Academic journal article Social Work

Does Social Work Oppress Evangelical Christians? A "New Class" Analysis of Society and Social Work

Academic journal article Social Work

Does Social Work Oppress Evangelical Christians? A "New Class" Analysis of Society and Social Work

Article excerpt

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," wrote Martin Luther King (1992, p. 85). When injustice is tolerated against a specific group, ultimately everyone's access to justice is at risk. Indeed, since its foundation social work has recognized the deleterious effects of social injustice and incorporates as one of its six guiding ethical principles the need to understand and ameliorate oppression (NASW, 2000).

Recognition of injustice, however, is a perplexing issue. How does discrimination against a particular group enter one's consciousness? It is clear that the actual existence of oppression is a minimal criterion at best. For a century and a half, segregated restaurants, hotels, schools, and buses existed without being acknowledged as a problem. Similarly, the internment of coastal-dwelling Asian Americans during World War II was not widely perceived as discriminatory when it occurred, but only long after the internment was an accepted fact.

As Edelman (1990) noted, ideologically oriented class issues keep oppressions concealed. Indeed, the most deeply obscured instances of discrimination stem from ideological premises that are so widespread in people's everyday language that they are not recognized as ideological at all but are accepted as the way the world is constituted. For example, to generations of educated white people socialized to see black people as a less-evolved form of life, segregation reflected the reality of the cosmos, not a matrix of oppression.

Accordingly, social work has attempted to uncover oppression by deconstructing the prevailing dominant ideology using a modified Marxist analysis. As Hamilton and Sharma (1997) observed, a clash between ideologies or worldviews, along with a power differential, sets the stage for oppressive conditions. Because the class or group holding power inclines toward oppressing those without access to power, serving its own ideological interests, deconstructing the dominant class tends to reveal the populations who face oppression.

The profession has done a commendable job applying this framework in the areas of race, ethnicity, gender, age, sexual orientation, and so forth, but one area has been overlooked--religion. Although the Code of Ethics of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW, 2000) stipulates that "social workers should obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to ... religion" (p. 9, 1.05c) few, if any, articles have explored the oppression of religious populations.


This article's discussion of religious oppression uses a number of terms. The most specific, Evangelicals, refers to a transdenominational, ecumenical Protestant movement that emphasizes the following three points: (1) salvation only through existential, personal trust in Christ's finished atoning work, (2) a spiritually transformed life marked by moral conduct and personal devotion such as scripture reading and missions, and (3) the Bible as authoritative and reliable (Marsden, 1987). Because of their status as the nation's largest spiritual tradition--approximately 25 percent of the population--Evangelicals often are used as a proxy for a family of discrete religious groups that are frequently referred to as religious conservatives (Green, Guth, Smidt, & Kellstedt, 1996).

Religious conservatives, or orthodox believers, are defined as individuals who derive their value system from an external transcendent source, often manifested in a particular sacred text (Hunter, 1991). In North America these individuals are primarily theists, defined as people who believe in a personal God of transcendent existence and power, who seek to ground their lives in the Bible (Gallup & Castelli, 1989). In keeping with the accepted practice of using self-designations for the population being described, this article uses the term "people of faith" interchangeably with religious conservatives/historically orthodox believers. …

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