Secular Hall Lamp, Leicester. Photo by Chris Hoare, Flickr CC

President Trump recently signed an executive order that removes the financial threat churches face when their leaders publicly support a political candidate. While many argue that the order is largely symbolic and too narrow to mean any real change, others think it went too far, and the order has sparked discussions about the proper place of religion in what many see as an increasingly secular country. Long-standing discussions among social scientists about the meaning and measurement of “secularization” help put Trump’s order in context and reveals the complexity of religion’s role American society.

At its most general, secularization is defined as the process whereby the political and/or societal significance of religion and its institutions wane slowly and religion becomes differentiated from the secular public spheres of social and political life. But the way religiosity is measured in studies of secularization matters. For example, while many have pointed to a decline in church attendance, or behavior, in both the U.S. and Britain as indicators of secularization, others argue that this trend has not resulted in a loss of religious beliefs.
Social scientists typically measure religiosity using the “3 Bs” approach — belief, belonging, and behavior. This approach accounts for the different ways that religious individuals hold religious beliefs, belong to and identify with specific religious belief systems and denominations, and enact those beliefs and belongings through behaviors like prayer, religious service attendance, and fasting. Individuals can combine the “3 Bs” in a multitude of ways, and while some “believe but don’t belong,” and others “belong but don’t believe,” an increasing number of individuals eschew religious beliefs, belongings, and behaviors entirely.
Similarly, scholars have identified multiple “levels” of secularization: religious decline, differentiation of secular and religious spheres, and the privatization of religion. While the traditional conceptualization of secularization assumes that each level is linked, some argue that each is a distinct process and that one does not necessarily lead to the other. Trump’s recent executive order is a step towards the deprivatization of religion in the U.S, where religious groups are stepping back into public life and engaging in political and social debates more than they have in the past. But this deprivatization can and is happening alongside trends of religious decline, as the U.S is also seeing increased religious disaffiliation among younger generations.  
Photo by Jeremy Nixon, Flickr CC

Today we are featuring a guest post by students at Oberlin College, who submitted a #TROT post as part of an active learning exercise for their political sociology class, taught by Professor Christi Smith. If you or your students would like to submit a post, please email tsp@thesocietypages.org.    

Lobbying is defined by the United States Senate as “the practice of trying to persuade legislators to propose, pass, or defeat legislation or to change existing laws,” and lobbyists get paid to advocate on behalf of the private sector, corporations, government officials, and other interest groups. This political activity takes place at all levels of government. While lobbying as a way to engage with the government is interpreted as free speech, and is thus protected by the Constitution, the ethics of lobbying are much debated due to the unequal socioeconomic power and influence certain individuals and groups can have. Recent sociological research helps provide some perspective on the extent of lobbying in U.S. policymaking.

Corporate lobbying is one of the chief means by which businesses exercise political power in the United States. Corporate lobbying is not easily reducible to firms’ size and market interests, but rather includes their internal capacity for evaluating policy issues, participation in business policy networks, legacies of previous engagement, and economic circumstances. Firms that lobby have annual sales that are nearly four times higher on average than those who do not. More heavily regulated industries that are dependent on government contacts tend to lobby more often. And corporate influence is especially effective in influencing tax policy, financial deregulation, and anti-union activities by advocating for more political restrictions on unionization.
Lobbying can raise awareness and create urgency about certain issues. Professional lobbyists can have a greater impact than mass movements by participating at the early stages of the policy process and shaping the content of legislative content. But does it work? It is difficult to measure the actual direct impact of lobbying, as much of this activity takes place through private conversations and interpersonal encounters. In contrast, most nonprofits use indirect lobbying rather than the direct lobbying used by business and unions. For congressional voting patterns, interest groups’ lobbying influence is actually quite modest. It is actually less effective than protest is in advocating for certain policies regarding issues like civil rights and environmental sustainability, and it is less productive than whistleblowing in monitoring policy implementation. In short, the role of lobbying efforts in shifting the long-term priorities and resources of political institutions is still largely unknown.
Photo by ktus16, Flickr CC

Public outrage about missing Black and Latina girls struck the nation’s capital in March, with many calling the number of missing girls of color a crisis. While the number of disappearances has not risen considerably in recent years, and there weren’t actually 14 Black girls missing in 24 hours in DC, the question is an important one for sociological analysis. Who is considered a “victim” of violent crime and whose victimization goes unnoticed?  

Whites, particularly white women, are the most likely to be framed as victims of crime. Take laws named after victims in the U.S. (e.g., Megan’s law) — while Blacks suffer far more victimization from violent crime than whites, of the 51 laws named after victims in the U.S. from 1990-2016, 86.3% are named after white victims. Only four are named after Black victims, and three after Hispanic victims. Additionally, 65% of these laws were named after female victims.
The construction of whites as victims and Blacks as offenders extends to the reaction of law enforcement when girls are reported as runaways. Scholars argue that running away from home is particularly gendered, pointing to the high number of girls that run away compared to boys and their reasons for running away. Of girls that were considered runaways in the U.S. from 1997-2003, Black and Hispanic girls were significantly more likely to have a runaway charge than white girls. White girls were more likely to get off with a warning.
Similarly, Black girls are more likely to be punished in schools. A recent study showed that Black girls are three times more likely than white girls to get an office referral, a higher likelihood than white boys in the same school. Black girls also got referrals for more ambiguous infractions like dress code violations or disobedience.

What does all of this mean in the context of missing Black girls? It means that institutions, like schools and law enforcement, are far more likely to criminalize Black girls than their white counterparts, which means that they are less likely to see them as victims.

Open cut coal mine, Hunter Valley. Max Phillips (Jeremy Buckingham MLC), Flickr CC.

With a group of coal miners standing behind him, President Donald Trump signed an executive order in his first 100 days reversing Obama-era climate change policies and claimed that he would be bringing back coal and putting miners to work. With this move, Trump has tapped into the concerns of rural communities with economies dominated by resource extraction. Yet, can or will coal mining jobs come back, and will this lead to economic and social development in places like Appalachia?

The loss of mining jobs in the U.S. is largely due to increasing mechanization and other labor-cutting management practices –not the result of environmental protections. Thus, placing the blame on climate change policies is an unfounded, but typical, argument used to scapegoat environmentalists rather than industry or changes in the global economy.
Researchers have long argued that economies based solely around mining are prone to booms and busts, lacking resiliency and often becoming dependent on one industry. Contrary to common assumptions, research has found that mining does not always lead to economic growth and well-being. Thus, even if coal mines stay open, this does not necessarily mean wider economic prosperity and well-being. In Appalachia, for example, the counties with coal mines actually have some of the highest rates of poverty and unemployment compared to surrounding counties without active mines.
Nevertheless, the rhetoric of saving coal resonates with strong cultural connections to mining and people’s identities of coming from multiple generations of miners and living in a coal community. The identity of being a miner is interconnected with masculine ideals of hard work and providing for family, and mining companies have played off of these sentiments. Mining companies, particularly in Appalachia, have actively worked to create community support through public relations and other cultural and political tactics. These corporate strategies, such as sponsoring high school football tournaments and billboard ads, have helped to place the blame on outsiders and environmentalists, while providing a cover for the environmentally destructive and cost-cutting industry practices.
Photo by woodleywonderworks, Flickr CC

The Trump administration recently announced plans to cut federal public school programs designed to help students who need financial assistance. Office of Management and Budget Director Mick Mulvaney explained that, although programs like free and reduced lunches and after-school activities are supposed to help kids do better in school, “there’s no demonstrable evidence that they’re actually doing that.” Well, social science begs to differ.

To start, research does show that programs providing low-income students with free or reduced-cost lunches have positive impacts, as proper nutrition is essential for academic achievement and educational success. And providing these lunches has been found to lead to a decrease in disruptive behavior. Importantly, research shows that cutting programs like these would mean that the poorest, most at-risk youth would bear the brunt of the blow, losing observed benefits to academic and social skills that subsidized lunches have been shown to provide.
In addition to lunch programs, extracurricular and after-school activities are threatened under the proposed Trump budget. But there is research that finds these programs can be beneficial. Students involved in after-school programs have been found to experience a variety of positive effects, such as increased attendance at school, a jump in reading comprehension, and a drop in disciplinary referrals. Participating in these programs can predict lower disciplinary measures for students, even for students who are at higher-risk for delinquency. Notably, though there is often a narrative that black students in urban environments are the most “at-risk” and in need of such programs, research shows that African-American students are actually more likely to be involved in after-school activities than white students
However, getting at risk-youth to participate in after-school programs is not always easy. There are a wide variety of programs available, but those intended to provide non-delinquent options to at-risk youth often face the greatest uphill battle. Factors determining youth delinquency, such as issues at home, are difficult for extracurriculars to overcome. On a more individual basis, however, extracurricular programs can have meaningful, positive impacts in the long run by giving participants skills, passions, and experiences that prove useful later in life. This complicates the Trump administration’s assertion that  these programs should be cut because they “don’t work.” Rather, paying attention to how they work can lead to more positive impacts and greater availability for America’s students.
Photo by Andrew Petro, Flickr CC

With Arkansasrecent attempts to execute seven inmates in the course of eleven days, and the Supreme Court’s upcoming oral arguments surrounding McWilliams v. Dunn , there has been a lot news about the death penalty this month. Although it is abolished in many other industrialized nations, 31 U.S. states still retain the death penalty, and there is extensive research on this “peculiar institution” and why it remains resilient today.

Despite a multitude of studies, current research remains inconclusive on the deterrent effects of capital punishment. These ambiguous findings are due to a lack of attention to “noncapital sanctions” for homicide like life sentences and incomplete data on potential murderers’ perceptions of capital punishment. What is clear is that there is an extreme racial divide in support for the death penalty, with Black Americans being consistently less likely to support capital punishment than whites. This divide is partly attributed to racial prejudice against Blacks, so much so that one study suggests that if you exclude whites with extreme racial attitudes, support for capital punishment between Black and white Americans is not nearly as bifurcated. Death sentences are also applied disparately across racial lines, with defendants convicted of killing white females most likely to receive a capital punishment sentence, while those convicted of killing Black males are afforded more leniency.
Scholars argue that the death penalty is nested within an exceptionally punitive American carceral state. Capital punishment stems from an unparalleled American political culture that centralizes issues of crime and the criminal justice system. Unlike their European counterparts, American judges and prosecutors are locally elected, allowing much of the criminal justice process to be subject to electoral cycles and public outcries. This political structure, combined with a history of racial conflict and segregation, perpetuates low levels of social solidarity and an underdeveloped state, which allows retributive punishments to flourish. This is especially evident in the American South, a region that has a long history of collective, racialized violence and where death penalty support is particularly embedded.
Wall Mural in Nogales. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh, Flickr CC

“I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.” These were the words that President Donald Trump said when he first announced his candidacy. Since his inauguration, Trump has continued to talk about his intentions of building the wall, with many companies allegedly bidding for the contract, despite its many obstacles. Many leaders in Latin America have publicly stated that building the wall would not only change the relationship with Mexico, but it would change relationships with the rest of Latin America as well. Trump’s wall would create a physical barrier between the US and Mexico, but it would also intensify what social scientists call symbolic boundaries.

The border acts as the physical manifestation of and “us versus them” mentality by reinforcing differences between groups, which often limits positive contact between groups and can lead to negative stereotypes. For example, physical borders create symbolic boundaries that reinforce national identities by marking the geographic territory where one nationality resides. This often creates tensions by giving further attention to perceived group differences. In the case of Trump’s wall, part of the underlying purpose is to intensify the symbolic boundary between Anglo-Americans in the industrialized world and the Hispanic inhabitants of a developing nation.
Symbolic boundaries use specific cultural distinctions in order to distinguish one group from another, often along racial, ethnic, and religious lines. In the United States for example, Christians believe having religion creates a morality that is the basis for civic society. Atheists, who have no religion, are believed to lack that morality. This has resulted in atheists being unfairly cast as the symbolic representation of anti-American values. Like the physical wall Trump keeps threatening, these same types of symbolic boundaries work to keep many immigrants, refugees, and other religious minorities from being fully accepted in the U.S.
Photo by Cento Quatro, Flickr CC

Black men are often depicted as hypersexual, aggressive, and criminal in the media, which perpetuates long-standing racial and gender stereotypes and inequalities. Director Barry Jenkins attempts to deconstruct these stereotypes of Black masculinity in the award-winning Moonlight. The movie tells the story of Chiron, a young, Black, queer man, on a quest for self-acceptance amidst the homophobia of his peers and socioeconomic circumstances of his Atlanta neighborhood. Social science research sheds light on the origins of these stereotypes and how they influence Black men’s gender and sexual identity performances.

While virtually all men are subjected to the pressures of acting like a “real man,” Black men experience additional strain due to racialized stereotypes that depict them as inherently dangerous and hypersexual. Due to the socioeconomic disadvantages that plague many Black communities, Black men develop alternative constructions of masculinity that emphasize moral and masculine superiority over white men. For example, they may view whiteness as feminine and homosexual, and thus position themselves as the heterosexual man whose masculinity is reaffirmed through sex with women. The result is that some Black men label those who behave in traditionally feminine ways as “sissies” or “punks” and justify violence perpetuated against them.
Due to the stigmas described above, many queer Black men attempt to remain “in the closet” to avoid harassment and violence. Other Black men only engage in homosexual activity on the “down low” (DL). And others navigate stigma by exploring queer experiences without distancing themselves from their straight public identity. For example, some Black men frequent gay hip hop clubs where they do not need to “come out”; they can enjoy a space where they can explore their sexuality with other men while simultaneously performing heterosexuality by acting “hard” with hip-hop music. Yet, being “in the closet” or “on the down low” may further stigmatize Black queer men as sexually deviant.
Messages regarding the need to act “tough” also affect sexually abused Black male children. McGuffey interviewed 62 parents of Black and Puerto Rican sexually abused boys. He found that fathers believed male-perpetrated sexual abuse threatened their son’s masculinity. Many were afraid that the abuse made their sons act “too emotional” and that they would become homosexual. As such, they encouraged heterosexual behavior by telling them not to touch other boys, asking them if they had a girlfriend, and telling them to look at girls’ physical characteristics.
Photo by Minnesota Historical Society, Flickr CC

From Trump’s attempted restriction on immigration to his talk of building a wall on the country’s southern border, immigration policy has received renewed attention among both politicians and the public. A common reason for restricting immigration flows is association between immigration and crimes, which was explicitly mentioned by Trump along the campaign trail.  Social science agrees that immigration and crime are interconnected, but not in the way Trump and others claim.

Individual level data show that immigrants are actually less likely to engage in violent behavior than non-immigrants, with first generation immigrants being the least likely to commit crime as compared to second or third generation immigrants. Similarly, studies also find that areas with high proportions of immigrant residents are associated with lower levels of neighborhood violence and drug-crime when compared to similar neighborhoods with fewer immigrants. This association is best explained by the increases in social organization — culturally-based buffers like strong familial and neighborhood ties — and the associated economic gains stimulated by the influx of immigrants.  
This association between immigration and lower crime rates is stronger in areas with more opportunities for immigrant political action. Cities with higher levels of minority political representation and pro-immigrant legislation enhance the buffering effect of immigration on both homicide and robbery.  
What’s troubling is that even though immigrants and the areas they inhabit are associated with lower levels of crime, both documented and undocumented individuals are more likely to be incarcerated and receive longer prison sentences, even when controlling for race/ethnicity, crime severity, and other factors.
Photo by Tom Magliery, Flickr CC

According to a recent survey, Americans are having less sex — about nine fewer times per year in the early 2010s compared to the 1990s. In fact, millennials are one of the groups who have sex the least often. If you’re wondering, those born in the 1930s were having sex the most. For anyone who has heard about young people engaging in “hookup culture,” this probably comes as a surprise. But, so what? Why should we care how often people are having sex or who their sexual partners are?

Studying sexual practice can reveal underlying norms and expectations, especially related to gender. For instance, a 2016 study linked egalitarian heterosexual relationships, where the couples share gendered household chores, to greater sexual frequency. In another study, researchers found that the number of women who report ever having had sex with both men and women or just women (and identifying as bisexual or gay) has increased; however, the same study reported same-sex encounters have not increased for men. The researchers speculate that this could be a result of differing norms for men and women where it is more acceptable for women to deviate from heterosexual gender norms.
Studying sexual behavior can reveal how identities are formed, as well. In recent years, research has explored why some people engage in same gender sex but still identify as straight. For some white men, sex with other men does not threaten their heterosexuality, but rather bolsters their masculinity and serves to reaffirm their identities as straight men. On the other hand, some women who had children with men felt that fact foreclosed their possibilities of claiming LGBTQ identities.
Inequalities also appear in sexual relationships. A sexual standard still exists for women in hookups, where men’s pleasure is central. While both men and women agree that women should be entitled to sexual pleasure in relationships, they do not agree that this is the case for casual hookups. Racial stereotypes also follow individuals into the bedroom. For instance, racially ambiguous individuals are often considered “exotic” by romantic interests. For some, women especially, this means they are viewed as more sexually exciting or only considered as hook ups. For some men, this means they are excluded from hook ups because they are considered “babymakers.”