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Henry Institute Receives $100,000 Grant
April 25, 2005

The Paul Henry Institute for the Study of Christianity and Politics at Calvin College has received a $100,000 grant from the Milwaukee-based Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation to study the role of religion in shaping civic responsibility in American life.

Calvin professor Corwin Smidt, also director of the Henry Institute, says the topic is an interesting one especially because of the role of religion in the recent U.S. presidential election (in which President Bush defeated Senator Kerry).

"Clearly," he says, "in light of the media and public response in the wake of exit polls conducted on election day,the American public, the mass media, scholars, as well as policy analysts and policy-makers need to develop a better and deeper understanding of the role of religion and moral values within American public life."

Smidt notes that people's religious connections and civic ties are often closely connected.

"Roughly speaking," says Smidt, "almost half of all personal philanthropy is religious in character, and half of all volunteering occurs in a religious context. In addition people are more likely to give money and time, even to secular efforts, if they are church members, and they are also significantly more likely to vote if they are church members."

Smidt notes too that religion's contribution to democracy is not limited simply to its social ties and communitarian vision.

"Religion and religious life also foster important civic skills among those who participate in its structure," he says, "as church involvement provides opportunities to practice skills such as organizing and leading a committee, that can be applied to civic life."

But in this new study Smidt wants to go beyond involvement. He wants to study responsibility, and says the distinction between the two is important.

"A study of civic responsibility," he says, "broadens the analysis to assess both attitudinal, value-rooted commitments and behavioral responses - as well as the interplay between the two. Since civic responsibility entails moral as well as behavioral dimensions, one might well anticipate that religion would be even more strongly related to civic responsibility than it is to civic engagement. But, since no such study has been conducted to this point, it is unclear whether this is the case empirically."

Smidt also wants to probe more deeply the nature of religion in relationship to civic responsibility and involvement. Prior research in this area has found religious factors to be important variables, without clearly identifying what specific facet of religion most directly contributes to civic engagement.

"Is it religious beliefs, religious commitment, religious networks or some combination of such factors," he wonders. "Are certain religious traditions or certain types of people within a religious tradition more likely to manifest high levels of civic engagement and responsibility? No effort has yet been made to ascertain what is proposed here."

Smidt will be the project director. His team of research fellows will include: Stephen Monsma (Henry Institute Research Fellow); James Penning (Calvin professor of political science); Doug Koopman (Calvin professor of political science); Kevin denDulk (Grand Valley professor of political science); and Calvin student fellows yet to be selected.

Smidt notes that each of the research team members has recently published a major scholarly work on religion and public life.