Series Sheds New Light on The Future of American Democracy and Christianity - Princeton Theological Seminary

What started as a “flicker of an idea” has turned into an important series of opportunities for Princeton Seminary to lead the way in engaging in and convening critically important conversations about the intersection of faith and public life, according to Associate Professor of American Christianity Heath W. Carter.

“This has been such a tumultuous season in our country and there is so much anxiety and worry and fear,” Carter says. “The very idea of Christianity in the public square has come to mean something arrogant and exclusionary and there are a lot of folks out there hungry for a different way.”

Carter, convener, and facilitator of “The Future of American Democracy” conversations, says that across all kinds of lines that divide, Americans are looking for help as they discern what it looks like to live out their faith in public.

“In this moment Princeton Theological Seminary has a remarkable opportunity to help folks think critically, carefully, and constructively about faithful witness in the public square,” Carter says.

Throughout its inaugural year, three hybrid (in-person and online) public events featured conversations centered around the topic of democracy and its effect on people’s lives today. It has also featured a lot of encouragement and ideas about how to engage constructively in building the future we want.

“It has been wonderful to have wide-ranging conversations, that reflect the core values of the series: to be broad, fair, illuminating, and oriented toward the truth. Including conversations with Sherrilyn Ifill, President and Director-Counsel Emeritus of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and important voice on civil rights, to a panel with three leading figures on the question of what institutions are good for,” he says.

Other conversations to date have included:

  • Walter Kim, president of the National Association of Evangelicals; Jamelle Bouie, columnist for The New York Times and former chief political correspondent for Slate; and Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, on faltering faith in institutions.
  • Senator Chris Murphy (D-Connecticut), on how he helped broker a deal to break a 30-year political logjam around regulating firearms and pass a historic piece of bipartisan gun safety legislation.
  • Author Anand Giridharadas, on his book The Persuaders: At the Front Lines of the Fight for Hearts, Minds, and Democracy, an insider account of activists, politicians, educators, and everyday citizens working to change minds, bridge divisions, and fight for democracy.
  • Sociologists Robert Wuthnow and Gerardo Marti, looking back to the civil rights era to find the origins of contemporary polarization in American religious life, and providing advice for leaders navigating the current dynamic landscape, with a focus on providing wholeness to communities.
  • Princeton Seminary alum Rev. Melissa Florer-Bixler, Rev. Duke Kwon, and Bishop Karen Oliveto exploring how Christians can most faithfully navigate the sharp edges of today’s polarized society.
  • Jane Coaston, columnist for The New York Times and host of The Argument; Peter Meijer, Republican congressman representing Michigan’s 3rd district since 2021; and Symone D. Sanders-Townsend, former chief spokesperson for the Vice President of the United States, on the reverberations of extreme polarization and how schools, churches, and local communities came to be so divided and where to go from here.
  • Princeton Seminary professors John R. Bowlin, Eric D. Barreto, and Hanna Reichel, on the impact of polarization on students, campus culture, the classroom, and how theological education offers a way forward.

“I have heard from so many people … and they don’t all agree about how the church should be in the midst of this polarized season,” Carter says. “Should the church be a place where people with deep differences hang together? Or should the church be a place that tries to get everybody on the same page to embrace some kind of bold prophetic witness?

“There really is an audience out there of folks who are yearning for good content and not finding it as readily as they want,” he adds.

Moving forward, the program will be developed into an online course that will include new material in addition to drawing from the rich conversations of the past year to be made available to the public through Continuing Education at Princeton Seminary in early summer. Select recordings from some of the lectures are accompanied by a discussion guide to encourage more in-depth conversations by individuals and groups.

“There is a lot of mistrust of institutions these days,” Carter says, “especially among young people. This is one important role that Princeton Seminary can play in this divided, difficult, challenging time. We don’t have all the answers, but we can help people to be more thoughtful and faithful, and to reflect on what our faith is calling us to do in this season … probing questions about what we can expect for them and can they deliver the church and the world that we hope for,” he concludes.

For more information, visit the Future of American Democracy website and/or view highlights from past events.