Religious Social Movements in the Public Sphere
Organization, Ideology, and Activism
Rhys H. Williams
When Americans want to change something about their society, they often do so by forming, or participating in, a social movement. And when Americans commit their time, money, and energy to some organization outside their immediate families, it is highly probable that it will be to a religious organization. Thus, it is not surprising that religious organizations have been intimately involved with social movements throughout American history; nor is it surprising, given the general religiousness of the American people, that so many social movements have been grounded in religious values and ideas.
These religiously based social movements have ranged across centuries, issues, and the liberal-to-conservative spectrum. Outstanding examples from the nineteenth century include the Abolitionist Movement, the American Protective Association (an antiimmigrant organization), the Women's Christian Temperance Union, and the AntiSaloon League (anti-alcohol). The twentieth century has witnessed such movements as the Social Gospel Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, the New Christian Right (and its constituent organizations such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition), Operation Rescue (anti-abortion), and Pax Christi (antiwar and nuclear weapons). Religion has been and continues to be a source of people, organizations, and ideas for many attempts at fostering or resisting social change. It can provide the organizational bases, the rhetorical messages, and the motivated adherents that are necessary for social movements to mobilize and be effective.
This chapter will make two arguments. First, as indicated above, I will discuss the ways in which religion and religious communities form natural bases for social movement activism. While this is of course not all that religion does, its affinity for motivating people to try and change the world makes for a natural alignment of religion and social change movements. Second, I will discuss recent developments in American politics and public life that have required social movements to change some of the ways in which they operate. In so doing, religiously based social movements face some challenges now that they did not previously. How they respond to those challenges is
Parts of this essay were delivered as a conference presentation at the Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut in April 1999. They subsequently appeared in a monograph published by the Center, and edited by Mark Silk, Religion and American Politics: The 2000 Election in Context (2000). The author thanks Mark Silk and the Center for permission to use the material.