Religion, Social Justice, and Hope

Jonathan Morgan

message from heavenDon’t worry- having told the story about cotton mill owners using religious leaders to suppress mill workers’ protests, I’m not going to turn around and talk about how religion promotes social justice.  We all know that’s not always true.  But the piece on religion, cotton, and coal left with a hanging question.  Why did religion suppress social justice in one situation and support justice in the other case?  I hinted at how social context determines the shape of religion, but it’s not the only factor.  As much as religion is social, it’s also an individual phenomenon, and differences in the individual psyche play a major role in the shape religion takes.

Earlier this month, the psychologist Steven Sandage and I published an article on the relationship between social justice, religion, and hope.  Social justice can mean many different things to different.  Some see it as working for equal access to healthy foods while others are more concerned with economic injustice.  So when we’re studying social justice, we look primarily at people’s commitment, not the specific type of work they’re passionate about.  I’m not presenting our work as though it unravels the complex forces within an individual psyche that shape religion to be concerned about justice in some instances and seemingly indifferent in others – but I think it does provide a step towards understanding that process.

Our study focused on an evangelical community where we sought to understand how particular types of spirituality and particular experiences of hope related to individuals’ commitment to social justice.  Evangelicals have pretty widely diverging views on social justice.  I know, social justice may seem like a no-brainer common denominator for Christian communities, but for a disturbing example of how some argue against social justice see Smalling & Smalling.  They argue, somewhat confusingly, that working for social justice leads people to lose sight of the real Christian message about God’s love.  The same ambiguity between religion in the cotton mills and coal mines exists today, and we wanted to see what might predict the stance evangelicals take on social justice.

We measured spirituality, hope and social justice commitment each through surveys.  Of course this method of research runs into all the limitations surveys always face.  Surveys are blunt instruments – they don’t capture the complexity of each phenomenon.  We didn’t follow people around to see how their commitment to social justice was acted upon or how they nurtured hope in their lives. I’d be fascinated to read such an in-depth study.  We couldn’t capture such nuance, but we were able to collect information from over 200 people – which is a wide enough swath that any emerging patterns demand some sort of explanation.

For example, say that among 200 people, some report experiencing a lot of hope while some report experiencing very little hope.  And say that those who report experiencing hope also consistently report a strong commitment to social justice.  That sort of pattern reveals something, right?  At the very least it demands some explanation.

That correlation between hope and social justice is, in fact, one of the relationships that we found.  Another emerged between reports of positive religious coping skills and commitment to social justice.  Positive religious coping is a technical, and bulky, way to talk about using religious practices when faced with stressful situations.  If you find comfort or strength in prayer when facing grief or a challenge, then that’s an example of positive religious coping.  The people who engaged with religion in this supportive way also were more likely to report a commitment to social justice.

That’s interesting for a couple of reasons.  First, it flies in the face of Smalling and Smalling’s  concerns that social justice is purely a secular interest (not that we needed much convincing of that fact, but it’s helpful to have some empirical weight in that debate).  More importantly, it begins to answer questions about how individuals use religion in different ways.

Sandage has worked with the theologian LeRon Shults to develop a model that uses the ways we experience our relationships with each other to understand different types of spirituality.  There are a wide variety of ways people relate to each other – trust, hostility, ambivalence, and avoidance are just a few.  These different relational styles arise out of personality types and past experiences, along with current circumstances that may change our typical mode of relating.  The point of the model is that these ways of relating with each other are often closely correlated with the ways people relate to what they consider sacred.

In our research, the people who reported seeking out the sacred for support during times of stress also reported more of a commitment to social justice.  This sort of positive religious coping is reflective of a healthy, stress-buffering style of relating – like turning to friends and family in hard times.  It’s no surprise that this style of relating would be helpful if you’re engaged in the stressful work of social justice.  Activists need all the support they can get.  But it becomes more interesting to consider that our style of relating may be one of the things that actually shapes religion in such a way that it supports social justice.

Surveys can’t tell us whether a healthy relational spirituality leads to a commitment to social justice or vice-versa.  But at the very least they help us see some of the patterns surrounding religion when it becomes such different things to different people.

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