How Spirituality Affects Social Change

Illustration of interfaith leaders arm in arm during one of the Selma to Montgomery marches

Anybody who has even a passing familiarity with social change movements of the past knows that religion and spirituality play a central role. There was Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘Christian love’ approach in the Civil Rights movement, and Gandhi’s Hindu-based ‘satyagraha’ movement in South Asia.

But there is not a lot of rigorous research on the way that people understand spirituality, religion and civic engagement in contemporary times.

Enter the Fetzer Institute and their important new study What Does Spirituality Mean To Us? 

Here are some things we learn. 88% of people said that they engaged in at least one practice they considered spiritual or religious on a weekly basis. As Professor Vanessa White of Catholic Theological Union explained, this finding illustrates what scholars of spirituality have long believed: spirituality is fundamental to human experience.

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Moreover, as people’s self-identified spirituality increases, so does their pro-social behavior and civic engagement across the board. The more spiritual or religious you are, the more likely you are to interact with strangers, attend community events, give money to causes and engage politically. 

It’s very clear that, as Fetzer Institute President Bob Boisture puts it, “People’s inner lives and their outer lives are deeply connected.”

But here’s the rub: many people don’t connect those two things in their own minds, even though the data shows a strong correlation. It is only in conversation with others that people realize and articulate the connection.

It’s when someone else points out the connection, or else asks a searching question about why someone takes the kind of community action she does, that the individual begins to put words to the relationship. As Omar McRoberts, Professor of Sociology at the University of Chicago and an advisor to the project, noted: “The connection between spirituality and public life is not necessarily obvious, even to people who understand themselves as both spiritually and civically involved. That connect sometimes is drawn in dialogue with others who identify the same way.”

In talking about the findings, Omar, who is a friend, made a reference to the ‘purification workshops’ of the American Civil Rights movement. These were spaces of intentional and intense conversation that focused on connecting spirituality and social action. How else, Omar observed, do you think people developed the strength to endure everything from police beatings to biting dogs except by connecting their civic action with their personal faith. It wasn’t a physical strength that got them through, it was an inner strength, the strength of spirituality. 

In the recently released findings of another major study on religious diversity, IDEALS (a partnership between my organization, IFYC, and Professor Matt Mayhew of The Ohio State University and Professor Alyssa Bryant Rockenbach of North Carolina State University), we found that while 70% of college students said that they believed bridging religious divides was important, fewer than 50% claimed to have spent time learning about religious diversity in class, and fewer than 15% participated in any kind of interfaith dialogue.

Let me summarize: spirituality is essential to people’s lives. Civic engagement is essential to our democratic life. The two are strongly correlated, but even people who are engaged in both endeavors don’t see the relationship the two. It is only through that other great democratic art form, conversation with others, that the connections start to be made. And when those connections are made, spirituality is deepened, civic engagement increases and the relationship between the two is made stronger.

For me, these various findings offer a clear path forward.

We need more conversations between people of all identities on how spirituality and civic engagement are related. People will learn more about each other, and they will learn more about themselves.

There is a growing movement of bridge building organizations that train people to have such conversations.

We should launch a movement to train tens of thousands of democratic conversation curators over the next several years - people skilled in bridging the divide across various people and between spirituality and civic engagement within people. These conversation curators will then host hundreds of thousands of conversations that involved millions of people across major sectors of American life. 

I think college campuses are an ideal place for such conversations (two powerful examples: here and here)

But they are not the only place. As the Reverend Adam Taylor of Sojourners emphasized, the Black Lives Matter movement is not only deeply spiritual, but is deeply interested in more conversations that connect their bold social action with a deep spirituality. Independent Sector, an umbrella organization for the civic sector, has proactively brought faith and spirituality into its conferences. And the private sector is increasingly interested also. I’ve been asked by a number of companies in the last few months alone to give presentations on spirituality and religious diversity in the workplace.

There is a hunger for these kind of conversations across the board. It is, as the great Howard Thurman said, a hunger of the heart and the soul of the people. If we don’t feed that hunger, our democracy might starve.   

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.