Political participation by citizens is an essential element in the function of a democracy. Verba, Schlozman, and Brady define political participation as an “activity that has the intent or effect of influencing government action—either directly by affecting the making or implementation of public policy or indirectly by influencing the selection of people who make those policies.”1 This definition includes activities such as voting, campaigning, contacting a government official, and protests. Democracy is dependent upon these actions, which allow the opinions of citizens to be heard. Because of the importance of political participation in maintaining a democratic nation, political scientists are particularly interested in explaining why some people choose to participate and why others choose not to.
Differences in participation have been examined from multiple angles: economic status, education, gender, and race are variables often used to explain different levels of participation. Race, in particular blacks and whites, has been studied extensively in the field because of the noticeable differences and because of the sudden increase of African-American mobilization in the 1960s. Political participation among Hispanic-Americans has also gained notice in recent years. When studying the level of participation among whites, African-Americans, and Hispanic-Americans, the question of why such distinct differences in political participation levels exist among the races must be asked.2
Political Participation by Race
Whites, who since the beginning of American history have dominated American politics, have never faced structural or legal barriers that minorities have encountered. The lack of barriers to political participation is reflected in the overall percentages of whites who engage in political activities. In a 1989 survey in which 85% of the respondents are white, whites dominated most of the modes of political participation: 88% of all voters identify themselves to be white, over 90% of respondents who have donated campaign money or have contacted a government official are white, and about three-quarters of respondents who have given time to a campaign or who have participated in a protest are white.3
The seemingly overrepresentation of whites in political participation leads to a closer examination of minority participation to explain why certain races are underrepresented and what factors can motivate more minorities to engage in political activities. White participation is usually studied in conjunction with minority participation rates.
African-American political participation has been studied extensively by political scientists because of the increased levels of participation in the 1960s and because of the question of whether or not blacks are actually underrepresented. In the Verba et al. survey, 10% of respondents identified themselves as black; in considering participation levels, African-Americans appear to be only slightly underrepresented: 9% of all voters are African-American, approximately 6% of respondents who have donated money to campaigns or have contacted government officials are black, and over 15% of respondents who have given time to a campaign or engaged in a protest are African-American.4
Because of the disparities between income and education levels of blacks and whites, conventional wisdom has often determined that African-Americans are the underrepresented group. Basic texts on political participation agree that Americans who are wealthy or well educated are much more likely to participate in political activities than those who are low-income and not well educated5; thus, socioeconomic factors have been considered a reason why African-Americans are overall less politically active.
Despite the socioeconomic differences between blacks and whites, there have been disagreements as to whether or not African-American participation levels are actually low. There are five competing theories on black participation: null-effects model, cultural inhibition model, isolation model, compensatory model, and ethnic community model.6 These models differ in their prediction of participation levels of African-Americans and why they choose to participate or not participate.
The null-effects model uses the disparities between the socioeconomic factors of blacks and whites to predict that if these social and economic factors were controlled, there would be equal levels of participation between blacks and whites. Demographics such as gender, education, religion, and income level would all be controlled factors. The cultural inhibition model predicts that even if socioeconomic factors were controlled, blacks would still have a lower level of political participation because blacks and whites have inherently different cultural attitudes. This model explains that African-Americans are less likely than whites to hold attitudes that promote participation; hence, African-Americans participate at a lower level than whites. The isolation model also predicts that regardless of socioeconomic status, blacks will have a lower participation level than whites; however, this is caused by racial discrimination and structural barriers, not attitudinal blocks, that decrease black participation.
Models that predict an increase in African-American participation if socioeconomic factors are controlled are the compensatory and ethnic community models. The compensatory model suggests that black participation is enhanced because African-Americans attempt to compensate psychologically for their minority status by participating more than actively. The ethnic community model, on the other hand, attributes the higher participation level of blacks to a group consciousness that motivates them to strive for social changes that would benefit their racial group. Political scientists have tested and modified these models of African-American participation, particularly the ethnic community model.
The civil rights movement, which caused a proliferation of African-American organizations and social and political participation, surprised many of those in the field of political science and sociology because of the commonly held associations of low social status and low participation with blacks. Much of the research explaining the rise in African-American participation began in the 1960s. Anthony Orum (1966) suggested in his comparison of National Opinion Research Center (NORC) survey data of communities of low-income blacks in inner-city Detroit and low-income whites in inner-city Chicago that the relationship between social class and organizational participation is not as strong for blacks.7 Lower-income blacks are far more likely than their white counterparts to belong to organizations, particularly those with political and religious affiliations. Not only are low-income blacks more likely to join associations, but they are also more likely than low-income whites to participate actively. Orum accounted for a higher level of participation in low-income blacks because of the compensation theory: voluntary associations are used as a substitute for family ties and structure. This study and others that examined the higher rate of participation for blacks controlling for socioeconomic factors such as Olsen (1970) provided a springboard for Verba and Nie’s Participation in America (1972), one of the more important findings related to black participation.8 Controlling for socioeconomic status (SES), which include the factors of education, income and occupation, blacks participate more than whites. Verba and Nie, however, attributed the racial gap to group consciousness:
If blacks participate more than one would expect of a group with similar socioeconomic status (SES), the explanation may lie in the fact that they have, over time, developed an awareness of their own status as a deprived group, and this self-consciousness has led them to be more politically active than members of the society who have similar socioeconomic levels but do not share the group identity.9
In other words, Verba and Nie were suggesting the ethnic community model. Guterbock and London (1983) decided to test all the models of black participation in an attempt to reconcile disagreements in the field. Using the data collected by Verba and Nie, they created a typology based on political efficacy and trust to describe each model (e.g., low trust and low efficacy equates to the cultural inhibition model; low efficacy and high trust equates to the compensation model; low trust and high efficacy is equivalent to the ethnic community model; and high trust and high efficacy equates to normal participation).10 Applying the survey results of political trust and efficacy to political participation and controlling for SES, Guterbock and London concluded that the ethnic community model received the most support from the data. The compensatory model received no evidence; naturally, there was no support for either the isolation or cultural inhibition model because blacks were no longer underrepresented when considering SES.11
More recent studies of African-American participation include Bobo and Gilliam (1990), who criticized the methodological and sociological basis of previous research. The studies by Orum, Verba and Nie, and Guterbock and London are all based on data from the 1960s, a period when African-Americans were actively struggling to be included in American politics and social life. Bobo and Gilliam examined the 1987 General Social Survey results and concluded that in areas where blacks held the position of power (i.e., the mayor’s seat), blacks tended to be more politically active than their white counterparts of equal socioeconomic status.12 They suggest that all of the old models of black participation are out-of-date and that the field should focus on the effects of black empowerment, or the African-American presence in public offices. Black empowerment, Bobo and Gilliam argued, has a social psychological effect of African-Americans’ sense of political trust, efficacy, and knowledge, which in turn increase their likelihood to participate.13
Another area of interest in the study of African-American political participation is the black church. Black churches were a prominent institution in the civil rights movement and have been considered as an integral social, religious, and political fixture in the black community. This idea has sparked research on how black churches and religion affect African-American political participation.
Church membership and involvement are integral in mobilizing African-Americans. Tate’s (1991) analysis of the black voter turnout in 1984 and 1988 presidential elections revealed that variables such as socioeconomic status cannot fully account for black turnout variations; instead, involvement in black churches elicited a stronger and more positive effect on political participation.14 Tate (1993) showed the consistent positive effect of politically active black churches on African-American participation through organizational resources.15 Harris (1994) examined the overall political mobilization effect of religion and applied the idea to black churches. Black churches provide both cognitive-emotional resources that give church-goers a greater incentive to participate (e.g., internal religiosity promotes a greater sense of efficacy through religious inspiration and promotes a greater interest in morally-charged political issues) and organizational resource that ease the mobilization process (e.g., politically active churches inform church-goers when to vote and decrease the cost of voting)16, an idea he developed from Wald (1987).17 Using the 1984 Black Election Study voter turnout results, Calhoun-Brown (1996) refined the idea of black churches increasing the level of African-American participation: church attendance itself among blacks was not an accurate predictor of political participation; however, involvement at a politically active church was a strong indicator of voting in the 1984 election.18 One of the most recent studies on religion and African-American participation is Alex-Assensoh and Assensoh’s (2001) work on how inner-cities affect church-going and participation in the black community.19 In examining the data from a telephone survey of poverty neighborhoods in Columbus, Ohio, they found that in an inner-city context the perception of social isolation was a negative effect on church attendance and political participation more so than the poverty rate was an effect. They concluded that the African-American church was an institution of political importance despite the negative influences in the inner-city.20 All the research on black churches in recent years have underscored the institution as an essential part of mobilizing African-Americans, who because of their lower socioeconomic status are often expected to have lower levels of participation.
Another group with a traditionally lower socioeconomic status is Hispanic-Americans. As a minority group, Hispanics have not received much attention in the past but with the growing population of Hispanics in America, they are deserving of more attention. Between 1980 and 1990, the Latino population, which coalesces Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Cubans, and other Hispanic groups, grew by 53% and had reached 22.4 million.21
Verba et al. (1995) measured the political participation of three racial groups: whites, blacks, and Latinos. Among the respondents, 6% considered themselves to be Hispanic or Latino. Their participatory levels are not reflective of their percentage in the sample: less than 3% of the voters and those who have donated campaign money or contacted government officials are Hispanic; approximately 4% of respondents who have given time to campaigns and engaged in protest activities identify themselves to be Latino.22 Political participation among Hispanic-Americans is considered low; however, the American Hispanic population is largely an immigrant population and controlling for non-citizens may level the rate of participation. Moore (1985) cites a 1982 U.S. Bureau of Census report in which Hispanic voter participation not including non-citizens brings the Hispanic participation up to that of black participation.23 Garcia and Arce (1988) reviewed data from the 1979 National Chicano Survey, which surveyed people of Mexican descent. They concluded that Chicano participation in 1979 was slightly up from the early 1970s but that the low rate of participation in 1979 can be attributed to the fact that about one-third of Mexican-Americans are not citizens.24 Verba et al. (1995), using their own survey data, estimated that Latino-Americans engage in an average of 1.2 political activities (e.g., voting, campaigning, protesting). Holding citizenship constant, they found that the mean number of political acts went up only slightly to 1.4, which is still lower than 2.1 political acts, the population mean.25
Another explanation of the low turnout of Hispanic-Americans is that unlike the solidarity blacks feel in the ethnic community model, Hispanics are not capable of such strong group consciousness because the group Hispanic-American encompasses too many distinct groups. The term Hispanic-American is used to describe people with origins in Mexico, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Central and Latin America, the Caribbean, and many other Spanish-speaking areas in the Americas. Each subgroup is distinct and represents a different history from all the other subgroups, which is the result of the varying historical contexts in which each Hispanic subgroup was incorporated in the United States. For example, Puerto Ricans came to the United States as citizens who are eligible for welfare benefits and who settled initially in New York; Cubans, on the other hand, arrived as refugees in a wave in the 1960s and settled in Miami—the Puerto Ricans and Cubans have very different experiences assimilating in America.26 The distinct historical contexts that separate each Hispanic subgroup prevent the larger Hispanic group from unifying like the African-Americans.
Related to the historical contexts in which Hispanics settled in the United States, the concentrated areas of Hispanics have undermined the presence of Hispanics overall in the country. Because the Hispanic-American population is focused in mostly southwestern areas of the U.S. and urban areas such as New York, Chicago, and Miami27, they were viewed as a regional minority and not given much attention nationally. Politicians did not acknowledge that existence of the minority until the past 30 years and during that time there was little mobilization effort for the Hispanics, which as established and perpetuated the Hispanic inactivity in politics. Similar to African-Americans, Hispanics are also typically a lower socioeconomic status in American society and have faced barriers such as English tests to voting. Many Latino-Americans hold traditional manufacturing jobs, which do not allow for improvement, growth, and better wages.28
Very little substantial studies have been done on Latino-Americans and participation. Many political scientists group Hispanics in the “minority status” category with African-Americans and do not attempt to explain the lower participation levels among Hispanic-Americans.29 Understanding how and why Latino-Americans participate in the 1990s and how they voted in the 2000 election is important because of the growing population of Hispanics and the increasing number of Hispanics who are receiving citizenship in America.
Despite the often-made comparison to blacks, Hispanic-Americans have not been analyzed often in terms of their religious beliefs. The importance of black churches in the community and high rates of church attendance among blacks has been cited for encouraging political participation. Likewise, Hispanic-Americans are also a religiously active racial group: 53% of Latinos and 51% of Latinos who are U.S. citizens say that they attend church at least twice a month.30 Church attendance rates for whites and blacks hover at around the same range: 48% and 60%, respectively.31 For all the focus on black churches, political scientists have neglected to study not only Hispanic religion but also how religious beliefs affect political participation in whites, blacks, and Latinos.
In this paper, I will attempt to show that religiosity will not have the same effect on political participation among races but that it will have the same effect of increasing political efficacy among the three races. Higher degrees of religiosity will produce a substantial positive effect on African-American participation; however, it will produce a much smaller positive effect on whites and Hispanics. Wald (1987) contended that religion was a “political resource” that can motivate people towards political activism. He distinguished the different types of religiously based resources for political participation: religion can act as a cognitive-emotional spark for personal efficacy; it can stimulate action by placing political issues in a moral light; and religion can act as an organizational tool to bring people together through religious services.32 Through religion, people will have a greater sense of efficacy; the stronger their religious belief, their sense of internal efficacy will increase. Neither the increase in efficacy nor religiosity, however, equates to an increase in participation. Because of the organizational structure of black churches, especially those that are politically active, African-Americans with a greater degree of religiosity are more likely to have higher rates of participation. Churches composed primarily of whites are less politically active and Hispanic churches, many of which are Catholic, also do not promote political activity; thus whites and Hispanics with a high amount of religiosity will not be as politically active their African-American counterparts.
Methods and Data
I will use data from the 1996 General Social Survey (GSS), on questions relating to political participation and religious beliefs. The degree of religiosity will be measured on a scale from one to five, one being not at all religious and five being extremely religious. Questions used to create the religiosity scale are “How often do you attend religious services?”, “Would you describe yourself as ___ religious?”, “Having faith in God is ___ important,” “How often do you pray?”, and “Which statement come closest to expressing what you believe about God?” Coding all the responses on a scale of one to five (e.g., for the question on church attendance, respondents who never attend or attend less than once a year are coded as one, those who attend once or twice or several times a year as coded as two, those who attend about one to three times a month are three, those who go to church nearly every week or every week are coded as four, and those who attend several times a week are five). Measuring how often one attends religious services is not enough to determine religiosity. I also use how religious respondents view themselves and their inner faith in religion. Unlike many studies that measure religiosity, I am not considering whether or not respondents consider themselves “evangelical” or “born-again” because this would apply primarily to Protestants and not Catholics. Since many Latino-Americans are Catholic and I have no intention of excluding denominations, evangelicalism as a measure of religiosity would not be appropriate in this circumstance. After coding for all the responses, the numbers would be averaged to give a scale of one to five for overall religiosity.
The scale for political participation would include the following questions: “In 1996, do you remember for sure whether or not you voted in [the presidential] election?”, “In the past three or four years, have you attended any political meetings or rallies?”, “In the past three or four years, have you contributed money to a political party or candidate or to any other political cause?”, “Have you done work for one of the parties or candidates in most elections, some elections, only a few, or have you never done such work?”, and “In the past five years how many times have you gone on a protest against a government action you strongly oppose?” The 1996 GSS data was selected because it is the most recent survey that contains voter turnout data from a national election. The scale of political participation includes voting, typical forms of participation such as giving time or money to a campaign and attending political events, and atypical forms of participation such as protests and demonstrations. Unlike the scale for religiosity, the degree of political participation will be calculated by assigning each type of participation with a value of one and adding the total number of activities. If the respondents have participated at all in a certain form of activity, the activity would be assigned a value of one; in other words, the volume of each type of participation is not calculated in the measurement. Respondents with the highest level of participation will be coded a five whereas those with the lowest level will be a zero. Both the data for the religious and the political participation scale must be examined at an individual level first in order to calculate the measurements correctly.
In this study, I will also control for certain socioeconomic factors in black and Hispanics since both have traditionally been classified as low-income and low-education groups. Demographics that need to be controlled for are income, class, education, and occupation.
I will then examine the correlation between political participation for each racial group to test my hypothesis that blacks will engage in a higher level of participation at greater degrees of religiosity than either whites or Latinos.
The second part of my study is to analyze the relationship between religiosity and internal political efficacy. Only internal political efficacy, which is the feeling that one has the capacity to take part in politics, rather than external political efficacy, which is the feeling that the government is responsive to the people, will be measured. The inner strength that those who are religious gain from their beliefs seems to correspond most closely to internal, not external, political efficacy. Similar to the previous measurements of political participation and religiosity, a scale measuring political efficacy will be constructed. A one-to-five scale for political efficacy needs to be developed: I will use the question “Agree/disagree: The average citizen has considerable influence on politics” as a simple measurement. Respondents who strongly agree with the statement (strongly efficacious) will be coded as five while those who responded “strongly disagree” will be coded as one; each of the varying levels will be coded as two, three, or four according to the degree of efficacy. I will compare the level of efficacy with the degree of religiosity among each of the races.
After examining internal political efficacy and religiosity, I must make a connection between internal efficacy and the religious inner strength in order to show that the inner strength derived from religious belief is related to internal political efficacy. Religious strength is not the same as religiosity; thus, a separate scale must be constructed for the measurement of inner religious strength. Such a measurement will depend less on external factors such as church attendance. Using the same scale as religiosity but substituting the religious services attendance question with the question “[How often do you] find strength and comfort in [your] religion?” Coding the responses on a scale of one to five (the response “many times a day” or “once a day” would be assigned a five and the response “never or almost never” would be a one), the inner religious strength scale will be averaged to include the comfort question. The political efficacy and internal religious strength relationship should be consistent across all races.
The religiosity, political participation, internal political efficacy, and inner religious strength scale will be used to prove that a high degree of religiosity increases one’s inner religious strength, which is equated with internal efficacy; however, this increase in political efficacy does not necessarily lead to a consistent greater rate of political participation.
Examining the level of religiosity with the amount of political participation data from the 1996 GSS, I find that the results reflect my hypothesis. As shown in Figure 1, black political participation rates increased at a much greater level when religiosity is higher than the participation rates of other races. Figure 1(a) shows the increase in participation for whites as religiosity becomes greater and figure 1(c) shows the very slight increase for Hispanic-Americans. Blacks, in figure 1(b), experience a sharp increase in participation as religiosity grows.
Why does religiosity seem to affect these three races differently? As Wald (1987) and Harris (1994) had examined in their research, religion affects politics in both internally and externally. Religion can provide an inner strength or sense of efficacy for those who believe and politically oriented religious organizations reduce the cost of participation by providing members with social contacts and political information.
Before I test the relationship between political efficacy and religiosity, I will look at the idea that religion can provide inner strength and efficacy, or that internal political efficacy is related to religious inner strength. Figure 2 reveals that there is a strong relationship between these two variables. Looking at each race separately (figures 2(b), (c), (d)), the relationship is present; this strong relationship still exists even when looking at the overall data not separated by race. Having established the relationship between inner religious strength and internal political efficacy, I will consider that idea and the notion that politically active churches mobilize members by reducing the cost of participation. It is now possible for me to suggest that a higher level of political efficacy will correlate more closely with a greater degree of religiosity across all three races.
I will now examine whether political efficacy increases among the three discussed races when the measure of religiosity is higher. Figure 3 shows graphs of the political efficacy and religiosity correlation of the three races. As expected, higher degrees of religiosity predicted greater levels of political efficacy for all the races. Blacks experience the greatest rise in political efficacy at high levels of religiosity; however, there is also a sharp increase of internal political efficacy among whites and Hispanic-Americans.
Why does a greater level of religiosity correspond to a higher level of internal political efficacy among all three races but not a consistently higher level of political participation? A natural connection seems to exist between internal political efficacy and political participation: one who feels that he is capable of participating actively in politics tend to be more likely to engage in such activities. In my results, however, there seems to be a division between the efficacy and participation. I would like to suggest that the separation between the two conceptions can be explained by the different organizational structures of the racial churches. In other words, the organizational differences between predominately white, African-American, and Hispanic-American churches result in the dichotomy between political efficacy and participation of the races.
Calhoun-Brown (1996) emphasized the importance of politically active churches in motivating African-Americans to participate in politics. She noted that non-politically active black churches did not have the same strong and positive effect on black participation as the political churches.33 This same concept seems applicable to other race-based churches.
African-American churches have long been regarded as an integral part of the community; however, Hispanic-American churches have not had so strong an impact. One important element of Hispanic-American churches is that because there is a higher percentage of Hispanics than whites or blacks who are Catholic, the Latino churches tend to be more hierarchically based and have a much larger congregation. Protestant churches, as opposed to Catholic churches are more likely to have more congregational input and activities because of the organization of the church.34 Not only do Catholic churches not lend themselves structurally to promoting group behavior, Hispanic churches have had a long history of being disorganized and led by non-Hispanics.35 The Latino churches have not encouraged political activities as vigorously as many of the politically active African-American black churches. These organizational and structural differences have inhibited the Latino church from playing as big a role in mobilizing Hispanics; thus, although a greater number of Latinos may feel an internal political efficacy from there strong religious beliefs but they are still not much more likely to vote.
My hypothesis is supported by the data from the 1996 General Social Survey data. Coding results from questions on religion, political participation, and political efficacy, I was able to test the extent religiosity affected political participation. There are several important findings from my study that should be highlighted. First, religiosity seems to affect the political participation of each race differently: African-Americans experience the largest increase in participation as religiosity grows stronger. Hispanics and whites have only a slight increase in participation. Second, when examining internal political efficacy and religiosity, a strong and consistent relationship can be seen among all three races. As religiosity increases, the internal political efficacy of Hispanic-Americans, African-Americans, and whites also increase.
The dynamics in churches are often changing, particularly when examining a church such as the Hispanic Catholic Church, which has only recently become more organized.36 It has also introduced liberation theology, which similar to the black liberation theology strives to apply the Christian social gospel to the experience of the low-income, to the American Catholic Church.37 As the Hispanic church changes its organizational structure, it might also mobilize its member to participate in political activities. Future research may want to examine how the changing Hispanic church is affecting political participation.
Previous studies and this paper have shown that the relationship between religion and political participation is evolving and changing. Until now, most of the research done in field has focused on the black church and participation; however, as the Hispanic population grows and the Hispanic church is redefining itself, it is important to examine participation from more than just a black and white lens.
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