Religious Social Networks, Indirect Mobilization, and African-American Political Participation

Article excerpt

This study examines the mobilizing effects of informal political discussions among African-American church attenders. Specifically, I focus on indirect political encouragement through congregant social networks. I utilize data from the 1993-1994 National Black Politics Study to test models of indirect mobilization effects on voting and non-voting political activism. Findings from regression analyses demonstrate that informal political communication in churches is a more effective stimulus of political involvement than clergy messages. In particular, I argue that discussions in religious social networks increases black activism by overcoming the paradoxes of participation, developing a motivating political consciousness in citizens, and producing responsiveness to religious group civic norms. My results suggest that frequent church attendance and expectations of regular contact with fellow parishioners serve as important mechanisms for monitoring and reinforcing civic norms, while clergy messages may be less effective due to their more detached connection with black church attenders.

Much has been written about how religious institutions increase the democratic capacities of American citizens. Scholars from Tocqueville ([1835] 1969) through Verba, Schlozman, and Brady (1995) have lauded churches for teaching democratic norms, civic skills, serving as sites for political recruitment, and mobilizing church attenders through informal social connections. A crucial assumption of this research is that social interaction in religious settings helps communicate important political information and transforms citizens into more active participants in the political process. This general framework has often been applied to the study of African-American political participation.

Prior research shows that black churches mobilize African Americans for political action directly through clergy political messages (Calhoun-Brown 1996; Reese and Brown 1995; Harris 1999) and indirectly through clerical organizational networks (McAdam 1982; Morris 1984; Harris 1999). However, the religion and black political activism literature overemphasizes the motivating role of ministers' direct communication with church attenders through messages from the pulpit.1 These works fail to highlight the distinct participatory significance of informal social relationships among black congregants.

Interaction in churches is not limited to communication from ministers to the laity. Church attenders also listen to and act on political information they receive from fellow worshipers. Iniormal conversations can be particularly effective mobilizing factors for African Americans who are very involved in religious activities. For devout individuals, the impact of political discussion is heightened because frequent religious participation helps to communicate information on a regular basis, in a setting where other group members can easily enforce conformity to civic norms. These important distinctions represent an alternative (and neglected) perspective on how churches increase black political participation.

In this article, I explore how informal political discussion in churches functions as a source of indirect political mobilization. I examine two related questions: (1) Does political discussion among African-American church attenders influence voting and other forms of activism, independent of clergy messages? and (2) How does inlormal discussion influence black political participation? Using regression analyses of the f993-1994 National Black Politics Study, I find that informal political dialogue in religious settings has a more consistent positive impact on political activity than clergy messages. In particular, I posit that conversations in religious social networks increase black political involvement by overcoming the paradoxes of participation, developing a motivating political consciousness in citizens, and producing responsiveness to group civic norms. …


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