Throughout human history, religion has profoundly shaped attitudes and behaviors. Humans use religious beliefs or act as part of larger religious communities to promote peace and justice – or to pursue ends antithetic to religious values. My research program focuses on the enduring paradox of how religion can promote both good and evil in modern society. In my work, we investigate how religion, spirituality, and participation in religious settings relate to positive and negative outcomes for individuals and society. My research addresses a critical gap in the literature by examining individuals within religious settings, opening new lines of inquiry as to whether and how religious context shapes individual attitudes and behaviors.

My research program focuses on the impact of religion and racial privilege on social justice attitudes and behaviors. I consider social justice a multifaceted construct including attitudes about and behaviors designed to promote systemic change, human rights, and the reduction of inequality. One aim of my research is to provide clarity on the multiple ways people define and work for social justice. Another aim is to examine specific issues of inequality that impact particular groups along lines of race and ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender. Central to my research is a focus on members of privileged groups, people who are White in the U.S., and how such group membership shapes racial and social justice attitudes. I integrate these areas to investigate how religion provides a system of meaning and concrete opportunity for privileged group members to pursue racial and social justice. Together, this research reveals the nuanced ways that religion and racial privilege operate to inform social justice attitudes and behavior.

Religious Settings

A guiding principle of my research is that religious settings (i.e. places where people gather to pursue the sacred, such as congregations) are instrumental in the process of reinforcing and refining attitudes and beliefs and may provide opportunities to work for social justice. Understanding the role of settings in shaping attitudes and behavior is an enduring question within my field of community psychology, and addresses recent calls in the psychology of religion literature to examine individuals within religious context. Religious settings in particular provide a rich context to pursue this research as they have distinct group-based beliefs, norms that guide acceptable belief and behavior, leaders who provide guidance, and networks of relationships that create community. My work focuses on these types of contextual factors as the potential mechanisms within settings that shape attitudes and behaviors related to social justice.

Studying religious settings raises fascinating methodological issues. People self-select into religious settings (making causal claims untenable) and it may be unethical to manipulate certain setting features. I address these challenges by conceptualizing at multiple levels of analysis. For example, my research focuses on individuals, religious settings, and individuals within religious settings. Examining different levels separately and together in different studies builds different types of knowledge that speaks to my research aims. I also use creative methodological design and quantitative and qualitative methods to work within and around these challenges. In this way, my research contributes an understanding of how religion and racial privilege matter in how people respond to inequality and work for social justice and provides insight into addressing the inherent methodological challenges when studying settings.

Religion and Social Justice

In my research, I study religious settings as mediating structures for social justice. Mediating structures are settings that connect individuals to society. In this way, I examine religious congregations, interfaith groups, and campus ministry groups as settings that mediate why and how people work for social justice. I also examine how people sanctify (i.e. give spiritual significance to) working for social justice. Given the prominence of religious settings in the U.S. and their potential to galvanize social justice efforts, this research is timely and important.

Religious Congregations

One component of my research examines congregations as mediating structures for social justice. My focus is on individual religious beliefs and congregational characteristics that predict individual social justice engagement. In this area of work, I published a series of papers examining key questions, including: (1) what personal beliefs and congregational characteristics create a context for individual social justice participation? (Todd & Allen, 2011), (2) how do congregational leadership, norms, and friendships predict individual social justice engagement through or outside of one’s congregation? (Houston & Todd, 2013), and (3) are there distinct typologies of congregations based on the political and social service programs and activities of congregations? (Todd & Houston, 2013). This research showed congregations differ in how strongly they prioritize social justice or provide social justice opportunities for members. For example, the group-based belief of theological liberalism, having more friends and being more involved within a congregation, and having a leader that models social justice activities are key predictors of a congregation that mediates individual social justice participation. We also discovered four typologies of congregations based on their political and social service engagement in the community, and that typology membership was predicted by congregational religious tradition and the race and gender of the leader. In another paper, we examined the presence of congregational programs to aid survivors of violence against women to understand how women’s role in leadership predicted the presence of such programs (Houston-Kolnik & Todd, 2016). Understanding congregational programs and activities sheds light on pathways for individual involvement in social justice through the congregation. Together, this research shows congregations differ in whether and how they mediate social justice engagement and that engagement is predicted by characteristics of individuals and congregations. Future research will continue to examine the mechanisms within congregations that enable them to be mediating structures for social justice.

Addressing a critical gap in the literature, I am broadening my research to examine how friendship networks within congregations may be one mechanism for how congregations shape attitudes and link people to social justice opportunities. This entails a new application of social network methods to congregations. On this project, I collected social network data from one congregation to understand network structure, roles and positions, and how friendship may relate to a sense of community and participation in other congregational activities. I shared initial results with the congregation as part of my congregational consultation work where I partner with congregations to collect and then share data with the group to inform their decision making. This research achieves the dual aims of strengthening these organizations and also to use innovative methods to understand patterns of social relationships within congregations.

Interfaith Groups

Interfaith groups are religious settings where people from different religious traditions meet face-to-face to organize around common goals. I examine how these groups encourage collective action and how they network individuals and organizations to promote local change. Based on ethnographic research with two interfaith groups, I found that these groups focused on particular community issues (e.g. interreligious dialogue, poverty) and helped connect members to other community resources for activism (Todd, 2012). Subsequent research with over 85 interfaith groups across the U.S. showed distinct typologies of the sets of community issues worked on by the group (Todd, Houston, & Suffrin, in press), how groups provide resources to other community organizations and link members to resources (Todd, Houston, & Suffrin, 2015), and how certain groups may facilitate political involvement (Todd, Boeh, Houston, & Suffrin, submitted). This research shows the different ways interfaith groups serve as religious settings that may promote social justice and local community change.

Campus Ministry Groups

Campus ministry groups are present on most college campuses and provide a place for students to pursue the sacred. These settings also provide a place for students to form friendships, to encounter new ideas, or to have existing beliefs reinforced. In my research, I examine how the religious conservatism of group peers and leaders may explain attitudes related to gender and same-sex marriage. We collected data from student members and adult leaders from over 90 such groups across the U.S. Our findings show that the religious conservatism of leaders and peers in the group was positively associated with student traditional gender role ideology (Odahl-Ruan, Todd, Wilson, submitted); and that group religious conservatism moderated the association between personal religious conservatism and opposition to same-sex marriage (Todd, et al., 2016). This research highlights an understudied religious setting and reveals the important role of group conservatism in predicting student attitudes.

Sanctification of Social Justice

I also examine how people link their religion and spirituality to working for social justice. As an initial step, I developed a scale to assess the extent to which Christians sanctify (give spiritual significance to) working for social justice (Todd, Houston, Odahl-Ruan, 2014). This scale provides a needed research tool to empirically examine links between religion/spirituality and social justice. Indeed, we find that a greater sanctification of social justice predicted greater social justice commitment and also a greater willingness to confront White privilege (Todd, McConnell, & Suffrin, 2014).

Racial Privilege

Working with Dr. Abrams, I published the White Dialectics Framework as a major contribution in The Counseling Psychologist (2011). Here, we introduced a set of White dialectics or tensions that White students experience as privileged group members in the U.S. (e.g. Color-Blindness, Minimization of Racism). This work provided the first documentation of students’ moment-to-moment dialectical movement where they moved along these dialectics when reflecting on race and White privilege (e.g. acknowledging and them discounting White privilege as about class and not race). This dynamic movement helps to explain contradictions in student’s understandings of privilege and sheds light on how they understand racism and privilege.

I also focus on emotional responses to racism and racial privilege to better understand what may drive negative responses to diversity education for White students (Todd, et al., 2010). I collaborated with Dr. Spanierman to document how White guilt, empathic reactions to racism, and irrational fear of people of color change across the college experience for White students and how participation in campus diversity courses and activities relates to patterns of change (Todd, Spanierman, Poteat, 2011). My graduate student and I also are examining the role of White guilt and shame in predicting defensive or engaged responses to White privilege (McConnell & Todd, submitted). Such research may inform interventions to educate students about White privilege. As a next step, I am partnering with campus diversity and social justice offices to assess the impact of faculty and student workshops to decrease bias and increase appreciation of diversity.

Integrating Religious, Social Justice, and Racial Privilege Research

In current work, I am integrating these lines of research to understand the interplay between religion and racial privilege in shaping social justice attitudes and behavior. For example, we find that White privilege attitudes, religious beliefs, and interest in social justice are associated (Todd, McConnell, & Suffrin, 2014); and that religion may inhibit or facilitate White privilege attitudes depending on the religious belief examined (Todd et al., 2015). We also find differences across racial affect types in religious conservatism and the sanctification of social justice (McConnell & Todd, 2015). Finally, we show how White Christians navigated racial privilege as part of their social justice development (Todd & Rufa, 2013). Overall, my research reveals the dynamic interplay between religion and race in shaping understandings of inequality and the important role of religious context in shaping how people work for social justice.