When wire-cutting and banner-wielding peace activists broke into the Y-12 nuclear plant grounds during the predawn hours of July 2012, the severity of their unprecedented security breach was offset only by its sympathetic protest leader: 82-year-old Roman Catholic nun, Sister Megan Rice.
The image of a plant-protesting, pacifist nun is perhaps no less curious than the crowd of sisters participating in a nine-state “Nuns on the Bus” campaign preceding the 2012 election, or “protest chaplains” staffing prayer tents in the “Occupy” movement, or the financial firepower of the all-Catholic and exclusively male “Knights of Columbus” mobilizing for the preservation of traditional marriage.
Religious people are activists, too.
Indeed, while religion and activism might seem strange bedfellows, the two have long mutually commingled. Congregations served as breeding grounds for the civil rights movement[a] and as abeyance structures during the quieter years of the feminist movement.[b] Religious elites with privileged institutional access revitalized the Liberation Theology movement in Latin America[c] and, more recently, used Islam to frame the grievances forged through the “Arab Spring.”[d]
The 1980s zenith of the “New Christian Right” exuberantly testifies to the political fortitude of strategic partnerships between religion and conservatism in particular.[e] Evangelicals have championed traditional values in family, sexuality, creationism, abortion, and a litany of other “culture war” battlegrounds.[f] Religious framing serves as a unique legitimizer, imputing moral strength to otherwise “profane” activist goals.
Lest we paint a picture of religion as fueling activism on only one side of the aisle or embedded in one religious tradition, we need only look to numerous examples of religious coalitions occupying both sides of contention in struggles over immigration, the environment, healthcare reform, and the like. Religion’s institutional resources and networks are immense. And in its appeal to the supernatural, religion becomes a powerful persuasive tool.[g]
Activism also happens within religion.
Stephen Haynes illuminates this dynamic in his new book The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation.[h] The 1964 “kneel-in” protests by black and white students at Second Presbyterian Church generated national attention and a painful congregational schism. In social movements as in society, religion can in fact exacerbate inequality, heighten lines of authority, and strengthen symbolic boundaries.[i] Scholarship on religion and activism rarely describes these more debilitating effects.
Civil rights “kneel-ins” are but one example among many of activism that targets religion itself. As a protest site, sacred space can bring increased attention to a cause. The recent, politically-charged performance of the Russian punk band “Pussy Riot” staged inside a Russian Orthodox Cathedral demonstrates this. Religious communities act as breeding grounds for internal change, exhibited by new growth among traditionalist Catholic movements and the formal curtailing of progressive stances taken by U.S. nuns.
Committed adherents can themselves challenge religious elites, instigating changes to the institutions of which they are a part. A decade ago, revelations of child sexual abuse by Catholic clergy and the church’s corresponding cover-up inspired lay Catholics to mobilize. Voice of the Faithful convened last month to commemorate ten years of supporting survivors of abuse, non-abusive priests, and structural change in the church.
Faithful Revolution: How Voice of the Faithful Is Changing the Church traces the movement’s emergence and redefinition of “protest” inside the church.[j] Their activism constitutes what I call an “intrainstitutional social movement,” one that targets a specific, bounded institution and emerges from among that institution’s own established base (e.g. employees, adherents, or members).
Accounting for institutional embeddedness means recognizing the bounded nature of movements’ collective identities, tactics, and outcomes. In the Catholic Church, this means a restricted hierarchy and divinely legitimated lines of authority. Committed to remaining within the church, Voice of the Faithful sacrificed many viable tactical options to protect their authenticity as a Catholic voice for reform.
This tension lies at the heart of the relationship between religion and activism: oxymoronic, at best. By social theorist Emile Durkheim’s mutually exclusive categories, religion is “sacred” and activism “profane.” How can one enact the two simultaneously?
The feud finds tinder in recent Missouri legislation dubbed the “House of Worship Protection Act.” With precedent in similar statutes elsewhere, the law criminalizes the disruption of religious services through the use of “profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior, or making noise.” Missouri Senator Rob Mayer (R) asserted content neutrality in the bill’s sponsorship, though the Missouri Family Policy Council lays claim to having developed and advanced it. The council’s newsletter cites numerous offences by the “homosexual rights movement” and anti-war protesters, suggesting that “if there is any place in our culture that should be viewed by all Americans as sacred ground, it should be our houses of worship.”[k]
To contest the law, and bolstered by support from the ACLU, Voice of the Faithful teamed up with other movements whose protest activities frequent religious grounds. Their filed complaint conveyed fear that peaceful yet visible movement activities at religious sites might now be subject to arrest, introducing a chilling effect on the freedom to protest. Their petition was denied.
Thus revives the ghost of Durkheim and the chasm between the sacred and profane: “…the mind irresistibly refuses to allow the two corresponding things to be confounded, or even to be merely put in contact with each other…”[l]
Given this climate of uncertainty, it is not altogether surprising that those claiming both religious and activist identities might instead look to work creatively through existing institutional structures. The rich and difficult irony is that when an intrainstitutional movement adapts to accommodate its perceived target, it may wind up replicating the form, identity, and tactics of the very institution it set out to change.[m]
Studying the tension between religion and activism requires both a cultural approach to social movements[n] and a cultural approach to religion, with a renewed focus on institutional fields, social embeddedness, and fluid identity formation.[o]
Allowing – even forcing – our minds to put the profane in contact with the sacred enables us to encounter and confront the contradictions in religion and activism.
[a] Morris, Aldon D. 1984. Origins of the Civil Rights Movements. New York: Free Press.
[b] Taylor, Verta. 1989. “Social Movement Continuity: The Women’s Movement in Abeyance.” American Sociological Review 54(5): 761-775.
[c] Smith, Christian. 1991. The Emergence of Liberation Theology: Radical Religion and Social Movement Theory. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
[d] Ramadan, Tariq. 2012. Islam and the Arab Awakening. New York: Oxford University Press.
[e] Blee, Kathleen M. and Kimberly A. Creasap. 2010. “Conservative and Right-Wing Movements.” Annual Review of Sociology 36:269-86.
[f] Hunter, James Davison. 1983. Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. New York: Basic Books.
[g] Leege, David C., Kenneth D. Wald, Brian S. Krueger, and Paul D. Mueller. 2002. Politics of Cultural Differences: Social Change and Voter Mobilization Strategies in the Post-New Deal Period. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
[h] Haynes, Stephen R. 2012. The Last Segregated Hour: The Memphis Kneel-Ins and the Campaign for Southern Church Desegregation. New York: Oxford University Press.
[i] Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38:247-65.
[j] Bruce, Tricia C. 2011. Faithful Revolution: How Voice of the Faithful Is Changing the Church. New York: Oxford University Press.
[k] Ortwerth, Joe. 2012. “Missouri Legislature Sends House of Worship Bill to Governor Nixon.” Missouri Family Policy Council Jeff City Update. http://www.missourifamily.org/weekly/2012/06_05_12.htm.
[l] Durkheim, Emile. 2008 . The Elementary Forms of the Religious Life. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc. P.40.
[m] Bruce, Tricia C. 2011. Faithful Revolution: How Voice of the Faithful Is Changing the Church. New York: Oxford University Press.
[n] Jasper, James M. 2010. “Cultural Approaches in the Sociology of Social Movements.” In Bert Klandermans and Conny Roggeband, eds., Handbook of Social Movements Across Disciplines, pp.59-109. New York: Springer.
[o] Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38:247-65.