Tag Archives: religion

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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After Marriage Equality: LGBT Rights and Religious Freedom

Following the Supreme Court’s recent decision legalizing same-sex marriage nationwide, what are the next steps for the LGBT rights movement?

Over the past few weeks, scholars, activists, and politicians alike have begun pondering the path forward for the LGBT movement. In a recent symposium over at Contexts for example, a group of sociologists considers several possibilities for the LGBT rights movement, including renewed focuses on employment and housing discrimination, youth homelessness, violence against the trans community, and intersectional justice. While a small number of activist organizations such as Freedom to Marry have announced that they will now shut down as a result of marriage equality being achieved, most LGBT rights organizations have signaled that they will continue to fight for legal and cultural equality in other social realms – although they don’t yet agree on what their priorities should entail. Continue reading

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Tinkering [human rights, contemporary slaveholders, protest drones]

What fun to be asked about one’s own research! After finishing a PhD in sociology (Notre Dame, 2013) I took a job at a School of Public Policy in Europe. Best move ever. In what follows I sketch the three main veins of inquiry that have kept me busy recently.

A human rights approach to the contemporary anti-slavery movement
At present I am engaged in three primary lines of inquiry. The first involves the development of a human rights approach to contemporary slavery and human trafficking. A decade in the contemporary anti-slavery movement convinced me that current thinking within the movement was driven by Christian evangelical’s conceptualizations of salvation (here). But what’s the positive alternative? I initially sketched this out with one of my mentors (Alison Brysk) in a co-edited volume—From Human Trafficking to Human Rights (Penn 2012, here)—and developed more fully in two journal articles. Continue reading

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Secularism? Nationalism? The Québec Tea Party? What’s the Charter of Values Really About?

quebecblog1In late August, when news of the Parti Québécois’ (PQ) proposed Charte des Valeurs or Charter of Values spread (the Charter bans the province’s civil servants from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols), many expressed concerns that this would stir up dormant ethnic and religious tensions in Québec. It led to the removal of the only minority Bloc Québécois Member of Parliament when the MP suggested that the Charter is a form of ethnic nationalism. Early on, critics warned that the proposed Charter would see tremendous backlash calling it draconian, an example of “Stephen Harper-style wedge politics” (Maclean’s, September 20) and even Putinesque (Globe and Mail, August 20). Well-known human rights lawyer, Julius Grey, told Ingrid Peritz of the Globe and Mail that such “values” rules were more typical of the political right than of a party like the PQ that sees itself as progressive. “A charter of values smacks of the [U.S.] Tea Party,” Mr. Grey said. There are two issues here. First, who supports the Charter of Values and who mobilizes around it? Is the Charter tapping into a conservative streak in Québec public opinion and might there be a ring of truth to Grey’s comparison to the Tea Party ? Second, what are the political incentives for the PQ government to pursue such a policy? I don’t claim to provide a complete answer here, but it is clear (at least to me) that this is an attempt by the PQ to set an alternative policy/electoral agenda, confuse the electorate, and reclaim lost territory in rural (and more conservative) Québec where it lost ground. Continue reading

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Piety and Radicalization: Is There a Link?

After the unfortunate bombings in Boston, the media accounts often highlight increasing religiosity of the terrorists before their attacks. Here is a quote from NY Times, investigating Tamerlan’s path to radicalization:

He flew in to the airport here in Makhachkala, where the plate-glass windows of the arrival hall frame a mosque with twin minarets stretching skyward. He had already given up drinking alcohol, grown a close beard and become more devout, praying five times a day. (full story)

Similar descriptions could be found in many other outlets in these days. Does personal piety correlate with radical views? Continue reading

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The Problem with the “Conflict Thesis”

By Jeffrey Guhin

The relationship between science and religion is often divided into ideal types.  John Hedley Brook proposed conflict, separation, and interaction (1991: 2-4) while Ian Barbour suggested conflict, independence, dialogue, and integration (1997: 77). Stephen Jay Gould developed the concept of “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA), in which “each domain of inquiry frames its own rules and admissible questions, and sets its own criteria for judgment and resolution” (1999: 52-53). In contrast to the new atheists’ belligerent insistence on conflict (e.g. Dawkins 2008; Harris 2008), the vast majority of writings about science and religion tend to fall within these lines of conciliation, whether via separation or some form of amalgamation. Discussions of the conflict thesis often draw a parallel between religious fundamentalists who draw scientific data from religious texts and those practitioners of “scientism,” who develop (not falsifiable) metaphysical and ontological commitments out of falsifiable scientific evidence (Midgley 2002 [1985]; Barbour 1997: 78-84). Yet these groups are not entirely parallel, as the latter certainly acknowledges and seeks to exacerbate the conflict while the former insists that, if understood correctly, there is actually no conflict at all. Continue reading

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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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