Faith-Based Funding Can Help Protect Democracy

Faith-Based Funding Can Help Protect Democracy

America has long struggled with the relationship between religion and government. On one hand, we have a robust tradition of maintaining a separation between church and state, enabled by the First Amendment. On the other hand, Americans throughout history have invoked religion to animate their activism through public policy change on issues like civil rights, abortion and more — consider the profound and contrasting impact of faith-based leaders like Bishop Vashti Murphy McKenzie, Abby Stein and Rev. Billy Graham.

Too often, philanthropic leaders — especially those who fund both faith and civic engagement — fail to recognize and cultivate this vital interdependence. We argue that, in this time of extreme polarization and division, activating faith communities in support of democracy offers tremendous related and reinforcing opportunities. It is not about one or the other, but balancing the power and potential of both. 

Indeed, according to recent research published in the journal Nature Human Behavior, the most common organizations providing civic opportunity across the U.S. are religious organizations like churches, temples and mosques, alongside social-fraternal organizations like Rotary Clubs, sororities and ethnic affinity groups. Together, these categories make up 37% of all civic opportunity organizations in the country. In 85% of American counties, these organizations are the top vehicles for civic opportunity.

But what is civic opportunity? Dr. Hahrie Han of the SNF Agora Institute and the other co-authors of the study describe it as “the experiences necessary to cultivate… collective life in pluralistic societies.” They’re the experiences that form our commitment to democracy and build our capacity to be active citizens — including advocating for legislation, maintaining relationships with people we disagree with and balancing organizational budgets that must reflect communal priorities. Navigating these opportunities — in racially, ethnically, ideologically and economically diverse faith communities — shows us how a heterogeneous group of people can overcome divisions and work toward a common future. 

PACE’s Faith In/And Democracy initiative surfaced thousands of faith-based organizations across a wide variety of traditions already doing pro-democracy work — often without the label — and granted $1 million to over 30 of these organizations between 2019 and 2022. One such grantee, the Islamic Center of Murfreesboro, offers civic education to immigrants and refugees, including helping community members run for seats on local school boards, city councils and planning commissions, engaging 70,000 Muslim Tennesseans in the process. Another grantee, One America Movement, combats toxic polarization by equipping clergy and other faith leaders to navigate and address political challenges (like election misinformation and conspiracy theories) within their congregations. 

At A More Perfect Union, where we serve, respectively, as executive director and strategic advisors, we’ve also seen firsthand that there are willing faith-based institutions embedded in communities across the country; they often just lack resources. Just this year, we offered 25 $1,000 grants to Jewish civil society organizations interested in launching pro-democracy projects. 

Consider these examples. With a micro-grant of $1,000 from A More Perfect Union, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Phoenix brought together more than 40 local religious leaders to tour the Maricopa County Elections Department. These leaders learned first-hand about ballot processing and handling, enabling them to serve as trusted ambassadors of accurate election information for thousands of their stakeholders in a county rife with disinformation. Repair the World, a nationwide service organization inspired by Jewish values, created a “Democracy Ballot” to educate, inspire and mobilize thousands of their volunteers into vetted nonpartisan, pro-democracy opportunities in this election year. 

Protect Democracy and Interfaith America have also launched a granting project through their Faith in Elections Playbook, offering both $1,000 individual and $15,000 network grants. These are not high-dollar grants or lavish prizes, but modest funds designed to inspire new ideas and support their implementation. 

Across all three projects, grantees are promoting civic behaviors and character development, engaging in bridge-building and equity efforts, operating as hubs for local civic activity, and serving on the front lines of support and care in times of public and democratic precariousness. Also consistent across all three projects was the inundation of applications they received from faith-based organizations across the country, showcasing just how many more organizations pursuing pro-democracy civic projects there are than resources available. In the future, we hope the field can help us meaningfully meet this funding need. 

As it stands, a recent study from Bridgespan found that in 2020, only 2% of funding from the top 15 biggest institutional philanthropies went to faith-inspired organizations. Within that 2%, an even tinier slice of the pie went toward funding civic learning, engagement and infrastructure projects housed within faith organizations. 

Imagine what could be possible if more funders made more resources available. Imagine what we could achieve if faith-focused funders — who have deep and extensive knowledge of faith-based organizations nationwide — invested in pro-democracy, faith-based action. And if secular civic infrastructure funders — who hold critical knowledge about the challenges our nation faces — prioritized reaching community actors in and through faith-based organizations.

PACE has discovered that many secular funders who already support pro-democracy grantmaking are curious and open to this idea, but need support navigating through the complexities of religious belief and difference — for example, around LGTBQ issues, where a funder’s values might seem to conflict with a grantee’s theology. Faith-driven funders, likewise, are open to exploring additional funding avenues to strengthen democracy, but may need assurance that pro-democracy efforts and coalitions are truly nonpartisan.

From mobilizing for policy to hosting “democracy dinners” encouraging respectful dialogue on tough subjects, faith-based organizations have found ways to drive meaningful impact — promoting civic learning; advancing ideological pluralism; and enabling free, fair, safe and accessible elections. In each instance, they operate with a built-in local network and a clear understanding of what generates interest and enthusiasm from their constituents. This is civil society in action. What’s missing, too often, are the resources to make more of these actions possible. 

We are living at a time of extraordinary polarization, in a moment when trust is eroding and our shared commitment to democratic norms is being tested as never before. We have an opportunity to reduce toxic division and strengthen the democratic foundations that support all of us. Faith-based organizations can help ensure that we seize this opportunity. 

Kristen Cambell is CEO of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement (PACE). 

Aaron Dorfman is Founder and Executive Director of A More Perfect Union: The Jewish Partnership for Democracy.

Josh Rolnick is a board member of Lippman Kanfer Family Philanthropies and a professor of writing at Johns Hopkins University. 

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