The Culture of Religious Populism in Contemporary Activism

By Rhys H. Williams

Scholarship over the last fifteen years has demonstrated why religion is so useful to people trying to mobilize for change.  A number of scholars have made what I would call “social organization” arguments – congregations are physical places that allow for meetings among like-minded participants who have established leaders and communication networks.  Further, for many congregations, denominational ties provide built-in connections between the local and national.  Other scholars focus more on the “cultural” dimensions of religion and mobilizing – religious ideas are easily adapted to the moralized meanings that form “injustice frames.”  A sense of religious duty can get people to internalize the idea that remedial action concerning that injustice is up to them, and motivates them to get personally involved.   The stakes can be ultimate – religious people may feel their souls are at risk.  And the “narrative turn” in social movement study can easily show how religious stories – ranging from those that recount the perseverance of persecuted people to those that reassure the faithful that the Almighty will guarantee their success – can be fitted to almost any situation a social movement faces.

Both of these approaches – and of course many scholars skillfully weave together institutional and cultural factors in examining empirical cases – focus primarily on the “forms” of social life – formal aspects of understanding social dynamics, independent of the content that religious friendships, or informational networks, or symbolic messages might contain.  It allows us to see how religion can work for a variety of movements over a range of politic stances and causes.

However, there are other ways, particularly in the United States, in which religion works for collective actors.  American religion has a deep cultural strain of “democratic populism” within it.  Our long history of pietistic Protestantism has put an emphasis on individual experience and emotion, as opposed to formal education or institutionally sanctioned training, as the ultimate authority.  That is combined with a formally secular state that has few institutional barriers to starting one’s own religious organization.  Thus religion is a fairly “open market” in religion with low “barriers to entry” – i.e., ordinary people can become “entrepreneurs.”  These factors in combination have “democratized” American religion.  There is a cultural presumption that religious truth is available widely and one can authenticate one’s access to it and representation of it through the sincerity of one’s belief and actions.  One need not have any particular expertise, or institutional credential, or elite sanction in order to make religiously based claims about how God wants society to be and what the faithful must do to achieve that.  Indeed, those sorts of authorizing warrants are often seen as suspect in American religion – and increasingly in American politics.  Both left and right share a deep distrust of “elites” – the left’s economic populism pushes toward politico-economic equality; the right’s cultural populism pushes toward a distrust of formal education, overly refined tastes, and an emphasis on the intellectual rather than the emotional and experiential.

This tendency does not hold equally in all historical periods, for all social issues, and among all segments of the population.  But I would argue that it is increasing across American life.  As sociologists of science such as Steven Epstein and Kelly Moore have shown, scientists’ authority to control what is considered scientific “truth” has severely eroded – whether it has been women and gay people challenging medicine’s responsiveness to their health issues, or creationists denying the scientific consensus on evolution.  Dress codes, in most businesses, in many churches, and in public places such as airports or theatres, have largely disappeared.  Music critics and their learned tastes have seen their power to dictate standards or make stars supplemented or even replaced by the direct popular votes of the “American Idol” genre.

In religion, the decline in denominationalism means a retreat in the loyalty to, and the scope and disciplining power of, denominational organizations.  This has been especially true in American Protestantism (as “non-denominational” seems to be the fastest increasing status of new Protestant churches).  But this is also true in Catholicism – even as Pope Benedict II works to reassert the hierarchy’s authority to pre-Vatican II levels, the American laity often challenges decisions such as reassigning priests or closing parishes.  And the laity often is quite selective as to when it listens to the bishops’ teachings (as widespread variation in Catholic attitudes and actions toward contraception, abortion, capital punishment, social inequality, same-sex marriage, and preemptive war can attest).

A result of this populist approach to religion, and its application to politics, is that many different social change efforts can avail themselves of religious imagery, and religious authority, in formulating and legitimating their efforts.  Unlike many places, where religiously based social movements are generally conservative, the U.S. has a long history, and a remarkably vibrant present, of progressive religious activism.  But I don’t want to go too far into the “both sides do it” genre, in which our so-called moderate or objective media set up false equivalences.  There are some significant differences between religion and contemporary activism on the left and right, both in terms of the substantive things being sought by movement groups, and in the ways in which they are able to use and deploy the religious populism I see as so widespread.

Contemporary progressive activism emerging out of religious communities is by-and-large focused on ensuring or achieving political-legal rights and opportunities for those at the margins of American society.  Some examples of this are care for undocumented immigrants, providing for people trying to cross the Arizona border, and community organizing groups opposing hazardous waste sites or supporting unionizing or living wage campaigns for low-wage workers.  Homelessness, hunger, and unemployment are other causes notable among local religiously based activist groups.  While there are numerous national efforts by progressive religious lobbying groups or political action committees, these efforts have been greatly overshadowed in recent years by the national muscle of religious mobilizing on the right, both within and aligned with the Republican Party. Liberal religious activism does not have a comparable place with the Democratic Party – they are not part of the “base” in the same way (the subject for a different essay).

Conservative religious activism, on the other hand, is more “restorationist” – while often pushing changes to contemporary social arrangements that could be considered radical, they are presented as restoring a purer, perhaps more innocent, moral, or even “Godly” society (perhaps this is more or less definitional of “conservative.”)  There tends to be a “declension” narrative, in which the nation’s founding must be mined for wisdom that can lead us back to that glory.  Think of TEA Party activists in “colonial” garb, carrying the Gadsen Flag (“Don’t Tread on Me”), or the “original intent” school of judicial interpretation.  The parallel to scriptural literalism, and the idea that the moment of creation was divine, seems clear.  In practical terms, much of this currently involves restricting the cultural space of some groups, as part of our fall from grace involves persons wandering from the path of righteousness.  When there is a persecuted minority to be defended, conservative activism now constructs itself as the sufferers.  A high-profile recent example is recent controversy over contraception coverage mandate in health insurance under Obamacare.  Conservative religious activists portrayed themselves as the aggrieved party, whose rights of religious expression would be constrained.

The current success of conservative religious activism as compared to progressive efforts has several explanations.  The close incorporation of their concerns into one of the major political parties is important, as is the serious money that supports many of their efforts (much less DIY bootstrapping on the right).  But I am arguing that a major factor is the ease with which the populism of the right – the resentment of cultural elites who look down upon and disrespect the lifestyles and values of “real Americans”— is expressed in the “lived” religious authority of ordinary Americans.  In the same way that ecclesiastical authorities cannot dispute the emotional experience of religion that animates believers, or that sophisticated hermeneutics of Biblical texts cannot replace the “commonsense realism” of reading the Bible and applying it to your own life, one can see that educational degrees and specialized knowledge of the intricacies of science or economics have mistakenly convinced “elites” that they know better.  A rationalist education has driven out morality in the eyes of many people – and conservative activists have an easily accessible religious and political story to drive their frames home.

In sum, I am arguing that along with offering organizational benefits to movements, and the capacity of religious arguments and symbols to be adapted to the framing needs of movement rhetoric, a set of deep cultural understandings about the nature of religion and religious truth undergirds many activists’ efforts.  They draw on a set of presumptions that makes both progressive and conservative activism legitimate, but offers particular advantages to conservatives.


Filed under Essay Dialogues, Religion and Activism

2 responses to “The Culture of Religious Populism in Contemporary Activism

  1. Rhys is always a careful analyst, and this essay is especially timely given the way in which Christian conservatives have moved into the Tea Party. As John C. Green and his colleagues have pointed out for over a decade, some 15% of the folks leaving the polling booths say they identify as being allied with the Christian Right. What is not clear, is how many Tea Party activists are part of that past 15% and how many are newcomers to electoral activism. We will find out in less than a week. The right-wing populist narrative of producers v. parasites is clearly being used in the Republican campaign rhetoric. Manipulative liberal elites and conspirators up above; and lazy, sinful, and subversive parasites down below. With the hard-working productive middle class being squeezed in a vise from the top and bottom. See the illustrated guide to producerism at:


  2. lydiabean

    I think this speaks to something important. And this is another difference between religious left and religious right–the former tends to get wrapped up in overly complicated hermeneutical nuances, even when they could just as easily make populist appeals of their own. I mean, in the case of the immigrant rights movement, it ain’t rocket science, the religious left could just as easily open their Bibles and preach that old time religion straight from the Old Testament. (“What part of ‘defend the sojourner’ do you people not understand?”) So it’s not just an inherent disadvantage of being a smart, sophisticated liberal (I often hear people bemoaning, “oh, poor us, the truth is so complicated and the people can’t handle it.”) It’s not just reality that’s so complicated and requiring of sophisticated expertise. I think it’s become almost an issue of style for the religious left to avoid populist appeals, because it’s so “tacky” and Christian Right-ish. Messaging and strategy on the left is shaped by identity and boundaries against “them”–the populist Right.

    I want to read the post about why the religious left is not part of the base for the Democratic Party. That is an interesting puzzle to me–I agree that they are not valued or feared as a constituency like the Christian Right is for the Republican Party, and that calls for some more analysis!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s