Symposium Introduction

Ruth Braunstein, University of Connecticut professor of sociology, has written a compelling comparative ethnography of two political social movements at opposite ends of the political spectrum—one progressive and one conservative. It is an elegant text at the intersection of sociology, religion, and politics. The two groups she comparatively analyzes are categorically explored as the Prophets and the Patriots. One of these groups is Interfaith, a faith-based and progressive community-organizing coalition affiliated with the PICO National Network. The other is the Patriots, a conservative chapter of the Tea Party movement. The story she tells of these differing groups draws from extensive data collected from ethnographic fieldwork with Interfaith and the Patriots between 2010 and 2012 (191). She ultimately challenges the reader by disrupting simple readings of these two groups from within a context of contemporary political polarization (179). Her effort is not only to broaden our perspectives of these particular groups, which, to be sure, have dramatically different ideas, but to broaden our historical and political perspectives with which we interpret them as well. And she harbors more comprehensive hopes of deepening our appreciation of not only widely shared democratic values, but also of democracy in practice, which as an ideal carries at heart radical difference, deliberation and debate. She intentionally challenges popular ideas of what divides groups pitted as polar opposites in America’s very partisan political spectrum. In addition to this central aim, she also challenges our understandings of “the role of religion in public life, of the cultural underpinnings of democratic practice, and of the contested nature of American democracy and citizenship” (10).

In an attempt to accomplish these aims she advances two key arguments. “First, the stories recounted in this book destabilize prevailing understandings of how conservative and progressive groups engage in political life” (11). Despite divergent political approaches there are core concerns that they share. For instance, each are committed to the strategic value of grassroots organizing and protest, and are equally enthused by populist concerns. And in differing ways both enact “active citizenship” by means of religious sources of meaning. Focusing on important similarities such as this she works to destabilize popular assumptions of these groups and “forces us to develop a fuller and more nuanced picture of the contemporary political landscape” (180). Second, she also traces how these two groups diverge in crucial ways, since there are meaningful differences she doesn’t want to overlook. She does so in order to “deepen our understanding of the cultural underpinnings of democratic life” (11).

As a method of analysis, comparison creates a textured examination for Braunstein that exposes particular nuances that may only be seen by way of a sustained collision with difference. She remarks herself of “subtle differences” and “surprising parallels” that her method of multisite comparative ethnography has brought into stark relief (13). Her intervention is much needed especially because her original and systematic comparison highlights aspects of these groups which typically are obscured and abandoned. The project is not only a sustained collision with difference, but it is a meeting of differing political approaches that elegantly permits a sustained intellectual dialogue for the reader with two politically opposed groups that may never convene as such. In politically polarizing times such as these, Braunstein offers a more sensitive reading of the place of populist and grassroots movements in our democratic processes. She offers us a space to imagine American democracy anew and our active roles as citizens within it. Considering the stories that she tells is meant to propel the reader to consider his or her own role in imagining the nation and what taking up the responsibility of active participation in it actually looks like. Today in these politically tumultuous times a reasoned and thoughtful deliberation of how we move forward as a nation is as relevant as ever. With her first book she has made a powerful and convincing contribution.

The essays that follow grapple with multiple dimensions of Braunstein’s timely and thoroughgoing work. Though Braunstein answers her respondents in a different order, it’s noteworthy to consider the rich cross-disciplinary engagement that her text has provoked among her respondents. Three essays come from ethicists, and three from sociologists. Marcia Riggs ends up inviting us to consider more deeply intersectional and relational ways of doing activism in the twenty-first century, such as we find in the Black Lives Matter movement, which considers anew the practice of beloved community. Melissa Snarr also takes us a step further by offering Charles Mills’s Racial Contract as a useful approach to deepen Braunstein’s considerations of race alongside (or rather, entangled with) her considerations of religious resistance, particularly with the Patriots. Teresa Smallwood pushes perhaps more forcefully for deeper reflections on race that extend beyond particular considerations of the Patriots, but ultimately to the logics of whiteness that undergird Robert Bellah’s conceptualization of “American civil religion.” This of course is a pointed critique considering Braunstein’s use of Bellah’s article “Civil Religion in America.” Rhys Williams meditates further on aspects of diffused or implicit religion, wondering if Braunstein adequately reflects upon the ways in which religion will be increasingly manifest in current politics. Penny Edgell ultimately hears the book as an invitation working to convince us of democracy’s dependence on involved citizens and of our own capacity to make the political system better. Lastly, Daniel Winchester takes a different route by deliberating over the pedagogical usefulness of Braunstein’s text in the/his classroom, and his commentary suggests great success. Altogether, these essays show how generative Braunstein’s book is and how timely her text is for not only our current political moment, but similar moments for generations to come.

Marcia Riggs


Beyond Partisan Polarization?

Ruth Braunstein’s book is an informative and compelling read, especially as the country gears up for the 2020 election season. This ethnographic study is informative because it gives us valuable insights about the “democratic imaginaries”1 and collective action of two grassroots political movements, Interfaith (Prophets) and the Patriots. This summary statement highlights key elements of each group’s democratic imaginary: “As members of Interfaith and the Patriots passed through their religious communities, the military, the conservative and progressive media worlds, and other social movements . . . they were exposed to different clusters of foundational texts, such as the Constitution or the Old Testament; casts of characters, such as the Founding Fathers or Martin Luther King Jr.; and accounts of history, from apocalyptic narratives of moral collapse to hopeful narratives of moral progress” (77).

The Patriots’ imaginary undergirds collective action understood as the power of individuals acting together who hold the government accountable because of their rights as citizens. They are factfinders and truth-tellers who are vigilant and engage in public confrontation to ensure governmental accountability. The Interfaith imaginary undergirds collective action understood as communal power through solidarity of diverse communities and seeking partnership with public officials. They are listeners and storytellers who desire covenants and public commitments from the government as signs of accountability (147).2

Also, the theological frames for each group are consistent with their calls to active citizenship. The Patriots believe that their rights are God-given, and individuals are entitled to defend these rights. There is a social contract between citizens as autonomous individuals with this moral obligation: “Each individual must answer individually to God and is personally responsible for determining what kinds of actions are right and good. From this vantage, citizenship and accountability are individual pursuits” (149). Interfaith members believe individuals are bound by covenant: “Members of Interfaith framed the citizenry as a set of overlapping and nested moral communities (e.g., their congregations, their neighborhoods, their city, or the nation as a whole) that have certain collective interests and moral obligations. This view draws on the prophetic religious tradition of the Hebrew Bible, whose emphasis on covenants as the basis of political community entered American political thought through the Puritans” (148).

To state the obvious, the approaches to government accountability and the theological frames of these two groups are very different. Still, it is the explication of the concept of active citizenship by Braunstein as the guiding trope for both groups that makes the study compelling. In her words: “Whether group members imagined themselves as patriots or prophets, fulfilling their duty as Americans, in both accounts, involved engaging in active citizenship” (73). I think the study invites us to imagine how the 2020 election season could be different. The election season could be less combative and defensive, if only. . . . In the remainder of this essay, I will think about pushing beyond partisan polarization by envisioning and practicing beloved community as a guiding trope of active citizenship.

I am asserting that beloved community refers to a consciousness, a worldview, and practices of living day in and day out as a moral community. Likewise, beloved community is a live metaphor that resonates for many political activists and persons of faith, and consequently, it has the power to evoke active citizenship. Furthermore, I am not suggesting that we reclaim beloved community as it was understood during the Civil Rights era politically or theologically. Instead we must extend the social-political and theological-ethical trajectory of that era—from seeking inclusion in reformed political, social, and religious systems to creating socioreligious ethical contexts for human flourishing and global holism. My argument is simple: Beloved community is not an ideal end; active citizens of a beloved community live into the tensions of conflicting interpretations of the ever-evolving intracultural, intercultural, multicultural, multiconfessional, and multireligious realities of the twenty-first century. Active citizenship is a quest for new meaning about how to live with others in a democracy that prioritizes intercultural encounter and constructive engagement as central to active citizenship.

“Make America Great Again”—a Culture of Absolutism

When the 2016 presidential campaign ended with the election of a white American businessman, Donald Trump, who had fired up the nation with the slogan “Make America Great Again,” the nation’s failure of moral community becomes starkly into focus. With the election of President Donald Trump, we are embroiled in hate speech about one another and our causes. Hate crimes and hate speech have been on the rise. The 2016 presidential campaign and the years since have made all of us fully aware of the violence of hate speech.3 We make vicious claims and counter-claims about how to frame policies concerning health care, immigration, gun control, tax cuts, tariffs on imports, and so forth.

Likewise, “Make America Great Again” resonated as a clarion call to return to the greatness of the 1950s. Although a majority of white Evangelical Christians affirm that the country is going in the wrong direction, “nearly six in ten white mainline Protestants (59%) and white Catholics (57%) also believe the American way of life has taken a turn for the worse over the past 60 years.”4 Thus, the election of President Trump signaled not only a win for conservative politicians; it sanctioned the anger and fear of many white evangelical Protestants and some mainline Protestants and Catholics that had been just under the surface. “Make America Great Again” is a root for today’s culture of absolutism.

Dynamics of Partisan Polarization

In a culture of absolutism, political and religious discourse is uncivil and confrontational. Whether members of Congress are holding their party’s line or members of denominations are holding a doctrinal line, there is partisan polarization. At the heart of this polarization is absolutist morality. Political and religious convictions based upon absolutist morality are binary, rigid, non-empathetic, and/or non-adaptive.

Moreover, polarized persons or groups who operate from an absolutist morality can target or champion minoritized, vulnerable social groups, because of race-ethnicity, gender, economic status, sexual identity or orientation, transgender identity, and/or cognitive and physical disabling conditions. This is the case because when any person or group holds onto their political or religious position with such fervor that they cannot hear any other position, then their position becomes one of absolutist morality. In other words, the “rightness” of the conservative or liberal position overrides any willingness to engage those who hold the differing position; holding rigidly to the “rightness” of one’s position to the exclusion of any other is not solely a prerogative of conservatives. The frames for the active citizenship of the Prophets or the Patriots lead them to maintain and engage from oppositional rightness over and against one another.

The New Norm(al): Exclusion

Political groups and religious groups define themselves based upon values, principles and norms that confirm who is in or out of such groups. These different values, principles, and norms can be simply markers of distinctiveness, but more often they are boundaries of exclusivity. In a culture of absolutism, exclusion becomes the norm by which values and practices of community are ordered. This norm of exclusion is both definitional and prescriptive. When the norm is both definitional and prescriptive, it renders some persons/groups forever outside of a community because who the community is and how they live together establishes a boundary that some are never to cross. Whereas when the norm of exclusion is solely definitional it sets forth what is distinctive about a community in the hope that others may choose to join because of sharing that community’s commitments. In today’s context, we exclude by definition and practices, thus failing as moral community. This failure as moral community distorts and circumscribes the scope of justice consistent with democratic ideals about equality and justice and religious beliefs about justice and love. Most importantly, though, a culture of absolutism with its dynamics of partisan polarization obstructs practices necessary to nurturing and sustaining moral community. There is need for a model of active citizenship that is centered in intercultural encounter and transformative conflict.

What Is Moral Community?

Ethicist William Spohn says, “Moral community refers to the network of those to whom we recognize an ethical connection through the demands of justice, the bonds of compassion, or a sense of obligation.” He also suggests that images deriving from social traditions and popular speech guide our sense of moral community; these images are not morally neutral, and they guide our perceptions and emotions.5 Let’s look at two images that frequently guide our desires for moral community in the United States. First, there is an image of the melting pot. The melting pot signifies assimilation and colorblindness as norms; the aim is to collapse ethnic and cultural diversities and any accompanying political and religious diversities into a monocultural United States society. Second, there is an image of a mosaic. The mosaic signifies pluralism and diversity as norms; the aim is to tolerate (or even better, respect) our differences and become a society of hyphenated Americans where accompanying political and religious diversities are acknowledged in a multicultural United States society. These images point to two differing positions regarding an ideal of national unity, and the positions are competing to be the sole way to fulfill the ideal.

In the culture of absolutism, such images and the positions associated with them are perceived by their proponents as oppositional—even mutually exclusive. What happens, though, if we understand the images as metaphors for different practices of moral community (different practices of active citizenship) that might not need to cancel one another out but may be engaged dialogically to generate moral community? Why not perceive the positions as differing interpretations that can be mediated? What does it mean to generate and facilitate authentic moral community?

Religious Ethical Mediation (REM)6—a Model of Active Citizenship

REM is about mediating the tensions (the conflicts) of living with others with respect to that which is (1) religious—that which gives our or others’ lives ultimate meaning and from which differing understandings of morality derive, (2) ethical—those virtues, values, and visions for life that describe and prescribe who we and they are and what we and they do as individuals and groups in society and (3) mediation—processes of living into the tensions (conflicts) of intercultural encounter that are part and parcel of creating moral community. The practice of REM is about nurturing citizens and people of faith into a relational worldview and a transformative orientation to conflict.

Political philosophical theorist Bhikhu Parekh focuses upon intercultural relationships between social groups rather than solely on intersubjective relationships between individuals. After all, even autonomous individuals are, in fact, members of various social groups. If a society respects and includes its diverse communities, it is multiculturalist. If a society seeks to assimilate them, it is described as monocultural. Multicultural is a descriptor of cultural diversity; multiculturalism is a normative response.7 Active citizenship wedded to multiculturalism as a normative response pushes us to live as religious ethical mediators.

Intercultural encounters are about both cultures represented by groups and individuals as micro-cultures, about the interplay between sociopolitical and religious groups as cultural groups and individuals as micro-cultures. Moral community is nurtured and sustained through these intercultural encounters. Likewise, the quest for moral community must deal with the tension between multicultural and monocultural tendencies in society. Put another way: How are we to understand and practice multiculturalism as intercultural encounters (a normative response to the multicultural/monocultural tensions) as a twenty-first-century moral community? In brief, we can interrogate and disrupt the current culture of absolutism through empathetic intercultural encounters. These empathetic encounters will emerge through religious ethical mediation as an ethical process that is grounded in relationality and intersectionality.

Beloved Community as Invitational Image

Beloved Community is an image with philosophical, political, and biblical roots; it is an invitational image that is expansive. The intersectional and relational ways of doing activism in the twenty-first century, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and the Forward Together Movement,8 are illustrative of how we can envision and practice anew beloved community.

Religious ethical mediation (REM) is a process for envisioning and practicing beloved community. REM asserts that beloved community is constructed through intercultural encounters in which we acknowledge (a) the particularity of our differences (recognize the moral relevance of embodiment), (b) the contextuality (the sites) of our encounters, the historicity of our encounters (our encounters emerge in relation to a past-present-future), and (c) the biases of our interpretations as we are dialogically engaged. As beloved community emerges, we active citizens remain committed to our different confessions and professions but without being absolutist or universalizing about them. Whereas the culture of absolutism is marked by certitude; beloved community requires moral imagination. Active citizens in the twenty-first century live as religious ethical mediators opening space for beloved community to emerge. In the end, it is not about moving beyond partisan polarization, but living into the tensions (conflicts) of polarities as active citizen disruptors of absolutism.

  1. Ruth Braunstein, Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide (Oakland: University of California Press, 2017), 73. This term refers to a defining narrative of these groups that reflects an intertwining of “an articulation of their collective identities as active citizens, their ideal models of how society as a whole should work, and their visions of the country’s future” (author’s italics).

  2. See table on divergent styles of holding the government accountable.


  4. The Divide Over America’s Future: 1950 or 2050?, Public Religion Research Institute, October 25, 2016, 28.


  6. Religious Ethical Mediation (REM) is a copyrighted theory and trademarked process by the author, Marcia Y. Riggs. Please do not cite or quote further without permission of the author.

  7. Bhikhu Parekh, Rethinking Multiculturalism: Cultural Diversity and Political Theory (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2006), 3–6.

  8. See Patrice Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele, When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir (New York: St. Martin’s, 2017), and William J. Barber II and Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, The Third Reconstruction: Moral Mondays, Fusion Politics, and the Rise of a New Justice Movement (Boston: Beacon, 2016).

  • Ruth Braunstein

    Ruth Braunstein


    Response to Riggs: “Living into the Tensions” of Political Polarization

    I am deeply appreciative of Marcia Y. Riggs’s contribution to this symposium, and beyond that, her work developing tools to help us engage with one another during times of conflict. And let there be no doubt: Americans are currently living in a time of intense political and cultural conflict, which has only deepened since I conducted the research for Prophets and Patriots. Riggs’s response to the book reflects her desire to find a path out of the current morass, which she frames as a “failure of moral community” and as the product of a “culture of absolutism.” To this end, although she recognizes that participants in the conservative and progressive groups that are featured in Prophets and Patriots have starkly different “approaches to government accountability” and “theological frames,” she focuses primarily on what they share in common—their commitment to active citizenship. She asks whether this shared commitment to active citizenship could be the basis on which diverse and disagreeing citizens might “[push] beyond partisan polarization by envisioning and practicing beloved community as a guiding trope of active citizenship.”

    Her way of conceptualizing beloved community makes an important and intriguing intervention into typical public discussions of this “live metaphor that resonates for many political activists and persons of faith” (including many members of Interfaith). Whereas most activists imagine beloved community as “an ideal end,” Riggs argues that it should instead be understood as a practice and a process. Central to the practice of beloved community is a willingness to “live into the tensions of conflicting interpretations of the ever evolving intracultural, intercultural, multicultural, multiconfessional, and multireligious realities of the twenty-first century.” It involves “a quest for new meaning about how to live with others in a democracy that prioritizes intercultural encounter and constructive engagement as central to active citizenship.” I have argued (in my response to Winchester) that political conflict can be productive insofar as it affords an opportunity for citizens to articulate and interrogate different visions of the good life, and only as long as it stops short of violence. Riggs’s insistence that the process of beloved community is “not about moving beyond partisan polarization, but living into the tensions (conflicts) of polarities as active citizen disruptors of absolutism,” suggests that she generally agrees with this premise. But she also goes a step further by proposing a model for putting this vision into practice, which she calls “Religious Ethical Mediation (REM).” I am intrigued by this model and its potential to help citizens approach differences in their deep cultural assumptions about society not as “oppositional” or “mutually exclusive” but as “differing interpretations that can be mediated.”

    In the conclusion of Prophets and Patriots, I expressed pessimism about the potential for this kind of productive engagement between participants in groups like Interfaith and the Patriots. I argued that their differences were far deeper than mere policy disagreements; they were rooted in deeply divergent understandings of what it means to be an American and of citizens’ proper relationships to one another, to government, and to God. But what if I was wrong to draw this conclusion? What if there are techniques for breaking through these deep cultural divides, as Riggs argues? This would obviously be a game-changer. And yet, in reading Riggs’s description of REM, I kept wondering whether a technique rooted in respect for multiculturalism would truly be able to bridge the divide between groups like Interfaith and the Patriots. As Riggs explains, drawing on political philosophical theorist Bhikhu Parekh, there is often a tension within societies between calls for multiculturalism, which “respects and includes its diverse communities,” and calls for monoculturalism, which “seeks to assimilate them.” As I discuss in Prophets and Patriots, Interfaith and the Patriots exemplify this tension. Interfaith explicitly used the language of multiculturalism, and even of beloved community, in order to describe their vision of creating a religiously, racially and economically diverse group culture that modeled these values and practices for the broader society. Meanwhile, the Patriots were quite clear that a condition of being welcomed into “we the people” ought to be assimilation into their vision of “Americanness,” which implicitly centered whiteness and Christianity. The promotion of multiculturalism or monoculturalism, respectively, was thus central to the groups’ different visions of American democracy. Riggs recognizes that this battle between multiculturalism and monoculturalism is at the heart of our deeply polarized political landscape. And yet she also argues that the call to “live as religious ethical mediators” is rooted in a normative commitment to multiculturalism. This, in essence, seems to place these mediators on one side of a fairly fundamental divide within US society. This raises a question of whether REM can only be used with participants who already embrace multiculturalism, like the diverse participants who participated in Interfaith; and conversely, whether groups committed to monoculturalism (like the Patriots) are tacitly defined as incapable of practicing beloved community, or simply as unreachable?

    When we talk about the pressing need to engage in intercultural encounters and bridge our deepest cultural divides—in short, to practice multiculturalism—most people are referring to racial, ethnic, and religious divides. And this work remains essential. Yet if recent work on partisan polarization is to be believed, one of the deepest cultural divides in America today is a partisan political divide.1 Polarization has widened both the range of ideas that are discussed in public as well as the social chasm between groups who discuss them.2 In the process, political sides have become tribes—not just rivals, but “repugnant cultural others.”3 In this context it seems essential that we develop practices that encourage Americans to view the practice of “living into these conflicts” as central to active citizenship, even if ethical dilemmas are likely to arise along the way. Riggs practical vision for how to push “beyond partisan polarization by envisioning and practicing beloved community” offers a hopeful step in this direction.

    1. Lilliana Mason, Uncivil Agreement: How Politics Became Our Identity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

    2. Maggie Astor, “How the Politically Unthinkable Can Become Mainstream,” New York Times, February 26, 2019; Bill Bishop, The Big Sort: Why the Clustering of Like-Minded America Is Tearing Us Apart (Boston: Mariner, 2009).

    3. Susan Harding, “Representing Fundamentalism: The Problem of the Repugnant Cultural Other,” Social Research 58.2 (1991) 373–93.

    • Marcia Riggs

      Marcia Riggs


      Interculturalism, not Multiculturalism

      I am grateful for Professor Braunstein’s careful and critical reading of my proposal of religious ethical mediation as a process for “active citizenship.” However, although the deep polarizing divide between the two groups in her ethnography and society can be described as monoculturalism vs. multiculturalism, it is descriptive, not prescriptive. I am not insisting that individuals and groups side with multiculturalism in order to engage as religious ethical mediators. I am calling for a commitment to interculturalism as the ethical posture and practice of religious ethical mediation. Interculturalism is about being in a dialogical relationship with others; such a relationship encourages us to respect our differences as a point of departure for generative ethical responses. These generative ethical responses are constructed through our encounters. We engage in such generative, constructive dialogue from committed but not absolutist positions. Those who live as religious ethical mediators are not about converting others to a preferred, predetermined position. Religious ethical mediators are about inviting others into self-critical and mutual critical dialogue for the purpose of together acknowledging respectfully one another’s differences and constructing norms for living together. Religious ethical mediation is a dynamic process, not an end.

Melissa Snarr


Political Polarization and the Ethical Necessity of Ethnography

One of the things I savor about good ethnographies is their ability to complicate the narrative I have created about something I think I know a bit about. For Ruth Braunstein’s Prophets and Patriots, I think I know these people. I know these well-meaning, mostly white folks in the PICO group, the “Interfaith” members working their system of one-on-ones, research action teams, and public accountability sessions. I’ve written about them and I’ve been one of them. But I also think I know these “Patriots”: their words are doppelgangers of my holiday dinner arguments for the last twenty years. Yet my own personal and political trauma also means I really do not know or ask enough about the inner workings and logics of those with whom I radically disagree, perhaps especially when they are kin. I rarely find political resonances when the chasms seem so wide. Thus, on a personal and academic level, I am grateful for Ruth’s very fine work in this comparative ethnography. While we have seen a spate of ethnographic accounts of faith-based community organizing groups/networks in the last decade (e.g., Rich Wood, Mark Warren, Jeff Stout, Luke Bretherton), careful attention to the religious world of a Tea Party–related group is rare and the comparative perspective on how democratic imaginaries of “active citizenship” are cultivated and practiced is a rich gift to the scholarship on religion, moral agency, democracy, and social change. As a Christian social ethicist who draws on ethnographic methods for my work, I will engage Braunstein’s arguments within a sociological frame while also teasing out and adding my normative ethical questions. My focus will center on four areas: epistemologies of activism, secularization and congregational formation, classed and raced imaginaries, and methodological immersion. That I have left much on the “cutting room floor” for this brief conversation also points to the fruitful offering of this book.

Epistemologies and Democratic Imaginaries

Braunstein’s ethnography clearly displays how each of the groups articulated an awakening to a current crisis in democracy and the ways in which alternative forms of knowledge practices and power were necessary to remedy the crisis. Each group needed to cultivate a non-dominant understanding of their world and convince their political leaders to take necessary related actions. Braunstein argues that the groups’ respective democratic imaginaries (“an understanding about how democracy ought to work and the role of active citizens within it” [110])—analogous in form but dissimilar in content—governed their political and group practices, even in ways that did not seem most efficient or effective for their causes.

I found particularly intriguing the ways these divergent visions of democracy influenced how and why the groups gathered information for their concerns as well as what they found credible. Even though they shared commitments to “active citizenship,” their approaches to disruptive knowledge were radically different. Interfaith, based in their vision of relationally collaborative, covenantal democracy, began with the experiences of group members and consciously sought to mine and integrate their stories and realities into other forms of knowledge production. Tenants of slumlords, under/uninsured medical patients, and other directly affected citizens were central to information gathering. Research teams gathered their stories alongside academic research and government data in order to craft a tight narrative that presented the collective knowledge of the group to local decision-makers. Even individuals who wanted to present very specific, personal claims before government representatives were coached to discuss and act on collective “public grief” (47) so the narratives were not just a compilation of individual complaints (to be individually assuaged—a more client-based approach to technical governance) but a shared set of community concerns (to be collectively addressed in shared governance relationship). The Patriots, in contrast, spent a tremendous amount of their time and energy assembling a vast trove of information through varied media sources. Members of the group even read through entire congressional bills and Linda, the leader of the Patriot group, devoted herself to producing a daily news aggregator. But unlike Interfaith, the ethnography does not depict the Patriots as continuously mining their own experience for their political knowledge or consciously creating a shared public narrative for their activism. In contrast to Interfaith members, the Patriots rely on a much more stark and isolating understanding of the power of individual rationality to sift through varied media accounts of issues and the Constitution itself to present each member’s own collected knowledge of how democracy should be functioning, and which policies should be implemented. What is still puzzling for me in this approach to knowledge generation is how a democratic imaginary built on individual knowledge and rationality that is deeply critical of the media relies so heavily on media sources for its apprehension of the world. How is it that the Patriots’ populist epistemology still largely constructs them as consumers of information rather than producers? Yet even to ask these questions is to express gratitude for the rich picture that Braunstein has painted of far more religiously diverse and intellectually engaged Tea Party-related actors than I have read before.

Secular Differentiations

This gratitude also serves as a segue way to a confession, about which I am a bit embarrassed: I had no idea Glenn Beck was so influential. I mean really no clue. My ignorance speaks to my echo chambers, and I regret this lack of knowledge in part because the ubiquitous presence of Beck in Braunstein’s recounting of the construction of the Patriots’ democratic imaginary adds some significant twists to recent historical analysis of neoliberal Christian activism (e.g., Bethany Moreton, Darren Dochuck, Kevin Kruse, Alison Collis Greene). With these scholarly histories in mind, one may link the Patriots’ understanding of Christianity as a radically individual relationship with God, state, and the market to early twentieth century protests against the New Deal and the concerted effort of large scale manufacturers and military suppliers to fund and build a religious ideology of Christian free-market capitalism. Yet, importantly, there is no evidence in the ethnography that the Patriots make this link. They do not seem to see their activism as inheriting the battle against the New Deal or the War on Poverty or as a continuation of other historical moments when corporations rallied ministers to help create a countermovement to Progressivism. Instead, the Patriots’ sense of history is attenuated towards their continuation of a history of origins (e.g., the Founding Fathers) rather than an ongoing history of anti-“socialist” activism.

While the Patriots’ construction of their lineage of activism is puzzling, what is more striking—in contrast to the histories of Christian neoliberal libertarianism—is that formal congregations and ordained ministers seem to play little or no role in the Patriots’ lives and their democratic imaginary. Whereas older forms of conservative Christian activism actively relied on corporate and foundation sponsors for recruiting ministers from across the country to craft particular sermons, write religious education curriculum, etc., such congregation-based activity does not appear to be a primary resource for these grass-roots activists. Rather, Glenn Beck’s televangelist-like—indeed, almost parachurch—media takes its place. This substitution raises questions about the nature and influence of the Patriots’ congregational involvement. In contrast, Interfaith is deeply reliant on their congregational relationships for member recruitment, clergy leadership of the group, and a cultivation/affirmation of theological resources for their social justice agenda. The navigation of issue identification, compromise with each other, and government leaders are all grounded in various congregational polities as well as the training of Interfaith. From Braunstein’s account, one could wonder whether the Patriots’ relative detachment from congregational practices might instead foster and affirms a trajectory towards libertarian civil religion with an emphasis on more radical individualism and rejection of any compromise with authority.

In her analysis of both groups Braunstein pays attention to secularization’s influence on how they stake their identity (82) and frame their issues (53, 116). Religious faith and the relevance of religious values to politics is something both these groups know is not automatically shared by the rest of society. Braunstein documents how they then navigate framing their issues to appeal to a wide range of the people while also emphasizing the ongoing importance of moral and religious arguments. The comparative ethnography also complicates the common culture war trope that “religious conservatives resisting societal secularization and rising religious diversity face off against liberal secularists” (16). Yet I wonder about the way secularization might also influence the organizational affiliations in which members of each group are formed/affirmed and how those additional affiliations further inform their democratic imaginaries. What difference does it make to have congregational affiliations that are thick (like Interfaith members), and how are those practices mutually influential on the larger group construction of civic life? Here I think of Rich Wood’s comparative congregational work on why some faith-based organizing network’s members are more involved and effective than others; particular congregational forms (e.g., few collective polity processes), practices (e.g., little questioning of single authoritarian pastor), and theologies (e.g., stark good vs. evil) mitigated members’ willingness to embrace the deliberative and negotiating practices of the network. How might the seeming lack of particular congregational practices influence the Patriots? In what ways might this also differentiate them from the tactics and democratic imaginary of the Christian Right?

Complexifying Class

In a related but more class-focused vector, I am also curious about the subtle mentions of “professionalism” in the ethnography and wonder if teasing out the definition of class undergirding the text might open up some unexplored questions. I appreciate that Braunstein is careful to develop some demographic coherence between the groups she studies, and she notes that the Patriots and Interfaith members were mostly white and “middle-class” and thus were not dissimilar simply because they were “motivated by different material interests” (194–95). But I wonder if a closer attention to what she considers “middle-class” might help us ascertain more about varied persons’ openness and resistance to different visions of democratic life. For while descriptions of the Patriot members identify them mostly as small business owners and veterans (3), Interfaith members are described mostly as “professionals” (194). While their incomes might not be radically different, the signifier “professional” might contain information about how professionalism could influence Interfaith members’ comfort with more collaborative, federated forms of tactical pressure in their active citizenship. If class is interpreted as less about income level and more about relationship to larger decision-making structures, capital, or knowledge production, how might that influence the “group styles” that Braunstein details (ch. 6)? Are certain kinds of professionals socialized into peer-based collective governance within their careers and covenants of care for the collective good that are more open to the Interfaiths’ style of advocacy and resistance? In what ways might Braunstein’s helpful elaboration of Rhys William’s identification of contractual versus covenantal traditions of religious activism be deepened by further class—rather than primarily income-based—analysis of these groups?

Racialized Imaginaries

While this class analysis may be interesting and helpful to a smaller segment of academics, I think most readers will yearn for a deeper consideration of the racial imaginary of the Patriots. While Braunstein does a solid job describing the prefigurative politics of diversity and “religious inclusion” that were central to Interfaith, she does not press on questions about how racial constructions might be infused throughout the Patriots’ imaginary. Patriot members regularly mention the Obama administration and Obamacare as their nemesis in the fight for democracy, but he certainly is not the first president to advocate for social safety nets . . . just the first black one. We should ask if there is anything about the former president’s racial identity that might reveal racialized dimensions of the Patriots’ democratic imaginary’s hostility towards government and “threats” to their liberty. Was there anything in discussions of welfare, healthcare, or even the Glenn Beck rally that might point to how intertwined many libertarian conceptions of citizenship are with whiteness? A useful approach to that question might be found in Charles Mills’s The Racial Contract, which argues that the classic liberal social contract is actually reliant on the an exploitative racial contract. Although we may not want to impose Mills’s categories upon an ethnography, I wonder what we might better understand about the Patriots with more careful attention to when, where, and how race shows up in their rhetoric and practices. We may get hints at the Patriot’s approach to race in their biting rejection of Muslims from the “religious liberty” principle that the group finds essential to their imaginary; Muslims could never really be Americans (96). Is this just a religious resistance or is it intertwined with other racialized markers, assumptions, and histories about who can be someone worthy of liberty?

Methodological Queries

Finally, I find Braunstein’s appendix quite compelling in her brief but fertile methodological reflections on comparative ethnography. A couple of opening salvos here: first, attempting to achieve “symmetry” (in time, connection, and analytical strategy) while participating simultaneously in two disparate groups not only creates a logistical behemoth but also raises questions around the necessary psycho-social-epistemological relationship of an ethnographer to group members. What does simultaneous participant-observer status both offer and, perhaps, foreclose? Braunstein quotes Gary Alan Fine on the need for closeness to one’s subjects and not being “an ethnographic tourist” (197), and his caution represents a long tradition among ethnographers intentionally blurring the lines of insider/outsider status through intense, singular immersion. My mentor in ethnographic methods, Nancy Eiesland, trained her students on texts like Lynn Davidman’s Tradition in a Rootless World and Susan Harding’s The Book of Jerry Falwell, both of which demonstrated how moments of analytical insight came from an openness to conversion into their ethnographic subject’s worldview . . . and perhaps an actual conversion, in Davidman’s case. These ethnographers make a methodological claim: to understand the totalizing and compelling worldview of their participants, a kind of methodological saturation in a community was necessary. Then nuances emerged like fractals and remade your vision of who and what you had come to study. So, with a nod to my Southern Baptist roots, when is complete immersion necessary to enable the conversion (or almost conversion) that can reveal a new social world rather than analysis that perpetuates an outsiders’ perspective on it? This question is perhaps particularly annoying—grounded, in part, in the fact that I could read a whole book on the Patriots alone—but I also ask this question, rather humbly, from a normative, social change perspective: I want to be able to answer Ruth’s own question about how we might bridge the chasm between the democratic imaginaries of these two groups, and wonder whether a fully immersive encounter with the Patriots might help to do so. What is the fuller texture of the Patriots’ lives at work, church, and play, and where might their illnesses, sorrows, labors, goals, and joys meet those of Interfaith members? Recent research on political polarization in the United States argues that “right” and “left” literally inhabit differing worlds, preferring different retailers, homes, sports, etc. (e.g., Robert Talisse, Overdoing Democracy). Would knowing the Patriots through fuller immersion provide more pathways to connect their democratic imaginaries to that of the Prophets? Or does that latter question simply show that my theory of social change finds a home in the Prophets’ understanding of a healthy democracy more than in the Patriots’?

Again, this trajectory of questions is likely unfair to ask of such fine and necessary comparative work. So, let me take the methodological theme of symmetry in a slightly different direction. I appreciate Braunstein challenging the assumption that symmetrical closeness most easily aligns along political affinity. Ruth pushes us to take seriously how organizational openness (e.g., how easy is it to join a network based on congregational belonging), demographic factors, communication formats (e.g., public social media information sharing versus private phone calls or congregational meetings) might provide other vital symmetries of relationship for the researcher even when political affinity is not present. These varied forms of connection are important as we think about who and how we can study outside of our siloes of political affinity. Yet inevitable questions also arise about where our limits as ethnographic researchers lie in such a highly divided religiopolitical landscape. Would my gender presentation and sexual identity have been a tipping point that would not have allowed symmetrical closeness with the Patriots? Or does my whiteness, marriage, and parental status counterbalance? What do various symmetries of race, gender, religion, work, leisure, life experience, etc., allow us to see and not see in the groups we study? Perhaps more relevantly, what groups do we prioritize and self-edit from studying—and/or advise our students towards and away from? What kinds of symmetrical relationships are necessary for any ethnographic work in our current religiopolitical context?

As you can see, Ruth Braunstein’s Prophets and Patriots has elicited more questions than ethical pronouncements or counterarguments from me. I am still thinking through how her fine ethnographic work troubled of my preexisting narratives and, particularly in the midst of incredible political polarization and the rise of populisms of all stripes, I find this kind of careful ethnographic work essential for my work as a Christian social ethicist. H. Richard Niebuhr is well known for stating that the first question of Christian ethics is “What’s going on?” Yet all too often ethicists declare normative conclusions without much attention to the detail of people’s lives and activism, which sets us far outside any real efforts for social change. We need more of this kind of critical ethnographic work. Thank you, Ruth, for a provocative contribution to my reading list and my future seminars on religion and social change.

  • Ruth Braunstein

    Ruth Braunstein


    Response to Snarr: Populist Epistemologies and the Right-Wing Media “Parachurch”

    I am deeply grateful for Melissa Snarr’s thoughtful engagement with the book, and kind words about its contributions to our understanding of “religion, moral agency, democracy, and social change.” I believe there is much to be learned from encounters between social scientists and Christian social ethicists in this moment, as we turn our collective scholarly attention to very similar questions even as we bring different approaches to how we find answers. While I could have dedicated an entire response to Snarr’s insightful questions about the virtues of immersion (and even in some cases conversion) for ethnographic research, I am mindful that I have focused on methodological concerns in other responses. Instead, I would like to address two of Snarr’s other observations, about the Patriots’ “populist epistemology” and their “relative detachment” from formal congregational structures, which I see as intertwined and which new ongoing research has led me to consider in greater depth.

    As Snarr observes, “congregation-based activity does not appear to be a primary resource for these grass-roots activists [the Patriots]. Rather, Glenn Beck’s televangelist-like—indeed, almost parachurch—media takes its place.” This was indeed one of the puzzles I routinely grappled with while conducting this research and attempting to articulate what exactly was “religious” about the Tea Party movement. It was not simply a rebranded Christian Right; but it was not exactly a secular movement either. The movement attracted participants who were not only politically eclectic but also relatively religiously diverse, including larger-than-expected numbers of religiously unaffiliated and nonreligious people. And yet, as I argue in the book and elsewhere, religion was central to the group’s culture. Specifically, I argue that the Patriots were able to bridge deep divides within the movement by appealing to their shared vision of the United States as a country whose exceptionalism and special favor from God are incumbent upon Americans’ adherence to its foundational “Judeo-Christian values.”

    The primary promoters of this narrative within the movement were not ministers but charismatic media personalities like Glenn Beck, who not only promoted an alternative history of America’s founding, but also schooled his viewers in how to be certain kinds of readers and knowers. This is precisely how Snarr’s observations about the Patriots’ exposure to the culture of the Fox News “parachurch” intersects with her insight about their particular “approach to disruptive knowledge.” As she aptly notes, this approach involved a “stark and isolating understanding of the power of individual rationality to sift through varied media accounts of issues,” “read through entire congressional bills,” and personally study and interpret the Constitution. I dedicated a fair amount of space in the book to contrasting the Patriots’ knowledge practices with those cultivated within Interfaith, and demonstrating how the Patriots’ approach, which blends aspects of constitutional originalism, popular constitutionalism, and citizen journalism, resembles, at least in part, many Protestants’ populist relationship to the Bible. They treated founding texts like the Constitution like sola scriptura, carried dogeared copies of the Constitution in their pockets, and argued that any democratically legitimate political text could be understood by ordinary people without the need for expert interpretation. They were, in essence, “constitutional Protestants” (Levinson 1988); yet because only some of the Patriots identified as religious Protestants and many were “unchurched,” this presented me with a bit of a puzzle. Where had they developed these knowledge practices, if not at church, as the limited body of research on the relationship between religion and constitutional interpretation would suggest (Lewis et al. 2020)? I ultimately argued that these practices were deeply influenced by participants’ immersion in the right-wing media subculture, which provided them with both models of and explicit instruction in a populist epistemology that drew heavily, albeit implicitly, on evangelical Protestant practices.

    In the book itself, I stopped short of developing a more general theoretical account of the relationship between subcultural resources and knowledge practices, particularly on the American right. But my current research on the right-wing tax protest movement has rekindled my interest in and understanding of this relationship. Although my research is still ongoing, preliminary observations suggest that participants share aspects of the Patriots’ populist approach to knowledge and interpretation, although their focus is less on the founding documents and more on the tax code and movement leaders’ unorthodox interpretations of it. At the heart of both movements, however, is a deep distrust of elite interpretations of American law and a project of teaching ordinary citizens how to interpret highly technical legal texts themselves in order to challenge elite claims. And similarly to what I found in my previous research, the contemporary tax protest movement is not formally connected to evangelical Protestant congregations or leaders;1 instead, the movement organizes around charismatic authors and media personalities, who like Glenn Beck, both promote alternative versions of the “truth” and provide practical instruction in how their followers can arrive at this “truth” themselves.

    The parallels between these two movements’ Protestant-populist approaches to knowing even in the absence of direct exposure to the evangelical Protestant subculture clearly warrants further examination, and I am deeply grateful to Snarr for pushing me to think more deeply about these questions. Moreover, in the spirit of comparison across the political divide, any investigation of such questions about the political right should be accompanied by continued reflection on the sources of disruptive knowledge practices on the political left and their religious roots and resonances. Especially in this post-truth moment, as expert authority is challenged by groups on the far left and right, it seems essential that we deepen our understanding of how citizens learn how to know, as well as our ability to distinguish between knowledge practices that enhance or erode citizens’ capacity to contribute to democratic public life.

    1. There are links between groups like Posse Comitatus and today’s sovereign citizen movement, for which tax protest is a central practice, and the white supremacist and anti-Semitic Christian Identity church.

Teresa Smallwood


“Accountability Frame: God-Given Rights, Tar and Feathers” Really?

Robert N. Bellah’s article “Civil Religion in America,” published in 1967, formulated a conceptual framework for American civil religion. Braunstein’s reliance upon that article is the focus of my reflection. There, Bellah claimed to outline a new perspective on how America holds its religious cultus,1 not as an idolatrous “form of national self-worship but as the subordination of the nation to ethical principles that transcend it in terms of which it should be judged.”2 Bellah contends that

every nation and every people come to some form of religious self-understanding whether the critics like it or not. Rather than simply denounce what seems in any case inevitable, it seems more responsible to seek within the civil religious tradition for those critical principles which undercut the everpresent danger of national self-idolization. . . . But we know enough about the function of ceremonial and ritual in various societies to make us suspicious of dismissing something as unimportant because it is “only a ritual.” What people say on solemn occasions need not be taken at face value, but it is often indicative of deep-seated values and commitments that are not made explicit in the course of everyday life.3[/EXT]

At the risk of sounding cliché, or more accurately, incensed, this particular subsection of Braunstein’s text, as titled, raises for me something more deeply embedded in the practice of American Civil Religion than a simple nod to a “Revolutionary-era ritual, associated especially with resistance to tax collectors” (139). Tarring and feathering, ritualistic, no doubt, presupposes the era in American democratic imaginaries where certain people groups, read white, practicing their patriotic animus, proffered a form of self-governance in which public torture and humiliation forced their form of justice that “we” as black Americans have come to know as mob vengeance.4 It was out of mob violence that the American criminal justice system emerged to stymie the extreme atrocities of white mobs while continuing to exact unruly condemnation to those who were not privy to the status of citizen, read black/other. Citizenship was and continues to be awarded transactional significance in these yet to be United States.5 Because of this well-established fact of American history, a joking reference to it, like that of expressing willingness to attend a public hanging, or demanding that people “go back where they came from” signify a quite particular American pathos. Consequently, I must hurriedly acknowledge the validity of Braunstein’s conclusion that “it is unclear whether, in any era of American history, there was a broad cultural consensus” (187), particularly about the concept of American citizenship. Braunstein’s deployment of Robert Bellah’s conception of American Civil Religion is therefore confusing. For certain, “civil religious language and symbols weave pivotal periods of American history–like the Revolution, slavery, and the Civil War—into a narrative that infuses the nation and the struggles of its people with sacred meaning” (53). But the question is sacred to whom? Launched as a canopy over which the so-called similarities of the groups reviewed in Prophets and Patriots: Faith in Democracy Across the Political Divide, Bellah’s civil religious discourse is fraught with inconsistency.

Undergirding Bellah’s contention is a presupposition that America is white (that is Eurocentric), male-dominated, protestant, and nationalist in its religious orientation. Claims of an American civil religion, eerily self-evident today, assign the role of “gatekeeper” (77, 78, 182) to those who practice the same. However, in the postmodern, pluralistic context, as declarations of place and space for religious expression find platforms in the public sphere, scrutiny abounds. Given the vitriolic, border-crossing rhetoric of our forty-fifth president and his loyal compatriots, outsiders continue to experience intolerance. Those who manage the cultus6 condemn all who decline to worship within the civil-religious framework—read patriotic. In effect, Bellah’s conclusion drawn over fifty years ago offers insight into the multi-centuries-long shackles, metaphorical in their current iteration, except in the case of mass incarceration, imposed upon the lived civil religion of African Americans in this country, which transcends space, place, and time. Freedom of religious expression for the black body is and always has been subject to border patrol. Yet, racialized minorities have always found their sacred spaces, from the Hush Harbors to the multimillion-dollar worship complexes we see today.

Bellah focused his argument for an American Civil Religion upon those commonalities of American ritual behavior that conjured for him a religious ethos. Specifically, he focused on the inaugural address of President John F. Kennedy. Kennedy’s invocation of God in his address fulfilled both a political and a religious function. The connection drawn by Bellah is telling as it relates to how patriotism presupposes a set of values and assigns an almost property-like interest investment to the “gatekeepers” (56, 57, 58, 74, 107, 108, 109, 138). In the face of America’s legal declaration that church and state must remain separate, Bellah established the efficacy of a “religious realm” retained in American civil religion.7 This fact serves as a prohibition to the convergence of faith claims between the Patriots and the Prophets (Interfaith), despite their considerable methodological similarities as espoused in this text. Fundamentally, the trajectories are set in historical stones for which race serves as a “sliding signifier.”8 Transcending time, place, and space, this signifier is the archetypal modus operandi at work in the ways in which certain democratic principles manage entitlement to the American dream.

When the presidential candidate was a black man, the election of the commander-in-chief came under severe scrutiny principally around issues of religion and race. The campaign trail leading up to the 2008 presidential election was replete with inquiry, in pertinent part, surrounding the religious choice of Barack Hussein Obama. Then Senator Obama, though theoretically and legally privileged to do so, would have committed political suicide to have raised his constitutionally protected freedom of choice to engage in whatever religious tradition met with his desire. Instead, this constitutional guarantee, in a twist of irony, lugubriously led to the presidential hopeful denouncing his pastor of twenty years, Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright Jr., and separating from his church. In effect, his principled commitment to active citizenship, to democracy, and the American democratic way saw him sell his soul for a bowl of porridge, so to speak. Apart from the polarizing effect of the socio-theo-political pressure brought to bear upon presidential candidates pertaining to religious affiliation, the chord that sounds the dissonance speaks to the very nature of church and state relations in the twenty-first century. Rather than religious choice being a very private, protected right, it has morphed into a matter that can be easily manipulated in the public sphere. Born out in the narratives of the Patriots and the Prophets (Interfaith) in the text, that reality supersedes notions of democratic imaginaries where the kind of “homology” raised by Bourdieu actually yields fruit. This text is replete with evidence for why that is.

When the Civil War was lost, the effort to memorialize those who fought to keep slavery alive for the Confederacy became the object of an idolatrous worship that raised physical monuments across America. This was American Civil Religion at work, despite Bellah’s effort to pivot away from idolatry in his essay. Lynching black bodies followed as a response to the loss of the Civil War. Through sacred public memory the prophetic voice reclaims connection with those life forces brutally cut off by greed, avarice, terror, and hatred. We can remember what we never knew, as Katie G. Cannon instructed, by invoking the presence of those we lost as an act of spiritual resistance. “The theme of embodiment as re-memory and re-memory as incarnation is the basic motif in embodied theos.”9 I submit the example of Colin Kaepernick, in taking a knee to protest the death-dealing brutality of police across America upon black bodies, speaks to the ways this exercise of religion, and indeed faith, as transposed in the text, again comes under scrutiny by the “gatekeepers.”

What is more American than football? Who is more American than an NFL player? Kaepernick chose his place and space for invoking sacred memory in step with his ancestors who understood their quest for liberty and justice inextricably bound to their religious expression. His embodied theos, demonstrated by kneeling, fit the frame of an American civil religious expression. According to Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, in his theology of kneeling,

kneeling does not come from any culture—it comes from the Bible and its knowledge of God. The central importance of kneeling in the Bible can be seen in a very concrete way. First there is prostratio—lying with one’s face to the ground before the overwhelming power of God; secondly, especially in the New Testament, there is falling to one’s knees before another; and thirdly, there is kneeling. Linguistically, the three forms of posture are not always clearly distinguished. They can be combined or merged with one another.10

However, Colin’s bended knee was met with extreme opposition by the “gatekeepers” of American Civil Religion. Failing to stand and sing the National Anthem was tantamount to sin. As such, his sin needed a sacrifice for atonement.

Many Christians still think of kneeling with folded hands as the appropriate posture for prayer, but few know why; and the few who do know cannot, even if they choose, mean the same thing by it as was meant by those to whom the posture was part of an ideology still real in everyday social life. The social relations that once gave explicit meaning to that ritual gesture of the vassal’s subordination to his lord are now as dead as a mackerel, and so, therefore, is the ideological vocabulary—including the posture of prayer—in which those social relations once lived.11

Nevertheless, the “gatekeepers” of American Civil Religion drew blood, sacrificing Colin on the altar of patriotism. Audre Lorde, in her description of bloodshed, as a result of violence, evokes the sentiments that Colin responded to, which is reminiscent of the multiple ways in which the lives of black people, particularly when lost to violence, are precariously ungrievable.12 Lorde refers to the “tithe” of blood and suggests that the bloodshed is in effect the proverbial city assessing a tax that is paid in blood; the blood of those tarred and feathered. The derivative nature of this bloodshed is that it demands a costly response. That response requires the prophetic voice of one who is motivated by holy anger. Lorde determines the correct response to the shedding of blood is unmitigated confrontation.13 But, at what cost? Braunstein’s contribution to academe, in large measure, explicates that cost. Everyone pays.

Working from an Albanesian perspective, religion, and faith by extension, in large measure, are about “how to deal with boundaries.”14 What quickly comes to mind as an example is the scene from the movie Roots: The Next Generation (1977) when LeVar Burton, playing the young Kunta Kinte, is asked his name. When the overseer asks him, “What is your name,” he replies several times, “Kunta Kinte,” and each response is met with a crack of the whip against Kunta Kinte’s backside levelled by his fellow enslaved African at the command of the overseer. However, at some point in the ferocious beating, once his back is fileted like the lattice top on a fruit pie, he realizes that it is beneficial for him to say his name is “Toby,” the name his “mistress” chose for him, in order to stop the beating.15 In today’s economy, this acquiescence shows up as assimilation/accommodation. Contrastingly, there is a tradition in African American religious life in which a definite resistance narrative emerged to secure the rights to freedom, justice, and equality for formerly enslaved Africans and their progeny. The drive for freedom, justice, and equality, undergirds every aspect of the black religious landscape—the pronouncement of the prophetic voice. Historically, it motivates the entire community. The desire to take part in the American dream marches in step with Malcolm X’s “by any means necessary,” while carrying the banner of accommodation and respectability simultaneously. The shackles of enslavement notwithstanding, the fight for freedom, justice, and equality continues under the mantra declared by Angela Davis that “freedom is a constant struggle.”16 As such, the fact that African Americans are part of the Interfaith group is consistent with the tradition of struggle. What is less compelling is the fact that the group is led and powered by mostly white clergy (2, 84).

So, what are these groups confronting? And, with whom are they struggling? Engaging the notion of “racecraft,” described as an “invisible ontology” referring to “mental terrain” and “pervasive belief,” the ideology of indoctrination takes on a magical quality through spiritual activity according to Barbara Fields and Karen Fields. Racecraft declares that “ideology and propaganda are not the same.”17 One delineation is that “ideology must be constantly created and verified in social life; if it is not, it dies, even though it may seem to be safely embodied in a form that can be handed down.”18 Ideology is the vehicle through which a certain message travels in time. It masterfully keeps its principal content intact even though the “terrain” through which it travels and the landscape against which it treads may change. And, its right to claim its place and space is unfettered. In fact, police organizations across America readily defend its right to convene; whenever and wherever it demands. This is demonstrably true in the narration of the Patriots’ rally where the “local police officers stood sentry between the rally and the streets beyond, their cars positioned as blockades around the perimeter of the designated rally area” (137).

Racecraft connotes “one among a complex system of beliefs, with combined moral and cognitive content, that presuppose invisible, spiritual qualities underlying, and continually acting upon, the material realm of beings and events.”19 Racecraft works a particular magic to conjure certain attitudes about different modes of being, which ultimately forms beliefs embedded in moral and cognitive rationalities that take on spiritual qualities. In actuality, it is merely the invisible ontology of racism holding its value of white supremacy and the white, Southern religious agenda in place post-slavery and its aftermath. As a mechanism of control, the behavior of the black body even in religious ritual, no matter the place, is bound by the code of the American civil religious cultus (53, 180).

Theological anthropology provides a means for reclaiming the Black body from “somatophobia” or fear of flesh. M. Shawn Copeland situates the phenomenon in Neoplatonism and the Apostle Paul’s warnings against the pleasures of the flesh. Her concern is with the perception of “Black Flesh” as inherently evil and by contrast, white flesh as inherently good.20 Therein lie the parameters of the ideological war that seems to permeate and navigate the differences in the two ethnographic subjects of this text (chs. 3–5). Consequently, structural barriers to equal treatment and opportunity within the economic, legal, educational, healthcare, and residential centers of American communities serve as a backdrop for the kind of nonviolent direct action that results in courageous, committed acts of taking sacred space to put into place accountability over police, slumlords, shady politicians, and to protect the vulnerable from the machinations of the gentry (66–72). Displaced families, homeless youth, dead bodies lying in the street, and failed infrastructure combine to characterize the growing pains of a country determined to return to its mythological glory days.

Ratiocinating through his public theology, Colin Kaepernick, caromed a prophetic response. To police brutality, mass incarceration, and murder-by-police, he levelled a blow. Was he free to live into this civil religious expression? Did he enjoy religious liberty? No, he drew scrutiny from the progenitors of American Civil Religion. The “civil religious discourse that infused active citizenship and American democracy itself with sacred significance” (24), found a way to stop him at its borders. What Barack Obama and Colin Kaepernick have in common as mixed-blood, black Americans concomitantly draws the line of demarcation that is most notably evident in how each invokes American Civil Religion—accommodation or resistance. The same holds true for the Patriots and the Prophets. One holds sacred the exercise of a civil religious discourse and one is held by the sacred. Only one can claim as an “accountability frame: God-given rights, tar and feathers” (137). Perhaps, that is why Bellah reversed himself (187).

  1. Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions & Religion, 5th ed. (Wadsworth, 2013), 7–9.

  2. Robert N. Bellah, Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditionalist World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991), 168.

  3. Bellah, Beyond Belief, 168.

  4. Walter White, Rope and Faggot: A Biography of Judge Lynch (University of Notre Dame Press, 2001).

  5. Vincent Harding, “Is America Possible? To My Young Companions on the Journey of Hope,” Fetzer Institute, 2007.

  6. Catherine L. Albanese.

  7. Bellah, Beyond Belief.

  8. Stuart Hall, The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation, ed. Kobena Mercer (Harvard University Press, 2017), 56.

  9. Cannon, Epistemology, 28.

  10. Pope Emeritus XVI, “Theology of Kneeling,” November 15, 2002,

  11. Barbara J. Fields and Karen E. Fields, Racecraft: The Soul of Inequality in American Life (New York: Verso, 2014), 137–38.

  12. Judith Butler, Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable? (New York: Verso, 2016), 42–43.

  13. Audre Lorde. “Need: A Chorale.”

  14. Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions & Religion, 5th ed. (Wadsworth, 2013), 10.

  15. For an illustration of how the backside of a ferociously beaten enslaved person appeared after it healed, see Orlando Patterson’s Rituals of Blood between the unlabelled pages in the text.

  16. Angela Davis, Freedom Is a Constant Struggle: Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement (Haymarket, 2016).

  17. Fields and Fields, Racecraft, 18.

  18. Fields and Fields, Racecraft, 137–38.

  19. Fields and Fields, Racecraft, 202–3.

  20. M. Shawn Copeland, Enfleshing Freedom: Body, Race, and Being (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2010), 6, 24.

  • Ruth Braunstein

    Ruth Braunstein


    Response to Smallwood: On Critical Ethnography and Civil Religion

    I am grateful for Teresa Smallwood’s challenging essay, which through the lens of a critique of the concept of “American Civil Religion” raises critical questions about how I depict the conservative and progressive activists I studied, as well as how these groups and others navigate an American political landscape scarred by white supremacy. Although Smallwood’s essay has many takeaways, I read it in part as a call to be more explicit about my approach to both the concept of civil religion and the practice of critical ethnography, as well as how these approaches may still fail to address the concerns she outlines.

    It seems important to note up front that I think it is essential for social scientists to study groups on the political right, like the local Tea Party group I call the Patriots. There are points in Smallwood’s essay where it is unclear whether she agrees with this, so I want to share my own reasons for this in the spirit of opening a conversation about this issue. First, our theoretical predictions about how social life (including social movement activism) works will be deeply flawed if we develop and test them only on research subjects who share most social scientists’ liberal/left political views.1 Second, as long as the right exerts power in political life—and the rise of Trumpism reveals the depth and danger of many of the sentiments revealed among the Patriots—it seems crucial that we understand these groups. Ethnography is certainly not the only way to achieve this understanding, but it is among the methods best suited to developing what Max Weber calls verstehen, an account of how social actors understand their own actions and social worlds. Put differently, it helps us to answer the question: How could they possibly think and/or do that? And more strategically: How might we go about changing their minds? Despite these potential virtues, however, a serious concern about this kind of research is that it runs the risk of “humaniz[ing] people or normaliz[ing] arguments that would otherwise be viewed as morally abhorrent, possibly doing harm to groups to which [researchers] have political or personal commitments,” as I have written elsewhere.2 This is a concern I share, and as such I will attempt to clarify how I sought to balance understanding with critical analysis.

    On their face empathic understanding and critical analysis may sound irreconcilable. Critique, after all, requires judgment, and judgment seems at odds with the kind of open-mindedness that is required to see the world, even temporarily, through someone else’s eyes. Moreover, ethnographers risk undermining their access and authority if they are viewed as politically motivated or interested only in a game of “gotcha” with their research subjects. And yet, it is also our responsibility as scholars to provide our readers with the necessary context—historical, sociological, ethical, etc.—to critically evaluate our research subjects.3 One way of encouraging this kind of critical reflection, while also decentering oneself as an individual source of critical judgment, is by situating the words and actions of one group of research subjects in relation to those of another group whose words and actions can contextualize and speak back to theirs. This contrastive technique, called juxtaposition, is commonly associated with visual artists, but it is also relevant to the practice of critical ethnography.4 Readers’ capacity to engage in critical analysis depends on the ethnographer providing detailed depictions of group participants as distinct individuals, recounting the actual words they said and actions they took, and not simply overlaying their own interpretations of each. In the case of Prophets and Patriots, the descriptions of the two groups are intended to enhance understanding of each group while also serving as a critical foil to the other group. Ideally, this creates space for readers to engage in critical reflection about their similarities and differences, as well as their respective claims to speak for “the people.”

    This should not suggest, however, that the researcher is somehow absent from the process of critical analysis. After all, the researcher selects the groups and “cases” them in a manner that opens up this space for critical reflection. For Prophets and Patriots, I chose to contrast the highly publicized Tea Party movement with the relatively little-known field of progressive faith-based community organizing. The faith-based community organizing field, and progressive religious activism more broadly, is seldom seen or heard from in American public life, particularly in comparison to religious conservatives and secular liberal activists.5 Yet progressive religious groups like Interfaith offer a direct response to and rebuttal of many of the Patriots’ widely heard views. Shedding light on a group like Interfaith, and juxtaposing it to the Patriots, allowed me to reveal aspects of each group that would not have been visible had I studied either group on their own. More pointedly, it allowed me to challenge the prevailing view that conservative religion is American religion, and that the right-wing’s story of America is unquestionably the right story of America. It is one thing to tell readers this; it is another to show them.

    One way in which I demonstrated this was by showing how religion played very different roles in the groups’ public activities. It was not so simple as saying that religion was present in one group and absent in the other; or that they drew on liberal or conservative theologies. Rather, what I found is that both groups deployed what Rhys Williams in this symposium calls “implicit and diffuse religion.” I ultimately settled on the concept of civil religion to help me describe what I was observing. I conceptualized civil religion less as a distinct, stable, and normative tradition—as is often conveyed by the capitalized “American Civil Religion” that Smallwood discusses—and more as a “cultural repertoire” of recognizable yet flexible stories, symbols and practices that Americans draw upon to sacralize the nation and their participation in civic life, which resemble in form and content but are not limited to Christian stories, symbols and practices.6 When we look for evidence of how this flexible civil religious repertoire is deployed in practice, we find it takes many different forms: it can be exclusionary or inclusive; particularistic or universalistic; ethno-religious/tribal or civic; priestly or prophetic.7 This body of research, to which Prophets and Patriots contributes, suggests that “American Civil Religion” does not simply exist, fully formed, independently exerting power on people; it is assembled in practice, infused with widely different meanings, and deployed by groups across the political spectrum, for better or for worse.

    What are the implications of this for American democracy? On one hand, civil religion’s observed symbolic emptiness, openness and flexibility could be interpreted as a means to what Bellah saw as civil religion’s unifying and integrative potential.8 On the other hand, because controlling the civil religious narrative is part of the stakes of these groups’ political involvements, and because each civil religious narrative shapes how groups understand themselves and others, groups with different narratives tend to view each other not only as political rivals but also more fundamentally as uncivil, undemocratic, and un-American. In this way, civil religion’s symbolic flexibility contributes to the deep polarization of American society; it becomes a wall rather than a bridge between groups. As I argue in the conclusion of the book, I am inclined to interpret this finding as evidence of the latter. But I believe it also invites readers to reflect critically on the positive moral valence typically associated with civil religious performances in American public life. Groups like Interfaith and the Patriots, and other political groups and actors (including Colin Kaepernick, to use an example from Smallwood’s essay and my own research):9 they all deploy civil religion in order to signify their Americanness, civility, morality, and sacredness, to align themselves in the eyes of the public with the side of good versus evil and sacred versus profane.10 Neither side challenges this positive moral valuation; they challenge one another’s claim to it. Ethnographically documenting this fact is not the same as endorsing both group’s claims; rather, the juxtaposition of the two groups is meant to encourage a more critical reflection on the meaning, use, and contested nature of Americanness, civility, morality, and sacredness themselves. Smallwood’s response both exemplifies this kind of critical reflection, and reveals the extent to which the book could have done more to clarify and advance this goal within its own pages. As I continue to grapple with the difficult question of how to deepen our public understanding and critical analysis of the American right, I am grateful for this engagement.

    1. On sociologists’ propensity to hold liberal political views, see Neil Gross, Why Are Professors Liberal and Why Do Conservatives Care? (2013). On the theoretical biases and blind spots that are created by ignoring right-wing movements, see Rory McVeigh, The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics (2009).

    2. Ruth Braunstein, “Beyond the Dogmatic Believer: Religious Conviction across the American Political Divide,” in Religion, Humility, and Democracy in a Divided America, ed. Ruth Braunstein, Political Power and Social Theory 36 (Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2019), 1–22.

    3. Harel Shapira, “Who Cares What They Think? Going About the Right the Wrong Way,” Contemporary Sociology 46.5 (2017) 512–17.

    4. George E. Marcus and Michael M. J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, 2nd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999).

    5. Ruth Braunstein, Todd Nicholas Fuist, and Rhys H. Williams, eds., Religion and Progressive Activism: New Stories about Faith and Politics (New York: New York University Press, 2017).

    6. Rhys H. Williams, “Constructing the Public Good: Social Movements and Cultural Resources,” Social Problems 42.1 (1995) 124–44; Rhys H. Williams, “Visions of the Good Society and the Religious Roots of American Political Culture,” Sociology of Religion 60.1 (1999) 1–34.

    7. See Edward Orozco Flores and Jennifer Elena Cossyleon, “‘I Went Through It so You Don’t Have To’: Faith-Based Community Organizing for the Formerly Incarcerated,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 55.4 (2016) 662–76; Philip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017); Jean-Pierre Reed, Rhys H. Williams, and Kathryn B. Ward, “Civil Religious Contention in Cairo, Illinois: Priestly and Prophetic Ideologies in a ‘Northern’ Civil Rights Struggle,” Theory and Society 45.1 (2016) 25–55; Rogers M. Smith, Stories of Peoplehood: The Politics and Morals of Political Membership (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Rhys H. Williams and Susan M. Alexander, “Religious Rhetoric in American Populism: Civil Religion as Movement Ideology,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 33.1 (1994) 1–15; Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

    8. Rhys H. Williams, “Race and Restructuring in Re-thinking Civil Religion,” in Religion Is Raced: Understanding American Religion in the 21st Century, ed. Grace Yukich and Penny Edgell (New York: New York University Press, 2020).

    9. Ruth Braunstein, “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Civil from Uncivil Protest in the United States: Control, Legitimacy, and Political Inequality,” Theory and Society 47.5 (2018) 603–33.

    10. Jeffrey C. Alexander, The Civil Sphere (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Rhys Williams


Democracies Under Fire

Prophets and Patriots is a comparative ethnographic analysis of two grassroots groups trying to organize citizens to foster political and social change—the “Patriots,” a TEA Party–inspired/affiliated group of activists advocating for what are currently called “conservative” public policies, and “Interfaith,” a faith-based community organization working through religious congregations on behalf of “progressive” causes and social justice outcomes. While comparative ethnographies are becoming more common (a very welcome development), these are two groups that are seldom brought together in one analysis, and seldom treated with such ethnographic sensitivity to both sides. An important contribution here is that Ruth Braunstein highlights the ways in which they are similar as well as dimensions of difference. Indeed, the title of the book itself reveals the rich complexity of the analyses—the groups clearly share a faith in democracy if that means the power and importance of getting ordinary citizens involved in politics, and yet they don’t share the same faith and they don’t always mean the same thing by “democracy.” Moreover, both groups are both “prophets” (in the Weberian sense of prophetic politics) and “patriots” (in that they are deeply committed to what they see as the best of “American” ideals), but the imaginaries they use to construct American political society have vastly different understandings of the relationships among citizens, the government, and transcendent/divine authority. If my opening sentences here have a “this, but also that,” and “that, but then again, this other” quality to them—well, that reflects the book. Prophets and Patriots gives us reasons to be optimistic about the possibilities for a functional American politics, even as it simultaneously shows us how fundamental current differences can be. Written in an engaging manner, its accessibility and timeliness should make this a book with a very wide readership indeed.

To hone in a bit on difference: beyond the obvious antagonisms between progressive and conservative policy agendas, there are other ways in which the two groups are different: one is explicitly faith-based, the other not (interestingly, it is the progressives who are explicitly religious); one is organized through existing organizations (congregations), while the other is a collection of individual members; one engages multifaceted dimensions of social change, such as holding private landlords accountable for degraded housing conditions, while the other is focused almost exclusively on pressuring elected officials on particular policies and electoral campaigning. These differences lessen some of the potential bases for comparison, although one might make an argument that these two groups are representative of the two major ways in which Americans are now politically organized outside of political parties, and hence it is useful to examine them side-by-side.

What really pulls the cases together, and provides the thematic unity that runs throughout, is the author’s conception of “active citizenship” and how both groups anchor their versions of active citizenship in “moral imaginaries” of democracy. This is key—the groups not only assess their actions in strategic and instrumental terms (“Will this be effective in achieving what we want?”), but also in moral/normative terms (“Does this comport with our ideal vision of how citizens act in a democracy?”). The imaginaries differ, and produce distinctly different “group styles” in their approaches to issues and influence. Indeed, Braunstein argues that the differences in the group styles and their attendant moral visions is more of a factor than actual policy preferences in putting the two groups at odds and keeping them from even potentially cooperating in improving governmental accountability.

This is interesting and persuasive as a deep reading of these rival activisms. Braunstein shows how a type of “civil religion” is a foundational structure beneath both groups’ current politics. At the same time, the analysis reveals distinctly different ways of imagining religion in the contemporary world and how manifestations of those different imaginaries translate into public action.

I found particularly interesting the “implicit” religion of the Patriots group, and want to focus on that a bit as I see this as indicative of wider dimensions of religion in American politics. The Patriots are officially a secular group, with no religious criteria for membership, only occasional mentions of or arguments about religion in meetings, and generally eschewing the types of issues about which religiously motivated political activism has been most engaged in the past few decades. Yet there are regular recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance—the under God words receiving particular emphasis—and the group is overwhelmingly white Christians, at least in their cultural identification.

But religion as an implicit set of cultural themes, rather than an explicit platform or organizational base, is a break from the Christian Right style of politics that has dominated the Republican Party and American conservatism since 1980. This is something many of the original TEA Party organizers in 2009 said they wanted to do—avoid polarizing moral issues and divisive rhetoric, and focus instead on matters of government spending and fiscal responsibility. For example, there is a recognition among many conservatives, and I see hints among Braunstein’s Patriot group, that the personal moral character of a politician might not be entirely correlated with how well they function as a politician and leader. Of course, there has been a certain disingenuousness around the conservative political assessment of personal morality for some time, for example, as Bill Clinton’s personal morality was suspect, but Clarence Thomas’s was not. And Ronald Reagan’s status as our first divorced president didn’t cost him much conservative loyalty, say compared to the 1964 GOP convention when the divorced Nelson Rockefeller’s vice presidential nomination was opposed by many conservatives in the crowd shouting “dirty lover” at him (it is an interesting sidenote that all of the United States’ divorced chief executives have been Republicans, and if I am not mistaken, the only major-party presidential candidates who have been divorced have all been Republicans). Maybe the failure to convict Clinton after impeachment, the failures of the highly “moral” George W. Bush administration, and then Barack Obama all severed the link between personal and political morality, even for conservatives. After all, Obama was a family man, with only one wife and two daughters, regularly photographed going to church, with seemingly few personal vices beyond cigarettes (usually hidden from public view). Conservatives were certainly apoplectic about Obama as president, but it wasn’t usually couched in matters of personal morality.

Braunstein notes other aspects of implicit religion among the Patriots, such as the “originalist” reading of the US Constitution and its parallels with inerrantist biblical literalism. Further, they have a populist assumption that the Constitution is available for commonsense, vernacular interpretation, just as most white evangelical Protestants approach the Bible. Anyone can read it, without the need for formal training in law or theology or other institutionalized credentials, and understand it just as it says so on the page. Moreover, the Patriots bring a “declension” narrative to American political history just as many Christians bring it to American religio-moral history—that is, they understand creation as having been perfect, but history since then has been a fall from grace that current activism must try to restore. The relative absence of any religio-moral language in the Constitution doesn’t seem to be too much of a problem (perhaps their formal secular identity helps align their identities there), and their originalism doesn’t seem to get in the way of their use of the 1954 revision of the Pledge of Allegiance, the one that added the words “under God” to it.

Finally, I was struck by how many of the Patriots seemed to use a version of a “conversion narrative” when describing their own personal political involvement—i.e., “they were blind but now they see.” Political awareness came to them not as a process, but as an epiphonal moment of realization that they had to get involved. But even this was curious to me—Linda, the chief organizer of the Patriot group, described herself as not really involved in politics or public affairs before she “woke up”; but then we find out she was elected to the school board prior to this awakening! How does she define “politics” if school board elections don’t seem to count? Even if schools are not supposed to be “political” surely they involve “public affairs”? In any case, the varied uses of the word “political” and their varied moral colorings, is fascinating.

In this revealing of various aspects of implicit or diffused religion, I wonder if Prophets and Patriots has an intriguing handle on the ways in which religion will be increasingly manifest in current politics. A decided trend in current American religion is the growth of religious “nones” (those who answer “none” when asked for their religious affiliation). If we take current surveys from the Pew Research Group seriously, there are about as many “nones” as there are white evangelical Protestants (and more than mainline Protestants). The overwhelming majority of nones are not atheists, or even agnostics. They regularly report various types of spirituality, or non-conventional or hybrid religious identities and practices that they do not want to label with an existing category. What they are distancing themselves from is institutionalized religious authority.

Further, a number of studies have offered some persuasive evidence that the tight entwining of religion with politics, and a particular socio-moral conservatism in the George W. Bush administration, alienated significant numbers of young people from established religious identities. That politics can “pollute” the spiritual purity of religion is an old theme in American culture—just as is the idea that politics needs religious voices to reform it and create a moral society is deeply embedded. But a number of studies show that “social conservatism”—that is, conservative positions on cultural issues such as abortion, pornography, and same-sex marriage—is becoming less tightly connected to economic and political conservatism, particularly among young people. A good example is the increasing acceptance of same-sex marriage, even among many religious young people who are conservative on many theological, economic, and racial issues.

All this is to say that perhaps implicit religion, or a diffused spirituality that allows for those with confessional religious commitments to “fill in” their own religiosity but also allows room for those more vaguely religious or spiritual to participate as long as they don’t feel excluded, pressured, or hemmed in, is ascendant. This is, in fact, one of the ways in which Robert Bellah first imagined “civil religion” working—giving a sacral quality to the nation without an exclusionary religious identity or organizational commitment defining our collective moral self too narrowly. While Bellah and his legacy find this hopeful when connected to a prophetic politics, it does seem like this has also been part of Donald Trump’s appeal to staunchly religious evangelical conservatives even as he is able not to alienate the less religious in his base. The white evangelical Protestant support can be unwaveringly loyal because Trump gives them anti-abortion judges, reinforces their racialized resentments, and they can separate his personal moral failings from his policies that do “God’s work.” At the same time, tax-cutting secular conservatives can support him because any moral agenda his administration has doesn’t touch them directly. Braunstein’s analysis of the Patriots’ implicit religiosity seems a bit prescient in that way.

And yet. Despite this praise and my thoughts on this form of religiosity, there is a way in which, despite its currency, Prophets and Patriots almost seems a little dated—overtaken by the locomotive of current events in American politics. When Braunstein was in the field, the TEA Party was the story in American political life. I organized a session on the “new” social conservative politics for the 2011 ASA meetings and the room was at audience capacity and very engaged. The presenters were just reporting on new research. But in the age of Trump, who now thinks about the TEA Party? My students have to have it explained to them. As the cutting edge of angry reactionary politics, it lasted only a half-dozen years before being swamped by the MAGA wave of nativist, openly racist, anti-“elite” outrage. Concern with budget deficits and the national debt has disappeared in the public GOP. Government overreach has receded in front of the bulldozers (literal and figurative) trying to “build a wall” across our southern border. Even constitutional “originalism” has become a transparent fig leaf as Trump-appointed Supreme Court justices give the conservative majority the power to make decisions without even the need to offer any kind of guiding theoretical orientation.

But of course, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Could Donald Trump have been elected in 2016 if not for TEA Party activism from 2009 on? Could Trump have dialed up the resentment and outrage without the TEA Party’s articulations about who are the “deserving” in society, of who are the “makers” and who are the “takers,” and of who the activists think are the “real Americans” (a phrase often associated with 2008 vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin—another supposed “low point” in the dumbing down of American politics who has been largely eclipsed now) that should be represented by the political process?

For example, while Braunstein clearly recognizes the role that race plays in the Patriots’ understanding of the “good citizen” and in their animus at President Obama, race and racialization are not as central a role in her analysis as they will have to be in any analysis of MAGA and Trump. The Patriots’ “other” in their political universe is articulated fairly explicitly—corrupt career politicians. Donald Trump referenced “draining the swamp” sometimes, and more recently is trying to gin up outrage over “corruption” by Joseph Biden and other leading Democrats; but that isn’t his bread and butter. Trump rallies his base against uppity women, ungrateful Blacks, and dangerous Mexicans. He goes for the personal, the ad hominem, but crucially, the embodied representative of the “other,” often without subtlety. He doesn’t use the “dog-whistle” racialized politics that elected Republicans from Nixon to Bush; he calls it right out. And the base has responded with a fervent loyalty that scares the hell out of many Americans.

What I am saying is that the visions of America—and the idealized “American” and “good citizen”—that Braunstein’s analysis unpacks are not purely abstract; they are not some completely non-embodied universal “citizen.” They have racialized and gendered histories and implications, and those are becoming more, rather than less, explicit—even if overt religious identities (except for Muslims) are moving in the other direction. How now to think about the conservative politics of the TEA Party?

I am not chastising Ruth Braunstein for not writing the book I wish she had written. Quite the contrary—I wish I had written Prophets and Patriots. It is theoretically and empirically sophisticated and offers new insights with each reading. I have used it successfully with both undergraduate and graduate classes. I was a participant in an “author-meets-critics” session on the book at a professional conference that was one of the best collective discussions of religion, politics, and democracy I have ever been in. I am asking instead—“What now?” How do we make sense of a “shared faith in democracy” when there is an administration in office that regularly seems quite hostile to democracy at all, or at best equates “democracy” with Nielsen rating numbers? Can we move forward with our analysis while preserving any of the optimism that Braunstein presents in this fine book? The work—like the democratic project itself—has never been timelier.

  • Ruth Braunstein

    Ruth Braunstein


    Studying Public Religion amid “the Locomotive of Current Events”

    I am very grateful for Rhys Williams’s careful reading of and praise for Prophets and Patriots, not least because his work has had such a meaningful influence on how I understand the place of religion and culture in American politics. I am also appreciative of his incisive summary of one of the book’s central arguments—that participants in Tea Party groups and progressive faith-based community organizing coalitions share a faith in “democracy” even as they disagree fundamentally about how democracy works; and that they all imagine themselves as both prophets speaking truth to power and patriots defending American ideals, even as they differ profoundly in their understanding of both power and those ideals. As Williams puts it, the analysis involves a lot of “this, but also that”—the groups are different, but they are also similar; there is reason for pessimism about the deep divides between these groups’ visions of democracy, but perhaps also optimism about the democratic potential of agonistic politics when groups like these bring their respective visions into public view. I am gratified that he views this complexity as a strength of the book.

    Here I wish to focus on Williams’s comments about the place of “implicit or diffused religion” within American political life, particularly on (but not limited to) the political right. He points to my observation that even without an explicit religious identity or organizational base the Patriots’ group culture was nonetheless organized around civil religious stories, symbols, and practices, like their “declension” narrative of the nation’s fall away from its foundational Judeo-Christian values or their “literalist” approach to reading the US Constitution. He notes that “religion as an implicit set of cultural themes rather than an explicit platform or organizational base is a break from the Christian Right style of politics that has dominated the Republican Party and American conservatism since 1980,” and wonders if this form of religion will become more dominant within American political life, particularly as the rise of religious “nones” reveals many Americans’ growing distance from “institutionalized religious authority.” I am appreciative that he describes my analysis of the role that implicit religion played in the life of the Patriots as “prescient,” because I often felt I was trying to describe a phenomenon for which I did not have a stable language. Yet more recent research, my own and many others’, has helped to further clarify some of the patterns I observed, particularly the fact that despite significant differences in personal religiosity, many on the political right today share a desire to protect and preserve white Christianity’s privileged position in American public life and in defining the boundaries of American citizenship.1 I am pleased to see that Prophets and Patriots is viewed as part of this move toward studying religion’s often-“implicit and diffused” public manifestations on the right.

    At the same time, Williams is not wrong to note that despite its efforts to identify some of these trends, “Prophets and Patriots almost seems a little dated—overtaken by the locomotive of current events in American politics.” I appreciate the locomotive metaphor, in part because it aligns with a certain view of the sociological study of social movements. Studying social movements in real-time is difficult because they are constantly moving; but like trains, aspects of them do tend to move along predictable tracks. As such, we take pains to map where movements come from, sometimes well into the historical past, who has gotten on and off at different stops, and what kinds of baggage they are carrying, in the spirit of predicting where they may head next. In my early discussions of the implications of my research for the future of American politics, I felt like I was able to—carefully, humbly—chart the potential routes that these movements may take. And then, in 2016, American politics as we knew it went off the rails. Or so it seemed. But hindsight brings clarity about the extent to which Trumpism represents a break from or a continuation of the kind of politics pursued by groups like the Patriots (and, I would add, how much the Trump Resistance movement draws on Interfaith’s vision of politics). Williams’s take on this: “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.” And I agree. The Tea Party movement was originally critical of Trump.2 Yet it is difficult to imagine that Trump would have appealed to so many Americans if not for the cultural groundwork laid by Tea Party movement.

    Williams points, for example, to my discussion of how the Tea Party promoted racialized moral distinctions between the deserving and the undeserving; makers and takers; and “real” Americans and outsiders—distinctions that were then available in the public discourse for Trump to sharpen and weaponize. I would add that the Tea Party also gave voice to widespread disillusionment, anger, and resentment of the political establishment—sentiments that ultimately spilled beyond the confines of the Tea Party, became untethered from the movement’s conservative principles, and could no longer be channeled by the movement’s leaders.3 It was not a fait accompli that Trump would succeed in mobilizing this “unmobilized sentiment pool”; but it is hard to imagine Trump succeeding if these sentiments had not already been stoked.4 Related to this but less recognized is the way in which groups like the Patriots also laid the groundwork for the post-truth world in which Trumpism has thrived. As I discuss further in my response to Snarr, the Patriots emphasized populist knowledge practices that were intended to inculcate in participants a healthy skepticism of elite claims and the tools to independently verify or challenge those claims. Participants endeavored to detect media bias, to read original sources rather than rely on elite interpretations, and to become expert enough on policy issues to push back on elected officials’ claims. But healthy skepticism can easily slide into unhealthy suspicion, especially when politicians like Trump and media organizations like Fox News intentionally work to undermine trust in anyone but them.5 Left without any stable sense of reality, these individuals were likely much more susceptible to the disinformation and conspiracy theories that have fueled Trump’s rise and prevented many of his Tea Party supporters from holding him accountable to the Constitution they claimed to revere.

    Had I written Prophets and Patriots after Trump’s unlikely rise rather than right before it, there are things I would surely have presented differently. Among other things, I would have taken greater pains to connect the dots between the Patriots and Trumpism, and between Interfaith and the Trump Resistance (which I have ultimately sought to do in a series of follow up articles).6 But Williams’s essay makes me hopeful that even in the absence of this clearer roadmap the book reveals several aspects of the conservative movement’s culture that enabled Trump’s rise, and in the story of progressive faith-based community organizing, one source of a potential antidote.

    1. Select examples include Jack Delehanty, Penny Edgell, and Evan Stewart, “Christian America? Secularized Evangelical Discourse and the Boundaries of National Belonging,” Social Forces 97.3 (2018) 1283–306, and Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). I also further developed these ideas in “Muslims as Outsiders, Enemies, and Others: The 2016 Presidential Election and the Politics of Religious Exclusion,” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 5.3 (2017) 355–72; and “Is the Tea Party a ‘Religious’ Movement? Religiosity in the Tea Party versus the Religious Right,” with Malaena Taylor, Sociology of Religion 78.1 (2017) 33–59. This approach also builds on work by Paul Lichterman, “Studying Public Religion: Beyond the Beliefs-Driven Actor,” in Religion on the Edge: De-Centering and Re-Centering the Sociology of Religion, ed. Courtney Bender, Wendy Cadge, Peggy Levitt, and David Smilde (Oxford University Press, 2012); and Rhys H. Williams, “Civil Religion and the Cultural Politics of National Identity in Obama’s America,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 52.2 (2013) 239–57.

    2. Ruth Braunstein, “Mitt Romney & the Tea Party Helped Make Donald Trump . . . Can They Unmake Him?,” Political Power & Social Theory: The Blogpages (2016).

    3. Braunstein, “Mitt Romney.”

    4. David A. Snow, E. Burke Rochford, Steven K. Worden, and Robert D. Benford, “Frame Alignment Processes, Micromobilization, and Movement Participation,” American Sociological Review 51.4 (1986) 464–81.

    5. Alan Wolfe, The Politics of Petulance: America in an Age of Immaturity (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

    6. Ruth Braunstein, “Muslims as Outsiders, Enemies, and Others: The 2016 Presidential Election and the Politics of Religious Exclusion,” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 5.3 (2017) 355–72; Ruth Braunstein and Malaena Taylor, “Is the Tea Party a ‘Religious’ Movement? Religiosity in the Tea Party versus the Religious Right,” Sociology of Religion 78.1 (2017) 33–59. Ruth Braunstein, “A (More) Perfect Union? Religion, Politics, and Competing Stories of America,” Sociology of Religion 79.2 (2018) 172–95.

Penny Edgell


Faith in Democracy—but What Kind?

After a police officer shoots and kills a young, unarmed black man, a local group comprised largely of pastors and members of local congregations holds a rally in a Midwestern city, where local and state government officials show up to demonstrate unity and promote healing. After several members of the racially and religiously diverse rally-goers tell stories about how their faith journeys make them care about social justice and racial equality, the mayor, along with several candidates running for municipal and state offices in the coming election, are asked to tell the crowd why they care about justice—and what they plan to do about ending the use of excessive force by police in African American communities. The weekend before, in the midsize ballroom of a suburban hotel outside the same city, members of the local Tea Party chapter turned out in force for a “meet-and-greet” with a candidate running for the Republican nomination in the governor’s race. The candidate spoke about people who had “worked hard and played by the rules” but who had fallen further and further behind. In the question-and-answer that followed his prepared remarks, the assembled Tea Partiers pushed him harder, asking about how he would solve specific problems affecting them and their families, problems they outlined in moving stories of job loss and insurance-related bankruptcy which contribute to a pervasive sense of fear about economic tenuousness and imminent decline. These events occurred in my own community, but they are similar to the ones that Ruth Braunstein describes in her excellent book Prophets and Patriots and to similar events occurring in many towns and cities across the nation.

Most commentators, pundits, and scholars have focused on the differences between the people who organize and attend rallies for racial justice and those who show up to Tea Party events. But Braunstein helps us to understand what the latest waves of activism on both the political left and the political right have in common. And she is candid about what she has in common with those she studies, as well. First, while the book is careful, scholarly, thorough, and objective, it also has a similar sense of urgency and serious stakes, just like the progressive and conservative members of the grassroots movements themselves. Braunstein offers the book partly to persuade the reader of the urgent need to understand common values and morals – something that sociologists call “solidarity,” which means the capacity to see ourselves as sharing both an identity and a single fate, as being part of a meaningful “we” instead of an “us” and a “them.”

So what do progressives rooted in a tradition of community organizing and committed to racial and economic justice have in common with the Tea Party constituency? Braunstein argues there are two fundamental similarities. First, each set of activists, along with their rank-and-file supporters, has a moral vision of “the good society” that may not be expressed in religious language but which is rooted in historic faith traditions. Tea Party leadership adopted a secular name to make it easier to make common cause with others who share similar political views but who may not identify with a particular religious group. Progressive action networks, too, have recently embraced secular terminology, adopting the label “community-based organizing” and moving away from earlier references to “faith-based organizing,” in order to signal that they are willing to partner with other local community organizations besides the religious congregations that still provide the bulk of local membership, leadership, and resources. But both groups draw heavily on leaders and members who see their political action as an expression of their personal identities, including their religious commitments.

Second, each also has a different kind of faith—a faith in democracy itself. Activist groups and networks are comprised of individuals who band together to change the system because they believe that politicians can be held accountable to the people who elect them, and that ordinary citizens can work together to effect political change and policy change. The disaffected and discouraged do not go to rallies and ask tough questions designed to hold officials accountable; they do not endorse candidates for office, strategize to get legislation passed, or work to get out the vote. Believers do these things. One of the major objectives of this book is to persuade those on each side that those on the other side are not just motivated by economic or racial interests, but also by moral commitments and faith-based identities that have implications for understanding what democracy actually means—what it’s like, how it functions, and what it implies about the proper relationship between citizen and citizen, and citizen and the state. Braunstein wants to make us understand that when the Tea Party mobilizes it is not just around taxes, and when a group like ISAIAH, a community-based progressive action network in Minnesota, holds a rally about racial justice it’s not just about racial justice. Both sides have different moral visions of democracy itself.

The Tea Party has become an effective and substantial force in conservative American politics. In 2010 it helped the Republican Party win the House and make gains in the Senate, but it has also pushed the party as a whole to the right through its support of right-wing challengers to centrist Republican representatives at all levels of government. While the Tea Party is not itself a religious coalition, its support is most fervent among white suburban males and white evangelical Christians,1 and it is useful to think about the continuities between the Tea Party mobilization and earlier waves of “religious right” mobilization dating back to the 1980s.

The burgeoning grassroots political mobilization on the left is not as well-known as the Tea Party, in large part because it takes place in and through community organizing networks like PICO and Gamaliel, each comprised of local chapters that have their own names and that focus on local and regional issues. But local and state candidates for public office, especially progressive ones, actively seek the endorsement of these community action organizations, and each local chapter has stories of success in shaping local and state-level policies and the distribution of public resources in ways that improve lives in poor and marginalized communities.

While each group is working to reinvigorate democratic institutions and each one fosters political and civic participation, their vision of the good society varies markedly. What the Tea Party and other rightist activists believe in, Braunstein argues, is the power of individuals to band together and hold government accountable for furthering their individual interests. Progressive activists, on the other hand, believe that democracy is about fostering the capacity to bridge differences and build a collective identity, partnering with government officials to promote policies that benefit that collective.

Understanding the moral democratic imaginary that motivates each side sheds light on how each movement mobilizes its followers, the strategies it pursues, and the ultimate stakes in the cultural conflict in which they are both engaged. This is not a culture war between elites with different understandings of authority and the truth.2 Rather, it is mobilization and counter-mobilization of groups that have different visions of individual moral virtue, the obligations of citizenship, and the relationship between the citizen and the state. The vision of the Tea Party is of individuals who are fundamentally equal before the state, in a society where the rules work the same way for everyone—or are supposed to. If they are not prospering even though they “work hard and play by the rules,” it is because the government is not doing its job, and because it is making special rules for others or giving them extra resources because of they are members of a minority group. This is unfair and—in an era of sharply increasing economic instability and scarcity—untenable.

The moral vision fostered within progressive activist networks is one of individuals who come together across racial and religious lines to face the state together, lobbying for policies that address historic inequities. What is unfair is government-created scarcity and pitting people against one another. What is unfair is refusing to acknowledge historic disadvantage rooted in race, gender, religion, and sexuality. If the Tea Party representatives want, in a fundamental sense, to “go back” to everyone treated fairly, the progressive activists argue that people were never treated fairly to begin with. If the Tea Party member wants to join with others to protect individual rights and then go home and not have to worry about being part of something larger, the progressive activist wants to join together to meet individual needs and forge a sense of all of us being “in it together.”3

Braunstein is a fine writer and the book is based on thorough ethnographic research. The reader gets a sense of what it means to be an insider in one of these movements, and she treats both sides fairly in the sense of taking them on their own terms and recognizing the moral commitments at the heart of both movements. She raises important questions and makes a moving argument that we need to pay more attention to how our political movements frame the importance of individual rights and collective identities, and how they foster understandings of the state as either a facilitator of democratic flourishing or an encumbrance that inhibits democratic liberties.

Good books raise as many questions as they answer and provoke thoughts about related questions beyond the scope of the books themselves. So it is not a criticism, but rather a compliment, to say that this book left me thinking about two questions, the answers to which are not provided in its pages. First, the book does not really delve into the fascinating question of why people interpret their religious faith so differently, and how very similar religious beliefs lead people to have faith in two very different visions of what America is like and how the social contract between citizens and the state should work. One suspects that part of the answer has to do with race, as community-based organizing networks are broadly successful in recruiting a broad and multiracial coalition. Churches in communities of color may draw on justice-oriented theologies to interpret the Christian mandate to help and care for one another very differently than do Tea Party supporters whose Christian faith is fostered in largely White Protestant suburban churches. Why and how do different interpretations of the Christian faith become linked to different understandings of democracy and American identity, and what does this have to do with the racial and economic interests that are intertwined with religious commitments for members of both groups?

Put differently, while I believe that different moral imaginaries motivate the activism of the Tea Party and progressive action networks, I also believe that there is some relationship between moral imaginary and interests rooted in race and economics. The Tea Party’s rhetoric of small government, its members’ preferences for lower taxes and their impatience with redistributive policies are all rooted in both evangelical piety—but also in white privilege. Moral vision and self-interest are a both-and in this movement, not an either-or. One need not conclude that Tea Party members are cynical to see that their fervor is rooted in lost privilege and that their insistence that everyone is equal before the state ignores centuries of structural inequality. Likewise, the progressive activists are drawn from groups that benefit from a recognition of structural inequality—but that does not mean they are cynical about a moral vision that says that the role of government is to facilitate justice and foster a sense of collective moral obligation that crosses historically rooted social differences. To be clear, Prophets and Patriots does not fall into the trap of treating interests and morals as somehow opposed, and Braunstein recognizes the congruence of interest and moral vision on both sides. But she does not dwell over-much on which interests are furthered by both movements, how demographics matter in shaping movement support, or where the interpretive work happens that links religious faith to a democratic moral imaginary.

Second, this book made me think about a different question, one that is a bit more abstract. At the core, both of these groups are individualistic. They both rely on linking people’s personal stories to a particular political vision and mobilizing individuals to engage in direct political action. But the basis for that banding together in common cause is different in each group. In the Tea Party, individuals are encouraged to see what they have in common with other individuals, in the sense of seeing how the actions of the state place them in a similar economic or political predicament. That is, it encourages what Emile Durkheim, a classical French theorist and founder of modern sociology, calls mechanical solidarity, or solidarity based on similar backgrounds and experiences and customs and values.4 In contrast, progressive activists are trying to foster what Durkheim called organic solidarity, or a recognition that we need one another because we are different. The division of the labor necessary to make society work depends on people having different experiences and backgrounds and customs and values.

So for me, this book also raised questions about the future, and about which form of solidarity holds the most promise to heal our divisions and to promote a sense of us all being in it together—being a “we.” Can one honor both the moral vision of the Tea Party and the moral vision of progressive community-based activists—but still take sides about which vision holds the most promise for a stable democratic future? Can a person believe that the Tea Party has a legitimate and historically rooted understanding of the origins of democracy, while also believing that the progressive vision of democracy has more promise for the future of a diverse society? Or could someone believe that the moral vision promoted by progressives is poised to undermine what little mechanical solidarity is left, and thus undermine our capacity to care about whether we move forward together or not? Given her objective in writing this particular book, it would not, perhaps, have been right for Braunstein to take a stand favoring one vision or another. But as citizens, we should perhaps not treat such academic objectivity as a personal virtue.

What Prophets and Patriots does do is to help the reader to understand both progressive and conservative activists as moral citizens engaged in the important work of building democratic institutions, holding political representatives accountable, and striving to reform a political system that all sides see as at best out of touch and at worst, corrupt. Braunstein helps us to understand that the activists that we agree with and the ones who drive us crazy are people of faith. Ultimately, the book is asking us to also have faith in our capacity to make the political system better, more responsive, and more fair. We may get tired of the partisan nature of political expression in the United States today, and there may be very hard questions left to answer about how we reconcile our different moral imaginaries and visions of the good society. But in all visions, our democracy depends upon involved citizens believing that there is a point to being involved, that things can change, and that the democratic process is valuable. Reminding us that these things are true across the political spectrum is a real contribution.

  1. See “The Tea Party and Religion” post on the Pew Forum, dated February 23, 2011,

  2. James Davidson Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America (New York: Basic Books, 1991).

  3. See Jack Delehanty and Michelle Oyakaya, “Building a Collective Moral Imaginary: Personalist Culture and Social Performance in Faith-Based Community Organizing,” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 6.2 (2018) 266–95.

  4. Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor in Society, ed. Steven Lukes (New York: Free Press, 2014).

  • Ruth Braunstein

    Ruth Braunstein


    Can Faith in Democracy Survive 2020?

    Close observers of the current political moment would be forgiven for questioning their faith in American democracy. So I sincerely appreciate Penny Edgell’s reminder that Prophets and Patriots provides us with a different lens through which to view the country today—one that has the potential to restore some of this faith. As the book argues, Americans hold deeply divergent, perhaps even irreconcilable, visions of American history, citizenship and democracy, and as I will discuss further below, one of the major differences between these visions is whether they recognize systemic racism. And yet, by dedicating their time, their money, and even their bodies to fight for their respective democratic vision, active citizens who disagree about much else express a shared faith in the worthiness of the American democratic project. Surely, the book asks readers to consider, widespread apathy or fear of speaking out would be worse than the deeply contentious climate in which we currently find ourselves.

    Through this lens, we should not despair at the deeply unjust realities that Black Lives Matter protests have forced Americans to face; rather, the persistence of these protesters in the face of draconian efforts to silence them should fuel our faith in democracy. The tireless efforts by protesters—these are themselves acts of faith. Faith that people will listen; faith that people and systems can change; faith in a country that lives up to its stated values. But here’s the tough part, at least for me. It is easy for me to see the Black Lives Matter movement through this hopeful lens, because I share its vision of America. But what about the rightwing #Reopen movement, or those who are defending Confederate monuments, or the Tea Party movement before them, groups I oppose and am deeply unsettled by? Prophets and Patriots asks readers to consider that these groups are also engaging in acts of faith when they articulate their grievances and ideals in public. They, too, are taking risks—and not just that they might be silenced or harmed; in bringing their views out of back rooms and dining rooms and chatrooms and into public view, they risk making their case to the American people and losing.

    As this political contest plays out in the streets, in newsrooms, and in classrooms (more on this in my response to Winchester), the role of race—and more specifically, racism—in Americans’ rival democratic imaginaries has come even more clearly into focus. Foregrounding such clashes, concerns about race and racism run through Prophets and Patriots, and Edgell points to the book’s efforts to “recognize the congruence of [racial and class] interest and moral vision on both sides.” Indeed, Prophets and Patriots shows that Tea Party participants’ racial identities, interests and ideologies were subtly woven into their group’s vision of American history, citizenship, and religious pluralism; as well as their group culture and practices. For example, I argue that the Patriots’ version of American history was told from the perspective of white middle class Christians who had historically been at society’s symbolic, social and power center, and were mourning their “status devaluation” in the wake of rising demographic and religious diversity.1 This particular perspective comes into even clearer focus when we contrast the Patriots’ version of American history to the version I heard within the progressive and socially diverse group, Interfaith. Interfaith’s members approached American history from the perspective of racial and religious groups who were once marginalized or excluded from American life, but have gradually fought for both formal and substantive citizenship.2 These narratives reveal the groups’ complex visions of who “we” are—both literally, in the sense of who participates in each movement; and symbolically, in the sense of who counts as part of the American people—as well as who they view as threatening others. Perhaps the clearest example of the latter is found the Patriots’ unexpected openness to most religious (and even some nonreligious) groups, except Muslims, which they framed as religio-racial outsiders, others, and enemies, who unlike previous generations of immigrants refuse to assimilate into “American” (meaning a white Judeo-Christian-centered) culture.3 Meanwhile, Interfaith devoted itself to creating a coalition that was as racially, religiously and economically diverse as the community they sought to represent, although like many progressive groups their inclusive spirit was challenged by potential partners they viewed as religiously or racially exclusionary, like white evangelicals.

    In my efforts to show how the groups’ understandings of race were interwoven with their understandings of religion, class, and citizenship, I attempted what would now be called a “complex religion” approach.4 And yet Edgell is right to point out that the book “does not dwell over-much on which [racial] interests are furthered by both movements.” I attribute this primarily to two factors. First, in the time since the book was published, I have developed a sharper conceptual toolkit for talking about the relationship between race, racism and American public religion. This is thanks in large part to the work of colleagues like Edgell, and many others, who have called for greater attention to the inextricability of race and religion in the context of American politics.5 The second reason is that the current manifestations of the movements I studied have themselves grown more explicit in how they talk about race, racism, and the relationship of each to religion. In his essay, Williams discusses the Patriots’ “implicit and diffuse” religion, and one could use the same language to describe their brand of colorblind racism.6 In the years since the Tea Party movement gave way to Trumpism, however, groups on the political right have grown significantly more explicit and targeted in their promotion of white Christian privilege, anti-Black and other forms of racism, and Islamophobia—views that are now widely described as elements of white Christian nationalism and white supremacy.7 Meanwhile, many faith-based community organizing groups like Interfaith have in recent years worked to shift their movement culture from a “diversity and inclusion” lens to a more explicit “anti-racist” lens, through new training practices, new leadership, and in some cases, the reorganization of entire coalitions. This shift was just beginning in Interfaith while I was in the field, but other colleagues have documented these efforts and demonstrated how coalitions have transformed as a result.8 This work has aligned parts of the faith-based organizing field much more closely with the work of racial justice movements like Black Lives Matter.

    There are many reasons why we should be troubled that Americans have grown more comfortable expressing explicitly racist sentiments in the age of Trump. But there is one silver lining—it has brought these sentiments into public view. Indeed, there are political risks to pushing racism below the surface, among them the fact that it allows Americans across the political spectrum to believe that racism is gone, and makes it nearly impossible for anti-racist movements to convince them otherwise. So even if one has deep concerns about Trumpists’ vision of America, the fact that they are articulating it out loud and in public makes it possible for movements like Black Lives Matter to directly contest them. If the large mobilization around racial justice issues this year is any indication, the more explicitly racist the right has become, the more widely accepted the anti-racist vision of America has become. And this gives me faith in democracy.

    1. Rory McVeigh, The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009).

    2. Evelyn Nakano Glenn, Unequal Freedom: How Race and Gender Shaped American Citizenship and Labor (Harvard University Press, 2002).

    3. See also Ruth Braunstein, “Muslims as Outsiders, Enemies, and Others: The 2016 Presidential Election and the Politics of Religious Exclusion,” American Journal of Cultural Sociology 5.3 (2017) 355–72.

    4. Melissa Wilde and Lindsay Glassman, “How Complex Religion Can Improve Our Understanding of American Politics,” Annual Review of Sociology 42.1 (2016) 407–25.

    5. Penny Edgell, “An Agenda for Research on American Religion in Light of the 2016 Election,” Sociology of Religion 78.1 (2017) 1–8; Grace Yukich and Penny Edgell, eds., Religion Is Raced: Understanding American Religion in the Twenty-First Century (New York: New York University Press, 2020).

    6. Malaena J. Taylor and Mary Bernstein. “Denial, Deflection, and Distraction: Neutralizing Charges of Racism by the Tea Party Movement,” Mobilization: An International Quarterly 24.2 (2019) 137–56; Meghan A. Burke, Race, Gender, and Class in the Tea Party: What the Movement Reflects about Mainstream Ideologies (Lanham: Lexington, 2015).

    7. Rory McVeigh and Kevin Estep, The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan, and the Mainstreaming of Resentment (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019); Andrew L. Whitehead and Samuel L. Perry, Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).

    8. Richard L. Wood and Brad R. Fulton, A Shared Future: Faith-Based Organizing for Racial Equity and Ethical Democracy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015); John D. Delehanty, “Prophets of Resistance: Social Justice Activists Contesting Comfortable Church Culture,” Sociology of Religion 77.1 (2016) 37–58; Jack Delehanty, “The Emotional Management of Progressive Religious Mobilization,” Sociology of Religion 79.2 (2018) 248–72.

Daniel Winchester


Imagining American Democracy Together

Since the publication of Ruth Braunstein’s Prophets and Patriots, I’ve had the opportunity—and pleasure—to use it as a required text in an undergraduate sociology course I teach at Purdue University, entitled “Religion in America.” The purpose of the course is to give students an introduction to a sociological perspective on religion by focusing on the vibrant and complicated religious landscape of the United States.

We cover a number of topics in the class, but one of the most central subjects is the fraught intersection of American religion and political life. Religion, I want my students to understand, is deeply intertwined with American political culture, shaping everything from who people voted for in the last presidential election to some of our most fundamental understandings of the meaning of democracy and what it is to “be American.” As I say—no, preach—to my students throughout this part of the course: “You can’t really understand politics in the United States without understanding religion, and you can’t really understand religion in the United States without understanding politics.”

Preach as I might, nothing I say gets this point across nearly as well as Braunstein’s book. Through a deeply engaging comparative ethnography of a local branch of the conservative Tea Party Movement (aka, “the Patriots”) and a politically progressive faith-based organizing coalition called Interfaith (aka, “the Prophets”), Braunstein’s work demonstrates how the ever-salient and potent combination of American religion and politics finds concrete expression in the practices, ideals, and commitments of two groups of active citizens. And when my students and I read Braunstein’s compelling account of what animates these two communities of political actors, it gets us thinking . . . and talking . . . and debating . . . and asking a number of questions about what it really means to have faith in and be a part of the grand, American democratic project.

In the spirit of these essays being, above all, conversation starters, I want to bring the substance of some of these discussions out of the classroom and into the open,1 demonstrating what Braunstein’s work has provoked in the minds of one group of young citizens (and their not-quite-as-young professor). Of particular interest to me is how the book has led my students to reflect on their own ideas and assumptions about what Braunstein calls the “democratic imaginary,” as well as some poignant moments of ambivalence that have come out of these reflections.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Prophets and Patriots is how well it highlights the centrality of culture—and religious culture, in particular—to political perception, identity, and action. Of central importance to Braunstein’s analysis is what she, creatively extending Charles Taylor’s concept of the “social imaginary,”2 terms each group’s “democratic imaginary.” Democratic imaginaries, as Braunstein conceptualizes them, are not mere fantasies or figments of the individual imagination. Instead, they refer to entire groups’ background understandings of how a democratic society should work and the role of ordinary citizens within it. Democratic imaginaries are idealized visions of political community that structure groups’ senses of who they are as citizens and political actors, what is at stake in their respective struggles, and what kinds of civic action are legitimate, necessary, out-of-bounds, or even unthinkable. These imaginaries are not made out of whole cloth, Braunstein shows, but put together from a combination of two other important cultural elements: (1) religiously-inflected narratives about the past, present, and future of the American democratic project and (2) the social relationships citizens imagine exist between government, citizens, and God. Beyond the standard political divisions of left vs. right, Braunstein shows how both differences and similarities in the political ideals, actions, and organization of the Prophets and Patriots can be explained via unearthing these elements of their respective democratic imaginaries.

The notion that democracy and political action in the United States are deeply influenced by these different visions of what American democracy fundamentally is profoundly resonated with my students. Braunstein’s erudite analysis of these groups’ imaginaries brought home to them how deeply American religion and democracy are intertwined, and not only because she pays such careful analytic attention to the explicitly religious themes the groups use to interpret their roles in democratic politics—e.g., as patriotic missionaries of democracy or prophetic people of faith. It is also because Prophets and Patriots gives its readers a vivid sense that the idea and pursuit of American democracy is itself a matter of deep faith and conviction. As one of my students astutely put it in her written review of the book:

[EXT]When we think about “American democracy,” it’s easy to go back to our high school civics classes and just think about it in terms of the three branches of government, how a bill is made, the popular vote and the electoral college, and so forth. But Prophets and Patriots shows that American democracy is much more than that. It is also about citizens’ hopes and dreams and ideas about what democracy should be. . . . Like the title of the book points out, democracy is a matter of faith no matter which side of the political spectrum you’re on.[/EXT]

Braunstein’s focus on these faith-imbued imaginaries encouraged my students (and me) to reflect on their own background understandings about democracy and citizenship—the ideal visions they hold and the narratives that orient them in political space—and think about from where those understandings might originate and what consequences they might entail. It also helped them recognize that some of the political disagreements they had with others were often the result of meanings that ran much deeper than the particular issue at hand. That debates about taxes, for example, were not just about fiscal policy, but about underlying visions and divisions regarding the ideal, even sacred, relationships existing among citizens, their governments, and their gods. As another student reflected in a written assignment:

I have to admit that I assumed that people who didn’t value individual liberty as much as I did were somehow less American or un-American. But now I realize that’s not a very fair thing to think. The Interfaith group’s democratic imaginary is just as American as mine, it’s just different.

And another:

Now I understand why I get into so many arguments with my dad about politics. We start out from very different assumptions about what’s important about American democracy and citizens’ relationships to one another. He thinks liberty is the most important thing and that the government should not infringe on anyone’s liberty. I, on the other hand, am much more community or covenant-minded, and think the government should be serving the people more effectively, especially the most vulnerable.

As these students’ comments suggest, in reading Braunstein’s book, readers come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of both their own and others’ assumptions and convictions regarding American democracy and politics. They also indicate that Prophets and Patriots succeeds in convincing its readers that this land we call America and our understanding of “we the people” who inhabit it are not—and have never been—singular. As Braunstein argues at the conclusion of the book, a broad cultural consensus on questions of American democracy and citizenship has likely never existed. American politics has always been characterized by different and often competing traditions, and the distinct imaginaries of the Prophets and Patriots are but two important contemporary manifestations of the nation’s long history of imagining—and reimagining—democracy. “Rather than calling for a return to a mythical past in which all Americans embraced a single vision of democracy and citizenship,” Braunstein writes in the final pages of the book, she advocates for facing up to the inescapably heterogeneous and often combative politics of imagining American peoplehood. E pluribus pluribus might be this America’s motto—out of many, many (188–89).

In this pluralistic and agonistic vision of American democracy—a meta-imaginary, if you will—conflict between different imaginaries is surely inevitable. But conflict, Braunstein tells us, is not necessarily a bad thing. Insofar as “multiple groups cultivate and enact different stories of America, and no single story becomes dominant, then citizens can productively interrogate their respective benefits and drawbacks. . . . If groups are encouraged to bring competing narratives—even those perceived as extreme and troubling—into public view, then citizens have the opportunity to evaluate them side by side and deliberate about their merits and dangers” (188–89).

When we reached the end of the book, I asked my students if they personally agreed with Braunstein’s conclusion about the benefits of recognizing, interrogating, and reflecting on these multiple visions of America. Vigorous nodding in the affirmative ensued. After spending several days reading about and coming to respect (sometimes grudgingly) the different but equally deep convictions of the Prophets and the Patriots, students couldn’t help but appreciate Braunstein’s conclusion in principle. As do I.

But, when I asked students if they think their fellow Americans would be up to this task of not only recognizing but actively deliberating over competing imaginaries . . . a long, awkward silence.

And, then, the shaking of heads: “No.”

“But why not?” I asked, reminding them that they themselves had spent the last two weeks of class engaging in just these kinds of discussions and deliberations.

More awkward silence.

And then . . .

“But this is a college class, and that was part of the assignment,” one student announced. “Who’s going to make people out in the real world get out of their bubbles and talk about this stuff?”

“Yeah,” another chimed in. “I just don’t think there are too many people who are willing to consider that their idea [of America] isn’t the only one or might be wrong.”

“Just stay at home and listen to Fox News or MSNBC or whatever media source confirms what they already think, right?” followed another.

“People don’t want to think; they want to believe.”

“And win!”

And so on.

The democratic faithful, my students seemed to be telling me, are dogmatically monotheistic, and not too interested in ecumenical conversation.

I’m afraid they might be onto something. If, as Braunstein persuasively argues, the best and most realistic path forward for the American democratic project is to both recognize and deliberate among our diverse imaginaries, the follow-up question seems to be: through what cultural frameworks, social contexts, and cultivated dispositions might this be achieved? Does our contemporary political culture have the resources for what we might, following Braunstein’s lead, call a deliberative democratic imaginary, one in which people see it as not only desirable but also deeply American to subject their deeply-held political beliefs and values to continual contestation, reflection, refinement, and even refutation? Can American democracy’s many true believers recognize the legitimacy of contending faiths? Is there room for humble doubt as well as proud conviction in the hearts and minds of Prophets, Patriots, and other members of the democratic faithful?

I certainly hope so. Yet some of Braunstein’s own findings give me pause. Braunstein’s work shows the depth of democratic imaginaries—that these visions of American democracy run so deep as to be constitutive of groups’ identities as active and moral citizens. At the same time, she makes the point that these imaginaries and attendant identities are not simply different but often based on opposition to others, making it “difficult for [activist groups] to simply view one another’s style as a different, equally legitimate expression of the same shared ideal—instead, they viewed one another’s style as a potential threat to democracy itself” (185). The boundaries of imaginaries themselves are also in part constituted by who they exclude—most explicitly, the exclusion of Muslims from the Patriots’ imaginary. Like many others in the Tea Party movement, the Patriots strongly believed that Muslims could not “really” be Americans because their beliefs supposedly made it impossible for them to be incorporated into the democratic project. More sinisterly, several Patriots also believed Muslim Americans to be actively working to subvert democratic ideals and institutions (96–98). As a Muslim American student pointedly put it to the rest of us during one of our class discussions in response to reading this, “Why would [members of the Patriots] ever listen to me? To them, I’m like an oxymoron. Muslims can’t be American to them, right? I’m like a unicorn—I don’t even exist!”

The Islamophobia of the Patriots points toward another reason for being concerned about the democratic project—the fact that, lurking alongside and even within some of our democratic imaginaries or also deeply anti-democratic ones. Indeed, one such anti-democratic imaginary—white Christian nationalism—reared its ugly head with particular clarity and force during the 2016 presidential election and remains in full view today.3 In the face of competing visions of American democracy, one potential route appears to be to jettison the appeal to democracy and citizenship altogether, instead falling back on the heady and dangerous mixture that is religious ethno-nationalism (a noxious concoction has been a part of American history for a long time as well).4

In short, some of the book’s most insightful findings about the plurality, depth, power, and limits of democratic imaginaries for animating political vision and practice in America seem to run counter to Braunstein’s very important call for reflection, critical interrogation, and deliberation. Thus, while the book ends by raising the optimistic possibility that a plurality of political visions can allow Americans to productively deliberate among them, doing so in practice would seem to require equally strong imaginaries regarding the deliberative and incorporative ideals of the American democratic project. If, as Braunstein writes, quoting Stephen Prothero,5 “the nation rests not on agreement about its core ideas and values, but on a willingness to continue to debate them” (186), what social and cultural resources are available to “we the people” to help animate and secure this willingness?

Despite these obstacles, Braunstein writes that it is her hope that Prophets and Patriots succeeds in bringing two competing but also, in several respects, oddly similar visions of American democracy into full view, allowing readers to weigh and deliberate about their respective merits and dangers and think about how they too might put their own ideals into action. In my view and in the views of my students, she has admirably succeeded. So, if the content of the book may seem to run counter to the hopes of a deliberative path forward, the form and execution of Braunstein’s writing and analysis embodies and exemplifies it. Perhaps careful ethnography has some lessons for how citizens might imagine and put into action the ideals of deliberative democracy?

  1. Quotes from students’ written responses are used in this essay with their permission.

  2. Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004).

  3. See Andrew L. Whitehead, Samuel L. Perry, Joseph O. Baker, “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election,” Sociology of Religion 79.2 (2018)147–71.

  4. See Philip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion from the Puritans to the Present (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2017).

  5. Stephen Prothero, The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Divide a Nation (New York: HarperOne, 2012).

  • Ruth Braunstein

    Ruth Braunstein


    Contesting Imaginaries from the Classroom to the Streets

    It is difficult to know who will eventually read one’s work, especially as a first-time book author. But I had one audience very clearly in mind when I wrote Prophets and Patriots—undergraduate students. It is thus a rare gift to read Daniel Winchester’s ethnographically rich portrait of his students’ discussions about the book. Winchester writes that after reading the book, his students “come away with a greater understanding and appreciation of both their own and others’ assumptions and convictions regarding American democracy and politics,” and that as a result this “helped them recognize that some of the political disagreements they had with others were often the result of meanings that ran much deeper than the particular issue at hand.” The book, he writes, “succeeds in convincing its readers that this land we call America and our understanding of ‘we the people’ who inhabit it are not—and have never been—singular.” The question he and his students then grapple with, just as I did during my research, is how to “[face] up to the inescapably heterogeneous and often combative politics of imagining American peoplehood.”

    It is in this vein that Winchester goes on to identify the “meta-imaginary” that undergirds my concluding thoughts in the book—a “pluralistic and agonistic vision of American democracy” in which “conflict between different imaginaries is surely inevitable,” and perhaps even productive. He is insightful in his description of this meta-imaginary, and the ways in which his classroom is a microcosm of the kind of idealized public space in which citizens of different backgrounds and political stripes “recognize and deliberate among our diverse imaginaries.” And yet he and his students also recognize that their classroom looks very little like the “actually existing” public sphere, or at the very least that spaces like their classroom are rare.1 This raises a dilemma: without plentiful public spaces in which citizens can confront and refute dangerous democratic visions, and champion those visions that have “more promise for the future of a diverse society” (as Edgell puts it in this symposium), it seems unwise to promote a “pluralistic and agonistic vision of American democracy.”

    Winchester thus raises the crucial question of whether such spaces actually exist or could be created, and if so, what do they look like? This happens to be a question that has consumed much of my time and attention in the years since I completed this book, so I will share some of my more recent thoughts about this.2 The fact that Winchester succeeded in fostering such a productive debate in his classroom should give us all hope that this is possible, and underscores the fact that universities are essential players in the creation of such spaces. Yet his students are correct that such spaces are rare. I would add that such spaces are also insufficient because the forms of deliberation and debate that are fostered in most classrooms are insufficient. As I have discussed elsewhere, these idealized democratic practices, which emphasize mutual recognition, humility, civility, and compromise, “are best suited for interactions between individuals who view one another as social and epistemic equals. Groups who are oppressed or marginalized are rightfully distrustful of these kinds of practices, which offer the appearance of an equal playing field, but on which they are barely considered players.”3 This is a problem that cannot be solved by simply creating better and more inclusive deliberative spaces, because almost invariably, demands for humility and civility will still be used in such spaces (intentionally or not) to blunt challenges by marginalized or less powerful groups.4 This is a problem that can only be solved by meaningfully expanding our definition of what legitimate democratic contestation looks like, who can engage in it, and where it is appropriate. As a case in point, consider ongoing debates about the place of systemic racism in America’s past and present. This has brought to the fore a longstanding contest between competing visions of American democracy, which is playing out on multiple fronts: in classrooms, as students learn about, reflect on, and defend different visions; in the pages of newspapers and textbooks, as journalists and scholars vie for influence over how American history is presented; and in the streets, as large numbers of protesters force their fellow citizens to see the world through new eyes; just to name a few. Contestation looks different in each space, with different players and different “rules” of the game, but all are examples of spaces in which diverse citizens are engaging in passionate debates about the meaning and future of American democracy.

    It is true there is a tension in the book, between my descriptions of “the plurality, depth, power, and limits of democratic imaginaries for animating political vision and practice in America” and my “call for reflection, critical interrogation, and deliberation.” Perhaps this would have felt like less of a contradiction had I been clearer in the book itself about what I thought this critical interrogation should look like—less debate club and more street protest. The book is intended as a tool that people can use to develop a clearer understanding of their own and others’ democratic visions, and I am so pleased to learn from Winchester’s essay that it has been helpful to his students. But clarity and mutual understanding are the first steps, not the last, in the fight for the soul of the country.

    1. Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A Contribution to the Critique of Actually Existing Democracy,” in Habermas and the Public Sphere, ed. Craig J. Calhoun (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992), 109–42.

    2. As a core faculty member of the UConn Humanities Institute’s Humility and Conviction in Public Life project, I explored this question through an interdisciplinary conference, an essay series at The Immanent Frame, and a special volume of Political Power and Social Theory, as well as through a research project on the political contestation of “civility.”

    3. Ruth Braunstein. “Good Troublemakers,” series on “American Religion, Humility and Democracy,” Immanent Frame, 2018.

    4. Ruth Braunstein, “Boundary-Work and the Demarcation of Civil from Uncivil Protest in the United States: Control, Legitimacy, and Political Inequality,” Theory and Society 47.5 (2018) 603–33; Ruth Braunstein, ed., Religion, Humility, and Democracy in a Divided America, Political Power and Social Theory 36 (Bingley, UK: Emerald, 2019).

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