Worldly or Otherworldly?
“Activism” in an Urban Religious District
Omar M. McRoberts
Colloquially, the term “faith-based activism” refers to extroverted forms of social action originating in religious institutions. Churches with food pantries and shelters for battered women, or that build homes and run welfare-to-work programs, or whose leaders organize marches and protests, are considered “activist.” It is assumed that religious beliefs and practices are no obstacle for these churches – there is no contradiction between faith and activism. By contrast, churches that do apparently little for nonmembers are called “insular, ” and it is assumed that these institutions face religious ideological barriers to activity in the secular world. It is tempting to call one group “worldly” and the other “otherworldly, ” or one “church” and the other “sect” as have so many scholarly observers (Weber 1922/1963; Troeltsch 1931; Iannaccone 1988; Johnson 1963).
Indeed, among those ideas at the heart of the sociology of religion is the distinction between worldly and otherworldly modes of religious presence. Beneath most typologies of religious organizations is the notion that some churches are oriented toward earthly matters, while others completely turn their backs to secular human affairs, seeking solace in the promise of a better world to come. The worldly/otherworldly dichotomy is implicit especially in works attempting to sort African-American churches.
Scholars of black religion have, for instance, divided black churches into “expressive” and “instrumental.” Expressive congregations are highly insular religious enclaves whose members avoid all involvement in political and secular social matters. They value emotional catharsis above all else. Instead of confronting in secular terms the societal roots of black suffering, these churches use worship to scrape off the psychic barnacles accumulated “out there” in the world. Church is therefore a way to escape the world, or discard the world, if only temporarily. Commentators usually associate expressive forms with the myriad Pentecostal and other “sect” congregations that occupied (and continue to occupy) countless commercial storefronts in depressed black neighborhoods. By contrast, instrumental congregations are inherently political. The pastors of these typically Baptist and Methodist churches preach politics from the pulpit and run for public office. Here, most religious activities are geared toward “uplifting the race.” Instead of escaping the world, these churches plunge headlong into it in order to alter it (Drake 1940; Frazier 1963/1974).