Category Archives: Religion and Activism

Discarding Sacred Cows: Faith-Based Community Organizing Grows Up

By Heidi Swarts

In his post Gary Adler argues that the congruence of “religious person” and “activist” cannot be assumed. Paul Lichterman also suggested that mainline Protestants and others who may not “make their Christian identity the center of their existence” may avoid framing issues of inequality in religious terms because they identify such framing as “what fundamentalists do.” In contrast, my and others’ research suggests that faith-based community organizing (FBCO) regularly articulates the faith and values basis of fighting inequality.[i] Two factors are its base in congregations as the fundamental unit of action and its use of broad “faith” and “values” language to name and create unity among its diverse congregations.

Ironically, however, this essay focuses on another vital set of beliefs, yea, even statements of faith: organizing principles inherited from Saul Alinsky Continue reading

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Religion and Activism, New Posts

New essays in this dialogue point to the complex relationship between activist and religious identities, how the relative salience of these identities affect motivations for activism and effective framing of issues, and broader issues of faith and political engagement.  Thanks to those who contributed to round 2 of this essay dialogue:

Gary Adler, University of Southern California (essay)
Symon Hill, Ekklesia thinktank, (essay)
Paul Lichterman, University of Southern California (essay)
Heidi Swarts, Rutgers University-Newark (essay)

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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.

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Faith and Society in the UK

By Symon Hill

Last month, four women calmly stood up during evensong in St Paul’s Cathedral in London, walked to the front and chained themselves to the pulpit. They read out a statement about economic injustice and urged the Christian Church to take sides with the poor. Outside, several other activists – myself included – unfurled a banner reading “Throw the moneychangers out of the Temple”.[i]

The actions triggered national media coverage and internet discussion. The messages we received included support, challenges, friendly disagreement and outright abuse. Somebody sent me a tweet threatening to “rip your head off” for not showing “respect” to the church. Continue reading

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Liberal Protestants and the Occupy movement’s critique of inequality: a cultural gap?

By Paul Lichterman

Courtesy of the Occupy movement, journalists and social critics in the past year have been talking a great deal more than before about a stark divide between the super-rich and the ninety-nine percent. For religious or religiously literate people it is hardly a new topic. We might suppose that in the U.S., today’s mainline Protestant inheritors of the late-nineteenth century social gospel have powerful theological resources for thinking about the growing economic divide and its effects on the social fabric. Mainline Protestant denominations are the ones more likely than their theologically conservative Protestant counterparts to affirm efforts to change the social world rather than see social change as a distraction from personal piety focused on the next world. Theologically liberal Protestantism, strong in Presbyterian, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Methodist and Congregationalist traditions in the U.S., do not lack for text on economic justice or the primacy of people, and God, over profits.[i] Yet it is not clear that the politically progressive voices of mainline Protestants are prominent in America’s vexed, current conversation about money and power. Continue reading


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November Dialogue: Religion and Contemporary Activism

Recent events provide thought-provoking empirical cases of the relationship between religion and activism, from the Muslim protests in Libya (both violent and non-violent) to Occupy London’s relationship with St. Paul’s Cathedral to the announcement of the Christian Coalition’s Ralph Reed’s re-emergence for a Republican get-out-the-vote campaign. Such events prompt important questions: What is the relationship between religion and activism today? How and why might that relationship differ today compared to the past? Does it also differ depending on national and regional context, or on the religious tradition(s) involved? If so, how? Are existing theories of religion and activism adequate for fully capturing the myriad relationships between religion and activism? If not, where do they need to be expanded?  Drawing on both conservative and progressive cases of religious activism, these essays offer fresh insights for the future of research on religion and collective action.

Thank you to the contributors to the first round of essays in this dialogue:

Tricia C. Bruce, Maryville College (essay)
Ziad Munson, Lehigh University (essay)
Rhys H. Williams, Loyola University Chicago (essay)
Grace Yukich, Quinnipac University (essay)

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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. Continue reading


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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. Continue reading

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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. Continue reading


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Profane Protest on Sacred Domain: Encountering the Contradictions in Religion and Activism

By Tricia C. Bruce

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. Continue reading

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