Jeremy Swinborne/shutterstock

Jeremy Swinborne/shutterstock

Overexposure to the daily news cycle can leave us with the impression that faith is a polarizer, not a unifier, in American politics. But consider a study by Emily Ekins of the Cato Institute, published last year by the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group. Ekins found that Trump supporters who regularly attend religious services are more likely to harbor “warm feelings toward racial and religious minorities, be more supportive of immigration and trade, and be more concerned about poverty.”

Those findings point to a path for civic engagement philanthropy left largely unexplored as the culture wars rage on. Perhaps for fear of kicking a hornet’s nest, civic engagement funders often steer clear of the sacred. But the more humanitarian aspects of religious practice—neighborliness, community spirit, compassionate acts, and yes, charity—are all possible antidotes to today’s petty political vindictiveness and self-absorption.

Through the Faith In/And Democracy pilot project, Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE) and a few funders have stepped up to directly back religion as a political unifier. Their hope is that interfaith work can cultivate greater empathy and tolerance for difference, which will translate into a healthier democracy.

Interfaith ambitions

Faith In/And Democracy got its start when two members of PACE—the Democracy Fund and the Fetzer Institute—approached the affinity group with an interesting idea. Why not explore how collaborative funding can address the nexus between faith and democracy, particularly where faith communities are engaging in direct civic engagement work? That question inspired PACE to convene an advisory committee, create a pooled fund, and issue a request for proposals that attracted 132 applicants.

In August, PACE announced the pilot initiative’s five grantees, which will share about $300,000 between them. The Democracy Fund and the Fetzer Institute are Faith In/And Democracy’s primary funders. Its advisory committee also includes representatives from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute, and the Aspen Institute, among other organizations. “At this decisive time for our democracy, we were humbled to learn about the depth and breadth of work happening at this important intersection, and are thrilled to amplify a piece of it through this effort,” said PACE Executive Director Kristen Cambell in a press release.

Located exclusively in Southern and Midwestern states, projects in the Faith In/And Democracy cohort encourage faith-based engagement across religious and cultural divides. The details vary, but an explicit focus on race is common to most of them. Other themes include combating Islamophobia and promoting engagement with immigrant communities. In other words, it’s about mostly Christian congregations and faith leaders facing up to the angsts of the Trump era.

For instance, the Faith in Indiana project takes on racial polarization by fostering dialogue between faith communities and train clergy to shift the public conversation. The Wisconsin Council of Churches will work in a similar vein, harnessing the trust that communities place in faith organizations to promote nonpartisan voter engagement. In Minnesota, the ISAIAH project will also encourage adherents to “bring their religious values into the political arena” in ways that reduce rather than exacerbate partisan divides and racial polarization.

Faith In/And Democracy also includes several projects with an explicit focus on bringing different faith communities together. North Carolina’s Neighborly Faith Inc. will work on college campuses to promote dialogue between Evangelical students and Muslims, combating Islamophobia and encouraging pluralism among future Evangelical leaders. The Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy aims at something similar in the context of immigration. It’ll engage in relationship-building between immigrant and non-immigrant faith communities, connecting its Christian, Jewish, and Muslim chapters to 30 immigrant congregations—including mosques, Hindu temples, and Latinx and Korean organizations.

Two Funders Step Forward

Their humble scale notwithstanding, these initial pilot investments advance an optimistic narrative that the moral framework of religious faith can offset tribal fear-mongering and promote a better democracy. The progressive idealism of that project certainly fits the mode of the Democracy Fund, which is bankrolled by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and is one of Faith In/And Democracy’s two key funders.

Despite Omidyar’s incessant criticism of Trump, the Democracy Fund portrays itself as a bipartisan bridge-builder. To date, it has given generous sums for secular civic priorities like investigative journalism, getting money out of politics, and protecting the integrity of elections. But beginning with the Voter Study Group study referenced above, it’s also delving into religion’s role in a healthy democracy.

As the Democracy Fund’s Chris Crawford outlined last year, the organization has conducted interviews with over 40 religious and political leaders and academics on the topic. The findings in a nutshell were that while religious voters often prioritize identity over doctrine in the voting booth, interfaith dialogue and introspection can help overcome political tribalism. Toward that end, the Democracy Fund has supported a number of efforts to promote democratic ideals within and between faith communities. Grantees include the Ethics and Public Policy Center, the Faith and Politics Institute, and the Freedom to Believe Project.

Faith In/And Democracy’s other main funder is less well-known. Based in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the Fetzer Institute derives its significant endowment—roughly $500 million—from the broadcast media empire of John Earl Fetzer, who passed away in 1991. In his private life, the Detroit Tigers owner “had an intense intellectual curiosity about the ‘unseen elements’ of life,” according to the institute. That curiosity led him to study elements of faith, religion, and philosophy—including meditation, prayer, and ways to integrate science and technology with a spiritual life.

Fetzer’s spiritual interests guide the Fetzer Institute’s current work. That includes an eclectic mix of research into the state of spirituality in America, a regional focus on Southwest Michigan (also with a spiritual component), and projects geared toward a healthier and less polarized democracy. The Fetzer Institute also operates two “retreat centers” and embraces a spiritual organizational culture in which “for three hours each week, our full staff stops work and either together or individually cultivates their spiritual path—however they define it.” With all that in mind, it’s easy to see why Fetzer is backing an initiative like Faith In/And Democracy.

Risk, reward, and religion

There’s no doubt that Faith In/And Democracy will reach hearts and minds along the Bible Belt. But given its limited scale, it may take a while for the model to gain steam even if its funders deem it successful. With the 2020 elections almost upon us, some might argue that there’s too little time to navigate the still-nebulous connection between interfaith work and a healthier democracy—just focus on getting folks to the polls.

Still, religion is a powerful component of identity. And for better or worse, identity often drives politics. Funders have a long track record of backing work at the nexus of religion and public issues, often looking to activate the more progressive currents within religions to move forward agendas as diverse at LGBTQ rights, global anti-poverty assistance, and community economic development. But this terrain can be tricky for grantmakers, not least because philanthropoids tend to reflect the secular orientation of the nonprofit professional class—a group that can be shockingly clueless about matters of faith, especially in places like the Bible Belt.

Meanwhile, it’ll be interesting to see whether more PACE members get involved in Faith In/And Democracy, given the affinity group’s ideological diversity. There’s also the possibility that major funders outside PACE’s network may find their way to this work. One to watch is the Lilly Endowment, a foundation of prodigious size already engaged in efforts to bridge the gulf between religion and journalism. Another group of donors are backing campus initiatives to strengthen civic discourse, sometimes bringing religion into the mix.

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