The spring Dean’s Discussion series asks how civil society can help solve public challenges. The first talk explored religion and public life. Harvard Kennedy School Dean Doug Elmendorf explained why he asked the three faculty members who participated to share their thoughts.

Pippa Norris is the Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics and has written a book on religion and politics, Sacred and Secular,” Elmendorf said. “In discussions such as this, she has been cited over 5,000 times I checked.”

Arthur Brooks is the William Henry Bloomberg Professor of the Practice of Public Leadership, here at HKS and on the faculty of Harvard Business School,” he continued. “I asked Arthur to come today because in his own writing he speaks outright about his faith, and the role his religious faith plays in his life.”

“And I’ve asked Cornell William Brooks, the HKS Hauser Professor of the Practice of Nonprofit Organizations, and professor of the practice of public leadership, to be here because he is an ordained minister and on the faculty of the Harvard Divinity School.”

Sarah Wald, an adjunct lecturer at HKS and one of the leaders of Harvard’s HKS/HLS joint  program, acknowledged that while the United States was founded in many ways on religious tolerance, the role of faith has historically not been clear. She asked the faculty members to discuss religion in America today and describe how it affects our public discourse and public policy.


Pippa Norris

Pippa Norris.Today, 29%, a third of the population, say they have no religious preferences. Who attends church? In the 1990s in America, one in 10 said yes on a regular basis. That’s gone down threefold. Today, 30% say no, they don't go to church. If you ask, ‘do you pray’? Another decline, from about 40% of the population to about 25%.

In fact, many affluent countries, postindustrial societies, have had the same pattern. It happened in Protestant societies first, and then increasingly in Catholic societies. Look at the trends in Canada, Australia, Austria, Spain, Switzerland. In all of these countries, even in Italy, the home of the Catholic faith, we see the trend heading down.

And yet, even the secular, spiritual, nonreligious people recognize what ceremony and ritual look like and the power of it. 

Think about, for example, the shootings of the LGBTQ community. That community came together very strongly. They have found their own resources and their own ways to network. And social movements are incredibly powerful. And to some extent, they have their own morality, which challenges some of the traditional teachings in the church.

The environmental movement is another form of morality, which is incredibly powerful for the young people who’ve been joining, young people who think it’s their future and the future of the planet. Is it related to religion? Yes, it is. But is it also a distinct form of morality where the church might be following as much as leading.

When the issues are about morality, which you hold dearly and which is part of your identity, and which you feel is under threat from the rest of America, then that’s far more difficult to resolve. And I’d argue that is really what has been happening and why we’re so divided in America, why we’re so polarized. You can’t just square those issues easily by a bit of compromise. And your identity comes from your religious faith and your religious morality.

“Religion in many ways serves as a historical foundation for our values. Religion is often the lingua franca of public discourse. It's the common language.”

Cornell William Brooks

Arthur Brooks

Arthur Brooks.We largely agree on the trends because they come from the data, and we both study the general social survey. Where we might diverge is what should be done, and whether or not these trends are good or not.

The interesting thing about happiness and secularization is that it is not the case that religious affiliation corresponds with happiness. Religious practice corresponds with happiness. Saying that you belong to a religion and not practicing it actually corresponds with the lowest happiness group of all. There are interesting studies that that look at the three groups: people who practice no religion and believe in no religion, people who believe in a religion and practice it, and those who believe in it but don’t practice it. The unhappiest are the believers who don’t practice.

The unhappiness effects provoke people to look for what religious institutions uniquely bring, which is social capital and moral guidance. A sense of meaning and a sense of placement in society. And when secularization occurs in a wholesale way, and people don’t have that anchoring in their lives, they turn to other institutions. And I think disproportionately that explains how people have turned to tech and politics. One for social capital and the other for moral meaning, and for moral guidance. And those are terrible institutions to turn to for moral meaning and guidance, which is another thing driving down happiness. 

I think that all of this is an incredible opportunity. I teach social entrepreneurship here at the Kennedy School. I teach nonprofit management fundraising. I'm a nonprofit guy through and through. I ran a nonprofit and I’ve written textbooks on social entrepreneurship. So I wind up talking to social entrepreneurs all the time, and a lot of them are faith-based social entrepreneurs. The difference between entrepreneurs and non-entrepreneurs is where non-entrepreneurs see tragedies and problems, entrepreneurs see opportunities.

And that's especially true in the social sector. The trouble that we’re in, the polarization that’s occurring, the fragmentation of society, the loneliness and the unhappiness are an opportunity for faith leaders to stimulate a new great awakening.


Cornell William Brooks

Cornell William Brooks.We see that in terms of religious attendance, there are a number of people who claim to be formerly religious. We see that in the closure of American seminaries, including here in Cambridge. In terms of the Episcopal Divinity School. We see it in terms of the number of people going into the ordained ministry. We even see it in terms of the curricula change here at Harvard, where you have fewer people entering the Master of Divinity degree—the kind of passport degree for service and ministry—in favor of a master’s degree in religion and public life. So there’s been a tectonic shift in the religious landscape.

Where I may disagree is while there’s been a diminishing of religion, demographically speaking, it is still foundational and historical, in terms of its influence on politics and advocacy and certainly culture. We think about religious traditions as having holy books. The holy books are in fact history books. The history books are in fact story books. The religious folks are the ones who have rules, guidelines, principles, precepts for interpreting their histories, right? So where constitutional scholars may find themselves adrift, religious folks often have a set of rules. They may or may not follow them well, but they have rules. And that is tremendously consequential when it comes to how do we interpret our constitution.

Ask the average person on the street about the Declaration of Independence. And they will say, “All of us are created equal, and endowed by God, with certain unalienable rights.” Well, where does that come from? That's a gift of Judaism, right? The notion that we're all created as an image of God, and we have inestimable, incalculable worth and value. That’s something the average person on the street says is important. So when George Floyd was killed, when Tyre Nichols was killed, that wasn’t merely wrong, it was seen by regular people, people who don’t necessarily claim to be Orthodox or conservative Baptist or Methodists—they claim to be spiritual—those acts of violence were seen as profane, wrong.

And so, in answer to the question of what’s the role of religion? I’m biased, I’m a fourth-generation minister in an African Methodist Episcopal denomination that was started as a consequence of social protests. So I’m not an entirely prepared to throw all the religious folks out. Religion in many ways serves as a historical foundation for our values. Religion is often the lingua franca of public discourse. It’s the common language.

In other words, when you talk to your neighbors no one says, “I’m in favor of policy that’s profit maximizing.” What they do say is, “I favor policies that seem fair. Policies that seem just, policies that seem like we treat everybody the same.” That is critically important in modern life.

The next Dean’s Discussion, on April 5, 2023, examines the role of media in public life with faculty members Nancy Gibbs, Thomas Patterson, and Latanya Sweeney.  

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

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