An Interview with Dr. Stephen Merino,
Assistant Professor of Sociology at Colorado Mesa University
In a recently published sociological article entitled, “Religious Involvement and Bridging Social Ties,” Dr. Stephen Merino sought to investigate whether religious involvement in church ministry, beyond the typical Sunday worship service, was a meaningful predictor for creating “social capital” (i.e. social resources, relationships, shared values and norms, and a sense of trust and reciprocity) between church-going Christians and marginalized groups in society. He also explored whether this involvement resulted in Christians having a connection to different people groups, such as members of the LGBTQ+ community, people on welfare, people of color, Muslims, and atheists. What he found was that the majority of white Christians surveyed do not participate in civic engagement or other ministries outside of attending Sunday worship services. Furthermore, Dr. Merino found that the majority of church-going Christians do not have regular or meaningful contact with these marginalized groups, which has significant social and political implications for how Christians cooperate with and tolerate those who are different from themselves. This blog post conducts an interview with Dr. Merino about his findings and asks him to explore the implications of his study beyond what was written in his article. The interview concludes with this question: “As a result of your study, is it fair to say that on average, the majority of Christians do not have meaningful contact with atheists, Muslims, or members of the LGBTQ+ community on a regular basis?” Dr. Merino’s response: “I think that’s fairly safe to say. It’s probably also likely that evangelical Christians have the least contact with members of these groups.”
Interview with Dr. Stephen Merino
Darren M. Slade: Tell us a little about yourself and why you published your article on religious involvement and bridging social ties.
Stephen Merino: I’m an assistant professor of sociology at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Colorado. The sociology of religion is my main area of expertise, dating back to my thesis and dissertation research at Penn State. I also have interests in and teach courses on race and ethnic relations, social psychology, and more! This is an article I’ve been wanting to write for years. I used this data set (Portraits of American Life Study) for my dissertation, so I’m really familiar with it. The Robert Wuthnow articles I cite in the article have had a lasting impact on me and I’ve always wanted to revisit his central question: does religious involvement foster meaningful ties across social divides? I knew that the data set could let me answer that question in a way that previous studies haven’t.
Slade: In layman’s terms, can you briefly explain the concept of bridging “social ties” and “social capital” and how they relate to religion, specifically Christians attending church?
Merino: Like other forms of capital, social capital is both an investment and a resource. It has been defined in numerous ways, but we might think of social capital as the “good stuff” found in social ties and networks. The social resources, relationships, shared values and norms, and a sense of trust and reciprocity. We might further distinguish between different kinds of ties. “Bonding” social ties tend to be close and intimate. They tend to be between people who are pretty similar to each other. These are valuable ties for social support, for example. “Bridging” ties are different in that they connect people who are different from each other in some way. They cut across lines of, say, religion, race, ethnicity, identity, class, and more. Both are valuable for different reasons. Bridging ties can be useful sources of information and can also promote tolerance and cooperation. So, there is a long line of research that examines how religious communities foster social capital, and what kinds of ties and resources they generate.
Slade: Why study identity- and status-bridging social capital, specifically between Christian church-goers and groups such as atheists, people of color, people on welfare, and the LGBTQ+ community?
Merino: I think it’s important to understand whether religious participation just brings us into contact with people who are already like us and, therefore, are “safe” [a phenomenon known as “religious homophily”] or whether it brings people into contact across meaningful group boundaries. This is especially important when we’re talking about groups in society that are more marginalized and less popular.
For an exploration into religious homophily, see Darren Slade’s article: “Religious Homophily and Biblicism.”
Slade: What have previous studies on the subject found and how does your study differ (if at all)?
Merino: Previous studies have suggested that religious communities have a pretty mixed record when it comes to fostering bridging social capital. The two studies that really inspired this paper, published by Robert Wuthnow, found that church membership and attendance are associated with knowing higher-status people, but not so much when it comes to lower-status people or people of color. A lot of newer research suggests that deeper religious participation, like being involved with a congregation beyond just attending services, or belonging to other church organizations, is associated with some bridging social capital. But bridging social capital is often measured as belonging to or volunteering in nonchurch organizations. So, it’s often assumed by researchers that this involves bridging social ties. My study is different because I can actually measure how much contact individuals have with someone from a wide variety of groups. I can also compare the effects of just going to church versus being more deeply involved in congregational life beyond services. So, that makes the article pretty unique.
Slade: Your study reveals that very few Christians actually participate in activities or groups outside of Sunday church services, correct? What does this mean in terms of the average Christian having meaningful social contact with marginalized groups in our society?
Merino: Keep in mind that my sample does include non-Christians who belong to a congregation, but Christians are a strong majority of the sample. And I wouldn’t say very few participate in activities or groups outside of Sunday services, but it is a lot less common than attending services. So, as I kind of expected, I found that just going to church is either not related or is actually negatively related to having contact with someone from all these different groups. On the other hand, those individuals who are involved more deeply with their congregation were more likely to have had contact with elected officials, people with a graduate or professional degree, single parents, gays and lesbians, Hispanics, and atheists. All this does suggest that merely going to church doesn’t really promote intergroup contact. But something about being more deeply involved in a congregation does seem to promote these ties that cut across social boundaries.
Slade: According to your study, only 28% of church-goers have a conversation with an atheist and 20% have a conversation with a Muslim at least once a month. What do you foresee being the consequences of such a low number?
Merino: Surveys consistently show that atheists and Muslims are two of the least-liked and least-trusted groups in American society, and churchgoers lack of contact with these groups could help explain that. Keep in mind, though, that atheists and Muslims are both quite small groups, which makes it harder for the average person to have a lot of contact with them.
Slade: Moving beyond your study, would you describe your results as being negative, positive, neutral, or something else in regards to Christianity’s overall influence in American society and politics?
Merino: Interesting question. Maybe a little of all of the above. Those who say that religion, especially Christianity, only serves to divide and promote intolerance could point to the fact that going to church seems to do very little to promote bridging social capital. On the other hand, for that smaller subset of churchgoers who are volunteering, taking leadership roles, singing in the choir, serving on committees and so on – they are, for whatever reason, having a bit more contact with people from a wide variety of groups and backgrounds. I think that’s a good thing, and it should be promoted and celebrated.
Slade: Do your results have any implications for society as a whole?
Merino: I think my study suggests that religion can promote intergroup contact and bridging social capital, but that its effects are fairly mixed and limited. We need to find other ways to accomplish it as well.
Slade: As a result of your study, is it fair to say that on average, the majority of Christians do not have meaningful contact with atheists, Muslims, or members of the LGBTQ+ community on a regular basis?
Merino: I think that’s fairly safe to say. It’s probably also likely that evangelical Christians have the least contact with members of these groups.