Social Science Research Council Research AMP Mediawell

Selfish or Substituting Spirituality? Clarifying the Relationship Between Spiritual Practice and Political Engagement

Kucinskas, Jaime; Stewart, Evan
American Sociological Review

Churches have long been sites of local charity work as well as national political movements. What happens when people engage in more individualistic forms of spirituality, like mindfulness meditation or yoga, rather than participate in religious communities? Might the rise of individualized forms of spirituality lead to a decline in political engagement? Or, among people averse to religion, might spiritual practice operate as a substitute, and potentially contribute to political engagement? Drawing on burgeoning theory of religion and spirituality as socially-situated boundary objects, we use data from the 2020 National Religion and Spirituality Survey to examine the relationship between self-reported spiritual and religious practices and political engagement. First, we investigate whether study participants distinguish spiritual and religious practice as distinct concepts through factor analysis. Next, we use those results to examine the association between these practices and reports of political behavior. We find a consistent, positive relationship between spiritual practice and political engagement of comparable magnitude to that of religious practices. Notably, during an era of heightened political polarization around religious engagement, political progressives, respondents of color, and members of the LGBT community are more likely to report spiritual rather than religious practices. This points us to a theory of spiritual practice as a substitute for religious engagement among groups alienated from religious institutions, with the former capable of fostering similar proclivities for political action as the latter. Our results suggest critiques of a “selfish” spirituality have been overblown.