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How We Think About Religion and Why it Matters for Social Movements

Last month, a new Pew report confirmed what many of us suspected: that the rise of the nones is not abating; that religious disaffiliation is continuing or even accelerating. Besides disaffiliation, we also have a situation of deep religious polarization: as Robert Wuthnow first argued a long time ago, religion’s influence on people today comes less through denominations and pastors than through its affinity with competing systems of meaning – orthodox, or conservative; and modernist, or progressive. These trends are amplified by a third: internal secularization, wherein people who are still in a church often ascribe less authority to that church and its institutional guidance than they might have in prior generations. Disaffiliation, polarization, and internal secularization – all of these trends would seem to point toward a diminished role for religion in the public sphere.

And yet it’s clear that’s not happening. Amid these signs of declining institutional religious authority, there is plenty of evidence that religion as a system of public cultural authority is not receding at all. Rather, there is a set of strong cultural claims about belonging, citizen competence, leadership, and social order which have religious roots, but have diffused out from their denominational  and institutional moorings and continue to shape the political and civic preferences of a wide variety of social actors – not only religious people. In previous work, co-authors and I called this a secularized evangelical discourse. Other, more parsimonious authors label it Christian Nationalism. Whatever we call it, it’s real, it’s powerful, and it’s persistent.

It’s also something that scholars of social movements need to account for. Christian Nationalism is a key driver of contemporary conservative movements in the US. It predicts conservative attitudes about race, gun control, gender, sexuality, and more. But theoretically, Christian Nationalism is also something more: a culturally derived response to changing structural conditions (namely the ongoing diversification of the US population and the perception that white, Christian culture is under threat). In these terms, it’s not the only way that religion motivates responses to social change – it surely has to be a case of something. And what I think it is a case of is a desire among people to anchor their political and cultural identities in a narrativized sense of belonging that has connection to sacred values. Christian nationalism is one such narrativized sense of belonging, as Phil Gorski shows so well in his analysis of evangelicals’ voting for Trump. But there might be others too. What they are, who they appeal to, and how they manifest in politics are questions that social movement scholars need to think about going forward.

The reason this is so important is that many researchers, not only in sociology, but also in political science and psychology, are satisfied with throwing a few measures of private religious behavior into their analyses and saying that they have considered religion’s effects. Even in the sociology of religion, where people are aware of the complexities of measuring and analyzing religion, measures have not yet caught up to the empirical reality that cultural authority is where the action is. The key question is, why are religious claims persistently powerful in public life in contexts where fewer people are religious?

A new working paper by Andrew Whitehead and Sam Perry identifies four responses to Christian Nationalism in the United States. There are rejecters, resisters, accommodators, and ambassadors, but the demographic composition of the groups is a little surprising. By looking granularly at who exhibits different levels of support for Christian nationalism, they make some important findings. I will highlight two. First, 1/5th of ambassadors are Democrats! This is something one would never find if looking only at the news media or even at most studies of conservative Christianity. And yet there it is, suggesting that that even among political progressives there is appetite for belonging to something that is both sacred and farther-reaching than a congregation.

Second, and related, nearly half of African-Americans are accommodators, but few are ambassadors. This, combined with the previous finding, makes a key point about the Democratic party coalition – the ethnic and racial minority groups that comprise almost half of it have a much stronger appetite for religious claims in public life than do its white components. We need to recognize that these racial minority Democrats favor some religious language in the public sphere. This should be obvious to anyone who listens to the way Black leaders talk. Even those who don’t mention God specifically often tap into the prophetic discourse of Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Dr. William Barber. They imbue these values into the way they talk about politics; both the politics of national belonging, as Barack Obama did, and the politics of everyday life, as they mobilize on issues related to incarceration, debt, voting, education, and access to health care. But too many people don’t recognize this kind of talk as religious, because, as Penny Edgell has written, when it comes from people who aren’t white, we tend to assume it is about interests, not values. Here’s a strong example of why we need to think about religion as a system of cultural authority, more than a system of private beliefs. When we think about who makes up the Democratic coalition, distilling that coalition down to just interests, and ignoring the appetite for sacred values, isn’t only empirically wrong, it perpetuates harmful stereotypes that make us even more wrong the more we do it.

For anyone still thinking that religion is simple, consider a paradox pointed out recently by Sam Perry: Christian nationalism and private religious practice almost always have opposite effects when included together in multivariate models. Christian nationalism drives people toward opposition to redistributive social programs and support for immigrants, while private religious practice is associated with stronger support for these things. How could this be? Well, one interpretation that interests me is that both Christian nationalism and religious practice are organized around religious authority, but the objects of that authority are different. Christian nationalism looks toward strict security, strong social boundaries, and militarism as core values to which fidelity is owed, while religious practice is more closely associated with charity and stewardship. This seems to align with the moral schemas theory posited by George Lakoff, which points to opposing family metaphors – strict father and nurturant mother – to explain political differences. It seems possible that Christian Nationalism is essentially tapping, or is at least highly correlated with, this strong father sense of morality, and that we in fact lack equivalent measures of how nurturant mother morality, if we accept Lakoff’s term, is projected into questions of public life.

Let me give an example. In late October I was at a gathering of community organizers, and somehow it came up that I was doing research on this topic. I described how I saw the difference between private religiosity and public religious authority, and one of the organizers said, but what about people like me? I’m a Jew, but my Judaism is almost entirely about social justice. I believe in God a little bit, but really what I believe in, and why I am in a community of believers, is pursuit of the common good. So I have strong conceptions of public religious authority, and weak private belief, but I’m not a religious nationalist.

This community organizer is a person that sociologists’ models of the intersection of religion and politics can’t explain very well right now. He would likely show up in Whitehead’s model as a rejecter (nearly half of Jews do). And he does reject Christian Nationalism, but he also has a keen sense of public religious authority that our measures don’t pick up on, and this drives his social activism in a community organization. One reason we don’t notice this kind of public religious practice is that it’s not tied to a strict racial identity and it doesn’t share in the history of the Southern Strategy and the Religious Right, so it’s much less institutionalized and not as heavily politicized. But it’s there, and it’s real, and we’re missing it.

I’ll wrap up this post with a couple of questions to prompt reflection on how social movements research can build on this emerging research agenda on public religious authority. First, what is religious nationalism really a case of, in both empirical and theoretical terms? And what other authority systems might fit into whatever it is a case of, and how might we measure those?

Second, what are we missing when we limit our analysis of religion and public authority to white conservatives, as most of the research has done so far? Are we missing something really important about other racial-religious traditions? Omar McRoberts has a chapter about Black civil religion in a forthcoming book by Penny Edgell and Grace Yukich that would suggest we are. I think he’s right, and I can’t wait to see his remarks about this in print.

Third, what implications might this way of thinking about religion have outside of the world of politics that we have mostly been discussing today? Practically all of the work on public religious authority to date has involved attitudinal studies. What about its civic effects? Its behavioral effects? How it drives movement formation or dissolution, or inform what movements can and can’t do in different contexts? The possibilities seem vast, but I’ll stop here.

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Informing Activists: “What are the challenges and opportunities that girls and young women should consider when getting involved in social movements?”

Nancy Whittier:

 

“What are the challenges and opportunities that girls and young women should consider when getting involved in social movements?”

 

Classic:
Taylor, Verta. 1999. “Gender and social movements: Gender processes in women’s self-help movements.” Gender & Society 13(1): 8-33.

Robnett, Belinda. 1996. “African-American women in the civil rights movement, 1954-1965: Gender, leadership, and micromobilization.” American Journal of Sociology. 101(6): 1661-1693.

Review:
McCammon, Holly J., Taylor, Verta, Reger, Jo, & Einwohner, Rachel L. (Eds.). (2017). The Oxford Handbook of US Women’s Social Movement Activism. Oxford University Press.

Contemporary:
Yang, Chia-Ling. 2017. “The political is the personal: women’s participation in Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement.” Social Movement Studies 16(6): 660-671.

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Allies in a Dangerous Time

By Amanda Pullum

The enemy of my enemy, as the saying goes, is my friend. While we should probably be skeptical of this attitude toward friendship, it can help us understand why activists sometimes form short-term–or even seemingly paradoxical–alliances during times of threat.

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Youth, Social Movements & Activism Syllabus

Youth, Social Movements, and Activism Syllabus

This course provides an undergraduate level introduction to the study of youth political socialization and political activism. Young people are the backbone of most social movements from the Civil Rights and anti-Vietnam War movements to more contemporary examples like Black Lives Matter, #Occupy, and the anti-gun violence movement. The first half of the course presents an overview of theories of youth political socialization, political participation, and their role in social movements. The course specifically explores concerns about the state of youth political participation and the realities of participation, theories regarding how youth are socialized to participate in politics (and the impediments to participation), the history of youth in social movements (specifically why youth and college campuses are so important). The second half builds on this structure to review areas where youth are bringing new energy to political participation. The syllabus includes discussion in how youth have updated tactics, continue to redefine what counts as political, and incorporate new (intersectionality) and old (economic inequality) concerns into movements. The course is built around a midterm and final exam, as well as a research paper on a youth-oriented social movement that is broken up into several smaller “proposals” throughout the semester. Students are also assessed on their participation in class discussion over the substantive issues. The course serves as a point of connection between courses on youth and society, political sociology, political communication, and social movements.

 

The syllabus with usage notes and learning outcomes are available on the TRAILS website.

An un-gated link to Youth & Activism syllabus is available here.

Additional material are available here.

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Teaching Youth & Activism- Perceptions of Politics Assignment

This is a short (3-4pg) assignment that you may use as a part of the youth, social movements, and activism course.

Additional material are available here.

A link to a word version of this post is available here

 Assignment: Youth Political Participation Interview Study                      

Overview:  In class we have discussed, or will be discussing, how youth learn to be politically involved, perceptions of youth political involvement (particularly adults’ perceptions), and how youth may “avoid” being perceived as political. We have also discussed the realities around the diverse ways that youth are politically active. For this assignment, you will conduct one-on-one interviews (they should be at least 20-30 minutes, but you are encouraged to talk longer if it is going well) with THREE people you know or perhaps do not know so well regarding such themes. These can be friends, parents, family members, neighbors, strangers, etc. During your interview, like any sociologist, you want open and honest answers, and so you should make sure that they are comfortable sharing their beliefs, experiences, and perspectives. You should ask them the following questions. The goal is to get in-depth answers, and so you are encouraged to ask follow up questions (i.e. tell me more about that). It is okay if you do not get to all of the questions.

  • What were you taught about politics and activism growing up from your family, friends, and teachers? Did you have conversations about political issues at home or with friends?
  • Do you see yourself as politically active? What do you do that you would consider political? What would you consider activism?
  • Why do you engage in these forms of politics and activism? [If they do not participate in any activism or politics, as them why they choose not to participate]?
  • What do you think of politics in general? What do you think of people who are politically active? What would you think if someone referred to you as politically active or an activist?
  • Who do you talk about politics with? What do you talk about, and how often?
  • What sorts of issues do you think are worth getting active in response to?

After you have completed your interviews, you will write a research report on what you have found. Your report will be organized. It will have an introduction, conclusion, and a central conceptual focus (i.e. you should be able to summarize what you learned from your interviewees in one or two sentences). The body of the paper should be divided into several sections. The middle three sections should each receive equal weight in your write-up:

  1. An Introductory section that introduces the issue, broad research question, and the central conceptual focus of your paper.
  2. A Description and summary of your interviews. Describe who the THREE people you interviewed were, who they are to you, and when you interviewed them. Summarize their responses. What did you learn from them that you never thought about, or realized? What were the common themes and patterns of experiences that you saw across all of the interviews?
  3. An analysis and interpretation of these observations using one (no more than two) of the concepts developed in the text and class. Integrate your interview materials with lecture and text pertaining to political socialization, political participation, and political avoidance. Overall, you should demonstrate an awareness of some of the varied ways that engage with or avoid political participation. Make sure that you are not just defining the class concepts, but applying them. In other words, your paper should explain the concept, identify a couple of examples from you interviews, and then explains why they are examples of the concept.
  4. A reflective discussion about your own political socialization and participation. Have you ever thought about your political beliefs and actions? How did you learn “proper” political behavior, and do you express your political beliefs in culturally acceptable ways? Can you recall moments of ambiguity or tension, or peer pressure or policing, in your own development? Would you say that you generally conform your political beliefs to your friends and families’ beliefs or do you see yourself as challenging their political expectations? How and why?
  5. A conclusion paragraph that summarizes the main findings from your interviews and how they connect with the class concepts you selected.

 

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Teaching Youth & Activism- One Week Modules

We have created three one week modules for courses on Youth & Society, Social Movements, and Political Sociology for instructors who are interested in integrating the material, but not teaching an entire class on youth and activism. The modules include a selection of readings on the topic, and a brief description of how the readings fit together.

Additional material are available here.

A link to a word document version of this post is available here

Youth & Society ~ Youth and Politics

Earl, Jennifer, Thomas V. Maher, and Thomas Elliott. 2017. “Youth, activism, and social movements.” Sociology Compass (11)4

Lee, Nam-Jin, Dhavan V. Shah, and Jack M. McLeod. 2013. “Processes of political socialization: A communication mediation approach to youth civic engagement.” Communication Research 40.5: 669-697.

Dalton, Russell. 2013. “Chapter 4: Who Participates?” p.63-86 in Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 6th Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press

Munson, Ziad. 2010. “Mobilizing on campus: Conservative movements and today’s college students.” Sociological Forum. 25 (4): 769-786

This module offers a week overview of interdisciplinary research on youth political engagement ranging from political talk to activism. The Earl, Maher, and Elliott piece offers an overview of the literature focusing on youth participation in social movements, the role of campus for activism, how youth intersects with gender and race, and, finally, some insights into the future of the field. The other three articles offer more direct dives into these areas. Lee, Shah, and McLeod introduce the communication mediation approach to political communication, Dalton offers an overview of what youth participation looks like on a macro level, and Munson offers an excellent case-based analysis of why college campuses are so fertile for activism that focuses on the idea of “transition points.”

 

Social Movements ~ Youth activism on campus

Earl, Jennifer, Thomas V. Maher, and Thomas Elliott. 2017. “Youth, activism, and social movements.” Sociology Compass (11)4

Van Dyke, Nella. 1998. “Hotbeds of activism: Locations of student protest.” Social Problems 45.2: 205-220.

Munson, Ziad. 2010. “Mobilizing on campus: Conservative movements and today’s college students.” Sociological Forum. 25 (4): 769-786

Velasquez, Alcides, and Robert LaRose. 2015. “Youth collective activism through social media: The role of collective efficacy.” New Media & Society 17.6: 899-918.

This module offers a week overview of social movement research that focuses specifically on youth and campus activism. The Earl, Maher, and Elliott piece offers an overview of the literature focusing on youth participation in social movements, the role of campus for activism, how youth intersects with gender and race, and, finally, some insights into the future of the field. Van Dyke’s seminal articles offers a quantitative analysis of which campuses produce activism and why, and—in combination with Munson’s excellent case-based analysis of why college campuses are so fertile for activism will prove insightful for discussing youth activism—as well as connecting with literature on political process theory, resources, and micromobilization more generally. Finally, Velasquez and LaRose offer an insightful approach that hints towards the use of more innovative tactics and frames (i.e. intersectionality) that build on prior campus activism.

 

Political Sociology ~ Youth and Politics

Earl, Jennifer, Thomas V. Maher, and Thomas Elliott. 2017. “Youth, activism, and social movements.” Sociology Compass (11)4

Lee, Nam-Jin, Dhavan V. Shah, and Jack M. McLeod. 2013. “Processes of political socialization: A communication mediation approach to youth civic engagement.” Communication Research 40.5: 669-697.

Dalton, Russell. 2013. “Chapter 4: Who Participates?” p.63-86 in Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 6th Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press

Milkman, Ruth. 2017.”A New Political Generation: Millennials and the Post-2008 Wave of Protest.” American Sociological Review 82.1: 1-31.

This module offers a week overview of political sociology research that focuses specifically on youth and political participation. The Earl, Maher, and Elliott piece offers an overview of the literature focusing on youth participation in social movements, the role of campus for activism, how youth intersects with gender and race, and, finally, some insights into the future of the field. Lee, Shah, and McLeod’s article offers a theoretical approach for how youth are socialized to participate politically. Dalton’s piece focuses on trends in political participation—the outcome of socialization—among young people. Finally, Milkman offers a view on young people and the impact they are having on contemporary politics.

Additional Suggested Readings

Overview

Dalton, Russell. 2013. “Chapter 4: Who Participates?” p.63-86 in Citizen Politics: Public Opinion and Political Parties in Advanced Industrial Democracies, 6th Ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: CQ Press

Caren, Neal, Raj Andrew Ghoshal, and Vanesa Ribas. 2011. “A social movement generation: Cohort and period trends in protest attendance and petition signing.” American Sociological Review 76.1: 125-151.

Campus Activism

Van Dyke, Nella. 1998. “Hotbeds of activism: Locations of student protest.” Social Problems 45.2: 205-220.

Munson, Ziad. 2010. “Mobilizing on campus: Conservative movements and today’s college students.” Sociological Forum. 25 (4): 769-786

Political Socialization

Lee, Nam-Jin, Dhavan V. Shah, and Jack M. McLeod. 2013. “Processes of political socialization: A communication mediation approach to youth civic engagement.” Communication Research 40.5: 669-697.

Ojeda, Christopher, and Peter K. Hatemi. 2015. “Accounting for the Child in the Transmission of Party Identification.” American Sociological Review 80.6: 1150-1174

Youth & Social Movement Organizations

McAdam, Doug. 1986. “Recruitment to high-risk activism: The case of freedom summer.” American Journal of Sociology 92.1: 64-90.

Gordon, Hava Rachel. 2007. “Allies within and without: How adolescent activists conceptualize ageism and navigate adult power in youth social movements.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 36.6: 631-668.

Intersectionality & Youth Activism

Velasquez, Alcides, and Robert LaRose. 2015. “Youth collective activism through social media: The role of collective efficacy.” New Media & Society 17.6: 899-918.

Terriquez, Veronica. 2015. “Intersectional mobilization, social movement spillover, and queer youth leadership in the immigrant rights movement.” Social Problems 62.3: 343-362.

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Teaching Youth & Activism- Online Materials

These are additional online materials (videos, articles, radio reports, etc.) that you may draw on to supplement ideas and issues raised in class.

Additional material are available here.

A link to a word version of this post is available here

Henry Jenkins – By Any Media Necessary:

http://byanymedia.org/works/mapp/index

This website is a companion to Jenkins’ book of the same name. It offers articles that elaborate and exemplify concepts from the book. It also provides links to videos and examples of how youth have used culture and media to convey political ideas and issues. Finally, the website offers teaching and learning guides and conversation starters for instructors interested in incorporating these materials into the classroom.

Black Youth Project:

https://blackyouthproject.com/category/video/

The Black Youth Project is a platform for highlighting the voices of young black people and the issues that they are concerned about. The site offers a collection of news articles and videos that sit at the intersection of youth culture and black culture. The site is connected to the activist group BYP 100, and so it also acts as an opportunity for exploring the connection between an activism, information, and media.

Youth Radio:

https://youthradio.org/

Youth radio is an organization that helps get youth involved in telling their own stories. They have had stories shared on NPR and other media channels. The site offers tips and information for educators (including a wide range of “How To’s” such as fact-checking, controlling online presence, getting great interviews, etc.).   The site also includes links to a range of youth-created, youth-oriented journalism, and youth telling their own stories that can be used in several ways in the classroom.

 

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