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Faith and Power

Richard L. Wood

Department of Sociology
University of New Mexico
Albuquerque, NM 87131-116

Table of Contents


What is it about religious institutions that makes them apparently well-suited to community organizing efforts?

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the political strategies followed by community organizing efforts? Are some strategies more effective than others in addressing urban problems and in generating democratic action?

What aspects of the political and community environment aid or hinder the success of religious-based community organizing efforts?





Much academic attention has been focused in recent years on understanding the role religious forces played in shifting the spectrum of legitimate political discourse in the United States , and indeed the balance of political forces , dramatically to the right in the last 20 years. Very recently several sociologists (Greeley 1997; Coleman forthcoming) have noted the important role played by religion in sustaining the civic culture underlying American democracy more broadly, not just among conservative political activists. Finally -- in the most rigorous study of American civic and political participation of recent years -- Verba, Brady, and Schlozmann (1995, 1997) documented the skewed pattern of such participation: those already socially privileged in terms of socio-economic background, racial identity, and gender also participate more extensively in politics and in the kinds of civic activities that provide them with the skills for political engagement. Thus, the presumed equality of opportunity of American life is undermined by the greater civic voice claimed by the socially privileged.

This paper argues that religion and religious institutions contribute powerfully to successful political mobilization among low-income Americans, in ways that hold promise for rolling back this inherent civic advantage of wealthier sectors of society -- IF these religiously-rooted efforts are coordinated with other political efforts. I will identify those other efforts I see as most crucial in the conclusion. The paper is built around my reflections on three questions:

1. What is it about religious institutions that makes them apparently well-suited to community organizing efforts? Are some religious traditions better suited than others?

2.What are the strengths and weaknesses of the political strategies followed by community organizing efforts? Are some strategies more effective than others in addressing urban problems and in generating democratic action?

3. What aspects of the political and community environment aid or hinder the success of religious-based community organizing efforts?

The main argument of the paper addresses the first set of questions, suggesting that certain kinds of religious institutions contribute in four areas: social capital, democratic skills, cultural resources, and hierarchical power lending itself to mobilization. The answers to the subsequent two sets of questions are essentially addendums to this main argument.

What is it about religious institutions that makes them apparently well-suited to community organizing efforts?

I suggest four broad areas in which (some) religious institutions appear well-suited to (some) contemporary models of community organizing:

A. Social capital:

The most commented-upon area in which religious institutions contribute to the success of church-based organizing efforts is in the formation of "social capital" within church membership. The question of whether social capital has eroded in American civic life in recent decades has been fiercely debated (Putnam 1996; Ladd 1996; Greeley 1997; Edwards and Foley 1996 and 1997). I abstain from that debate here; it appears to be an open question, requiring further research (now being pursued by Putnam, Robert Wuthnow, Theda Skocpol and Marshall Ganz, to name a few). I do believe that the concept of social capital -- not only as developed originally by James Coleman (1988) but also as narrowed and focused by Robert Putnam (1993) in his study of Italy , remains highly valuable for explaining the success of democratic institutions. Several commentators have drawn on the concept in explaining democratic participation in general, and church-based organizing success in particular.

Warren (1995, 1996) applies the concept extensively in his study of the Texas Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF) network, arguing that the social capital embedded in Hispanic Catholic churches, in particular, has been crucial to explaining the dramatic success of IAF organizing under Ernie Cortez throughout Texas. Coleman (forthcoming) applies the concept to case studies of six national paradenominational organizations, arguing that community organizing under the Pacific Institute for Community Organization (PICO) is particularly effective in drawing on church-based social capital. Finally, in my own work comparing church-based and race-based models of organizing among low-income blacks, whites, and Latinos in six cities, I argue that PICOís rootedness in churches allows it to project greater power into the political arena (Wood 1995, 1997).

Two caveats are important here. First, as just noted, I do indeed argue in past publications and in a forthcoming book that PICO is able to project greater political power than race-based organizing in the current context can achieve. But this is definitely not to say that I believe race- and ethnically-based organizing to be unimportant. At least in its most sophisticated forms, including some of what I saw in the work of the Center for Third World Organizing, such organizing plays an important, if more limited, role in urban America, and holds significant promise for building a more democratic American future. In my view, the key elements making some such work "more sophisticated" than others are: 1) keeping a clear eye on building multiracial coalitions and cross-racial social networks, and 2) sustaining a vision for both disrupting politics-as-usual when it excludes some potential participants from the poorest urban areas and collaborating with local political leaders or institutions that are committed to engaging such potential participants.

Second, though the church-based organizing component of my fieldwork focused on the experience of PICO, the other church-based organizing networks operate quite similarly. While I suspect that the networks do indeed differ in ways that matter, I am quite confident (based on some observation and othersí research, particularly the forthcoming work of Stephen Hart) that the claims I make here apply at a minimum to the stronger federations across all four major networks (PICO, IAF, Gamaliel, DART) as well as to a few strong independent federations.

All three of these examples draw essentially from Putnamís (1993) narrowing of James Colemanís original conception of social capital. Both Putnam and Coleman conceive of social capital as distinct from human capital or cultural capital in that social capital is not and cannot be carried by individuals in isolation from one another; rather, social capital is distinctive in that it inheres in the social structure , that is, in the pattern and quality of relationships between individuals, rather than in individuals themselves. For both, social capital serves as a resource for action; that is, it enables social actors to engage more effectively in action.

There the common ground ends, however. For Coleman, this social capital is ethically and politically neutral: it can enable action for positive or negative social ends. Putnam has been severely criticized for misinterpreting Colemanís broad understanding of social capital, in ways his critics believe does violence to the original concept. I share this criticism regarding his work on the U.S., or at least agree Putnam has been insufficiently precise in his use of the concept. However, while Putnamís work on Italy also narrows Colemanís conception, it does so appropriately and correctly: Due to his interest in the success and failure of democratic institutions, Putnam focuses the concept of social capital on the pattern and quality of social relations that enable democratic success. Thus, Putnamís use of the term might be clarified as "democratic social capital"; with this clarification, it serves extremely well to ground the current discussion.

Democratic social capital involves three key components: First, the level of trust that exists between members of a given society (or, in the case of community organizing, within sub-groups of a society). Second, the extent to which social relationships include a heavy component of horizontal social networks, rather than being dominated by vertical social networks. Third, the embrace of norms of reciprocity by members of the society: do social actors expect reciprocal action from one another? That is, when social actors lend aid or support to others, do they reasonably expect others to offer similar aid or support should it be necessary in their own future , and act on that expectation?

The analysts of church-based organizing mentioned above have focused mainly on the first two components of social capital. All argue that religious institutions provide settings with heightened trust and horizontal social networks , at least heightened in relation to levels typical in the urban low-income settings in which community organizing has most thrived. This distinction is critical, in that it allows these commentators to circumvent the controversy over whether social capital has indeed eroded overall in American society. In these more specific settings, it seems reasonable to assume that social capital has eroded, as trust and horizontal ties indeed seem to have declined with the decline of labor unions, job opportunities, and political machines in low-income urban cores.

How is it that churches heighten the trust and horizontal networks among their membership? Several factors seem important here: The worship life of the community may instill a sense of common identity that builds a sense of trust within the community; in some traditions, it may also inculcate a sense of common obligation that contributes to the development and embrace of norms of reciprocity among them. The existence of sub-organizations within the congregation also seems to be important: are there extensive ministries that draw people into relationships to one another, beyond sharing a pew on Sunday morning? Putnamís insistence on the importance of horizontal networks suggests that ministries in which authority is shared, and which share in the authority of the pastor or governing body, may contribute more valuable social capital than top-down ministries.

The latter raises an intriguing question: One wonders how what we might call the "ethos" within a congregation contributes: Does a congregation with a strong ethos of shared trust succeed in community organizing more readily than an otherwise-similar congregation run with a high degree of mutual surveillance and distrust? Or does the accountability provided by the latter outweigh any advantages of social capital enjoyed by the former?

Religious institutions also contribute powerfully to the success of community organizing efforts in a second area: by developing their membersí capacity in the simple skills useful in the practice of democracy. Such democratic skills are an element of human capital rather than social capital, because they are carried by individuals rather than residing in the relationships between individuals.

Verba, Brady, and Schlozman (1995, 1997) analyze how Americans acquire such democratic skills (they consider four: writing a letter to a Congressional representative, making a speech or presentation, attending a meeting where decisions are made, or planning such a meeting). The three dominant settings in which adults learn these skills are the workplace, non-political organizations (including unions), and religious institutions. Verba analyze how often participants in these settings engage in the four kinds of democratic skills listed above, and their finding are illuminating. First, the workplace provides the largest number of opportunities for learning these skills. But the workplace offers such opportunities primarily to people of high socio-economic status (SES); the workplace thus functions to reinforce existing social inequalities in this regard. Second, non-political organizations also offer significant opportunity to cultivate these skills. But again, these opportunities are biased in favor of high-SES members. In both these cases, skills acquisition is also biased against African-Americans and especially Latinos, and also against women (though the latter only marginally in the case of non-political organizations). Third, religious institutions on average offer somewhat fewer opportunities for acquiring democratic skills than do other non-political organizations , but the larger numbers of Americans affiliated with churches offsets this differential. More crucially, skills acquisition in religious institutions is relatively unbiased with regard to gender and measures of socio-economic status: Women and those who are less well-off are as likely to learn democratic skills through religious involvements as are men and the well-to-do. Furthermore, democratic skills acquisition in religious institutions favors African Americans: they tend to belong to churches rich in opportunities for acquiring democratic skills.

Thus, through committees, ministries, and governing boards, churches provide opportunities for members to develop democratic skills in quite egalitarian fashion across SES, race, and gender groups. The one exception to this applies to Latinos. Although beyond the purposes of this paper, this exception deserves at least brief attention. Verba et al. show that Hispanics, due to their predominantly Catholic religious affiliation, end up with far fewer skill development opportunities at church than either whites or blacks. The Catholic Church, due to its more hierarchical and priest-centered structure and in spite of changes since Vatican II, still offers fewer opportunities for skills development than do other churches. This finding regarding Hispanic Catholics suggests that low-income Hispanic Catholic churches might be less effective in community organizing than other churches: their members would be expected to bring fewer democratic skills into the organizing process. But this must be interpreted in light of Warrenís (1995) finding that, at least in the Texas IAF network, Hispanic Catholic churches are especially effective in community organizing work. I think the two things are not, in fact, contradictory: It may be that these churches bring greater resources of social capital, cultural orientation, and hierarchical power ("participative hierarchy" in Warrenís apt phrase) than other churches, thus counterbalancing their initial shortcomings in human capital. Or, more generally, it may be that "democratic skills" are a relatively small component of what makes churches effective participants in community organizing. Or it may be that the organizing networks are quite effective at training leaders in the required skills, thus washing out the initial advantage of non-Catholic churches in this regard. Further consideration of this question would be interesting.

Thus, Verba note that religion is the predominant institution working against the class bias of American civic engagement (that those already privileged economically also control a greater portion of other resources necessary for democratic participation). Religious institutions distribute opportunities to acquire democratic skills in relatively egalitarian ways, with women and those from lower classes just as likely to benefit as men and the wealthy, and with blacks actually more likely to benefit than whites.

Striving to see community organizing from the perspective of a political organizer makes the implications of Verbaís findings stand out more starkly: If you are an organizer, you need people with some level of skills to form the core leadership of your organization. You can train people in these skills, but this is a slow process; you need some people who bring with them some skills and some experience of leadership. You can initially build an organization around these individuals, and gradually train others in leadership skills. In the kind of organizing considered here, youíre probably organizing among low-income urban residents, most often some mixture of blacks, whites, and Hispanics. Verbaís findings suggest the following about the challenges you face with your potential constituents:

You thus face an organizing environment characterized by low initial levels of skills development (relative to wealthier settings). Organizing through churches helps you to maximize the skills that are present, while confronting the dilemmas above: The churches are the one set of places in which your low-income constituents are likely to have gained some democratic skills. Crucially, organizing there allows you to balance the racial balance of your leaders: blacks and whites, at least, have had relatively equal opportunities at skills development. You can supplement this balance with Latino leaders from ethnic Hispanic churches: in such mono-ethnic settings, you can bolster their skills rapidly since they are not competing for leadership with black or white leaders.

Religious institutions thus offer political organizers the advantage of maximizing the human capital to which they have access, while also gaining political legitimacy by having a relatively representative set of visible leaders.1

The work of community organizers is usually understood as a process of recruiting and training leaders, raising money, "cutting issues," and accumulating in the hands of organizational leaders the power through which they can hold elites accountable to democratic pressure. Clearly, these are all important dimensions of organizersí work. But, at a different level, their job also entails another dimension that is rarely identified explicitly in writing about community organizing, but of which the best organizers are keenly aware -- indeed, clarity about its importance and dedication to doing it are, in my view, part of what separates the outstanding organizers from the pack. This other dimension involves constructing, in collaboration with leaders, a political culture of democratic engagement within the life of the organization.

Most good organizers think of their role partly as transforming the wider culture of American political life, but I wish to emphasize here the internal political culture of community organizing , that is, a set of shared assumptions, habits, tactics, practices, and ways of interpreting and speaking about the world that helps undergird and sustain the organizing work. Such an organizational culture helps focus participantsí attention on their neighborhoods and cities and what can be done to improve them, as well as helping to hold the organization together when political events threaten to demoralize leaders. But at its best, such an organizational culture does much more: it fosters critical dialogue among leaders, so that they are developing one anotherís organizing capacities; it heightens leadersí analytic capacities, so that they see the national and global forces at work in their communities and thus allows them to see emerging issues in time to address them; and it promotes a culture of reading, action, and reflection that deepens the humanistic and religious worldviews of participants. Ideally, this can be seen as a quite developed form of the culture of "paying attention" called for by Bellah and his co-authors in The Good Society (Bellah 1991). These factors are carried into the public realm as the participants engage there in meetings with public officials, one-on-one interviews, house meetings, and actions/accountability sessions; there, they gradually reshape political society, and indeed may be the primary avenue through which organizing transforms that wider political culture.

Thus, a third area in which religious institutions contribute to the success of community organizing efforts is in providing cultural elements for constructing this political culture of engagement. Religious cultural elements are significant parts -- usually for better and for worse -- of the "tool kits" (Swidler 1984) of potential leaders. While this can be thought of as "cultural capital," I wish to emphasize here a less elite-driven and education-based sense of cultural capital than that term often carries. Rather, in community organizing, the key cultural elements are motivational and interpretive resources instilled by religious traditions in their adherents.

The motivational resources are the more obvious of the two, and also the easiest to caricature. Where organizers, sympathetic pastors, or lay leaders can invoke a sense that "God wants you" to be involved in a given organizing effort or issue, the likelihood of involvement of many church members rises. This occurs, and is one way to fill the chairs at a large action, and indeed lies behind the effectiveness of the hierarchical power that religious institutions also contribute to community organizing (see below). But to emphasize this rather one-dimensional picture of religious motivation is to caricature what really goes on in many organizing efforts: Many leaders experience this work as an authentic calling, draw on their religious ethical traditions to discern Godís will for an improved human situation in their neighborhoods and cities, and feel Godís presence sustaining them as they engage in the hard and challenging work of organizing. Again and again in my interviews, leaders speak of this sense of calling and divine presence in the "building up of our community" or furthering the "Kingdom of God" in the world , with the latter image interpreted in quite this-worldly social, political, and economic terms. It is critical that we not underestimate the power of this sense of meaning for the leaders we study: it is a crucial piece of what sustains them over the long term.

The interpretive resources offered by religious institutions are less obvious, but equally crucial to the success of church-based community organizing efforts. Drawing on the seminal work of Karl Weick, I have argued elsewhere (Wood 1995) that one of the crucial dilemmas of community organizations lies in adequately interpreting the remarkably complex political environment around them , especially as these organizations achieve sufficient power to exert influence on the higher-order issues that transcend local neighborhoods (education reform, wages, economic development, etc.). In the short-term time horizon of much political mobilizing, it is often expedient to paint matters in the starkest and simplest terms. But in the long-term work of constructive civic engagement to which most church-based organizing networks aspire, such simplification often becomes counterproductive , not least because it quickly alienates potential political allies and erodes the credibility of the organization.

Thus, building an interpretive framework that is sufficiently complex and nuanced to interpret a political environment marked by conflict and collaboration, negotiation and confrontation and at times betrayal, is a critical element of the long-term success of organizing efforts. In the language of the sociology of organizations, this interpretive framework must incorporate sufficient "complexity" or "ambiguity" to match the ambiguity in the surrounding environment. At the same time, the framework must be sufficiently coherent to guide the organization as it takes action , in the end, ambiguity must give way to clarity and purpose. Achieving this combination of ambiguity and coherence in a community organizationís interpretive framework or organizational culture is no mean task; it contributes to the long-term viability of the organizing effort as much as gaining financial resources or political victories.

In building this organizational culture, church-based organizing efforts draw partly on the Alinsky tradition and other participative democratic strands of American life. The best of them also draw on current academic and even literary work. But all draw as well, to a greater or lesser degree, on the religious traditions of their member religious institutions. It is crucial to recognize that these religious institutions vary considerably in their own incorporation of ambiguity and coherence in their ethical traditions. Rigidly otherworldly and individualistic organizational cultures may find it difficult to make sense of political engagement at all; rigidly anti-political organizational cultures may have difficulty entering into positive alliances with political leaders who have the power to implement programs; one-dimensionally optimistic organizational cultures may have difficulty understanding or engaging in the conflictive and Machiavellian dimensions of the political arena. At a minimum, organizers and sympathetic pastors must do considerable "cultural work" to help those whose worldviews are shaped by such religious cultures to broaden and deepen them sufficiently to be consonant with a political culture of engagement , and here, again, different religious cultures vary in the resources available for this kind of cultural work (Wood, 1995).

Religious institutions thus contribute in at least two rather different ways to the cultural resources available as community organizers go about constructing a political culture of engagement within their organizations. On one hand, they provide motivational elements that help participants engage initially in civic affairs and draw others into that engagement. On the other hand, they also provide interpretive elements that help participants make sense of the complexities of political engagement, and thus make organizing a personally meaningful and thus sustainable commitment. In both ways, religion must be understood as an intrinsic part of what makes church-based organizing as influential as it is in significant parts of urban America , rather than as a coincidental side-show to the "real work" of organizing.

Finally, churches contribute powerfully to community organizing efforts by placing the authoritative power of pastors and other religious leaders at the service of those efforts. Through their words and actions, pastors can legitimize Christian participation in a political world seen as inherently corrupt by some religious traditions and by the privatized strand of contemporary American culture. At times, this certainly takes a rather top-down mobilizing form, as when pastors use their sermons to define participation in some specific organizing action as inherently part of Godís will, or at least the pastorís will for his/her congregation. At its best, however, it takes the more democratic form analyzed very insightfully by Mark Warren as "participative hierarchy" (1995): pastoral authority draws church members into the organizing effort, and in their participation there these members gradually gain the skills, confidence, and desire to take leadership roles. In turn, these more empowered lay members operate with greater confidence and self-direction vis-a-vis their own pastors, as well.

Warrenís discussion of the elective affinity between church-based community organizing and the participative hierarchy of Texas Catholic churches is excellent; I will simply note that an interesting topic for clarification is whether there exists a trade-off between 1) mobilizing people through the exercise of this hierarchical power rooted in church authority; and 2) mobilizing people through the more egalitarian relations between lay peers within a church; that is, through the social capital analyzed above. That is, under what conditions does mobilizing people through the top-down imposition of pastoral authority actually hinder the subsequent development of the lay leaders thus engaged? My own sense is that there is a tension here, particularly in the element of social capital that Putnam calls horizontal social networks; surely pastor-layperson ties in Catholic churches typically look more like Putnamís vertical ties. This may well be a creative tension, but it begs the question of how well organizers, pastors, and lay leaders in various projects balance this tension and gradually build stronger horizontal ties. 

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the political strategies followed by community organizing efforts? Are some strategies more effective than others in addressing urban problems and in generating democratic action?

The standard indictment of church-based organizing efforts, like of most community organizing efforts, criticizes their over-attachment to neighborhood-based issues. In this view, community organizing never really address the fundamental inequities of economic and political power that largely determine the life chances of low-income Americans, nor challenge the parochialism and bias of local constituents. This was no doubt at one time a legitimate challenge, and remains so of some of the weaker local organizing federations. By and large, however, my perception is that the major organizing networks recognize the limits of such local issues and push their staff to transcend these limits as soon as possible [however, we also need to recognize the real difficulty organizers face in trying to project organizational power into higher-level political arenas]. Thus this criticism often amounts to a red herring, certainly as an indictment of contemporary models of organizing. Even when directed against the community organizing efforts of 20 or 30 years ago, this criticism appears to be a caricature: my conversations with Mike Miller of the Organize! Training Center and Tom Gauddette from Chicago regarding their observation and involvement in organizing over several decades convince me that we of a younger generation of scholars and practitioners often mistake the weakest, late 1970s and early 1980s versions of organizing for everything that came before them.

I would likewise characterize as red herrings the indictments of church-based organizing efforts for failing to truly organize multiracially. In some local settings, this remains a weakness, and the networks need to be continually challenged to diversify their professional ranks and reach out to previously unincorporated constituents (often including Southeast Asian and Chinese immigrant communities). But most appear to do surprisingly well in drawing in at least African-American, Hispanic, and "white" participants where these constituencies exist, and in sharing leadership among them. At least this is the case in the PICO federations with which I am most familiar , and some of these have recently organized successfully in Southeast Asian immigrant communities. Likewise, both PICO and the Texas IAF network have made significant strides in recruiting and promoting minority and female organizers and directors. Do these patterns hold in other networks and local federations? I want to emphasize that I think this will always be an area of challenge for all the networks, given the legacy of race/ethnicity in America and the erosion of affirmative access to higher education for non-whites. But as a charge of "fundamental weakness" of the model, I think itís also a red herring at this point.

Somewhat more substantial is the class bias introduced to community organizing by its reliance on religious institutions as a base (Delgado 1994). I do think some non-religious-based organizing efforts mobilize a more uniformly poverty-stricken constituency (see Wood forthcoming). By organizing primarily through religious institutions, church-based organizing may end up with a more established, middle-class constituency , but I am aware of no good systematic studies that document this. Furthermore, the price of the non-church-based models is that they appear to mobilize far fewer total constituents than the church-based models. The net effect may be that the two models mobilize similar numbers of "poor" participants , the church-based models may just also mobilize the less poor. Which model more effectively represents the interests of the lowest classes in the political arena is thus an empirical question to be answered in each local setting; unilateral claims to represent the poor while others represent the middle class simply do not hold water. My own stance is that a plurality of models, each with its own advantages, may well be desirable.

The real weakness of the current organizing models lies in their apparent inability to draw private economic interests to the bargaining table through head-on organizing that targets them. That is, the "people power" of community organizing can successfully impose some measure of democratic accountability on political elites, even up to the statewide level in some instances. But community organizing has proven far less effective in imposing this kind of democratic accountability on economic elites.

This weakness, however, can only be honestly ascribed to the very nature of our present political-economic structure. Rather than a shortcoming of church-based organizing per se, in other words, it is of course a failure of historical development to institutionalize some effective form of democratic accountability in the economic realm, as has been done in the political realm [partially, oh so partially!] over the last two hundred years.

The primary strengths of the current political strategies of community organizing efforts lie in their innovative efforts to overcome this historic deficit , that is, to find ways of forcing democratic accountability in the public realm onto economic actors who prefer to operate through the private relations of capital. I would highlight two such innovations of recent years:

These seem to be among the crucial growing edges of current church-based organizing practices; they seem to me to hold the greatest promise for generating democratic action at a level that can aspire to be commensurate with the challenges facing democracy in America.

What aspects of the political and community environment aid or hinder the success of religious-based community organizing efforts?

There are no doubt a myriad of factors at work here, including all those identified in the political sociology literature as relevant to democratic success generally. I want to focus on two related factors, not because they are necessarily the most important but simply because they are the ones about which I have thought extensively.

The first has to do with what might be called the relative competence of political leadership within the local scene. A key aspect of this might be called the "political imagination" of that leadership: As church-based organizing efforts arose, did established political leaders see them simply as a threat to their entrenched power, and thus try to block any potential influence? Or were they capable of imagining church-based organizations as part of a new, broader constituency, either for current power-holders or for an alternative power block? If the former situation obtained, were potential leaders with greater political imagination or coalition-formation skills available somewhere within the local scene?

It is important to note that church-based organizing efforts are NOT just passive recipients of the political competence of local political leaders; these organizations themselves, if effective, become part of the conditions of success of such leaders, and may indeed help form them. But the extent to which strong political leadership exists or potentially exists depends in part on cultural and structural factors beyond the control of community organizers , and this is therefore an "environmental" factor determining their success.

An example of the lack-of-political-competence scenario can be seen in New Orleans: the former mayor there actively opposed the PICO federationís efforts, and when backed into a political corner signed onto and then refused to deliver on a series of federation-sponsored initiatives. This became a significant obstacle to the federationís ability to impact policy , even for a federation with remarkable local strength, as shown by its having turned out some 5,000 people for a political action and its ability to draw politicians to the negotiating table. But New Orleans also offers an example of the competent-leadership-in-the-wings scenario: the current mayor was elected precisely, in part, by drawing upon the constituency organized through churches as part of his electoral alliance. Once in power, this constituency was part of what gave him the autonomy to launch the first substantial clean-up of the local police department in years: previous mayors had been so dependent on police patronage that clean-up attempts were always rolled back. As part of this collaboration, the local PICO federation (ACT: All Congregations Together) has had a significant voice in local policy formulation, thus becoming able to influence policy to a far greater degree than is possible by the strategy, typical of many community organizing efforts, of influencing resource allocation after broader political policies have been defined. Similar examples can be found throughout the country and under the auspices of other networks.

Thus, the relative competence of political elites represents one factor in the political environments of community organizing federations that conditions their success. A second factor is related, and is complementary to the discussion of "cultural resources" above: Local city governments and their associated political structures can also be considered as carrying loose "organizational cultures." We can thus ask the same question of them as was asked of community organizations: To what extent does the local political culture, as carried by political leaders and their staffs, incorporate sufficient ambiguity to interpret their own complex political environment? In particular, where community organizations are powerful, they represent a significant piece of that political environment. Are political leaders able to understand the complex signals sent out by community organizations as they engage alternatively (and sometimes simultaneously) in conflict and accommodation, negotiation and critique? Such complex maneuvering characterizes the most adept community organizations I have studied: As they strive to maximize their influence in policy formulation, they do seek partnerships with elected figures, but also jealously guard their autonomy. Political leaders who expect the simple signals of loyalty characteristic (or, more accurately, once characteristic) of political party affiliates may misinterpret these complex signals as a failure to understand the quid-pro-quo nature of power politics. While such an interpretation may in some instances be correct, it may also reveal an established political culture incapable of understanding the unique structural position of church-based organizing. If such a misinterpretation stands for very long, it may lead to significant turbulence in what might otherwise be a productive (albeit tactical and provisional) alliance.


Drawing on my own and othersí research, I have argued that the social capital, cultural resources, opportunities for development of democratic skills, and hierarchical power embedded in religious institutions allow certain kinds of institutionally-rooted faith commitments to provide the basis for effective projection of political power into the public arena. In the introduction, I suggested that this dynamic of faith and power holds promise for rolling back the inherent civic advantage of wealthy social sectors, if such religiously-rooted efforts coordinate effectively with other political efforts. I conclude by noting what I see as the four most crucial such linkages.

First, the recent rebirth of vigorous labor organizing in the U.S. , more accurately, its emergence from the margins into the mainstream of the American labor movement , marks a significant shift in the political environment of community organizing. Though real barriers exist to effective alliances between unions and community organizing federations, as noted above some such alliances have been forged around specific issues, primarily minimum wages and educational reform. Though I reject a one-dimensional social analysis based on class conflict, I believe any realistic view must see the workplace as a fundamental terrain of democratic struggle, and the divide between labor and capital as a permanent site for contestation as well as dialogue. Thus, the local alliances between unions and church-based organizing efforts should be seen not as short-term tactical forays; rather, they should be treated as early experiments in strategically exploiting an emerging political opportunity for church-based organizing -- an opportunity fundamental to the interests of low- and middle-income Americans.

Second, as church-based organizing has matured and strengthened, it has outgrown its original focus on redistributing limited resource flows in local areas. Strong local federations now influence fundamental policy debates at the local and statewide levels, even in some of the most politically-significant states in the country. And as a whole, the visionaries of church-based organizing clearly aspire to reshape political policy nationally , but at present cannot do so. Though this aspiration comes with very real dangers (most prominently the risk of losing its rootedness in local congregations and becoming or being perceived as just another political action machine), not to aspire to such a role would be simply adolescent. But to aspire to it seriously will require some re-thinking and probably painful new openings in areas the networks have only begun to consider. Most critical here are 1) opening up the possibility of coordinating their efforts with one another (that is, across the church-based organizing networks) rather than viewing one another as fierce competitors; and 2) considering expansion of their tacit, limited coordination with political parties. I see the former as simply fundamental: Though not a new insight, it has not been pursued seriously. The latter is a more delicate matter still, at a stage for creative thought and local experimentation.

Third, the new reality of global economic competition and corporate power virtually unconstrained by national governments make cross-national linkages with popular movements in other countries increasingly important. Here, neither scholarly commentators nor the organizing networks themselves have really begun to envision the possibilities , not for lack of vision, I suspect, but because the difficulties are immense. Choosing potential allies based on limited information, financing international travel, the burdens of misguided nationalism, and the complexities of cross-cultural communication all make it easier to focus on oneís own national reality. But one simple fact shows how blind such an option really has become: from the global economy emanate many of the forces undermining the quality of life of neighborhood residents and the democratic promise of local politics. Beginning to forge cross-national organizing linkages cannot be the first priority of the organizing networks, but it should be on their agendas , and within the gaze of scholarly commentators.

Finally, and much more within the realistic capacity and current experience of church-based organizing federations, linkages must be forged with leaders in government and business who can promote the federationsí democratic agenda and channel information and insight from the political and corporate worlds into the organizing process. One of the great strengths of community organizing in recent years has arisen from the strategistsí willingness to forge such linkages; that willingness has been an important move beyond the radical anti-institutional quality of much American populism. Federations must enter into such linkages circumspectly, of course, preserving their autonomy and periodically asserting their freedom of action. But the additional leverage and insight possible through such linkages make them important places for organizations to cultivate contact , contact rooted in both dialogue and conflict.

Such are, in my view, the key emerging linkages that will multiply the already significant democratic promise of community organizing rooted in the religious faith of Americans. These views have been shaped partly through my research and reading on contemporary organizing, but also tutored deeply by my conversations with both long-time, independent stalwarts of community organizing and current practitioners and scholars of that democratic craft. I thank them individually in a forthcoming book, and here simply note that these views are controversial , as much for the priorities I neglect as for those I highlight. In the end, the best course will be proven in practice, not in theory. In the meantime, whatever else they do, the most urgent priority falls where it should always fall: in building democracy while remaining rooted in the real lives and faith commitments of people struggling to provide for families and preserve their dignity.


1 It is important to note, however, that Verba et al are in fact quite pessimistic that religion can successfully roll back the strong competitive disadvantage of low-SES segments of society and of minorities.


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