Telling the Vast and Complex Story of Religion in America

Jan. 17, 2024 By Jonathan VanAntwerpen, Program Director for Religion and Theology
Telling the Vast and Complex Story of Religion in America
The On Being Project. Photo © Bethany Birnie / Aqua Fox Photography.

One central aim of our grantmaking at Luce is to make the complexity and diversity of American religion more visible, and to amplify the voices of public knowledge makers.

To tell a more expansive story of American religion in all of its diversity, we must work together to plumb the plurality of religion in its kaleidoscopic and everchanging forms, considering anew the many different ways that religion animates and  illuminates what it means to be human.

It has been just over three years since supporters of Donald Trump walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the United States Capitol building, staging a violent and chaotic attack “accompanied by Jesus flags, Bible quotes, and loudspeaker sermons,” and carried out, according to many of those involved, in the name of Christianity. A man from Kentucky, among the first to enter the Capitol that day, wrote on Facebook: “Trump will be your president four more years in Jesus’ name.” 

Calling attention to the religious rhetoric and imagery at work on January 6, Smithsonian Institution curator Peter Manseau started the Twitter hashtag #capitolsiegereligion. Manseau began working with others to collect materials related to the religious dimensions of the siege and later launched Uncivil Religion, a digital initiative that sought to “trace the thread of religion” that wound through the events of January 6. Introducing this collaborative Luce-funded project, Michael Altman noted that “there was a real diversity of religion at the Capitol that day.” The events on January 6, Altman said, “were as religiously plural as the United States itself.”

At the same time, attention to the attack on the Capitol and its aftermath has further galvanized an already rising interest in the religious origins and enduring legacies of white supremacy, and a deepening engagement with what analysts and religious leaders have called white Christian nationalism. Reflecting on the “remarkably fragile and unfinished project” of American democracy, one year after the attack, Rev. Dr. Liz Theoharis called for “a movement to contend directly with the ideology and theology of Christian nationalism and offer an alternative that meets the material and spiritual needs of everyday people.” Together with Rahna Epting and her colleagues at MoveOn Education Fund, Rev. Theoharis, and the Kairos Center have worked to grow a diverse network of leaders dedicated to defending “the promise of multi-racial, inclusive democracy in the face of a rising white Christian nationalism.”

The Luce Foundation’s Religion and Theology Program is providing support for this collaboration and for a range of other initiatives seeking to critically examine connections among religion, racism, and nationalism in the United States and beyond. These efforts extend from the Foundation’s mission “to deepen knowledge and understanding in pursuit of a more democratic and just world,” and they form a key strand of recent Luce grantmaking that includes new support of numerous projects seeking to advance public knowledge on democracy, race, and religion in America.

And yet, we also recognize that religion in the United States involves much more than resurgent religious nationalism, just as American Christianity itself is complex and multifaceted. “Christianity,” as one scholar put it recently, “is a term that summarizes thousands of different sectarian movements unified by little other than interest in the Jesus story.” To tell a more expansive story of American religion in all of its diversity, we must work together to plumb the plurality of religion in its kaleidoscopic and everchanging forms, considering anew the many different ways that religion animates and illuminates what it means to be human.

If we want to understand the place of religion in American life today, then, we should look not only to the presence of Christian nationalism on January 6, but also to the significance of faith in George Floyd Square, to the role of churches in developing an urban farm in Baltimore, and to the efforts of community organizers who approach their work as a form of spiritual practice. We should look to a small Black Muslim community in Detroit, linked to a network of interfaith leaders stretching across the country; to AAPI communities drawing on spiritual resources in response to anti-Asian hate; and to Indigenous knowledge makers crafting a new language of religious freedom, to secure their rights, protect their land, and reclaim sacred remains.

To understand American religion today, we need to listen to researchers studying, and aiming to counter, a rising antisemitism, and take inspiration from the efforts of religious believers of all stripes who have joined their neighbors to welcome refugees into their communities. We should attend to the work of theologians seeking to build a more sustainable future for humans and machines and appreciate the creativity of spiritual innovators who are advancing civic engagement and disrupting the religious and cultural status quo. We should look to the work of theological schools – in places like Pittsburgh and Chicago, Nashville and Fort Worth – who jumped at the opportunity to help provide support for underserved communities during the COVID-19 pandemic. And we should learn from the work of scholars who remind us of the complex intersections of gender, sexuality, and religion. While religious arguments are often used to target LGBTQ people, for example, and “many are traumatized by religious narratives,” it is also true that “many queer and trans people are religious and find community and affirmation in religions.”

In the words of The Crossroads Project – which aims to deepen understanding of and engagement with Black religious histories and cultures – we need more and better attention to the diverse landscape of religion in America, “reflecting the voices and leadership of those not featured in traditional accounts.” This great diversity of American religion, woven into the fabric of our civic culture, can often be hard to see. And the complexity of religious life in the United States is often misunderstood, just as religion – itself an enduringly contested category – is frequently a source of misunderstanding.

One central aim of our grantmaking at Luce is to make such complexity and diversity more visible, and to amplify the voices of public knowledge makers – scholars of religion and faith leaders, journalists and media makers, museum curators and community activists – whose work strengthens public understanding, promotes more curious and civil public conversations, and draws on the wisdom of faith traditions to envision and build a more compassionate and equitable world. 

As pressing and urgent as it is, this collective work simultaneously calls on us to take a longer view of its unfolding, to redouble our commitment to the value of knowledge and open inquiry in an era of disinformation, and to lean into the power of imagination to transform our shared sense of who we are and who we might yet become, in the future we are enjoined to live into together.

Authored by:

Jonathan VanAntwerpen
Program Director for Religion and Theology: Jonathan VanAntwerpen

Prior to joining the Foundation, Jonathan was the founding director of the religion and the public sphere program at the Social Science Research Council, where he developed and directed a range of grant-funded projects, launched a suite of experimental digital publishing platforms, served as acting director of communications, and worked to incubate a new initiative on knowledge and culture in a digital age. Jonathan is co-editor of a series of books on secularism and religion, including Habermas and Religion (Polity), Rethinking Secularism (Oxford), The Post-Secular in Question (NYU), The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere (Columbia), and Varieties of Secularism in a Secular Age (Harvard). Originally trained as a philosopher, he received his PhD in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. 

Religion and Theology

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