November 7, 2008
Faculty Insight: Christian Responses to Poverty
An Interview with Theresa Davidson
Assistant Professor, Department of Sociology
Ph.D., Louisiana State University
M.A., Northern Arizona University
B.A., University of Arizona
Dr. Theresa Davidson specializes in poverty issues and recently undertook a study of Christian responses to poverty. She described her work to The Belltower as the contracting economy threatened to add to the ranks of the poor and make life even tougher for those already living in poverty.
Belltower: What inspired you to look into the ways Christians relate to poverty issues?
Davidson: As someone who studied the effect of welfare reform for my doctoral degree, I was constantly struck by the attitudes held by the non-poor, and even the poor themselves, toward welfare. Generally speaking, welfare as a social program is not seen in a favorable light, and likewise, the poor, particularly those who receive welfare benefits, are often not viewed favorably. So, I hold a very general interest in attitudes and public opinion about poverty and social welfare policy. However, moving to Birmingham and teaching at Samford I am surrounded by people for whom religious faith shapes so many aspects of identity and outlook. Indeed, the Samford community has always impressed me by its compassion for and efforts toward the disadvantaged locally and globally. This has sparked my intellectual curiosity about how sub-group membership affects the attitudes and world-views of adherents, but I am especially interested in attitudes regarding poverty. All the major world religions contain doctrine about responsibility toward the needy, and it just seemed natural that I study how affiliation impacts feelings about poverty.
What are you hoping to learn from this research?
Well, the literature on this topic is quite mixed. Some studies find that the highly religious are more empathetic toward the poor and more likely to support public policy toward the poor. Other studies show that the highly religious are less empathetic toward the poor and less likely to support public policy. Still other research finds that the religious are no different from the non-religious in their feelings about the poor and policy. Many of these disparities are a result of different measures used. For example, some studies measure concern toward the poor by the amount of money given to charity and others by the amount of time spent volunteering. I am interested in macro-level policy, therefore my measure looks specifically at how people feel about government spending to improve the lives of the poor. I am hoping to make a contribution to this very contradictory literature. Also, it has been several years since anyone has tried to answer this question, so I hope I can revive an empirical and theoretical dialogue about the influence of religious affiliation on public attitudes in this area.
Are you finding sufficient and diverse data out there to answer your questions? Are there any obvious gaps in the available information?
There are some very good sources of data for these types of questions. It depends on the specific question one is trying to answer, but the data I am using are quite rich and the methodology is sound. I am using the General Social Survey, which is a survey conducted every two years on a national sample of adults in the United States that asks a wide variety of attitudinal questions. It is a random sample so researchers can be very confident that their findings represent the general population. Of course, no data are perfect, and there are other questions I would like to be able to answer, but I can do so with other sources if I continue to pursue this area of research. The wonderful thing about scientific endeavor is that while we are able to make unique contributions to knowledge, we often produce more questions than answers. Thus, scientists are never bored because there is so much more out there to learn.
What have you learned so far? Any surprises?
One of the main sources of contradiction in the literature is how researchers have measured the religious affiliation of Protestants. Protestants are a very diverse group, and previous research has categorized them on a continuum from liberal, moderate, to conservative. I feel that this arrangement is fundamentally flawed. Therefore, I am using a typology developed by some well-known researchers in the sociology of religion and categorize Protestants based on historical trends in denominational affiliation. My religious categories include Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants, Black Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Other religions, and the non-religious. I have found that Mainline and Evangelical Protestants are generally opposed to policy designed to alleviate poverty. Black Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Other religions, and the non-religious are indistinct from each other on this question, and there is no relationship between these affiliations and feelings about policy. My findings are notable, because one segment of the literature has suggested that more conservative Protestants, many of whom are Evangelical, are supportive of public policy. I did not find this. However, I did find that regardless of religious affiliation, if you interpret the Bible literally, you are more supportive of poverty policy. I am still speculating about the relationship between biblical interpretation and attitudes toward the poor.
What are the next steps in your research?
I am already considering my next research project. I maintain teaching and research interests in the area of race and ethnic relations, therefore I would like to weave together my interest in religious group membership with that of race relations. First, there is a good deal of research indicating that feelings about welfare policy are influenced by who we perceive to be the recipients of welfare benefits. For example, many people believe that most welfare recipients are African American, despite the fact that the number of recipients is nearly evenly split between whites and blacks. Nonetheless, those who hold a bias against African Americans are often less supportive of welfare programs. Second, considerable research has established that those who exhibit higher levels of religiosity also tend to exhibit higher levels of prejudice. I am interested in delving deeper into my findings described above. It is possible that Evangelical and Mainline Protestants exhibit higher levels of prejudice and that could explain their opposition to welfare policy. However, there are other possible explanations I would like to consider in future research. Opposition to government-designed policy could simply be an expression of distrust or lack of confidence in the government’s ability to help the poor. Evangelicals and Mainlines may feel they are better at dealing with poverty in their own communities and through the efforts of their churches. Another possibility is a concern for higher taxes. If people feel that welfare policy could cause an increase in their taxes, they may express resistance to government-funded policy.
Overall, my main concern is that we, as a society, work to develop fair and effective policy to reduce or eliminate poverty in this country. That may mean that through education we have to challenge myths about who the poor are and break down barriers of prejudice. It may also mean that we have to convince the public that by enhancing the lives of the poor we make a better, more just, and more peaceful society for everyone. I do not believe that poverty is inevitable, and we all benefit when resources are distributed more equitably.