Just before a historic presidential election, a group of University of Arkansas at Little Rock and Clinton School of Public Service students are visiting more than a dozen houses of worship on Sunday to collect data on how religious organizations influence their congregants' political views.
A couple days before distributing surveys at religious congregations all around Little Rock, students and volunteers attend a training session at an auditorium on the UALR campus.
At the training session, Dr. Rebecca Glazier describes the next stage of the study: “hands on, on the ground, in the community, handing out surveys, collecting data, talking with people.”
Glazier is a political science professor at UALR and the project leader. She wants to analyze worshippers' sense of “political efficacy.” Here's how she defines it:
“The belief that you can make a difference in politics, that your views matter, that you can contribute to your community.”
Glazier acknowledges this sense of efficacy is generally not well anchored in today's environment of partisan politics. Rather, alienation and disillusionment pervade.
“But we think that churches that are engaged in the community—that people who attend those churches will have a greater sense of political efficacy,” she says.
The questionnaires in English and Spanish, ask questions gauging community involvement, political interest and religious beliefs. About 70 students and volunteers will hand out surveys.
Back at the training session, Glazier instructs:
“Ok, 15 minutes before services start, everyone should be at the door. And they should be distributing surveys to every adult human being that attends services that day. Be polite and professional when you're giving surveys but assume the sale,” she says.
In the studio, Glazier says the idea originated after she learned of research on churches that sponsor community health screenings. The events helped the overall health of a congregation, lowering blood pressure or improving cholesterol.
“And even the people who didn’t attend those health screenings ended up with better health outcomes. And so it seems like churches can do something that affects kind of the broader culture of their congregations. And I wondered if the same thing could happen with the civic health of their congregations,” she says.
Glazier is expanding on a similar, but smaller, study she conducted in 2012. This time, she hopes to sample the views of nearly 5,000 people. She says seventeen institutions—of different denominations and faiths—are participating.
“Some are larger, some are urban, some are more rural. We really have a good diversity to see what kinds of different groups are out there and active in Little Rock,” she says
Student researchers are either enrolled in Glazier's Religion and Electoral Politics class at UALR or the Clinton School's Field Research Methods class led by Dr. Warigia Bowman. UALR senior Kyle Winters distributed surveys to patrons of a Wednesday night meeting at a Baptist church in downtown Little Rock.
“They were really positive and welcoming and warming people. Also, the pastor was a really nice guy,” he says.
Studying religion and politics has led Winters to reflect on how his own identity reconciles with that of his evangelical peers.
“Because up until recently I didn't really realize I was clumped into that group,” he says. “I just kind of considered myself a non-denominational Christian.”
Actually, Winters isn't sure his political views match with the voting trends of Evangelicals.
“It's interesting for me to gauge and to reexplore my religious faiths and understand things in my own religious traditions and understand how they're not lining up with the rest of the voting block or the rest of the congregation,” he says.
While some students question their own religious identity, others have have felt the more tangible effects of the presidential campaign.
Zartashia Javid is a senior biology major at UALR and is Glazier's research assistant on the project. We caught up just before Javid went to survey Friday prayer congregants at the Islamic Center of Little Rock, where she is also a member.
“For us the current political climate is more scary or fearful, if anything else. I'm from Fort Smith…and both of our Islamic centers were vandalized not too long ago and the FBI had to get involved. And right now I think we try to just take precautions to make sure that everyone is safe within the community,” she says.
But Zavid says she's gained a few insights into the logistics it takes for the current study.
“When you have a lot of organizations coming together, getting that to work is really difficult...But I have learned also that people are very willing to help students, help academia in any way that they can,” she says.
And Glazier says she hopes students learn the value of getting out of the classroom and learning about the community.
“I think a lot of times when we think about religion and politics we get bogged down in maybe culture wars or [the] religious right. And I think that churches everyday do a lot of good work that builds communities and not a lot of work has been done on that in political science,” she says.
After data are collected and analyzed, findings will be presented at a conference co-hosted with UALR’s Anderson Institute on Race and Ethnicity next spring.
Disclaimer: KUAR is licensed to the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.