The values that most people grow up with and are instilled by the faith they follow — helping the poor, feeding the hungry, loving your neighbor — do not always unite religious groups attempting to tackle community issues together, according to a paper in the February issue of the American Sociological Review by USC College sociologist Paul Lichterman.
“There can be a long distance between what people learn from their sacred texts and what they end up doing on the basis of those teachings,” said Lichterman, an associate professor of sociology and religion in the College. “What I found is that people use religion to decide ‘Who can I work with? Who should I avoid? Who is outside my circle?’ ”
Lichterman found that emphasizing core beliefs didn’t always unify the participants. Instead, the groups more easily worked together once they were willing to openly talk about who they could accept on religious and moral grounds.
According to the study, learning more about interfaith collaborations and developing strategies to help them work cohesively could have a long-lasting impact because half of the people who volunteer in America do so in a religious context.
Lichterman studied two groups from 1998 to 2000. One was made up of church representatives who worked on community projects in a low-income minority neighborhood. In the other, pastors organized events against racism in a mid-sized Midwest city.
In each case, members argued about who could become partners in their cause, despite sharing the same religious reasons for supporting the groups’ noble goals.
The community development group was mainly white and middle-class church people. Some members argued over whether low-income, minority residents with different morals or lifestyles could be their partners in community development. The anti-racism, largely Christian group argued over whether it should work with Jews, Muslims, wiccans or others who opposed racism on religious grounds.
“It can make or break these groups,” Lichterman said. “People who are passionate about anti-racism can have a very hard time working with others who are passionate about anti-racism too but are members of different faiths.”
In the case of the anti-racism group, participants agreed that they did not have to emphasize their Christian identity all the time. They could decide when to identify themselves as “Christian” or as “anti-racist.” This helped them accommodate evangelical members who were sensitive about working in public with non-Christians and liberal Protestants who were sensitive about looking exclusionary.
On the issue of global warming, for example, many religious conservatives would agree that they are called to be good stewards of the Earth, yet they are reluctant to take a stand in this area.
Why? Because they fear being identified with another group that may have different views on the issues conservatives have used as litmus tests for Christians such as abortion or gay and lesbian rights, Lichterman believes.
“For them to say ‘I am for a solution to global warming’ would risk being associated with other groups that they feel could harm their religious reputation as true Christians,” Lichterman said.
The findings raise questions about the federal government’s recent push to use religious groups to administer social welfare programs, Lichterman said.
“Policymakers believe church groups should take over social welfare, because their religions say to help the poor,” Lichterman said. “But policymakers don’t consider the problem of religious groups collaborating with other groups and serving ‘other’ populations. Simply having compassionate values is not nearly enough to make religious organizations effective agents of service in a diverse community.”
Lichterman, who has studied religion and group dynamics for 11 years, wrote Elusive Togetherness: Church Groups Trying to Bridge America's Divisions (Princeton University Press) in 2005.
Many studies correlate religious denominations with voting behaviors, but few delve into “how people use religion in their public lives as citizens, neighbors and volunteers,” Lichterman said. “We need more studies on how people use religion to make sense of the public world.”
A grant from the Louisville Institute, sponsored by the Lilly Endowment, helped with the compilation of the original research. The time to analyze the original data was made possible through a grant of the Pew Charitable Trusts, awarded by the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.