Book chapter

Social Justice, Anti-Poverty Work, and Religion (2019)

in: Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics

Abstract

Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s spiritual vision of a Beloved Community, equally valuing all humans, called for direct, transgressive action for political and cultural change. Despite his and others' effective mobilization for racial justice, this vision of an economically just society has largely not been achieved. The 20th century witnessed a growing chasm in political interpretations of American Christianity, between those who believe their faith requires challenging the roots of poverty and those who believe such inequality reflects fair judgment on personal behavior. These dynamics affect the charitable and political choices of religious institutions as well as individual support for social programs. Most clergy in the United States report preaching about issues social justice, and the vast majority of churches provide some social services; however, less than a third engage in political action toward similar goals. Regional inequality, the mobility of people and capital, and dynamics of congregational adaptation create challenges for religious leaders who seek to educate and engage congregants on social justice. Still, a persistent minority of leaders and institutions actively seek Dr. King's vision, often working in community coalitions, such as innovative programs for court reform, addressing the criminalization of poverty. More research is needed to assess what kinds of anti-poverty programs and activism are the product of congregations across ideology, and what belief systems or contexts shape their choices to assist the needy. Additionally, future work could consider the appropriate roles for religious institutions in negotiating their own religious mandates and community pressures in relation to the interests of the state, such as through the criminal justice system or public social programs, and the interests of vulnerable community members.