Beyond Religion as Resource

By Grace Yukich

This past June, President Obama took executive action to defer the deportation of “Dreamers”: undocumented immigrants who were brought to the U.S. as children, are under 30, have lived in the U.S. for at least five years, and have no criminal records. The policy represents a small but important victory for immigrant rights activists, many of whom are religious. Their religiosity is worth noting for two reasons. First, in an age when the dominant public image of religion is often politically and theologically conservative, this serves as a reminder that “progressive religion” is not an oxymoron. Second, increasing immigration to the U.S. is transforming American religion, altering dominant traditions through the integration of new immigrants and diversifying the general landscape through the growth of religious traditions like Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. Some estimates suggest that 40 percent of Catholics in the U.S. are now Mexican or Latin American immigrants.1 This religious context forces even majority-native-born religious groups to recognize the suffering of immigrants in their midst, evidenced by efforts like the Catholic Justice for Immigrants campaign.

This highlights a central but under-theorized aspect of the relationship between religion and social movements: the varied targets of religious activists. In sponsoring a campaign for immigrant rights, Catholics (and members of other religious traditions) are undoubtedly concerned about immigration politics, motivated by their religious beliefs and/or personal relationships with immigrants to advocate for policy reform. But they are also concerned about their religious institutions. In the case of the Catholic Church, the stability of its religious institutions depends in part on the continued ability of people to migrate to the U.S. and to thrive here, without fear of harassment or deportation.

During the past two decades, research on religion and social movements has flourished. But most of this research has focused on religious activists’ political targets. According to this line of research, religion acts as a resource for politically-oriented collective action through providing things like buildings for meetings, membership lists for organizers, resonant discourses for movement framing, and transcendent beliefs that inspire involvement in political causes. The assessment of the relationship between religion and activism often ends there. Part of the reason for this—in addition to the dominance of resource mobilization approaches—is that many movement scholars are more interested in the political impacts of religious activism than the religious impacts of religious activism. Since many scholars are not religious themselves, there may also be an underlying assumption that activists must not really be concerned about religion either. Instead, they use religion to get what they really care about: political change.

While this may accurately describe a few religious activists, many religious activists are invested in the future of both political and religious institutions, not one or the other. This insight aligns with the emerging multi-institutional politics approach to the study of social movements, which recognizes that activists are embedded in multiple institutions and that many are interested in challenging authority in all of those institutional contexts, not merely in the political arena.2 Embedded in both religious and political institutions, some religious activists target both the state and their religious institutions, cultures, and identities. Scholars ignore activists’ focus on these latter institutional targets to our detriment. Being more intentional in our examination of whether and how religious activists seek to shape religion through collective action would also aid scholars primarily interested in understanding the political consequences of religious activism, since movements with multiple targets will shape policy differently than those focused solely on political change.

2008 Anniversary Event
New Sanctuary Coalition of New York City

My research on the New Sanctuary Movement, a national network of interfaith immigrant rights coalitions, provides a case in point. From 2007-2009, I conducted ethnographic research on New Sanctuary. When I began studying the movement, I used the dominant theoretical tools of the trade, asking questions about how New Sanctuary activists were using religion to mobilize and strategize for changing immigration policy. As my research continued, I realized this framework left much of what was exciting and puzzling about the New Sanctuary Movement unexplained. Shifting my gaze, it became clear that many activists were seeking religious change as well as political change: they were fighting for comprehensive immigration reform, but they were also fighting over the shape of their religious communities and over the public image of what it means to be religious, seeking to cultivate a more global, inclusive religious vision.

In my forthcoming book on this research—called One Family Under God: Religion and Immigration Politics in the New Sanctuary Movement (Oxford University Press)—I introduce a concept that better accounts for this complicated empirical reality. I argue that the New Sanctuary Movement is a multi-target social movement: a collective effort challenging authority in multiple institutional arenas simultaneously. In the book, I show how recognizing that New Sanctuary activists sought to change not only state institutions but religious institutions as well challenges standard interpretations of movement emergence, strategic decision-making, and recruitment.

For instance, we know that political opportunities and threats play an important role in mobilizing activists targeting the state. But scholars have largely ignored the ways that religious context might shape the mobilization of religious activists. In the case of the New Sanctuary Movement, some activists viewed the dominance of a legalistic, nationalist vision of religion (often associated with the religious right) as endangering the spiritual well-being of their religious communities and American religious culture more generally. As a result, New Sanctuary not only targeted the state but also religious communities, seeking to convert them from viewing undocumented immigrants as undeserving, criminal outsiders to seeing them as brothers and sisters who are fellow children of God. These religious threats helped mobilize some activists. Overlooking this factor gives political context more explanatory power than it deserves.

The recognition that some movements and movement organizations have both political and religious targets—and that this “multi-target” quality shapes them in important ways—produces a fuller picture of the relationship between religion and activism. Indeed, this type of perspective is more important than ever, as immigration and globalization transform the character of American religion. Many immigrants coming to the U.S. have a fluid rather than a strict separationist understanding of the relationship between religion and the state, creating the potential for more overlap between these institutional arenas in the lives of future religious activists, not less.3 Moving beyond the emphasis on religion as a resource for politics is necessary for developing a richer understanding of how religion and activism matter for each other in an increasingly diverse society.

1. Levitt, Peggy. 2007. God Needs No Passport: Immigrants and the Changing American Religious Landscape. New York: New Press.

2. Armstrong, Elizabeth and Mary Bernstein. 2008. “Culture, Power, and Institutions: A Multi-Institutional Politics Approach to Social Movements.” Sociological Theory 26:74-99.

3. Levitt (2007).


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Religion and Activism

4 responses to “Beyond Religion as Resource

  1. Pingback: November Dialogue: Religion and Contemporary Activism | Mobilizing Ideas

  2. Pingback: Religion, Activism, and In Between: The Borders of Identities and Organizations | Mobilizing Ideas

  3. Pingback: religion and immigration rights in the US |

  4. Pingback: The Meditation Movement’s Unobtrusive Tactical Repertoire | Mobilizing Ideas

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