(RNS) “Organized religion” has been getting a bad rap lately. Whenever mainstream religious leaders and organizations make it into the headlines, it’s often for dubious or deplorable reasons rather than for their constructive work.
And there’s elbow room aplenty in those houses of worship: A recent study by the Pew Research Center found the share of Americans with no religious affiliation is rising and the share identifying with mainline Protestant and Catholic traditions is declining.
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Yet, throughout the country, a growing number of religious leaders and congregations are participating in grass-roots organizing to promote civic engagement, encourage political participation and address social issues at all levels of government. As rising inequality and deteriorating quality of life continue to diminish the power of disadvantaged people, these faith-based coalitions respond by developing leaders and consolidating power among marginalized communities.
Their work has helped to increase funding for schools in low-income districts, expand immigrant rights within states and shape health care reform at the federal level. So what are these organizing efforts and why are they gaining traction?
To find out, the two of us plumbed data from a new national study of faith-based community organizing coalitions and we interviewed several key leaders in the field. The result of our research is a new book, “A Shared Future” (University of Chicago Press), and a renewed appreciation for the contribution of organized religion.
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Faith-based community organizing (FBCO) draws from the democratic ideals promoted by grass-roots political activists, including Jane Addams, Saul Alinsky, Larry Itliong, Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr.
Over the last decade, the FBCO field has built a significant presence throughout American society and in particular among religious congregations. FBCO coalitions develop their members into leaders and train them to organize their communities to push for public policy to improve their quality of life.
The coalitions sponsor “political actions” or “accountability sessions” at which they call on political officials to support particular public policies. This model of organizing is helping to change public policy on issues ranging from education and health care to immigration and affordable housing. More recently, as the book shows, segments of the field have invested heavily in working for racial equity.
In addition to providing the institutional base of the FBCO field, organized religion contributes in two other significant ways. Many FBCO coalitions draw on the faith traditions of their members to buttress their organizing efforts with a sense of meaning and purpose.
Coalition leaders often infuse elements of religious teaching and practice into settings where participants are asked to confront inequality, injustice and inaction. That might be in the form of a prayer, a symbol, a song or a scripture reading. These elements are so powerful and effective precisely because they are familiar features of organized religion.
There is a second, more internal way that religion undergirds the field’s commitment to social change. Many FBCO leaders lead from a place of personal spiritual engagement and vitality.
Pastor Michael McBride, a leader within the PICO National Network, describes the sustaining influence of his spiritual life: “I’m a fifth-generation African American Pentecostal kid. I have been grounded and nurtured in the active and ongoing presence of the Spirit of God to make all things new. … When really lived, this creates an active and forward vision.”
McBride emphasizes, though, that he doesn’t accept his faith tradition “as is.” Rather, he believes that the process of “deeply interrogating” one’s faith can lead to “a kind of prophetic language that can redeem the soul of our country, a country that’s been deeply soiled by racism, commodification, and a damning obsession with material and with power” (from p. 170).
Yet, McBride hastens to point out that the souls of the faithful are just as susceptible to being soiled. He notes that “we are not immune to being seduced by the things (of this world), but we have powerful resources to resist that, to help re-center us, to call us back to a more faithful application of our faith values and our human, civic, and national values” (from p. 171).
So there is reason to believe that organized religion can provide the spiritual resources needed to help confront the demons bedeviling American society and perhaps even the wider world.
(Brad R. Fulton is an assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs at Indiana University)
(Richard L. Wood is a professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of New Mexico and author of “Faith in Action”)