the free exercise of their faith.

Of course, a commitment to robust religious freedom complicates public discourse when people air conflicting views, and

conversations and democratic compromise grow difficult, especially in a pluralistic society. But everyone—religious and

secular—must be free to act according to their deeply-held beliefs.


Government, 37 philanthropy, and social service organizations should view Christians 38 as potential partners, particularly in

serving those in need, and invite them to partner as Christians, with distinctly religious attributes. As religious adherence and

affiliation decline in this country, secular actors should accept responsibility for bridge-building work as well. A pluralistic

environment that welcomes Christian involvement is much more likely to facilitate publicly-minded Christians.

Such partnerships do not always need to be financial. Our interviews revealed many ways that communities of faith build

intellectual, social, moral, and human capital. Pastors and other Christian leaders are great resources because they know

their communities well and can be vital sources of knowledge on a range of matters of public importance.


As the leaders we interviewed clearly and openly admitted, both the real and perceived contributions of Christians in

the public square can be negative and harmful. Conversations about these negative contributions are relevant for public

discourse, though they should be constructive and respectful. Christian leaders can serve the public well by engaging their

critics humbly and seeking forgiveness when they fall short.

When public leaders, especially political leaders accountable to constituents, speak to the role of Christians in public life,

they should do so with honesty and integrity, treating Christianity with respect equal to that of other religions. Leaders need

to cast a vision for how Christians are playing and can play a positive role in public life, and those who are Christian can do so

by setting positive examples.


Religious freedom, like other rights, is not absolute. Although we have offered some discussion of its place and relevance, it is beyond the

scope of this report to prescribe just how much religious freedom is necessary or advisable.


There are broadly accepted norms and guidelines surrounding faith-based partnerships with government. In our national context, it is

vital for pluralism that faith-based partnerships with government are done in ways that respect the Constitution.


To be explicit, we should note here that while this report focuses on Christians, the value of partnerships with faith communities,

particularly when it comes to the government, is applicable to other faith communities as well. We would add that, when it comes to the

government, partnering exclusively with Christians is harmful for pluralism just as excluding Christians is harmful for pluralism.

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 49

Conclusion: Signs of Hope,

Warnings to Heed

At a time of growing diversity, Americans have the opportunity to become truer to their nation’s deepest

aspirations. Pluralism affords us that chance. The nation’s promise is premised on pluralism, summed up in the

traditional motto, E Pluribus Unum, “out of many, one.” Americans need to decide as a people what difference

means, how they will respond to it, and whether it will weaken or strengthen them as a people.

It is easy enough to turn to isolation, tribalism, fear, and self-aggrandizement in an increasingly pluralistic society. Without

resources that support other impulses, such responses are perhaps inevitable. We believe some of the most meaningful

resources to help the nation thrive can be found in Christianity: its institutions, its ideas, its people, and the tenets of the faith

itself. This report attests to this conviction.

However, this report also raises reasons to doubt whether Christianity will play such a strong and positive role in public life.

Various scandals and failings have undermined the Christian witness, and Christians and Christian institutions regularly

struggle against the forces of racism, tribalism, religious bigotry, and general selfishness.

And yet…

Despite these concerns, Christianity offers great hope. Christianity calls believers to love their neighbor as themselves and

seek the good of even their enemies. Christianity teaches that all people are made in the image of God, and therefore of

incomparable worth. Christianity provided the resources for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to say:

You see the founding fathers were really influenced by the Bible. The whole concept of the imago Dei…is the

idea that all men have something within them that God injected. Not that they have substantial unity with God,

but that every man has a capacity to have fellowship with God. And this gives him uniqueness…There are no

gradations in the image of God. Every man from a treble white to a bass black is significant on God’s keyboard,

50 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

precisely because every man is made in the image of God. One day we will learn that. We will know one day that

God made us to live together as brothers and to respect the dignity and worth of every man. 39

This truth is as potent and necessary today as it was when Dr. King first shared it. Diverse Christian traditions attest to the

truths of Christianity and embody them every day through their institutions and in their lives in community with others. That

Christians might embrace such values anew and bring those values into public life in word and in deed should be a great

source of hope for the future of our pluralistic nation.

39 “The American Dream,” The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, July 4, 1965, Accessed September 10, 2019. Available

at: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/publications/knock-midnight-inspiration-great-sermons-reverend-martin-luther-kingjr-4

Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States | 51


List of Interviewees and Affiliations

The following people were contributors to this report. We thank them for their time. All participants shared their views as

individuals; they were not speaking on behalf of their organizations or affiliations.

Bishop Claude Richard

Alexander, Jr.

Senior Pastor, The Park Church,

Charlotte, NC

F(redron) DeKarlos Blackmon

OBLSB, MBA, MA; Secretariat

Director of Life, Charity, and

Justice, Roman Catholic Diocese

of Austin

Rev. Dr. Stephen Bouman

Pastor, St. Luke Lutheran Church,

Chicago, IL

Dr. Anthea Butler

Council of Graduate Studies

Chair and Associate Professor of

Religious Studies and Africana

Studies at the University of


Rev. Jennifer Butler

Founder and Executive Director,

Faith in Public Life

Dr. Diana Butler Bass

author, speaker, and independent


Sister Simone Campbell

SSS, Executive Director of

NETWORK Lobby for Catholic

Social Justice

Galen Carey

Vice President for Government

Relations, National Association

of Evangelicals

Dr. Arturo Chávez

President & CEO Administration/

Advancement, Mexican American

Catholic College

The Rev. Canon Peg Chemberlin

Lead Consultant, The Justice

Connection Consultancy, LLC

The Rev. Canon Dana Corsello

Canon Vicar, Washington

National Cathedral, Washington,


The Rev. Luis Cortes, Jr.

Founder and President,


Andy Crouch

Partner for Theology and Culture,


The Most Rev. Michael Bruce


Presiding Bishop and Primate of

The Episcopal Church

Dr. Timothy Dalrymple

President and CEO, Christianity


The Reverend Joseph A. Darby

Senior Pastor, Nichols Chapel

African Methodist Episcopal

Church, Charleston, SC

Deacon Charlie Echeverry

National Chair, Communications,

Catholic Association of Latino

Leaders (C.A.L.L.)

Dr. Christina H. Edmondson

Dean of Intercultural Student

Development, Calvin University,

Co-Host for Truth’s Table Podcast

Rev. Ginger E. Gaines-Cirelli

Foundry United Methodist

Church, Washington, D.C.

John Garvey

President, The Catholic

University of America

Dr. Robert P. George

McCormick Professor of

Jurisprudence, Princeton


Elder Jack N. Gerard

The Church of Jesus Christ of

Latter-day Saints

Most Rev. Wilton D. Gregory

Archbishop of Washington,

Roman Catholic Archdiocese of


Collin Hansen

Editorial Director, The Gospel


Rev. Tish Harrison Warren

Priest and Writer-in-residence,

Church of the Ascension,

Pittsburgh, PA

Shirley V. Hoogstra

President, Council for Christian

Colleges and Universities

Rev. Dr. Serene Jones

President, Union Theological


Rev. Duke Kwon

Lead Pastor, Grace Meridian Hill,

Washington, D.C.

Dr. Mark Labberton

President, Fuller Theological


Tom Lin

President/CEO, InterVarsity

Christian Fellowship

Dr. D. Michael Lindsay

President, Gordon College

Rev. Dr. Jo Anne Lyon

Ambassador, General

Superintendent Emerita, The

Wesleyan Church

Frederica Mathewes-Green

author and speaker

Rev. Johnnie Moore

President, The Congress of

Christian Leaders and Founder,

The Kairos Company

Dr. Mark Noll

Emeritus Professor of History,

University of Notre Dame

Bishop Karen Oliveto

Mountain Sky Conference of the

United Methodist Church

Dr. Catherine Orsborn

Executive Director, Shoulder to


James Padilla DeBorst

President, Center for

Interdisciplinary Theological

Studies (CETI), Costa Rica

Dr. Ruth Padilla DeBorst

Rector, Center for

Interdisciplinary Theological

Studies (CETI), Costa Rica

Kevin Palau

President, Luis Palau Association

Dr. Aristotle Papanikolaou

Professor, Archbishop Demetrios

Chair in Orthodoxy Theology and

Culture, Fordham University

Tony Perkins

President, Family Research


Dr. Jacqueline Rivers

Director, The Seymour Institute

for Black Church and Policy


Dr. CJ Rhodes

Pastor, Mt Helm Baptist Church,

Jackson, MS

Bob Roberts

Global Senior Pastor, Northwood

Church, Keller, TX

Rev. Samuel Rodriguez

Lead Pastor, New Season,

Sacramento, CA; President,

National Hispanic Christian

Leadership Conference

Rev. Dr. Gabriel Salguero

President, National Latino

Evangelical Coalition

Father Larry J. Snyder

Vice President for Mission,

University of St. Thomas in


Dr. Ed Stetzer

Billy Graham Chair of Church,

Mission, and Evangelism,

Wheaton College; Executive

Director of the Billy Graham

Center, Wheaton College

Stephanie Summers

CEO, Center for Public Justice

Rev. Jim Wallis

President and Founder,


Jenny Yang

Vice President of Advocacy and

Policy, World Relief

52 | Christianity, Pluralism, and Public Life in the United States

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