Faith as Small as a Peanut: What One Black Christian Scientist Taught Me About My Work

At the school where I teach and research we just finished our second week of the semester, and this past Monday we (as a nation) remembered Martin Luther King Jr. and the vision that he and the Civil Rights Movement leaders imparted to the rest of the nation. When confronted with great figures whose lives end prematurely, especially at the beginning of a new semester sets my mind to the question of calling: why do we do what we do?

This question is particularly salient as I am teaching a new grad seminar on how to write in the social sciences. As I prepped for the course over the winter break it was clear to me that calling has to be at the root of what we researchers do, and maybe a little bit of madness or possibly ineptitude at most other kinds of work. But really, as I enter into conversations with the new graduate students about why research is so important not only for society but also for their careers, the obstacles to accomplishing good research in the ever-changing rules of higher education seriously lead me to ask reflectively: why would you do this? [Read more...]

The Black Church in America: Martin Luther King’s Legacy, The Social Gospel and the Prosperity Gospel

A Professor in Princeton University's Religion department, Eric Gregory, once told me that many students in his Christian Ethics class know that Martin Luther King was a civil rights leader but do not know he was religious leader. Forgetting the religious roots of Reverend Martin Luther King's legacy represents an at best impoverishment of knowledge, or perhaps as suggested in this article by Justin Dyer and Kevin Stewart on Public Discourse, an attempt to present in exclusively secular terms what Reverend King saw as a theologically and philosophically based argument: that African-Americans deserve full legal and substantive benefits of U.S. citizenship. As I've mentioned before on BWG, civil religion is an American tradition with many important legacies in American politics, and Martin Luther King is one example of this civil religion.

Although few of the black and white sociology of religion students I teach in the south do not know that Martin Luther King was a Christian pastor, many are nonetheless more familiar with the messages prosperity gospel preachers than with the social gospel of any kind. Realizing this blind spot made me more passionate to teach my students the historical roots of the political and social engagement of black churches. As early as the 18th century, when African-Americans lacked many other rights, African Americans organized their own churches as early as the 18th century. The religious freedom granted to African-Americans was used for their civic and political empowerment, producing powerful leaders like Martin Luther King.

To explain the close link between the black church and political mobilization, in their classic book, The Black Church in the African-American Experience, C. Eric Lincoln and Lawrence Mamiya stated:

“other-worldly religious transcendence can be related dialectically to the motivation, discipline, and courage needed for this-worldly political action.” (Lincoln and Mamiya, Black Church, p. 234)

In other words, the black church's often passionate Pentecostal tradition, its belief in God's providence, his love for his people, generate the much needed-virtues of perseverance and courage to go against the tide.

The social gospel, such as promoting civil rights for African-Americans, certainly went against the tide of many [Read more...]

Faith-Based Social Services: An Essential Part of American Civil Society

Did faith-based social service provision begin when George W. Bush started the office of Faith Based and Community Initiatives in 2002? No. Did it begin with Charitable Choice provision in 1996 Welfare Reform legislation? No. Despite all the media attention to those initiatives, most research shows that these initiatives did little to change the size or focus on faith-based social services. Why? Because most of these faith-based social services existed long before recent federal programs, and because some of what religious organizations do best in social services focuses on deep personal transformations, goals best pursued without government support.

In his book Saving America, the eminent sociologist of religion Robert Wuthnow argues that debates about faith-based social services are often polarized around deeply-held opinions about what the relationship should be between the state and faith-based social services rather than facts. How prevalent are faith-based social services? How does their service delivery or client satisfaction differ from secular social services?

Wuthnow agrees with other prominent scholars of U.S. religion like Mark Chaves and Robert Putnam that, on the whole, most religious congregations do not directly provide social services, but that religious congregations are one of the most prevalent motivators for people to volunteer their time and money for social causes.

The most successful and notable faith-based social services, Wuthnow interestingly points out, are unique not for the type of service they provide but for their approach. Because religious communities generally are [Read more...]

Religion and Support for Capital Punishment: Contrasting Leaders and Laity

In recent months significant attention was paid to the execution of Troy Davis – attention due in large part to the unclear nature of the evidence for his crime.

There were a number of reasons why this case piqued my interest, and one of them was that numerous appeals were made on behalf of Mr. Davis from leading national Christian figures such as former president Jimmy Carter, Rev. Al Sharpton, and Sister Helen Prejean. In addition Pope Benedict XVI, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu also sent in appeals on his behalf. I wondered whether their voices were reflective of the people from the same pews and denominations.

My statistical intuition told me that that could hardly be the case in view of a recent report from the Gallup Organization, one of the most established polling firms in the country.

They showed that Americans support for the death penalty in the case of murder has [Read more...]


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