GOD, POLITICS, AND PROTEST: RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND THE LEGITIMATION OF CONTENTIOUS TACTICS

 

 

ABSTRACT

 

Most students of social protest now agree that protest participation and participation in institutionalized politics are both potentially effective means of addressing individual and collective grievances. A primary conceptual distinction between the two forms of political participation centers on the contentious nature of protest. We focus attention on the disruptive potential of religious beliefs and values, and argue that approval of contentious tactics is a critical link between religious beliefs and protest participation. We analyze data from a representative sample of church-going Protestants in the United States. Results show that perceptions that religious beliefs are being challenged, a belief in absolute moral standards, and a belief that humans are inherently sinful increase the likelihood that Protestants approve of contentious tactics. Approval of contentious tactics is the only variable in our analysis that differentiates conservative Christian voters from those who combine conservative Christian voting with protest participation.

GOD, POLITICS, AND PROTEST: RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND THE LEGITIMATION OF CONTENTIOUS TACTICS

INTRODUCTION

In recent decades, an increasing number of scholars have adopted the view that participation in social protest movements and participation within traditional political institutions are motivated by similar factors and are basically serving similar ends. Each is considered to be a rational form of political participation that under the right circumstances can advance the individual and collective interests of those who participate (Oberschall 1973, 1993; Barnes and Kaase 1979; Herring 1989; Tarrow 1989; Jenkins 1985; Gamson 1975; Opp 1989; Klandermans 1997). Currently, the primary conceptual distinction between the two forms of political participation centers upon the contentious and disruptive nature of protest. Tarrow (1994, p.4), for example, defines social movements as "collective challenges by people with common purposes and solidarity in sustained interaction with elites, opponents, and authorities." Protest movements, as Klandermans (1997, p.2) notes, are comprised of individuals who engage in disruptive collective action.

If participation in traditional political institutions and participation in social protest movements are primarily differentiated by the use of contentious tactics, what is it that leads some individuals to choose one form of participation over another? In this paper we focus on the disruptive potential of religious beliefs. To speak of "disruptive religion" may at first appear to be an oxymoron, given the integrative function that religion is presumed to serve (see Smith 1996a; Casanova 1994). Nevertheless, religious institutions have played a central role in the mobilization of protest movements as diverse as the civil rights movement (Morris 1984; McAdam 1982) and the Ku Klux Klan (Blee 1991). Movements that have sought to overthrow socialism and movements that have sought to install socialism have drawn members, resources, and leadership from the church (Osa 1996). Religious institutions have backed peace movements as well as movements in support of military engagement (Smith 1996b). For many other movements, religious beliefs have themselves been the central issue of contention (Borer 1996, 1998).

In spite of the prominent role that religion has played in such a wide variety of protest movements, religion has taken a back seat in contemporary research on social movements and collective action. Some scholars have noted the organizational compatibility of religious institutions and protest movements (Morris 1984; McAdam 1982). Others have sought to explain moral reform movements as a defensive response to attacks on religiously based beliefs and values (Oberschall 1993; Page and Clelland 1978; Wood and Hughes 1984; Clarke 1977). Yet surprisingly little attention has been given to the ways that specific religious beliefs either increase or diminish an individual's willingness to protest. Yet, one of the few studies that investigates the relationship of religion and protest shows strong effects of Biblical literalism and religious participation on the likelihood of participating in protest movements of the 1960s (Sherkat 1998; see also Sherkat and Blocker 1994). In our study we provide a more systematic analysis of different aspects of religious beliefs and their relationship to protest participation in the 1990s.

The absence of systematic research on the relationship between protest participation and religious beliefs can be attributed, in part, to the dominant theories and methods of research that have been employed by students of social protest over the past couple of decades. Theories that prevailed in the 1950s and 1960s explained the emergence of social protest in terms of the psychological dispositions of the protesters (LeBon 1960; Hoffer 1951; Kornhauser 1959; Blumer 1969). Beginning in the 1970s this general approach came under attack for portraying protest participants as irrational and for assuming a direct link between individual grievances and participation in collective action (see Schwartz 1976; Rule 1988; McAdam 1982; Oberschall 1973). New theories emerged that stressed the importance of organizational resources (Oberschall 1973; McCarthy and Zald 1976) and political opportunities (McAdam 1982; Jenkins, 1985; Tarrow 1994). As scholars focused attention on social movement organizations and their relationships to other contenders and to the state, the most basic unit of a protest movement, the individual protester, was left out of the mix.

A new social psychology of protest has emerged, however, that complements the dominant theories in the field. A central point of both resource mobilization theory and political opportunity models is that individual or collectively held grievances do not automatically lead to protest. Organizational resources and a favorable political environment each play an important role in stimulating collective action (Jenkins and Perrow 1977). The new social psychological approach counters with a claim that even when resources are available and when the political opportunity structure is favorable, individuals are unlikely to act if they do not define their situation as a collective problem that can and should be addressed through collective action (Snow et al. 1986; McAdam 1982). The social construction of meaning, therefore, is central to the mobilization of social protest.

So how is it that individuals come to understand their situation as one that can and should be addressed by social protest? Clearly each individual will follow a different path to protest, as no two individuals share the exact same life situation or socialization. Individuals construct meaning, however, by linking their personal life experiences to public discourse, the mass media, and collectively held beliefs and values (Gamson 1992). As Klandermans (1997, p.43) expresses it, "People employ distinct sets of beliefs in different circumstances and in doing so draw from the beliefs that are available in a society. These beliefs are not randomly distributed but included in systems of collective beliefs such as religions and ideologies" (see also Moscovici 1985; Gamson 1992).

Although Klandermans mentions religion as an important system of collective belief, we know relatively little about the relationship between religious beliefs and the protest participation. In this paper we utilize survey data from a representative sample of church-going Protestants in the United States. We use the data to address the following questions. First, what proportion of church-going Protestants in the United States believe that it is at times necessary for Christians to use contentious tactics to change society. Second, do certain religious beliefs held by individuals increase the likelihood that they will approve of contentious tactics? Third, does approval of contentious tactics increase the likelihood that individuals engage in protest rather than merely voting for political candidates who support their views?

The use of a representative sample, consisting of both those who have protested and those who have not, is somewhat unusual in the study of social movements and collective action. Most of what we have learned about the attributes of protest participants has been derived from observations of activists within case studies of specific movements. The case study approach is particularly useful in studying the process of protest participation. Movement activists, after all, engage in ongoing strategic interaction with their opponents and with the state (McAdam 1982; Schwartz 1976; Jenkins 1985; Tarrow 1994; Klandermans 1997). These dynamics are difficult to capture with cross sectional survey data (Klandermans 1997). Yet the use of survey data from a representative sample has some advantages when the goal is to study the role that beliefs, values, and ideology play in protest participation. For example, in a study of the anti-abortion movement we might find that the vast majority of activists believe that all people should adhere to one set of moral standards. The causal significance of such a belief could not be determined, however, without systematic comparison to the beliefs held by non-participants (Luker 1984). In this paper we examine the role that religious beliefs play in differentiating protest participants from non-participants. We argue that approval of contentious tactics is a crucial link between religious beliefs and actual protest participation.

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS AND THE LEGITIMATION OF CONTENTIOUS TACTICS

A vast literature has now developed on frame alignment processes in social movements (see Snow et al. 1986; Gamson 1992; Cornfield and Fletcher 1998; Reese 1996; Swart 1995; Koopmans and Dyvendak 1995; Johnston 1991; Babb 1996; Klandermans 1997). A frame refers to a schemata of interpretation that allows individuals to "locate, perceive, identify, and label" occurrences within their life space and in the world (Goffman 1974, p.21; Snow et al. 1986, p.464). Frame alignment refers to the way that movement activists attempt to recruit members by linking the movement organization's interpretive orientations to those held by the individuals and groups that they hope to recruit (Snow et al. 1986). Religion provides a "cultural toolkit" of collectively held meanings and symbols that can be used by movement activists to develop a collective action frame and to generate support for a movement (Swidler 1986; Zald 1996). This cultural toolkit, of course, may also be available to those who have an interest in containing or discouraging protest. Many scholars have concurred with Marx's view that religion is an anti-radical force that legitimizes the status quo (G. Marx 1967; Myrdal 1944; Pope 1942; Parsons 1951: 163-167). Yet recently, some researchers have focused attention on the disruptive potential of religion (see Smith 1996a; Morris 1996; Nash 1996; Salehi 1996; Sikkink and Regnerus 1996; Borer 1996, 1998). As Stark and Bainbridge (1985) note, religious beliefs are oriented toward supernatural forces and they offer future rewards to compensate for hardships endured during life. While such beliefs can indeed be manipulated to maintain social order, they also contain seeds of rebellion. As Smith (1996, p.6) expresses it,

"Religion provides life, the world, and history with meaning, through a sacred reality that transcends those mundane realities. But in doing so, religion establishes a perceived objective reality above and beyond temporal life, the world, and history, that then occupies an independent and privileged position to act--through those who believe the religion--back upon the mundane world. That which is sacred and transcends temporal, earthly reality also stands in the position to question, judge, and condemn temporal earthly reality. In this way, the ultimate legitimator of the status quo can easily become its ultimate judge."

Religion can provide believers both with a vision of the good society, and the desire and even obligation to change the world accordingly. Some issues may gain symbolic value among religious believers because they are linked to a larger sacred order and supported by a community of believers. The construction of religious identity within these sacred orders and communities increases the salience of the cause, and allows for compromise only under unique circumstances. The religious individual may be obligated to participate in the electoral process in order to be faithful to their religious identity, but also to protest an "offense against God" if the electoral avenues are ineffective and the issue is deeply linked to the sacred order of the religious believer. This sense of offense is likely to be particularly strong among religious believers who sense some kind of marginalization in public life, and who feel that their religious convictions require them to transform the world according to God's plan.

Protest as a Defensive Reaction?

Several scholars have explained the emergence of moral reform movements in terms of cultural defense. The basic argument is that moral reform movements emerge in response to a challenge to deeply held beliefs and values that are rooted in the participants' religion (Page and Clelland 1978; Wood and Hughes 1984; Oberschall 1993). Wood and Hughes (1984, p.89), for example, characterize a moral reform movement as "an outgrowth of socialization processes and an expression of cultural values." The cultural defense argument is a departure from earlier characterizations of moral reform movements in which participation is viewed as an irrational response to status anxiety (Hofstadter 1955; Lipset and Raab 1978). Instead, religious beliefs are taken at face value. According to the theory, participants in a moral reform movement are acting defensively in an effort to preserve a moral order that provides meaning for their lives (Page and Clelland 1978, p.279).

Consistent with the cultural defense argument, we feel that religious beliefs are better understood as products of lifelong socialization processes than as irrational responses to declining status or to some other social change (see also Oberschall 1993). We think, however, that the cultural defense theory pays insufficient attention to the link between religious beliefs and protest participation. A belief that one's religious beliefs are under attack would not necessarily lead directly to collective action (see Olson, 1971). Yet this very assumption seems to underlie many applications of cultural defense theory. Two basic limitations have characterized this approach. First, researchers have drawn causal inferences concerning the relationship between perceived threat and protest participation based upon observations of the participants of the movement, without systematic comparison to non-participants (Page and Clelland 1978). Second, researchers have often conflated adherence to the goals of a movement with actual participation in a movement (Wood and Hughes 1984).

Unlike cultural defense theory, we do not propose that there is a direct link between protest participation and a perceived threat to religious beliefs. For those who feel that their religious beliefs are being threatened, protest is just one of several possible responses available to them. They may choose, for example, to do nothing, trusting that God's plan for the universe will prevail without their help. In fact some religious beliefs encourage people to separate themselves from the affairs of the world and would therefore not bring them into a protest event (Ammerman 1987; Carpenter 1997). Even for those who feel compelled to engage the world, however, protest is not the only response available to them and it may not be the optimal response. They could, for example, engage in traditional political action by supporting political candidates who represent their beliefs, which would be consistent with the strong historical support that American religious groups have given to political institutions (Handy 1991; Wuthnow 1988). American Protestants cannot be described as a negatively privileged group that is denied access to the polity (see Tilly 1978; Gamson 1975). In fact several scholars have noted that within the American two-party system it has often been easier to pursue cultural goals than it has been to pursue class-based interests (see Oestreicher 1988; Orloff 1993). Typically, in the United States religious protest is used to supplement rather than substitute for participation in traditional political institutions.

While we do not, therefore, expect a perceived threat to religious beliefs to have a direct impact on protest, we do argue that these perceptions can predispose individuals toward protest by legitimating the use of contentious tactics. When an individual feels that his or her religious beliefs are under attack, a defense of a moral order oriented to the sacred cannot be contained by earthly norms governing political participation. Some religious traditions construct a strong tension between the sacred order and the "world." This general interpretive framework informs the believer's choices concerning what forms of political participation are appropriate or even required for defending his or her religious beliefs. Religion often demands the taking of public stands, even if (and sometimes because) there is little chance of success. Throughout history, countless numbers of men and women have literally sacrificed their lives in defense of their religious beliefs. In comparison, an afternoon of protest is a small price to pay.

 

Moral Absolutism and Sinfulness

In the previous section we argued that a threat to religious beliefs and values contributes to the legitimation of contentious tactics. It is also important to pay attention to the content of religious belief systems. Religions are multi-vocal and can legitimate a variety of directions of action. Also, individuals who share the same religious identity may differ in terms of how they interpret the teachings and the sacred texts of their faith. We are particularly interested in examining the role that two specific beliefs play in legitimating contentious tactics -- a belief in absolute moral standards and a belief that human beings are inherently sinful. These beliefs are important because of the way in which they give ultimate significance to social issues. In addition, each one promotes clear definitions of what types of behavior are unacceptable, while at the same time they encourage individuals to reform that unacceptable behavior. A belief in moral absolutism and the sinfulness of human beings confronts the believer with a world marked by a vivid opposition of good and evil, righteousness and injustice. This sets up an ultimate conflict that can generate support for contentious tactics to deal with a highly (symbolically) contentious cosmic struggle between God and sin.

A belief in absolute moral standards makes individuals acutely aware of behavior of other groups or individuals that is in opposition to their own values. As Smith (1996, p.11) puts it, "moral imperatives contain the inherent capacity, if not propensity, to evaluate and judge actual reality as immoral, unjust, unacceptable." Gamson (1992) has argued that a sense of injustice is a crucial component of any collective action frame. A feeling of moral indignation can spur people into action. It also calls attention to opposing forces that are deemed to be responsible for the perceived injustice (Gamson 1992, p.7). A belief in moral relativism, on the other hand, would diminish support for contentious political tactics. Luker (1984 p.184) suggests that moral relativists are pluralists at heart. Actions taken by other groups or individuals are not viewed as being intrinsically right or wrong. Instead, each individual must make such decisions in private. Individuals can then express their views on moral issues as individuals and within the private confines of the voting booth (see Luker 1984, pp.184-185).

A belief that humans are inherently sinful also increases the salience and ultimate significance of social issues, since there are real evils in the world that are involved in seemingly mundane political affairs (and, therefore, these issues cannot simply be reduced to managerial or technical solutions of bureaucrats). The belief often carries with it an obligation to do battle with sinfulness, wherever it may be located. For many Protestants, life is viewed as a constant struggle between good and evil. From this vantage point, human beings, if left to their own devices, will engage in selfish and destructive behavior to the detriment of themselves and to society (Ellison and Sherkat 1993, p.133; Dobson 1976, pp.17-18; Fugate 1980, pp.49-51). Some scholars have noted that a belief that humans are sinful promotes support for corporal punishment. Corporal punishment is used to "shape the will" of children for their own good (Ellison and Sherkat 1993, p.133). We argue that this same calling to transform sinful behavior can facilitate support for contentious politics.

In summary, we propose that a perception that one's religious beliefs are being challenged, a belief in absolute moral standards, and a belief that human beings are basically sinful each play a role in motivating social protest. The effect is likely to be indirect, however. The beliefs would not necessarily lead directly to protest participation because protest is just one of several political options available to individuals. For example, those who hold these beliefs could support political candidates who represent their religious views. We argue that these beliefs predispose individuals toward protest, however, by legitimating the use of contentious tactics. Approval of contentious tactics, then, increases the likelihood that individuals will employ those tactics in a protest event when and if they become the target of a mobilization attempt (Klandermans 1997, pp. 22-25).

THE DATA

As was discussed earlier, our primary goals in this paper are to address three questions. First, we want to gain a sense of what proportion of church-going Protestants in the United States approve of the use of contentious tactics. That is, what proportion feel that it is at times necessary for Christians to bring about social change by using tactics that generate conflict. Second, do certain religious beliefs increase the likelihood that individuals will approve of contentious tactics? Third, does approval of contentious tactics increase the likelihood that individuals participate in protest, rather than merely supporting political candidates that represent their views?

Our data are taken from the 1996 Religious Identity and Influence Survey. The RII is a cross-sectional, nationally representative, random-digit-dial telephone survey. The survey was conducted by FGI, which is a national research firm based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, from January to March of 1996. Survey Sampling Incorporated provided the randomly generated sample designed to represent all telephones in the 48 contiguous states. The research design included 10 calls for each number, and at least three callbacks to convert refusals. Interviewers asked to speak with the person in the household who has the next birthday. The sample population was Americans over the age of 17 years, with an oversample of church-going Protestants. A total of 2,591 interviews were completed, a response rate of 69 percent. A longer set of questions concerning the respondents' religious beliefs and practices was administered to Protestants who indicated that they attended church at least two times per month. Those who attended church less frequently, but said that their religious faith was extremely important to them, were also included. These 2082 respondents comprise the sample for this analysis. We lose 9 of these cases in our regression analyses, since 9 respondents did not provide information on their level of education.

The Dependent Variables

We obtained a measure of the approval of contentious tactics in the following manner. Respondents were first asked whether or not they felt that Christians should be trying to change American society to better reflect God's will. Those who responded yes to this item were then asked the following question:

"Do you think that sometimes Christians need to try to change society using ways that they know may cause conflict and set people against each other, or not?"

The first question screens out those respondents who do not believe that Christians should attempt to change American society through any means. The second question, we feel, nicely captures the conceptual distinction between the politics of protest and institutionalized politics. Respondents are asked to give their opinion on the use of contentious tactics. Additionally, the reason for using these tactics is to produce a collective good (to change society) rather than to advance individual self-interest. In our sample, 23.2 percent of the respondents answered affirmatively to both questions. These respondents are coded as 1 on the variable and all other respondents are coded as 0.

We also obtained a measure of protest participation. Respondents were asked how much time they had spent in the previous two years participating in a public protest or demonstrations. Response categories were "a lot," "some," and "none." Those who reported that they had spent at least some time participating in protest (9.4%) are coded as 1, and all others are coded as 0. Very few (.6%) of the protest participants claimed that they had spent a lot of time protesting. We also include a measure of conservative Christian voting. As we noted earlier, those who feel that their religious beliefs are under attack have options available to them other than protesting. In particular, they could merely support political candidates who represent their views. The respondents were asked "how often have you relied on conservative Christian leaders or political organizations, such as the Christian Coalition, to help you decide how to vote in an election? Often, sometimes, or never?" We construct a dichotomous variable with those who responded "often" or "sometimes" (31.7% of sample) coded as 1, and all others coded as 0.

Religious Beliefs

We include several variables that measure various dimensions of a perceived threat to religious values. The first one is rather direct. Respondents were asked if they think that Christian values are under serious attack in the United States today. A clear majority (80.8%) responded positively. We are also interested in more specific forms of perceived threat, in which the source of the threat is identified. Respondents were asked if they think that feminists are hostile to their moral and spiritual values. Just over 47 percent responded affirmatively. Respondents were also asked if they think that the mass media is hostile to their moral and spiritual values. Just over 60 percent responded affirmatively to that question. We also include a measure of the respondents' beliefs concerning abortion. It is likely that a substantial number of the respondents who did protest within the previous two years protested against abortion. We create a dichotomous variable in which those who said that abortion should be illegal in all cases are coded as 1 (24.1%), and all others are coded as 0. We include the measure of respondents' view on abortion primarily as a control variable. However, since opposition to abortion (in all circumstances) is usually based on religious beliefs, and since abortion is legal, this variable also taps into the broader concept of a challenge to religious beliefs.

As for the more specific and substantive religious beliefs, respondents were asked if they believed that morals should be based on an absolute, unchanging standard, or if they thought that there are no moral absolutes and that people should have to decide for themselves what is right and wrong. In our sample of church-going Protestants, just over one half of the respondents (50.3%) said that they believed that morals should be based on absolute standards. They were also asked if they thought that human beings are basically good, basically sinful, or both good and sinful. Those who answered that humans are basically sinful (17.2%) are coded as 1 and all others are coded as 0.

We also include measures of religious identity and background. We include two dichotomous variables for those who list evangelical or fundamentalist as the religious identity that they most strongly identify themselves with. These groups comprise 20.6 and 18.7 percent of the sample, respectively. We control for identification with these conservative traditions because many conservative Protestants have been active protest participants in recent years, and because these individuals are likely to be affiliated with religious organizations that have distinctive social structures (such as denser social networks). Our measures of religious beliefs also tend to be associated with these conservative traditions and we want to estimate the predictive power of the specific beliefs after controlling for individuals' identification with evangelicalism or fundamentalism. In our sample, 31.2 percent of the evangelicals and 26 percent of the fundamentalists approved of contentious tactics, compared to 23.2 percent in the entire sample. Of the evangelicals, 13.1 percent had participated in protest in the previous two years, and 9.5 percent of the fundamentalists had protested. Among evangelicals, 47.6% said that at least some of the time they relied on conservative religious groups such as the Christian Coalition to help them decide how to vote, compared to 37.3% for fundamentalists and 31.7% for the entire sample.

Control Variables

Although we are primarily interested in the impact of religious beliefs on contentiousness and protest, we include several control variables that could also play a role. These include sex, age, income, education, and race. Education is measured in terms of years of schooling attained by the respondent at the time of the interview. Income is divided into three categories. We include a variable for those who report a household income of $50,000 and above and another variable for those reporting a household income that is less than $50,000 and greater than or equal to $30,000. These variables are interpreted in relation to those who report a household income of less than $30,000. A variable for African-American and for "other" racial or ethnic identification is also included. The "other" category includes all those who did not identify themselves as being either white or African-American. Unfortunately, there were too few respondents in any of the groups that comprise this category to analyze them separately. Descriptive statistics for all variables are presented in table 1.

Insert table 1 about here

DATA ANALYSIS

We begin with an analysis of religious beliefs, approval of contentious tactics, and protest participation. We have argued that the religious belief variables should promote approval of contentious tactics, but should not have a direct effect on protest. The specific beliefs concerning moral absolutism and sinfulness are not issues that would form the basis of a protest event, yet they could predispose people toward protest by generating consent for contentious tactics. Consistent with cultural defense theories, we think that a perception that one's religious beliefs are under attack plays an important role in protest. Unlike cultural defense theory, however, we would not expect a direct link to protest because other political options are available to those who feel that their beliefs are being challenged.

To test this argument, we estimate two equations. In one equation, approval of contentious tactics is the dependent variable and in the other the dependent variable is protest participation. The two equations could be estimated consistently as individual single equations, but this method is inefficient since it ignores correlation between disturbances (Greene 1995, p.457). Instead, we use a bivariate probit model. The model is represented by the following equations:

Zi1 = b '1Xi1 + e i1, Yi1 = 1 if Zi1 > 0, Yi1 = 0 otherwise,

Zi2 = b '2Xi2 + e i2, Yi2 = 1 if Zi2 > 0, Yi2 = 0 otherwise,

where [e i1, e i2] ~ bivariate normal (BVN) [0,0,1,1,r ], and individual observations on y1 and y2 are available for all i (Greene 1995, p.457). Models are estimated with the statistical package LIMDEP. Starting values for b 1 and b 2 are obtained with single equation probit estimates (Greene 1995, p.458).

We first estimate a model in which only the control variables are included. The results are presented in the first two columns of table 2. After controlling for the other variables, we find that women are significantly less likely than men to favor contentious tactics and they are significantly less likely to have engaged in protest. Age is also statistically significant and has a negative impact on both contentious tactics and protest participation. Interestingly, neither education nor income is a significant predictor of either dependent variable. African American respondents and those who are in the "other" race or ethnicity category are each significantly more likely than white respondents to have engaged in protest.

As for religious identity, coefficients for the evangelical variable are positive and significant for contentious tactics and for protest. Fundamentalist identity is not a significant predictor of either one. These latter findings are indicative of an important difference between the evangelical and fundamentalist traditions. While both traditions are relatively conservative, fundamentalists traditionally have developed counter-cultural religious networks, in which home, church, and school are united in a coherent web, and have de-emphasized the importance of bringing about social and political change (Ammerman 1987; Carpenter 1997; Peshkin 1986; Rose 1993). Contentious political action is viewed by many classic fundamentalists as a distraction from the work of spreading "the Gospel." However among fundamentalists, views concerning the value of contentious politics and protest are likely to be bipolar. Some have participated in the resurgence of the Christian Right, while others have reacted against this move and have held steadfastly to the older fundamentalist belief that religious actors should not be side-tracked from "real" religious work by participating in movements of social change (Jorstad 1987; Woodberry and Smith 1998). Evangelicalism, on the other hand, emerged in the 1940s in opposition to the separatism of the fundamentalists (Carpentar 1984; Marsden 1987, 1991). The "activist faith" of evangelicals calls for a public presence of Christians in all aspects of life (Smith et al. 1998; Sikkink and Smith 1999). With these traditions and history, evangelicals should be more likely to see social movement activity as a religious calling to the world, and contentious politics as a necessary byproduct of bringing their high tension religious faith into the secular world. In spite of these general tendencies, a substantial number of fundamentalists in our sample do approve of contentious tactics and have protested, while many evangelicals disapprove of contentious tactics and have not protested. Next, we turn our attention to our theoretical variables.

Insert table 2 about here

In the third and fourth columns of table 2 we present the findings of the model when all independent variables are included. It is interesting to note first of all, that when our measures of religious beliefs are included, the variable for evangelical identity is no longer a significant predictor of contentious tactics or of protest participation. The estimated effects of the other control variables are essentially unchanged. In support of our argument, we find that a belief that humans are inherently sinful, a belief in absolute moral standards, a perception that Christian values are under serious attack, and perceptions that feminists and the media are hostile to the respondents moral and spiritual values are each significant predictors of contentious tactics. Opposition to abortion is positively related to contentious tactics, but falls just short of statistical significance (p=.057). For the most part our expectation that the religious belief variables would not have a direct impact on protest participation is also confirmed. A belief in absolute moral standards, however, is significant and positively related to protest.

The results of the preceding analysis are generally consistent with our argument that the religious beliefs that we have discussed predispose individuals toward protest by legitimating the use of contentious tactics. Except for a belief in moral standards, however, these beliefs do not have a direct effect on protest participation. We have argued that this is because individuals who hold these religious beliefs have political options available to them other than protest participation. In the next set of analyses we replace the measure of protest participation with the variable that measures voting behavior. Again, the variable is a measure of those who reported that at least some of the time they relied upon conservative Christian leaders or political organizations such as the Christian Coalition to help them decide how to vote. For the sake of convenience, we refer to these respondents as conservative Christian voters.

In the first two columns of table 3 we present the results when only the control variables are included in the model. The coefficients predicting contentious tactics are essentially the same as they were in the previous analysis. We find that age is negatively related to conservative Christian voting. Respondents with an income between $30,000 and $50,000 are significantly more likely to be conservative Christian voters than are those with lower incomes. Both evangelical and fundamentalist identities are positive and significant predictors of conservative Christian voting. It is interesting to note that fundamentalists tend to be similar to the evangelicals in terms of their religious beliefs and in terms of their voting behavior, but not in terms of protest participation.

Insert Table 3 About Here

In the third and fourth columns of table 3, we present the results when the religious belief variables are included. Again, the coefficients for the equation predicting contentious tactics are essentially the same as in table 2. We find that with only one exception, the religious belief variables that predict a favorable view of contentious tactics also predict conservative Christian voting. A belief that Christian values are under serious attack is positively related to conservative Christian voting, but falls just shy of statistical significance (p=.0508). And while the abortion measure falls just short of being significant at the .05 level in the contentious tactics equation, opposition to abortion is highly significant in the equation predicting conservative Christian voting.

Contentious Tactics and Protest Participation

Results of the preceding analysis show that perceptions that religious beliefs are being threatened, a belief in absolute moral standards, and a belief that humans are inherently sinful predict support for contentious tactics and they predict conservative Christian voting. These variables do not, however, predict protest participation. In fact, the only variables that do predict protest participation are sex, age, and race. We have suggested that the religious belief variables do predispose individuals toward protest, however, by legitimating the use of contentious tactics. Unfortunately, we do not have information concerning what issues the protesters in our sample were protesting about. Undoubtedly, some of the respondents protested about issues that are not directly related to their religious beliefs. In the next section we attempt to address this problem by focusing on the extent that approval of contentious tactics differentiates conservative Christian voters from conservative Christian protesters.

In our sample of church-going Protestants, 659 respondents said that at least some of the time they looked to conservative Christian groups such as the Christian Coalition to help them to decide how to vote. This suggests that their religious beliefs and their views on related issues such as abortion are important to them when making decisions about political action. Nevertheless, of these voters, the vast majority (84.4%) did not participate in any protest activity in the preceding two years. In this section we consider whether or not these respondents are differentiated from those who did protest by their acceptance of contentious tactics. We construct a dependent variable that consists of three categories. The first category contains respondents who did not indicate that they vote with conservative Christian groups such as the Christian Coalition (68.3% of sample). The second category consists of those who say they vote with conservative Christian groups but they have not protested (26.7%). The third category consists of those who say they do vote with the conservative Christian groups and they have also protested. For the sake of convenience, we refer to these groups as non-conservative Christian voters, conservative Christian voters, and conservative Christian protesters.

We use multinomial logistic regression to examine variation in the dependent variable (see Maddala 1983). The statistical model can be expressed as:

Prob (Y=j) = exp(b jZi)

S j exp(b jZi)

where j = 0,1,2 refers to the categories of the dependent variable, i = 1.....N indexes of individual respondents, and Z is the vector of independent variables. The equations are estimated by Maximum Likelihood Methods, using LIMDEP. Multinomial logistic regression yields beta coefficients that refer to three separate contrasts having to do with the effect that the independent variable has on the likelihood of falling into each category relative to the other category. Exponentiation of the beta coefficients yields an odds ratio that is useful for interpretation.

We find that when no other variables are included in the analysis (see table 4), respondents who favor contentious tactics are 3.53 times more likely than other respondents to fall into the conservative Christian protester category relative to the non-conservative Christian voter category. More interesting for our purposes, approval of contentious tactics multiplies the odds of being in the conservative Christian protester category relative to the conservative Christian voter category by 1.8. Approval of contentious tactics, in other words, does appear to be a key factor that differentiates those who combine conservative voting with protest from those who only vote with conservative Christian groups. It could be the case, however, that this relationship is spurious and would not hold up when the other variables are included in the analysis. In table 5 we present the results of the analysis when all other variables are included in the model.

Table 4 About Here

Among the control variables we find that age reduces the likelihood that individuals fall into the conservative Christian voter category relative to the non-conservative Christian voter category and it also reduces the likelihood of being in the conservative Christian protester category relative to the non-conservative Christian voter category. This may reflect, in part, a generational shift in how religious believers in the United States view contentious tactics and interest group politics (Regnerus, et al. 1999). Evangelical identity, on the other hand, significantly increases the likelihood of falling into both the conservative Christian voter category and the conservative Christian protester category relative to the non-conservative Christian voter category.

Table 5 About Here

The positive coefficient for African American in the conservative Christian protester relative to non-conservative Christian voter contrast is interesting and it highlights the importance of controlling for race in our analysis. We can only speculate on the meaning of this finding, but it is likely that it reflects subcultural differences in the meaning of Christian conservatism. In our sample, Black respondents are just as likely as non-Black respondents to say that they look to conservative Christian organizations such as the Christian Coalition to help them to decide how to vote (31.1% and 31.7% respectively). It is likely, however, that many African American respondents were thinking of conservative Christian organizations other than the Christian Coalition. Among those who responded affirmatively to this question, there are striking differences between Black and non-Black respondents in terms of our measures of religious beliefs.

As for the religious variables, we find that both conservative Christian voters and conservative Christian protesters are differentiated from non-conservative Christian voters by their religious beliefs. Coefficients for a belief that humans are sinful, a belief in absolute moral standards, a belief that the media is hostile to one's spiritual values, and opposition to abortion are positive and significant for both contrasts. The coefficients for Christian values under attack and for feminism being hostile to spiritual values are positive and significant in the conservative Christian voter to non-conservative Christian voter contrast, but are not significant for the conservative Christian protester to non-conservative Christian voter contrast.

The estimated effect of approval of contentious tactics is of the most interest to us. We find that after controlling for the other variables, approval of contentious tactics is not statistically significant for the conservative Christian voter to non-conservative Christian voter contrast. Approval of contentious tactics does significantly increase the likelihood of being in the conservative Christian protester category relative to the non-conservative Christian category. The most interesting finding, however, is that approval of contentious tactics is the only variable that significantly increases the likelihood of being a conservative Christian protester relative to being a conservative Christian voter. After controlling for the other variables, those who favor contentious tactics are 1.64 times more likely than those who do not favor contentious tactics to have supplemented their conservative voting with protest. This finding is consistent with our argument that the approval of contentious tactics is a crucial link between religious beliefs and protest participation.

DISCUSSION AND CONCLUSION

Individuals who desire social change can participate in social protest, they can engage actively in institutionalized politics, or they can do "none of the above," hoping that others' efforts will be sufficient to produce the desired change. In this paper we have been particularly interested in determining what differentiates those who protest from those who participate exclusively in institutionalized politics. Most scholars now agree that both protest and participation in institutionalized politics are potentially effective means of gaining or preserving group benefits. So why do some individuals choose protest over "normal" politics?

Some sociologists have characterized protest participation as a rational form of political activity for groups that are denied access to traditional lines of political influence (Gamson 1975; Tilly 1978). This approach seems applicable to the civil rights movement (McAdam 1982) the United Farm Workers (Jenkins and Perrow 1977; Jenkins 1985; McVeigh 1996), and other relatively powerless and disenfranchised groups that engage in collective action. It does not, however, account for protest participation among middle-class segments of the population that enjoy relatively free access to traditional lines of political influence.

The increasing prevalence of social movements that are not engaged primarily in battles over the distribution of material resources has focused scholarly attention on the importance of culture, values, and collective identity in stimulating and sustaining social protest (Calhoun 1993). Some have argued that general affluence of advanced industrial societies has increased the relative importance of cultural issues for an increasing number of people who are not preoccupied with economic survival (Inglehart 1987; Offe 1985). Inglehart (1987) has gone so far as to argue that there has been a sizeable shift in advanced industrialized nations toward "postmaterialist values" and that these values find expression within "new social movements." Yet currently in the United States there are many protest movements and protest events that draw upon the more traditional beliefs and values associated with Protestant Christianity.

In our representative sample of church-going Protestants, the vast majority of respondents (81.6%) said that they believed that Christians should be trying to change American society to better reflect God's will. Of these respondents, nearly one third (31.6%) agreed that to do this it was at times necessary to employ tactics that generate conflict. A sizeable number of those respondents (14.3%) had spent at least some time participating in protest or a public demonstration in the preceding two years. Our research shows that much of the variation in the acceptance of contentious tactics can be predicted or explained by variation in Protestants' beliefs. Perceptions that religious beliefs and values are being threatened, a belief in absolute moral standards, and a belief that humans are basically sinful, each increase the likelihood that individuals will see a need for the use of contentious tactics to change society. We need not point out that these are not "postmaterialist" values. Approval of contentious tactics turns out to be the single factor, in our analysis, that differentiates respondents who combine protest and voting with conservative Christian organizations from those who only vote with these organizations.

When it comes to providing systems of meaning that can facilitate social protest, we suggest that religious beliefs are ideally suited for that end. Those who maintain religious traditions of the sinfulness of human beings and moral absolutism, and who sense cultural threats to their religious identity, have constructed a religious identity in great tension with society. The supposedly "mundane" world takes on a vividness, as it is characterized by a dramatic struggle of conflicting forces. This cosmic drama has at its core a battle between good and evil. This framework of interpretation is easily transposed to require support of contentious tactics in public life. If human history is about God struggling with Satan, about right struggling against an indifference to "right," about a religious community embattled by external forces, it only makes sense that contentious tactics will, by analogy, be required for social change. In the eyes of these religious believers, that is consistent with the entire cosmic drama. It is possible that the maintenance of a high tension religious identity almost demands a similar contention in the world, which is populated with issues that are symbolically linked to a moral order (grounded in a religious community) that is linked to God.

In closing, it is important to call attention to limitations in the research methodology utilized in this paper. First of all, religious beliefs are not constant. Protestant teachings and the way that individual Protestants interpret those teachings have varied historically (see Regnerus and Smith 1997). We also have operated without information concerning the issues that formed the basis of protest activities for those who participated in protest. While it would be useful to have this information, it is not essential. In much of our analysis we have been interested in examining relationships between religious beliefs and individual Protestants' willingness to employ contentious tactics to change society. This could include protest concerning a wide variety of issues. It could be the case, however, that those respondents in our sample who actually participated in protest did not protest about issues that are directly related to their religious beliefs. We have attempted to deal with this problem by showing how the approval of contentious tactics differentiates conservative Christian voters from those who combine conservative Christian voting with protest.

Because we are using cross-sectional data, we have avoided making strong statements concerning causation. We do not rule out the possibility that there may be reciprocal relationships between protest participation and some of our measures of religious beliefs. We do note, however, that there is a large body of research that shows that religious beliefs are typically the products of lifelong socialization processes. Studies show, for example, that those who remain religious are strongly influenced by the religious emphasis in their family during their childhood (Hunsberger and Brown 1984). In fact, it has been consistently shown that parents are the most important factor in determining religious beliefs and commitment, and in shaping later social ties that influence religious orientations (Cornwall 1987, 1989; Glass et al. 1986; Himmilfarb 1979; Hunsberger 1980, 1983; Sherkat 1991; Sherkat and Wilson 1995). Radical change in religious beliefs is relatively rare, and not strongly shaped by political participation (Sherkat 1995, 1997, 1998; Willits and Crider 1989; see also Hadaway and Marler 1993; Iannaccone 1990; Sullins 1993). The primary forces that do tend to affect religious beliefs are childhood socialization and life-course factors such as marriage, divorce, and birth of children (Hoge et al. 1982; Stolzenberg et al. 1994; Sherkat 1998; Wilson and Sandomirsky 1991; Wilson and Sherkat 1994). While it is possible that protest participation, also, could significantly alter one's fundamental religious beliefs, we think that this would be most likely to occur among those who engage in "high risk activism," or among movement activists who have developed an "activist identity" (McAdam, 1986). In our sample, only 12 respondents (.6% of the sample) reported that they had spent "a lot" of time protesting during the preceding two years.

In future research we hope to obtain data that will allow us to study the development of religiously based collective action frames over time and to examine the way that religious beliefs and practices interact with historically variant political opportunities to facilitate or inhibit protest participation. In this paper, we have taken a first step in that direction by gaining a better understanding of the relationships between religious beliefs, support for contentious tactics, and protest participation among church-going Protestants in the United States at one moment in time.

 

Notes

Table 1. Descriptive Characteristics of a Nationally Representative

Sample of Church-Going Protestants in the United States (n=2082).

 

 

Variable Percent Mean Standard Deviation

Favors Contentious Tactics 23.2

Participated in Protest 9.4

Conservative Christian Voting 31.7

Humans are Basically Sinful 17.2

Absolute Moral Standards 50.3

Christian Values Under Serious Attack 80.8

Feminists Hostile to Faith 43.5

Media Hostile to Faith 60.4

Abortion Illegal in all Cases 24.1

Evangelical Identity 20.6

Fundamentalist Identity 18.7

Female 66.5

Age 48.84 17.07

Education 13.89 2.58

Income ($30,000-$49,999) 31.1

Income ($50,000 or more) 29.3

African American 12.8

Other Race/Ethnic 5.9

TABLE 2. APPROVAL OF CHRISTIANS' USE OF CONTENTIOUS TACTICS AND PROTEST PARTICIPATION. BIVARIATE PROBIT ESTIMATES.

Contentious Contentious

Variable Tactics Protest Tactics Protest

CONTROL VARIABLES

Constant -.5858* -1.0102** -1.1760** -1.1159**

(.2281) (.2705) (.2502) (.2964)

Female -.1694** -.1851* -.1586* -.1680*

(.0650) (.0818) (.0673) (.0856)

Age -.0091** -.0134** -.0081** -.0132**

(.0020) (.0025) (.0020) (.0026)

Education .0216 .0161 .0201 .0131

(.0133) (.0164) (.0140) (.0175)

Income

$30,000-$49,999 .0145 .1197 -.0353 .0865

(.0771) (.0978) (.0799) (.1029)

$50,000 Or More -.0189 .0174 -.0449 -.0074

(.0823) (.1060) (.0849) (.1085)

African American -.0979 .3815** .0003 .4384**

(.0955) (.1095) (.1006) (.1122)

Other Race/Ethnicity .0463 .3158* .1028 .3360*

(.1388) (.1571) (.1399) (.3360)

Evangelical Identity .3539** .3020** .0685 .1490

(.0771) (.0966) (.0844) (.1083)

Fundamentalist Identity .1583 .0301 -.0691 -.0755

(.0833) (.1077) (.0915) (.1126)

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

Humans Basically Sinful .3466** .1791

(.0866) (.1092)

Absolute Moral Standards .1740* .2087*

(.0721) (.0952)

Christian Values Under Attack .3006** -.1061

(.1001) (.1169)

Media Hostile to Faith .2213** .0905

(.0801) (.1054)

Feminism Hostile to Faith .1481* .1001

(.0747) (.1053)

Abortion Illegal in all Cases .1458 .4449

(.0767) (.0981)

RHO .1606** .1177*

(.0528) (.0565)

*P<.05 Log Likelihood -1701.01 -1638.37

**P<.01 n 2073 2073

TABLE 3. APPROVAL OF CHRISTIANS' USE OF CONTENTIOUS TACTICS AND CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIAN VOTING. BIVARIATE PROBIT ESTIMATES.

Conservative Conservative

Contentious Christian Contentious Christian

Variable Tactics Voting Tactics Voting

CONTROL VARIABLES

Constant -.5756* -.2698 -1.1765* -1.0483**

(.2275) (.2060) (.2504) (.2308)

Female -.1661* .0062 -.1580* .0264

(.0652) (.0631) (.0674) (.0659)

Age -.0091** -.0080** -.0081** -.0063**

(.0020) (.0018) (.0020) (.0019)

Education .0205 -.0080 .0199 -.0069

(.0133) (.0124) (.0141) (.0134)

Income

$30,000-$49,999 .0138 .2060** -.0364 .1359

(.0770) (.0724) (.0799) (.0757)

$50,000 Or More -.0164 .0381 -.0459 -.0224

(.0821) (.0791) (.0850) (.0844)

African American -.0945 -.0027 .0006 .1397

(.0951) (.0188) (.1005) (.0908)

Other Race/Ethnicity .0470 .0200 .1000 .0594

(.1391) (.1301) (.1398) (.1401)

Evangelical Identity .3522** .6308** .0685 .2694**

(.0771) (.0735) (.0847) (.0800)

Fundamentalist Identity .1602 .3280** -.0668 .0497

(.0820) (.0767) (.0902) (.0818)

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

Humans Basically Sinful .3461** .3417**

(.0867) (.0835)

Absolute Moral Standards .1739* .2885**

(.0720) (.0679)

Christian Values Under Attack .3007** .1809

(.0996) (.0926)

Media Hostile to Faith .2198** .3512**

(.0801) (.0754)

Feminism Hostile to Faith .1500* .3016**

(.0746) (.0719)

Abortion Illegal in all Cases .1468 .3130**

(.0765) (.0732)

RHO .2302** .1110**

(.0388) (.0425)

*P<.05 Log Likelihood -2313.48 -2158.77

**P<.01 n 2073 2073

TABLE 4. PROTEST AND CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIAN VOTING. MULTINOMIAL LOGISTIC ESTIMATES.

Independent Conservative Voting/ Conservative Protesting/ Conservative Protesting/

Variable Non-Conservative Voting Non-Conservative Voting Conservative Voting

b Exp (b ) b Exp (b ) b Exp (b )

Constant -1.104** .332 -3.011** .049 -1.908** .148

(.059) (.136) (.142)

Approval of Contentious Tactics .672** 1.96 1.260** 3.53 .589** 1.80

(.114) (.210) (.2304)

*P<.05 Log Likelihood -1556.317

**P<.01 n 2073

TABLE 5. PROTEST AND CONSERVATIVE CHRISTIAN VOTING. MULTINOMIAL LOGISTIC ESTIMATES.

Independent Conservative Voting/ Conservative Protesting/ Conservative Protesting/

Variable Non-Conservative Voting Non-Conservative Voting Conservative Voting

b Exp (b ) b Exp (b ) b Exp (b )

CONTROL VARIABLES

Constant -2.255** .105 -2.217** .109 .0375 1.038

(.4236) (.8173) (.8460)

Female .1150 1.12 -.1864 .830 -.3014 .740

(.1176) (.2215) (.2264)

Age -.0082* .992 -.0221** .978 -.0139 .986

(.0034) (.0072) (.0074)

Education -.0035 .997 -.0803 .923 -.0768 .926

(.0239) (.0478) (.0488)

Income

$30,000-$49,999 .2536 1.29 .3009 1.35 .0472 1.05

(.1336) (.2586) (.2637)

$50,000 Or More .0077 1.01 -.0574 .944 -.0650 .937

(.1469) (.2936) (.3006)

African American .1512 1.16 .7208* 2.06 .5696 1.77

(.1714) (.2982) (.3093)

Other Race/Ethnicity .0170 1.02 .5049 1.66 .4879 1.63

(.2395) (.3993) (.4178)

Evangelical Identity .4132** 1.52 .5525* 1.74 .1394 1.15

(.1389) (.2620) (.2659)

Fundamentalist Identity .1279 1.14 -.2032 .816 -.3310 .718

(.1432) (.3009) (.3073)

RELIGIOUS BELIEFS

Humans Basically Sinful .4622** 1.59 .7711** 2.16 .3089 1.36 (.1457) (.2575) (.2581)

Absolute Moral Standards .4398** 1.55 .6851** 1.98 .2453 1.28

(.1200) (.2588) (.2687)

Christian Values Under Attack .3869* 1.47 -.1584 .854 -.5453 .580

(.1761) (.3404) (.3638)

Media Hostile to Faith .5778** 1.78 .7061* 2.03 .1284 1.14

(.1340) (.2993) (.3133)

Feminism Hostile to Faith .4923** 1.64 .4568 1.58 -.0355 .965

(.1233) (.2559) (.2647)

Abortion Illegal in all Cases .5001** 1.65 .5350* 1.71 .0348 1.04

(.1263) (.2334) (.2362)

Approval of Contentious Tactics .2359 1.27 .7303** 2.08 .4943* 1.64

(.1264) (.2264) (.2304)

*P<.05 Log Likelihood -1393.38

**P<.01 n 2073

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