On civic engagement

Craig Calhoun describes the contribution religious communities make to the public sphere.



Craig Calhoun describes the contribution religious communities make to the public sphere.


People who are embedded in a religious community are much more likely to be engaged in civic activity. Some of that is inside their religious community, Christians who are doing things in their churches. But much of it extends beyond it. They are more likely to vote; they are more likely to get involved in charities; they are more likely to volunteer in various settings from hospitals to schools.

So religion may motivate people to do that. But it also gives them what some scholars have called social capital, a combination of networks and other resources that make it easier for them to participate. Some people have learnt in church settings to articulate their views, to speak up in public, even to project their voice loudly enough that the whole congregation can hear it. And those same skills turn out to be valuable in a woman’s movement or a trade union movement. This goes for all of civic engagement. Religion equips people with some resources that they can take into life beyond the church, sometimes motivated explicitly by their religious values, but also sometimes simply drawing on the social capital and the skills from religion. 

One of the questions about religion in the public sphere is whether religion is going to somehow dominate the public sphere. And, in my view, this generally means eliminating it, because you don’t have a public sphere if you don’t have a difference, if you don’t have debate, if you don’t have question, if you don’t have a capacity to learn from each other. I think religion informs the public sphere best when it supports our ability to get involved in projects in civic life with people who come from somewhat different backgrounds – then learn from them, collaborate with them, but also discuss what’s going on, shape our opinions, be challenged by people who believe things differently from us and come out, not only knowing more about them, but more about ourselves.