Keeping the Faith in Democracy: Why America’s Faith Communities Can’t be Overlooked

  • By Rev. Dr. Siri Erickson,

The following is adapted from a guide for funders on investing in faith and democracy, co-authored by Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) and Democracy Funders Network.

We’ve all heard the alarm bells. Whether rising polarization, instances of political violence, deepening social isolation, or plummeting confidence in government institutions, the national and philanthropic discourse is ringing about the critical state of American democracy and civic life. Meanwhile, something else can be heard in the background if you really start to listen: a vibrant and diverse civil society is working tirelessly to advance a better vision for American democracy, strengthening communities and giving citizens a sense of hope for the future.

This includes an often-overlooked piece of the civil society ecosystem that is critical to advancing healthier democracy and civic life: faith communities.

On a very basic level, the civic infrastructure that supports the functioning of our society and our democracy is deeply rooted in faith traditions. There are over 350,000 religious congregations and an additional 228,00 faith-inspired nonprofits in the United States, making up 35% to 40% of the U.S. nonprofit field. Religious hospitals care for a fifth of all patients in the U.S.; religiously affiliated shelters provide roughly 58% of beds for the unhoused; and 130,000 substance use recovery programs, 120,000 unemployment assistance programs, and 26,000 AIDS/HIV assistance programs are led by local congregations.

The impact goes beyond numbers: In communities rife with political and social tension, faith communities serve as invaluable assets for bridge-building and social connection. Faith communities play a vital role in cultivating an engaged, empowered public and shaping Americans’ virtues, character, and values. Yet the profoundly positive impact of faith on American civic life remains largely unrecognized and undervalued by philanthropy. In 2020, only 2% of “big philanthropy” dollars went to faith-inspired organizations.

Some of this disconnect can be attributed to the undeniable negative impact certain religious communities have had on American democracy and civic life. Law enforcement, political leaders, and some religious organizations themselves have pointed to Christian Nationalist ideology as fueling the January 6th insurrection. Even in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential election and attack on congress, groups of religious leaders, primarily among some segments of evangelical pastors, continue to show support for anti- democratic and racist, exclusionary narratives. These examples cannot be swept aside in a full reckoning of the relationship between faith and democracy. They also serve as important reminders of the importance of integrating religious communities into the work to preserve democracy.

Recent research by The Aspen Institute Religion and Society Program and Indiana University found that 56,000 active foundations in the U.S., or 20% of the total active public and private foundations, are faith-based. As of 2015, these foundations held a total of $273 billion in assets and had an annual grantmaking total of $17.8 billion. Any viable effort to preserve democracy, therefore, cannot overlook the size and impact of faith communities as well as their role in shaping and making American civic life. While many funders would prefer to ignore them, we propose a better strategy is engaging with faith communities as partners in advancing a stronger and more inclusive democracy.

PACE has made significant investments in funding and learning at the intersection of faith and civic life from 2019 to 2022. During this time, PACE facilitated a pooled fund which granted over $1 million to more than 30 faith-inspired organizations, which drew support from Fetzer Institute, the Democracy Fund, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, the Ford Foundation, the Henry Luce Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, and the Walter & Elise Haas Fund. As a complement to this funding initiative, a learning community comprising 35 practitioners, academics, funders, and analysts gathered regularly to share insights, support one another, and consolidate knowledge regarding best practices for successful work and funding at this intersection.

Whether it is the Black church drawing on Christian teaching and values such as viewing God as a “Deliverer” and a resource and inspiration for “subversion of and resistance to injustice,” Hindu American Seva Communities drawing on the idea of seva, a Sanskrit word for service, to drive their work to increase civic engagement, or countless Jewish organizations like A More Perfect Union promoting work to support democracy and civic life as tikkun olam, “repairing the world,” faith communities have a rich history of involvement in democracy and civic life. Many faith communities cite core religious and spiritual values as drivers for their engagement in and with democratic activities and institutions.

For the good of democracy, funders of all types can have more impact by investing deeply at the intersection of faith, democracy, and civic life. We look forward to sharing more about our learnings at this intersection as well as those of our grantees at a co-sponsored GEO/PACE webinar on September 20th. Whether you currently prioritize democracy-focused initiatives but have not worked with faith communities, already see the value of funding in the overlap of faith and democracy, or are curious about exploring the relationship between faith and democracy, there is a role for you to play in supporting this work.

Interested in discussing further? Join us for a community on October 30 to continue the conversation! More information and register here.

Rev. Dr. Siri Erickson

Program Support Lead