Finding Religion in Movement Activism

By Ziad Munson

In a televised debate last week, Indiana Republican candidate for U.S. Senate Richard Mourdock explained why he opposes access to legal abortion for women, even in cases when women are raped: “I think even when life begins in that horrible situation of rape, that is something that God intended to happen.”  Mourdock’s comments set off a political firestorm.  Although they reflected an almost universally held view among activists in the U.S. pro-life movement, they are at odds with the views of most Americans.  And the incident reinforces the most common way most people view the relationship between religion and social movements: Mourdock roots his political beliefs in religious ones.  His comments are a prime example of how religion can act as a source of beliefs and justifications within a social movement.

Finding a role for religion in the pro-life movement is easy.  Like a small handful of other (mostly conservative) movements today, the pro-life movement has been pigeon-holed as a religious movement by scholars and commentators alike.  But religion is implicated in social movement mobilization in many more ways than a justification for an ideology.  And seemingly secular movements, with secular demands and arguments, are also deeply affected by religion.  The movements for women’s rights, the environment, peace, and immigration reform all intersect with religion in important ways—just like the contemporary pro-life movement—even when this intersection is much less familiar.

Religion’s relationship to social movement mobilization is multi-faceted and can be divided into three major types.  First, its potential ideological effects are the easiest to see; movements develop their goals and frame issues in ways that are influenced by religious language and religious beliefs.  This is part of the story behind Mourdock’s remarks about abortion; understanding every pregnancy as intended by God is a way for pro-life movement activists to make sense of their position that abortion is never justified even in the face of demonstrably horrific crimes such as rape and incest.  Religious vocabulary is widely shared in the United States, making it powerful vehicle for expressing ideas in many movements.

Second, religion is also important to many social movements because of its role in shaping people’s identities.  Religion provides a sense of who “we” are, drawing on the social connections, practices, and habits of thought that many people have developed through religious institutions since childhood.   Religion can thus be a powerful source of collective identity and solidarity.  Marshall Ganz provides a good example of this in his book Why David Sometimes Wins, which documents the importance of a religiously-based identity to the fortunes of the American farmworkers movement.

The third type of relationship religion often holds with social movements is one of providing resources.  Aldon Morris’ classic study The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement identified three key resources: leadership, audiences, and material goods and services.  Religious institutions like churches are venues for cultivating leadership skills, from the formal leadership of pastors to the informal leadership of congregants at Bible studies, church picnics, ministries, and so on.  They are places where large numbers of people regularly gather, thus providing ready audiences for social movements and opening the possibility for efficient “bloc recruitment” of an entire congregation.  Congregations are a source of material goods and services too, in the form of meeting space, buses for transportation, office equipment for creating flyers and newsletters, and sometimes even just cash.  All of these different kinds of resources play a role in a wide variety of different social movements, both in the United States and elsewhere.

Nor should we relegate these kinds of relationships of religion to the activism of past movements.   If anything, the ways in which religion can impact social movements have become more important over time, rather than less.  This is because of massive changes that have occurred in the civic life of the United States over the last several decades.  Until the 1960s, many Americans had numerous and deep connections to a variety of civic organizations, including fraternal groups such as the Masons, recreational groups such as the YMCA, veterans groups like the VFW, and union groups like the Knights of Labor.  Many of these organizations were cross-class and national in scope.  They represented an enormous infrastructure of civic institutions that offered similar things to social movements that religious institutions do: sets of beliefs and ways of looking at the world; collective identities; and venues for cultivating leadership skills, addressing audiences, and collecting material resources that can be repurposed for social movement activism.

But as documented in work such as Bob Putnam’s Bowling Alone and Theda Skocpol’s Diminished Democracy, membership in such civic groups collapsed beginning in the 1970s.  Individuals simply do not belong to the same number or type of civic groups as they did in the past.  As such groups have declined precipitously, the number of religious congregations have actually increased to more than at any other time in U.S. history, over 300,000.  Religious congregations thus represent some of the only civic infrastructure that remains in the U.S. today.   We should therefore expect that the impact of religion on social movements will grow, not decline, in contemporary social movement mobilization.

An important but unappreciated further twist to this picture comes from my own research on the pro-life movement.  We are accustomed to thinking of religion as a largely (if not entirely) fixed attribute of individuals, and then looking for ways in which religion might affect social movement activity.  But in fact, cause and effect in this relationship can be reversed as well; social movement activity can in turn impact back on religious beliefs, behavior, and institutions.

In The Making of Pro-Life Activists, I document how activism in the movement has frequently led people to new religious faith, or spurred a revitalization of religious habits they had left behind years ago.   Perhaps more intriguingly, I also found evidence that religious institutions themselves were susceptible to pressure from the pro-life movement, aligning religious teaching and religious activity more closely with the goals and strategies of social movement organizations.  This, I suspect, helps explain Mourdock’s comments last week: the pro-life movement has been effective in inflecting activist religious beliefs in order to bolster and justify their beliefs about abortion.  Such impacts are a good reminder of the many complicated ways in which religion and social movement activity continue to be closely intertwined.

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Filed under Essay Dialogues, Religion and Activism

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