Religion and democracy, at home and abroad


Sarah Lords

Our phones, TVs, computers and tablets provide a constant stream of media reports on civic unrest erupting in other countries. Meanwhile in the United States, political polarization has left people and communities feeling more divided than ever.

In a 2018 survey, the Pew Research Center found that “Americans generally agree on the democratic ideals and values they see as important for the United States—but they say the country is falling short in living up to them.” Only 58 percent of Americans say democracy in the United States is working well. Meanwhile, widespread concerns about the future of democracy span the globe.

In conjunction with the initiative, “Religion, Journalism and Democracy: Strengthening Vital Institutions of Civil Society,” the Center and Cronkite School organized a series of public conversations to try to make sense of it all. The events, which were moderated by project directors John Carlson and Kristin Gilger, featured leading journalists including CNN’s Daniel Burke, Peter Beinart of The Atlantic, Karen Attiah of The Washington Post, The New Yorker’s Rozina Ali, award-winning independent war correspondent Anand Gopal, and scholars Anthea Butler and Edith Szantos.

The events went beyond the headlines to explore with more depth and nuance the threats that religious and ethnic forms of nationalism pose to democracy, as well as the ways that religious visions and values reinforce democracy. As you will see in the pages ahead, these conversations took audience members on a global tour, addressing the dynamics of religion and democracy in the United States, Nigeria, Europe, and the Middle East, among other places.

Throughout these events, and in meetings with faculty and students, speakers stressed the importance of attending to the multifaceted roles that religion plays in society and politics. They also stressed the responsibilities of citizens, academics, and the media to promote democratic culture and deepen understanding of how religion and politics interact.

“In the United States, we tend to take democracy—and free media—somewhat for granted,” says Gilger. “But now, with recent attacks not just on the press, but on many of our democratic institutions and practices, we simply can’t afford to take these freedoms for granted any longer.”

Lauren Whitby and Troy Hill contributed to this story.