Religion, Activism, and In Between: The Borders of Identities and Organizations

By Gary Adler

During the height of immigration across the U.S.-Mexico border into Arizona that resulted in hundreds of immigrant deaths and mass deportations, I travelled with a group of college students participating in a weeklong immersion trip focused on immigration injustices. We met with religious activists in the United States, talked with service providers at religious shelters in Mexico, and shared dinner in church buildings with recently deported immigrants. We were led by a faith-affiliated organization born in the 1980’s Sanctuary Movement that is mostly staffed by religious persons and housed in a building laced with religious imagery, from crosses to a portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

“Surely, this was religion in action,” I thought.

Shortly after viewing a set of crosses erected to memorialize dead migrants in Mexico, I chatted with Jonathan, a student who had previously shared that he considered himself religious. To my surprise, he was frustrated. He kept hearing biblical allusions and seeing religious symbols.  But he didn’t feel comfortable talking with his fellow travelers about the religious aspects of the experience. “Religion,” I realized, had not been formally excluded. Yet, for this diverse group of students from a non-religious university, personal religious identity was a territory marked by uncertainty, personal opinion, and silence.

Jonathan’s conflict highlights the difficulty in defining the border between religion and activism, a border at times as fluid as the unbroken desert landscape, at other times as rigid as the twenty-foot walls that adorn the crossings of border cities.

Two productive lines of research that intertwine along the religion-activism border involve personal identities and organizational contexts.

The category of “religious activist” in cross-sectional research is an end-product, the result of personal histories in organizations that provide experiences, ideas, narratives, and networks for the architecture of identity, both religious and activist. Reifying the congruence we observe between the religious and activist pieces of a person’s identity at a given point of time is an easy mistake. It is similar to a problem that the framing literature has had to confront: attributing concreteness to the fit between issues, individuals, and frames.[1] It is also similar to a problem that has troubled the religion literature, what Mark Chaves recently called the “religious congruence fallacy.”[2]

To confront this misplaced congruence, we could think of a two-by-two, with cells for each possible combination of religious and/or activist. In our imaginary two-by-two table the cell marked “religious and activist” should become more of a research problem and less of an answer. Ziad Munson’s reconstruction of pro-life activists’ mobilization pathways is a good example of the surprises that we may find in doing this. [3] Only 40 percent of his research subjects came to the movement through a religious network and about one-quarter were pro-choice as they first became involved. When combined with Michael Young and Stephen Cherry’s historical example of religious experience leading to activism, then activism leading to the loss of religious identity, the over-time relationship between activism and religious identity appears more complex.[4]  Is it linear, curvilinear, or quadratic? Are the biographical consequences of “being religious” weaker than “being activist”? When do permanent breaks in these identity pieces occur?

One part of answering this question requires delineating how different contexts facilitate, depress, or moderate religious activism. In Jonathan’s case, his group’s style excluded the salience of his religious identity.[5]

Of course, the classic organizational context for religious activism has been the congregation. If congregations have been central to many social movements, what can we learn about why they are not more central? Some reasons are obvious: ideological beliefs about the danger of the external world, unstable resource bases, or social diversity. Other reasons are less so.

As an example, my dissertation research focused on an activism-oriented version of short-term immersion travel, a “congregational intervention” that has become part of the organizational toolkit for about one-quarter of all congregations. [6] In the past this activity has mobilized participation in social movements.[7] I found that participants from congregations and seminaries generally reported having life-shaping, emotional experiences of new political awareness, but that their efforts to motivate fellow congregation members usually failed, met with indifference and even opposition. I concluded that the cultural shape of these trips was advantageous both for deepening religious commitment and protecting congregations’ status quo. By encountering distant suffering with fellow congregational members, participants’ religious identity and organizational commitment were strengthened. Once back home, a congregation might even incorporate the experience by selling Fair Trade coffee or hosting a story-sharing evening.

These activities, though, shielded the congregation from greater demands, keeping the issues literally far away. Participants lost enthusiasm amid the return to “normal life,” offering explanations for why their congregations would not engage their moral passions to the extent they desired. Sometimes the participants connected with a local immigrant rights organization or became attuned to immigrants in their local community, but not through their congregation. These participants were religious, and activist, but close congruence between these was not facilitated by the congregation.

What other processes of organizational insulation or de-coupling exist in religious organizations? Such moderating processes are certainly the less inspiring side of research on religion and activism. However, they are topics that actually dovetail with the concerns of activists trying to reform religious organizations, what Grace Yukich calls “multi-target social movements.” Knowing more about these organizational processes will help researchers to focus on how both congruence and incongruence between religion and activism are constructed.

Whether looking at individual activists or religious organizations, we should expect that where religion ends and activism begins (or vice versa) is like any border: rarely permanent, often changing.


[1] Robert D. Benford and David A. Snow. “Framing Processes and Social Movements: An Overview and Assessment.” Annual Review of Sociology. 611-639.

[2] Mark Chaves. 2010. “SSSR Presidential Address. Rain Dances in the Dry Season: Overcoming the Religious Congruence Fallacy.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 49, 1: 1-14.

[3] Ziad W. Munson. 2008. The Making of Pro-Life Activists. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

[4]Micahel P. Young and Stephen M. Cherry. 2005. “The Secularization of Confessional Protests: The Role of Religious Processes of Rationalization and Differentiation.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 44, 4: 373-395.

[5] Nina Eliasoph and Paul Lichterman. 2003. “Culture in Interaction.” The American Journal of Sociology. 108, 4: 735-794.

[6] Robert Wuthnow and Valerie Lewis. 2008. “Religion and Altruistic U.S. Foreign Policy Goals: Evidence from a National Survey of Church Members.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion. 47, 2: 191-209.

[7] Sharon Erickson Nepstad. 2004. Convictions of the Soul: Religion, Culture, and Agency in the Central America Solidarity Movement. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, Religion and Activism

One response to “Religion, Activism, and In Between: The Borders of Identities and Organizations

  1. “Humanity Walk With Messiah” on June 16th 2014 at Vatican City, Italy.

    “It is time for all paths of worships of the creator on this planet to unite and under the banner of peace and servitude to call themselves one body and one human race.”

    Whe all meet on the 16/06/2014 at 11:00 in Vatican city Italy.
    When man meets man thy understand each other not in any rope of any kind.

    Blessed are those spirits who understood very well the language of the future time to come: all humans will be equal and that the man in himself will find all attributes of the creator. He is God and will discover that be a servant of God – given that all are God and each one is God – is to serve completely to all mankind.

    “We call upon all religious leaders of all sects of the man to denounce war and violence and to participate in these acts to be a punishable offence.”

    MT Keshe
    Humanity Walk With Messiah


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