Religion: A Force for Social Change and Advocacy

By Dr. Rachel Samuel

History points to the central role of religion in social and political change. Every continent offers numerous examples of faith-based and faith-motivated individuals, groups and institutions. Recent examples range from the high visibility of the African church and its leaders in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa to the liberation theologians of Latin American countries who engaged in social reform and political action in response to the human need and social injustices they observed around them. On the flip side, it is manifestly clear that religion has often been instrumental in preserving and promoting unjust hierarchies and oppressive regime. However, this brief discussion will focus on the role of religion in positive social transformation through advocacy.

Defining advocacy
Advocacy masks its truest significance in the broad definitions assigned to it. Advocacy is about the promotion and support of the individual or group in social, legal and political arenas. But at the heart of advocacy is the protection and empowerment of the powerless.

Advocacy aims to empower through a “range of activities from individual self-assertion to collective resistance, protest and mobilization”[1] to influence those in power whose decisions affect their lives. The strong political component of advocacy involves actions which aim to safeguard political, economic and social rights through the processes of civil society. Religious institutions are not all in agreement that they belong to civil society,[2] particularly if they regard it as secularist in its subscription to values and norms contrary to their own. Notwithstanding this, the processes of civil society, including building social capital, ensuring good governance and promoting human rights, are critical to religion’s understanding of and participation in advocacy.

Religion as motivation for social change
Central to most world religions is the duty and social obligation to their fellow man. In the Christian faith, biblical themes such as social justice, grace, and good stewardship provide a framework for social action.[3] The key Christian instruction to love God and love your neighbor also serves to underscore the importance of social obligation. In Islam, the third pillar, Zakat (defined as “obligatory charity” or “alms”), describes the social obligations. Its implies that one is obliged to pay dues to the community to support the weaker members of society and that one has a social responsibility towards others (Esposito 1997)[4].

The participation of individuals of faith in advocacy is fundamentally a question of what boundaries one places on one’s moral and social obligations. Religion and the church can be seen to lose its transcendence over matters of daily life when it engages in political advocacy. Apropos the church-state separation debate, many also fear the involvement of religion in politics and policy because of its potential for authoritarianism and as a threat to democracy. Alternatively, the value systems and sense of justice instilled in people of faith can be a strong driving force for social and political action, moving people’s private faith into public expression.

The social capital of religion
Civil society and advocacy remains an uneven field in India. Dalits, environmental and women’s groups are the forefront of fights for recognition and rights. Common to these and to most successful advocacy campaigns worldwide are grassroots action and strong participation and collaboration of people, i.e. its social capital.

Social capital is invariably explained as the social solidarity that results from the social bonds of groups through a sense of identity or shared experience,[5] and is crucial to the level of political and civic engagement.[6] Religious groups and institutions through shared identities have the potential to bring a considerable measure of social capital to bear in advocacy. According to 2001 national census of India, only a very small minority of people claimed not to belong to any religion. Although it is likely that a significant majority will not engage in advocacy, the potential remains worthy of further examination. For instance, the 24 million-strong Christian community alone, through churches and faith-based associations or in collaboration with other faiths, can generate a potent social force, as is increasingly being recognized in the field of HIV/AIDS advocacy. Consequently, interfaith commissions and networks to advocate for better policies for people living with HIV/AIDS are developing a voice on the national stage. It is important to note that India, as a multifaith society, poses particular challenges for developing effective partnerships and requires further exploration.

Community as a base for advocacy
Throughout the world, faith-based groups are involved in community development. In many countries they are the dominant providers of social services to the community. In South India, for instance, a significant proportion of top-performing hospitals are run by Christians. The question remains whether a strong history of service to the community makes it legitimate for religious groups to engage in advocacy. It could be argued that religious institutions are uniquely placed in the community to promote the rights of the community as they have strong, long-term and non-superficial relationships with their communities and engender commitment and trust perhaps to a greater extent that political institutions.

In general, religion possesses a strong associational structure which includes community groups, health clinics or hospitals, schools, vocational training units and other community-based projects, located in a single region or spread over larger areas of the country. It is clear that faith-based organizations possess wide-reaching influence and potential for social transformation on a large scale.

The nature of the institution of religion lends itself to creating an environment for advocacy. The value of support, security and solidarity of an organized structure cannot be underestimated in development of effective advocacy. The black church in the United States of the 1960s provided the training and discipline to their leaders who later became pivotal to the civil rights movement.[7]

Challenges and opportunities ahead
The agenda for advocacy by religious groups and institutions is predicated on their willingness to engage the public sphere at every level. However, several factors will influence whether the advocacy will be effective or not. The commitment of leaders can be a galvanizing force within and beyond the religious community. Their influential positions are evidenced by the fact that mere association with a particular cause will provide high visibility. Conversely, the apathy of religious leadership can weaken advocacy efforts.

Advocacy campaigns are increasingly sophisticated in their use of media and new technologies to enhance their visibility.[8] The use of the media as a tool for advocacy crystallizes both the challenges and opportunities faced by faith-based organizations. The opportunity to enhance the visibility and strengthen the social capital of advocacy efforts through media can be tempered by allegations of interference and divisiveness. Ultimately, the role of religion in advocacy can be crucial but also controversial.

[1] Batilwala, S. (1995) “The Meaning of Women’s Empowerment,” Women’s World, No 29, Kampala: Isis-WICCE.

[2] Civicus (2005) Civil Society at the Millennium (Kumarian Press).

[3] Canon Dr. Vinay Samuel (2003) “Theology and Development,” an unpublished paper presented at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, 3 October 2003.

[4] Esposito, J. (1997) Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford).

[5] Harpham T., Grant E., Thomas E., (2002) “Measuring social capital within health surveys: key issues” in Health Policy and Planning 17(1), Oxford University Press, pp. 106–111.

[6] Putnam, R.D. (2000) Bowling Alone. The Collapse and Revival of American Community (Simon & Schuster).

[7] Smith, C (1996), Ed. Disruptive Religion: The Force of Faith in Social-Movement Activism (Routledge).

[8] Wallack, L. et al (1999) News for a Change: An Advocate’s Guide to Working with the Media (Sage Publications).


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