Sidestepping religion and politics

Age-old wisdom reminds us every Thanksgiving: Don’t bring religion or politics to the table. But here my colleagues and I were, outside Birmingham, Alabama, listening to a table full of strangers discuss how their spirituality related to their civic lives. The conversation was one of 16 focus groups carried out across five cities in the U.S.

“I don't really tie spirituality with me going to participate [in a DACA rally],” Ana mused during the session in Alabama.Turning to Ana and then the table, Chenoia pushed, “these folks,” the undocumented immigrants brought to the U.S. as children, “are an extension of me… how can you be spiritual, yet complicit in someone else's suffering?”


What is behind civic engagement?

What motivates us to call our representatives? What inspires us to march for Black Lives Matter? What drives us to reach out our hand to a stranger? These questions were at the heart of the Fetzer Institute’s Study of Spirituality in the United States. In partnership with Fetzer and a diverse advisory group of academics and practitioners, we led this robust research project to learn what spirituality means to people of all religious and spiritual backgrounds, and how it informs the way we engage in our civic and political lives.


What does spirituality look like in the United States?

Research shows that we are motivated to act by our aspirations for who we can be as individuals and as a nation. These aspirations, beliefs, and values also sustain us even when it’s painful or risky to act. The study found spirituality itself to be an aspirational identity. Three in five respondents (61%) said they aspire to be more spiritual. The study also confirmed the relationship between our aspirations and how we show up for our communities. The more spiritual a person was, the more likely they were to take all kinds of prosocial, civic, and political action—from donating to causes they care about, to volunteering, to voting.

However, not everyone described this connection for themselves. In fact, people were just as likely to say their spirituality doesn’t influence their political activity as to say it does. Research participants explained how they wanted to keep spirituality separate from politics; that voting is a pragmatic decision; that our systems and our representatives were too broken.

Our aspirations serve as the wells we draw from when the world is hurting. Without an appreciation for how our deepest values and worldview inform how we engage with the world, we can lose sight of the “why” that inspires our civic commitment. And without that connection, we can become complacent or hopeless in front of today’s headlines when instead, they should compel us to stand up for a more equitable, safe, loving community for every person.


Drawing a straight line between spirituality and activism

Contrary to the trite holiday adage to eschew religion and politics, our research found that conversation is, in fact, an answer. When people described how their spirituality, their religion, or their values motivated them to vote or to volunteer, we watched others’ eyes open.They began to see the natural connection themselves.

As the Alabama focus group came to a close,Ana reflected: “Now that I think about it … my spirituality has caused me to help people to register, reminding my friends we need to go out and vote onNovember sixth. Because it comes down to what's right and wrong, what I believe is right.”

This is an opportunity for us all to invite others to strengthen this connection by modeling it in our organizations and for ourselves. It is a call to communicate our deepest values, and draw a clear line between those beliefs and the responsibility we have to act.

Veronica Selzler is a director at Hattaway Communications. She works to reframe the way we communicate about complicated and dynamic concepts, from equity to the education system to spirituality, with clients such as the Fetzer Institute,Lumina Foundation, and the Ford Foundation