“There Are No Unclean People, Only Unclean Systems”: The Sociology of Religion and the Delivery of Social Justice

By Zuleyka Zevallos, PhD

The Atlantic has followed Rev. Tuck Taylor, a mother of two and an ordained elder of the United Methodist Church in North Carolina, USA. She is one of “thousands” of citizens who have coordinated a series of civil disobedience protests against various social welfare issues. They call their protest “Moral Monday,” a designated day where citizens descend upon official public buildings to protest using music, speeches and prayer. Ordinary citizens, academics and clerics volunteer to lead the protests and nominate themselves to be arrested in order to protest diverse concerns such as cuts to unemployment and health assistance, taxes and repeal of environmental measures.

While the Reverend may lose her job with her Church, she sees that it is her civil and religious duty to voice her discontent with her local government. The Reverend says:

“There are no unclean people — only unclean systems.”

This is a great case study for studying the intersections of the sociology of religion and the sociology of politics.

Sociology of religion and social welfare in Australia

Desmond Cahill, Gary Bouma and colleagues published an insightful report on the advocacy work of religious institutions in Australia. Not all religious groups impose their beliefs on others, although the study finds that many Australians are worried about this very issue when it comes to funding the social services of religious organisations. The historical analysis by Cahill and his team shows that local religious groups have carried out vital social justice and welfare work. This includes assisting new migrants and refugees, delivery of employment services, provision of drug and alcohol referrals, and other welfare support. While some religious organisations have been accused of overstepping the boundaries of their secular work (in one case, Jewish employees said they were forced to attend Catholic Mass), in most circumstance, there was a stronger distinction between the religious mission and social responsibility of charitable work.

Most of the community-level religious groups studied were providing social, legal and economic support for disadvantaged and vulnerable groups with scarce resources and funding. Some of these groups were doing so with added political pressure. For example Muslim groups were struggling to cope with their charity work on top of the racial vilification and threat of violence since the September 11, 2001 attacks in the USA and the 12th of October 2012 attacks in Bali.

The example of Rev. Tucker and Cahill’s report show that the sociology of religion can provide an alternative perspective on the political activism and social welfare work of religious organisations. These examples also shed light on the distinction between the agency of individuals and local religious organisations and the broader institution of religion.

Moral Monday (July 2013) is a form of moral disobedience as many protesters were jailed. I wrote about this here. Photo by twbuckner via Flickr.
Moral Monday Protest (July 2013) is a form of moral disobedience as many protesters were jailed for protesting against social injustice. I wrote about this here. Photo by twbuckner via Flickr.

Distinction between religious institutions and local agency

The Reverend worried about the consequences of taking a stand for what she believed was her right to civil protest. Her institution may or may not support her decision. Large religious institutions are rightfully under public scrutiny for their assets, funds and in some cases for their social exclusion of minorities (such as LGBTQI members). All the while smaller religious groups at the local level are under increased pressure to deliver services to groups that broader society neglects.

It is tempting to criticise and dismiss religion based on dominant dogma. When religious institutions impose literal readings of theology, religion becomes a restrictive force. (Although what counts as “literal” readings of religious texts depends upon fundamentalist and postmodern understandings.) Religion in its most basic sociological form, is a system of social meaning. Texts provide a guide for everyday life, as well as a structure for social action. Religious interpretation of social action is contested.

In the video below, renowned sociologist Peter Berger says that that the one area where his theoretical stance has changed over time is with respect to the relationship between religion and modernity. When Berger was first writing about religion in the 1960s, most social theorists such as himself argued that with increased modernity (economic and technological advancement) came increased secularisation. History shows that this has not been the case. Some of the world’s largest capitalist societies are also home to the biggest fundamentalist movements. For example, fundamentalist Christianity in the USA, and Pentecostalism in particular. In other capitalist societies, religious affiliation has declined steadily, such as in different European regions. In developing nations, increased levels of education and technological innovation have led to social revolutions against theocratic rule, with mixed political results. In this case, the role of religion and “modernity” are poorly understood through Western frameworks.

Spanish sociologist Manuel Castells wrote about religious resurgence back in the 1990s. He argued that religion provides a vehicle for identity mobilisation. Some religious groups use religion to legitimise the authority of majority institutions. This can lead to a new configuration of civil rule that favours some groups over others. Alternatively, religious movements provide a means for stigmatised groups to rise up against the status quo. The so-called “Arab Spring” exemplifies this case. Finally, religion can be a type of “project identity,” which challenges cultural authority. If it gathers momentum, the example of Moral Monday in North Carolina might fit into this latter group.

The sociology of religion provides a nuanced understanding of the civil role of religious institutions. This includes the internal contradictions within religious organisations, as well as their support and challenge to other social institutions, including the social welfare state and political processes.

Rev. Taylor. Photo: The Atlantic
Rev. Tuck Taylor. Photo: The Atlantic

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Watch Peter Berger discuss religion and modernity below.

For further resources, try: Peter Berger’s classic and accessible text, The Sacred Canopy; Gary Bouma’s book on the changing role of religious institutions, Australian Soul; the Sociology of Religion quarterly review; and the International Society for the Sociology of Religion (in English or French).

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