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The Role of Religion in Fostering Civic Responsibility

A Research Study funded under a grant from the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation

The Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics is engaged in a major research study that is systematically assessing the role of religion in shaping the level and characteristics of civic responsibility exhibited by American citizens.   The goal of the project is to:

  • clarify those facets of religion that most fully contribute to civic responsibility;
  • broaden and depend public understanding of the ways in which religion fosters civic responsibility;
  • encourage and equip religious institutions in their efforts to shape such responsibility; and
  • lay the foundation for a deeper and more refined study of this topic.

Over the past decade, a number of studies have established the important role that religion plays in civic engagement of American citizens.   In fact, religious involvement has been touted as one of the strongest factors contributing to both philanthropy and volunteering.   Three reasons can be cited for this critical role.   First, religion can supply resources in the form of powerful motivations for action on behalf of moral values.   Secondly, the social ties embedded in religious communities can provide an equally important factor in accounting for volunteerism and philanthropy.   And, finally, religious life can provide the context in which individuals are given the opportunity to practice and improve skills that can be transferred into the civic arena.

To further explore the interplay between religion and civic responsibility, the Henry Institute study is examining not simply civic engagement, but the relationship of civic responsibility and religion. The researchers are examining a number of data files from previously conducted studies to determine whether the relationships between religion and various manifestations of civic responsibility are consistent across these various studies. In addition, the research team seeks to ascertain which specific facet(s) of religion have the greatest effects on civic engagement and civic responsibility. Finally, the project examines the role played by institutional factors in the religion/civic responsibility interplay, not simply the personal religious characteristics of individuals.

The study consisted of two stages:

  • Re-assessing the role of religion in fostering civic engagement by making use of the currently available data from previous studies to add institutional-level information that has remained largely unanalyzed, and integrating all of the information within one single study; and
  • Developing greater precision in identifying the relationship between religion and civic responsibility, confirming the existence of particular patterns across a variety of studies, and establishing the institutional contribution of religion to civic responsibility beyond individual personal religious beliefs and behavior.

The research and results of the study have been periodically reported through presentations made by the team participants, and through articles published in scholarly journals and in various other magazines and periodicals.

With the first phase of the project concluded, Pews, Prayers and Participation (released in 2008) summarized the findings of the researchers' study of civic responsibility and religious belief.

The second phase of the project included a major national survey of approximately 3000 participants, which was completed in 2008. The survey was conducted in two waves: the first contact with respondents was in the spring of 2008 and the subsequent re-interview taking place after the election. The Disappearing God Gap: Religion in the 2008 Presidential Election, published in 2010, incorporates the survey findings.