"A Shared Future," book cover photo courtesy of Heather Wilson

The upside of 'organized religion' (COMMENTARY)

"A Shared Future," book cover photo courtesy of Brad Fulton

"A Shared Future," book cover photo courtesy of Heather Wilson

(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).

Brad R. Fulton, recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award

Brad R. Fulton, recipient of the Algernon Sydney Sullivan Award

 This image is available for web and print publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

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.

Richard L. Wood is a professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of New Mexico and author of "Faith in Action." Photo courtesy of Richard L. Wood

Richard L. Wood is a professor and chair of the sociology department at the University of New Mexico and author of "Faith in Action." Photo courtesy of Richard L. Wood

 This image is available for web publication. For questions, contact Sally Morrow.

(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")


  1. I guess morality and god’s word really are subjective, and free floating, because I know the bible tells christians to not be of the world.

  2. Re “ ‘Organized religion’ has been getting a bad rap lately”
    and “The coalitions sponsor ‘political actions’ or ‘accountability sessions’ at which they call on political officials to support particular public policies.”

    Effect and cause?

    The problem with pious parties pressuring politicians to promote “particular public policies” is that pious public policies presume to police the public — particularly the personal property and private practices of the pious parties’ peers.

    It’s not organized religion’s place to politically “manage” people who don’t even go to their church.

  3. Secular groups can do all this go-good stuff cheaper and better—and religious folk who want to promote social justice and contribute to those groups and work with them.

    This important thing about ‘organized religion’ is that it maintains the infrastructure—something secular groups won’t and can’t do. Quite a few secular people like church buildings and some enjoy a good choral Evensong on occasions. Well, tell me: how are you going to have that without organized religion to maintain the buildings and do the rituals? Who pays and who does the work to keep this going?

    ‘Spiritual but not religions’ is like going for the broccoli and skipping desert. And as far as ethics, working for justice and all this, that’s the dues we pay to enjoy the buildings and ceremonies—which produce the fun stuff of religion.

  4. Nor should they be involved in the world’s politics and wars as Jesus, his disciples, apostles and the first-century Christians never were.

  5. I’m looking forward to see how the “master plan” to prohibit organized religion will finally be executed. This will fulfill the prophecy of Revelation chapter 17 and 18.

  6. Saul Alinsky would be about my last choice as someone to pattern my behavior after, from the standpoint of someone of “faith.” Good works are an important element and evidence of true faith, but they are only complimentary to the first step of acknowledging Jesus as the Savior of humanity and the unique, singular, preeminent Son of God.

  7. Thanks, Patrick!
    “I may appear partial to peas,
    but I favor the savor of seas.”
    OK, so I had to look him up…

  8. Please. Most of this post is full of absurd claims. “Faith-based” organizations have practiced and encouraged bigotry and division. They are mostly allied with right-wing Republican partisanship and pretend to be victims of persecution even as they seek licenses to discriminate, while being able to dip into public funds.

  9. No one wants to prohibit org rel. You have a right to your faith. But we can show a better way, through Humanism and science. This way, org rel dies voluntarily and of it’s own need to do so.

  10. Good works are done for the benefit of those who are in need of it. They are done because it is the moral thing to do. We do not do them to prove to the HellMaster that we are good people. That would be selfish. If Jesus was worth his Lot’s salt, he would be caring for the ones in need. But as a mythic creature, he is quite helpless.

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