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Church Impacts Political Activism Among Blacks, Expert Says

Religion remains a salient social and cultural institution in the United States. The church’s ability to frame social movements has been well documented and the question of church affiliation even cropped up during the 2004 presidential election.

Dr. Ryan Spohn, assistant professor of sociology at Kansas State University, says the importance of organized religion has been particularly pronounced for Black Americans, who tend to display deeper religious convictions and stronger church participation than other Americans.

“The Black church has traditionally played a crucial role in their lives by providing periodic sanctuary to its members forced to live in an oppressive and hostile society,” Spohn says.

Past research has indicated that the Black church facilitated political activism in the Black community in at least two important ways.

“First, as evidenced by the speeches of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., religious themes and biblical references were central to the framing of the civil rights movement,” Spohn says. “Second, the churches played a key role in the mobilization of Black people by providing the organization and institutional resources necessary for boycotts, sit-ins and other protest activities.”

Spohn, along with Dr. Scott Fitzgerald of the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, recently conducted research targeted at assessing the modern-day importance of religious organizations on political protest activities of Black people in the United States.

Specifically, they wanted to determine if Black people who are active within their churches are more likely to become involved in political protest activities, and if exposure to political messages within the church setting influences them to participate in protest activities.

Spohn says they found that activism within the church, such as serving on a committee, does not have a significant impact on Black people’s involvement in political protest activities such as protest demonstrations or neighborhood marches.

However, Spohn says they did find that exposure to political messages within the church can lead to political protest for some church members.

The results of this paper, “Pulpits and Platforms: The Determinants of Political Participation and Protest among Black Americans,” were presented at the 2002 American Sociological Association Meetings in Chicago by Spohn and Fitzgerald. It has been accepted for publication in Social Forces, a journal of social research.

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