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Omar M. McRoberts, PhD, is an advisor to Fetzer’s Study of Spirituality in America, which comprises in-depth interviews and focus groups (both completed) and a survey that will be fielded in early 2020. Omar recently co-presented “The Changing Landscape of Religion, Spirituality, and Identity in America” workshop at Upswell 2019. We caught up with him right after Upswell to find out more about his work and his thoughts on the Study.

What drew you to the field of the sociology of religion and what is the current focus of your research?

I came into the sociology of religion as a student of urban poverty and high poverty neighborhoods. Initially I was interested in organizations in poor neighborhoods—the schools, the social service agencies, the businesses. What I quickly learned was that churches are often the most prevalent type of organization in economically depressed communities. If I wanted to understand organizational life in such communities, I would need to become a sociologist of religion. So my first book, Streets of Glory, was an ethnographic study of religious life in a poor, predominantly African-American neighborhood containing 29 congregations. It explained the high concentration, wide variety, and ambiguous social impact of religious activity in the neighborhood.

My current research examines black religious responses to, and influences on, social welfare policy during the New Deal, War on Poverty, and Welfare Reform eras. Especially interesting is how government has, deliberately and inadvertently, influenced black religious thinking about poverty and poverty politics.

What interests you most about the Study of Spirituality in America?

Of course the pattern of more and more Americans identifying as "spiritual but not religious" is interesting, especially when we consider its possible impact on civic life. We know that formal religious membership, or participation in religious organizations, has historically been an important path to civic participation. In organized religion, people commonly develop skills and acquire special kinds of knowledge that facilitate their participation in broader public life. What then happens with people who identify as "spiritual but not religious" or as religious "nones"?  We must not assume that they are unengaged civically—rather, we should use research to find the ways that spirituality might motivate civic engagement apart from religious affiliation. 

What about the qualitative insights of the study do you find most interesting? Did anything surprise you?

The most interesting and surprising finding for me was that many focus group participants came into the conversation not having an understanding of the connection between spirituality and their own civic life, but formed such an understanding as a result of being in conversation with others about these things. They discovered, in dialogue, the way that their civic engagements were motivated and informed by spiritual dispositions. This illustrates that the connection between spirituality and public life is not necessarily obvious, even to people who understand themselves as both spiritually and civically involved. That connection sometimes is drawn in dialogue with others who identify the same way.

I am reminded of the role of spirituality in the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s. The Civil Rights movement was deeply rooted in the black churches, but the connection between spirituality and this remarkable public activism was not obvious to all participants. Before starting a campaign of civil disobedience, the spiritual connection was deliberately and explicitly drawn through a process that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. called "purification." In purification workshops, protesters engaged in collective soul searching about their deepest motivations and capacities. What spiritual resources could they draw upon to build the courage to lay their bodies down and face the specter of police violence and likely incarceration? What spiritual resources could sustain their disciplined nonviolence? Purification workshops gave protesters the opportunity to make the connection between their spirituality and their public activism.

What is your hope for the study overall? And/or, who do you think will most benefit?

I hope that the study will enjoy wide distribution and discussion once it is complete. Scholars of religion and spirituality will benefit from this unique research, but I hope it will influence discussions about civic life well outside of the academy.