Religion, Pluralism, and the Fate of Democracy

Dr. Keisha E. McKenzie, Senior Vice President of Programs, joined the 2023 Elizabeth and Robert Strickland Symposium Panel Discussion, with Dr. Corey D. B. Walker (Wake Forest University School of Divinity), Dr. Ryan Burge (Faith Counts), Dr. Sabrina Dent (BJC), (Auburn), Pastor Alan Sherouse, Amanda R. Tyler (BJC).

The Event was hosted by the Wake Forest University School of Divinity at the ZRS Library Auditorium, on March 30, 2023

An edited transcript of Keisha’s remarks and responses is below. Questions are edited for brevity.

(Remarks: 26:32-32:20; Q+A: 59:50-1:02:15; 1:22:39-1:24:27)


Community Beyond Citizenship and Conflict

Thank you, Dr. Walker, for the kind welcome and to the Wake Forest community for holding us today.

I’ve been in the US since 2004. I came as an international student. I’m not sure what the ratios of international students on this campus are, but many of them are going to be here. They will spend their student careers intentionally telling the government they are not immigrants. And yet they are working, they are studying, they are contributing to community.

And this is part of why, when I think about democracy and belonging and culture, I’m not thinking about it in terms of citizenship.

Citizenship in the US has always been framed around those ultimate questions of what it means to be human. Who counts? Who decides? Who’s at the table making decisions? Who matters?

I grew up Seventh-day Adventist, hearing about religious freedom as a tool that was to be used as a shield, not as a sword, as something that protected minoritized religious communities and people, not as a sword to coerce behaviors from others.

And then I came into adulthood as a Black, queer woman: somebody who was part of a people who had just received civil freedoms in this country, in the 1950s and 1960s; as a woman, somebody who is currently part of a community that was losing civil rights in this country, sometimes on the basis of religion; and as part of a community that was trying to get civil rights and is struggling to retain them.

So I wondered in that climate of what Dr. Walker framed as “cultural war,” what Ryan [Burge] framed as “polarization,” why it is so easy for us to get trapped into the narratives of antagonism—attack and defense, advance and retrenchment, fighting, defending. We get trapped in these “battle metaphors,” I call them, presumption of conflict and winners and losers.

I wonder what it would be if, perhaps for the first time in this country, we might frame our relations with each other, not in terms of war and conquest, but in terms of interdependence and mutual flourishing. And I wonder what that would open up for us and what it would open up for our futures if we assumed that the Muslims and the Sikh person and the Quaker and the humanist and the secular person all had an equal stake at the common table.

I acknowledge thinking about the country in that way goes against all of our training. I grew up singing “Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war.” It was a fun song to sing, and it disciplined my mind in a certain direction. There are other sorts of entailments like that because of the history of the US and religion in this country from the very beginning—from that first encounter of settler-colonial explorer against Indigenous person. In that very encounter, there’s one religion claiming authority over another religion’s bodies, cultures, communities, villages, religious practices, civil practices, and political destiny.

Religion in America has a mixed legacy of courage, compassion, but also coercion, and Christians have been disproportionately engaged in decision-making in this country, disproportionately overrepresented in public service.

So back in January [2023], the Pew Trust released some research that said that roughly 88% of the people involved in public service and federal service are Christian.* And Christians only represent 63% of the population, so are overrepresented in that role. Jewish people are also slightly overrepresented 2% of the population, 6% in public service. But everybody else is radically underrepresented.

The people around the table able to make decisions do not represent the people who are in the country receiving the results of the decisions that are made. And that represents us missing a trick or two. We’re missing perspectives. We’re missing experiences. We’re missing perspectives on what it means to hold a life in common together and to do so not from the perspective of war and conquest but to do so from the perspective of common benefit and advantage.

There’s an initiative called Inclusive America, which says, “As America becomes more diverse, so do our best people. Our country and our policies will greatly benefit if everyone has a seat at the table.” And researcher Daniel Laurison says, “Currently only a select few get to play. The rest of us are welcome as spectators, but not on the field.”

When I think about framing religious freedom in terms of what benefits people of all faith and people of no faith, I’m thinking of religious freedom as neutrally applied to everybody, regardless of their affiliation; noncoercive, not imposing the perspectives of the dominant majority on the minority; non-discriminatory such that we are free from discrimination in public services; as democratic, as supporting people; and as pluralistic and inclusive, representing who we truly are.

Auburn’s role in that story is to focus on strengthening, inspiring, resourcing, and connecting leaders who, from whatever their background or vantage point, want to create a future where there is mutual flourishing for all people.

With resources like our report, media guide, and conversation deck on religious freedom for All Faiths and None, we try to unpack the complicated questions of politics and religious influence in society. We want to enable ordinary people, whether they are clergy or not, to have a positive, constructive influence on the world we share.

*Pew Research’s statistics focus on Congressional demographics. Inclusive America is gathering complementary data from the US executive branch. Daniel Laurison’s research considers campaign and legislative staff.

Building New Communities Person-to-Person

Q: How can immigrant and other experiences help us better understand American democracy, the limits of our political categories, and the need for a more expansive framework? How can we think about polarization informed by immigration and awareness of Christian dominance, even in interfaith spaces?

KM: I have to start by thinking about religion outside of the context of congregational experience. Religious institutions are only one facet of religion in the country, so religious people are also a significant factor in the experience that you have with religion in America.

And so when Ryan’s talking about the decline of “third spaces,” and we’re all talking about people withdrawing from religious congregations, Christian largely, but sometimes also in other religions as well—where are people learning how to form relationship with one another? Where are people learning how to tell stories about the things that we hold in common?

The term “myth” is sometimes used as a proxy for “a lie,” but actually a myth is a very, very true thing. It’s a true way of talking about ultimate reality and meaning, using symbols and metaphors and heroes and stories, and providing people a way to understand and organize their experience together, not just as an individual, but in collective community. Myths are how you form culture.

So if we’re losing community spaces and the congregational spaces that remain are largely radicalizing spaces, then we need, outside of religious institutions or outside of the the congregational space, community spaces where people are learning how to tell new stories—new stories of connection, new stories of care and kindness, new stories of mutual responsibility and accountability—and practicing sometimes through interpersonal conflict and political disagreement, how to transcend their differences and take the best from their differences to serve the group.

So it’s kind of like taking the country, the entire country at the level of a person and at the level of community back to kindergarten, to learn how to share the crayons and the toys in the sandbox.

Because if the foundational experience and training in all of our disciplinary training through schools and congregations and politics has been to fracture us and polarize us, we need to go back to kindergarten.

Third Spaces for Connection

In her response to Dr. McKenzie, Dr. Sabrina Dent referenced digital fellowships like Dr. Melva Sampson’s initiative Pink Robe Chronicles.

An audience member then referenced other spaces, knitting and book clubs, and the podcast and Patreon community, Harry Potter and the Sacred Text:

Q: I’m really interested in this idea of the dwindling third space…[and] secular spaces and spiritual spaces and virtual spaces becoming the new third space. I’m also thinking [of spaces] like instagram, TikTok, which also have their own echo chambers, but virtual places like Zoom communities or zoom small groups… My primary spiritual community is the Harry Potter and the Sacred Text community. And so those are where we have all the conversations. Some members are nones, some are no longer Christians, some are pagan. And so that’s where those conversations are happening for me. It was intentionally not a religious space or spiritual space, but we made it that.

KM: I think you made it that, because that’s what humans do. Humans are looking for space for connection, for meaning, for exploring, for getting different perspectives, for experiencing insight and discernment. And that’s just what humans will do when we gather. It naturally happens. I love both virtual and in-person community; you’re pointing out virtual spaces, which are just as robust and meaningful as in-flesh spaces and sometimes bridge them.

At Auburn, we often talk about “people of faith and moral courage” to acknowledge the moral courage and ethical questioning that people outside of formal religious affiliation do naturally.

One of our partners, Women’s March, did a survey a couple of years ago asking their list of millions of people who are concerned about justice and gender rights in the country whether they’re religious or do they have a spiritual root of any kind? And like 55% of them said they do. But you wouldn’t have expected that because in their public narrative, it’s largely about legislation and politics.

So I think we underestimate how many people have spiritual cores but don’t necessarily use the language of religion to couch it.

But I think it is increasingly important that, as Ryan was saying and Sabrina, in a different sense, the way that the economy is structured, you cannot really hardly live on one income alone. And so if you’re in a household where you have dependents, you’re going to be working more than 40 hours naturally, which means you have less time after you come off work exhausted to go to the knitting club.

So we need to have a query about how much space work has subsumed in people’s lives that makes it difficult to form connections with our neighbors. Do we even know who our neighbors are anymore? That’s another question.

And so where we have those opportunities for people to form relationships around mutual interests and common concerns, it’s a practice space. It becomes, as Alan was saying, a laboratory for us to learn again what it means to be human, to think beyond ourselves, touch something transcendent, and become formed by it.

New Stories of Solidarity; Vigilance Needed

Q: How do we continue this important conversation in the many spaces we inhabit every day?

KM: I want to invoke Auburn’s president, the Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan Simpson. She spoke recently at a conference on mass incarceration in Atlanta, and she said during her remarks that “Every miracle that God ever performed requires our active participation.”

And so, when I talked earlier about mutual flourishing being a promise and vision of this country that has not yet been fully realized, I only say that as recognition that there is work for us yet to do. And that vision realized, that vision requires our active participation.
It also requires extraordinary and consistent vigilance.

So we are 20 years out from the Iraq War, which Corey mentioned I worked on in my dissertation. And I think about that as a season that reminded us truth still matters, and we should be thinking not only about the people who are making decisions, but also the people who those decisions affect.

And secondly, we should also be thinking about the actions that we put into place or the policies that we put into place that have down-chain consequences for people outside of the intended audience.

We set in motion a surveillance culture 25, 30 years ago. It began with the non-immigrants and it affects every citizen now. You give your ten prints, you give your irises when you come back into your own country, but that was set in motion 30 years ago.

So if we are vigilant today, if we are anchored in this vision of mutual flourishing today, with consciousness that what we do today affects not only us, but people who are unlike us, we might not be understanding how these decisions and policies shape them.

But we can start to listen, and we can invite them to tell us their stories. And we can choose to be shaped by that.


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