Religion, Social Inequality, and Social Change

Much of my research examines the relationship between religion, social inequality, and social activism. I have published a number of recent articles and a book addressing issues such as the conditions under which religion serves to uphold vs. challenge the status quo, the ways that faith communities contribute to social movements, and the ways that social movements in turn impact people of faith.

Recent publications include:

Coley, Jonathan. 2018. Gay on God’s Campus: Mobilizing for LGBT Equality at Christian Colleges and Universities: chapter 1. The University of North Carolina Press. (order)

Each chapter of my book examines some facet of religion as it relates to LGBT activist groups at Christian colleges and universities, including the role of religious identities in social movement participation and the centrality of religious discourse to cultural change at Christian colleges and universities. However, chapter one, “The Context of Change,” most explicitly addresses the question of why religion sometimes facilitates but other times impedes social change (in this case, change in the form of LGBT inclusion at Christian colleges and universities). The chapter begins by providing an historical overview of three currents of the LGBT movement – the emergence of the LGBT rights movement as a force in U.S. politics, the spread of Gay-Straight Alliances across U.S. schools, and the inroads by LGBT advocates into religious denominations. Although the first two currents laid the groundwork for LGBT activism at Christian colleges and universities, it was the increasing openness of some Christian denominations to LGBT equality in particular that emboldened LGBT and allied students to begin working to advance LGBT equality on Christian college and university campuses. The chapter then analyzes data on the presence of LGBT groups and inclusive non-discrimination statements across Christian colleges and universities in the United States to address why Christian schools continue to vary in terms of LGBT inclusion. The chapter shows that it is when Christian colleges and universities are affiliated with Christian denominations that maintain a historical body of social justice teachings (rather than with Christian denominations that emphasize personal piety) that they are most inclusive of LGBT students.

Coley, Jonathan S. Forthcoming. “Theologies of Exclusion: Christian Universities and Discrimination against Sexual Minorities.” Sociological Spectrum.

Abstract: In an era of rapidly evolving attitudes toward LGBT rights, why do some Christian colleges and universities continue to discriminate against lesbian, gay, and bisexual students? The most intuitive answer to this question might point to many religious traditions’ conservative teachings about same-sex relationships. Nevertheless, many schools associated with socially conservative religious traditions are actually inclusive of their sexual minority students. Building on recent insights from the literature on religion and the “culture wars,” and analyzing original data on student handbook bans on same-sex relationships and “homosexual behavior” across 682 Christian colleges and universities, I show that it is when schools are associated with individualist religious traditions that emphasize personal piety that conservative teachings on same-sex relationships are associated with discrimination against sexual minorities. The study holds implications both for research on the exclusion of sexual minorities in schools and theoretical debates on the relationship between religion and social injustice.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2017. “Reconciling Religion and LGBT Rights: Christian Universities, Theological Orientations, and LGBT Inclusion.” Social Currents 4(1): 87-106. (external link)


Abstract: Why do some Christian colleges and universities approve LGBT groups and non-discrimination policies while others resist them? Scholars are beginning to develop models to explain LGBT inclusion in schools, but they have undertheorized the role of religion in facilitating or impeding LGBT inclusion. In this article, I draw from literature on religion and the “culture wars,” especially insights on religions’ theological orientations, to explain Christian colleges and universities’ inclusion of LGBT students. I show that communal orientations – theological emphases on social justice – strongly predict the adoption of LGBT groups and non-discrimination policies at Christian colleges and universities. By contrast, individualist orientations – theological emphases on personal piety – impede the adoption of such groups and policies. Importantly, I find little support for alternative explanations of Christian colleges and universities’ inclusion of LGBT students that focus on liberal or conservative teachings on same-sex relationships. Beyond bridging literatures on the political sociology of LGBT rights and religion and the culture wars, the article supports an emerging theoretical framework for understanding the role of religion in a wide range of social justice debates.

Coley, Jonathan S. 2014. “Social Movements and Bridge Building: Religious and Sexual Identity Conflicts.” Research in Social Movements, Conflicts, and Change 37: 125-151. (external link)


Abstract: Social movement scholars have increasingly drawn attention to the process of “bridge building” in social movements – that is, the process by which activists attempt to resolve conflicts stemming from different collective identities. However, most scholars assume that social movements primarily attempt to resolve tensions among activists themselves, and thus that bridge building is a means to other ends rather than a primary goal of social movement activism. In this article, I challenge these assumptions through a case study of a “bridging organization” known as Bridge Builders, which sought as its primary goal to “bridge the gap between the LGBT and Christian communities” at a Christian university in Nashville, Tennessee. I highlight the mechanisms by which Bridge Builders attempted to facilitate bridge building at the university, and I argue that Bridge Builders succeeded in bridging (a) disparate institutional identities at their university, (b) “structural holes” between LGBT- and religious-identified groups at their university, and (c) oppositional personal identities among organizational members. As I discuss in the conclusion, the case of Bridge Builders has implications for literatures on bridge building in social movements, cultural and biographical consequences of social movements, and social movement strategy.

My working papers include:

Coley, Jonathan S. Working Paper. “Mobilizing for Religious Freedom: The Failures and Unintended Consequences of Anti-Gay Activism at a Secular University.” 

Abstract: Abstract: Recent scholarship shows that religious actors have played positive roles in social movements by supplying them key resources and helping them craft effective strategies and tactics. But how does involvement in social movements, in turn, impact faith communities? Drawing on ethnographic data and media coverage, this article analyzes the religious freedom movement at Vanderbilt University, a movement that mobilized from 2010 until 2012 to defend the ability of religious student organizations to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and religious belief. Although faith communities energetically backed the movement and mobilized far more supporters than their opponents, the movement failed to achieve its goals. Furthermore, faith communities have now lost standing at the university: religious organizations face new restrictions on their ability to operate on campus, eleven religious organizations have left the university altogether, and many religious organizations and leaders have suffered blows to their reputations. The analysis provides an opportunity to theorize the conditions under which social movements backed by faith communities may end in failure and, in turn, negatively impact faith communities themselves.

Coley, Jonathan S. Working Paper. “Reframing, Reconciling, and Individualizing: How LGBTQ Activist Groups Shape Approaches to Religion and Sexuality.”

Abstract: Past research reveals the multiple ways that people grapple with the connections between religious and sexual identities. Some people perceive religious identities to be in conflict with minority sexual identities, but others believe such identities to be compatible. Some people look to religious authorities for guidance in unpacking the connections between religious and minority sexual identities, whereas others rely on strategies of religious individualism. What factors affect how people come to perceive and unpack connections between religious and sexual identities? Drawing on 77 interviews with participants in LGBTQ activist groups at four Christian colleges and universities, and employing insights from literatures on social movement audiences and framing processes, this article shows how LGBTQ activist groups’ different audiences inspire distinct approaches for understanding religion and sexuality. The study demonstrates that activist groups can powerfully shape understandings of seemingly disparate social identities and suggests a theoretical framework for future research.