Churches as organizational resources



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Churches as Organizational Resources: A Case Study in the Geography of Religion and Political Voting in Post-War Detroit

December 9, 2004


Abstract: How did individuals’ religious faith, the denominational population of their neighborhood, and the physical presence of a church or synagogue alter neighborhood political behavior? This paper explores the relationship between belief, populations of congregants, and the presence of religious institutions using a spatial dataset on Detroit in the 1950s. Voting for the Democratic Party in the 1952 presidential elections and more left-wing voting for the Progressive Party and against a “anti-sedition” measure of the McCarthy Era are considered. The geographic presence of churches and synagogues are shown to affect political outcomes, both within neighborhoods and in adjoining ones. The presence of Protestant churches, net of the affects of their populations of congregants, is associated with depressing the left-wing vote; the presence of synagogues and Catholic churches are related to higher incidence of support to progressive electoral outcomes. The presence of black Protestant churches is related to a higher incidence of Democratic Party voting, but it does not alter Progressive Party vote totals and results in increased support for anti-sedition legislation. Geographic information systems are used to show the relationship between religious dominance in neighborhoods and political outcomes.


Religion, despite its otherworldly characteristics, has concrete consequences for temporal life. Weber’s (1930) classic study, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, called attention to the role of religious convictions for economic activity. Similarly, voting studies originating in the 1950s (Berelson, Lazarsfeld and McPhee 1954; Lenski 1958) suggest that religion has an important impact on politics and voting. Notwithstanding the secularization thesis, the idea that as societies modernize, there is a decline in the “social prominence or cultural influence of religion” (Wuthnow 1988:297), recent studies have demonstrated that its impact on American voting patterns has been relatively stable over the last half century (Manza and Brooks 1997).

What is it about the religious experience that produces its effect on politics? Researchers have considered the intensity of religious activity (with the idea that the more intense the religious activity, the more pronounced the effect on political behavior), the particular theology involved (some theologies are more consistent with conservative political ideas, and others more conducive to liberal politics (Wald et al. 1988)), the amount of contact with the church (associational bonds) and with fellow congregants (communal bonds) (Lenski 1963) and (in a few studies) church and communicant geography (Huckfeldt et al. 1993), in search of the mechanisms involved in this relationship (Lipset 1963; Manza and Brooks 1999).

Using a novel historical dataset on Detroit in the 1950s, we systematically explore the importance of individuals’ faith, the local concentration of congregants of specific denominations, and the geographic presence of a church or synagogue within neighborhoods on political outcomes. We see our main contribution as twofold: the comprehensiveness of our consideration of these factors for all of the main religious groups, and our focus on the relevance of church/synagogue geography for neighborhood voting. While studies have considered the geography of church membership in aggregate (Land, Deane and Blau 1991; Finke and Stark 1988; Breault 1989; Webster 2000) and others have addressed the importance of individual-level church membership (Manza and Brooks 1997) no study to date has assessed the independent contributions of individual faith, neighborhood composition of religious congregants, and the geographic proximity of a church or synagogue on voting behavior. Our data permit us to test hypotheses on all three components of religiosity using spatial models.

Since most studies of religion and politics have used national surveys, they tend to ignore the local context and geographic factors. A couple of local case studies have considered the importance of churches in neighborhoods (Foladare 1968; Huckfeldt et al. 1993), yet these studies do not examine religious denominations in general. Foladare’s study of Buffalo, New York examines the role of religion on political party preference in 1960. It restricts comparison to religiously mixed vs. Catholic neighborhoods, and only considers whites. The 1993 Huckfeldt et al. study of South Bend, Indiana is more comprehensive. It attempts to identify the political consequences of parish and neighborhood contexts for political partisanship and views on abortion using panel data. The authors examine Catholics and Non-Catholics, and explain that “the Catholics in our sample are less likely to experience neighborhoods and parishes that emit divergent political signals, and hence it is more difficult to uncover the pattern of interdependent effects present among Catholics” (Huckfeldt et al. 1993:374).

Another strand of recent research explores the disruptive (as opposed to integrationist) potential of religion, and religion as a resource for social movement activities (McVeigh and Sikkink 2001; Harris 1994; Borer 1996; Morris 1984). Notably, Morris (1984) finds that in the climate of the segregated South, the black church was the crucial resource which allowed the modern civil rights movement to succeed. And as Greeley (1972:103) points out, “American Protestantism was intimately connected with the abolition movement during the Civil War, with the progressive movement at the beginning of the present century and with the temperance movement which led to the passage of the Prohibition amendment.”

We offer a comprehensive historical case study of the influence of five religious groups on neighborhood politics in post-war Detroit. We select Detroit due to the unique opportunities it offers1 and to the availability of survey and aggregate data, as well as detailed information on the location of churches and synagogues. The religious environment of Detroit was similar to northern and mid-western industrial cities during that period.2 In order to overcome some of the problems associated with ecological analyses, and to satisfy our goal of comprehensiveness, we identify the influence of individual faith on voting and concentrations of people of certain religious denominations using survey data, but our particular contribution is to show how the presence of churches3 within neighborhoods mattered for both conventional and more left-wing (social-movement-like) voting patterns.

We do not contend that the associations uncovered here hold for all times and places. The nature of religion in U.S. society has changed substantially over time, and these changes must be kept in mind when generalizing our findings. In the conclusion, we identify some of the main changes in U.S. religion since the beginning of the post-war period, and speculate about how those changes may impact the applicability of our findings to other times.





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