Study: Spirituality Connected to Civic and Political Action


The likelihood that Americans will vote or otherwise engage in civic and political life is informed by their spiritual identity, according to a new two-year study released less than two months before the 2020 elections.

People who identify themselves as “highly spiritual” are more likely to say that it is important to make a difference in their communities and contribute to greater good in the world. The new Fetzer Institute study exploring spirituality in the United States finds that three-in-five study participants connect spirituality with giving back to their community, including engaging with their neighbors, volunteering, and donating. They are also more likely to be politically engaged through voting, contacting elected officials, and participating in marches and rallies.

“Fetzer’s mission—to help build the spiritual foundation for a loving world—is rooted in the conviction that we are intrinsically spiritual beings and that our spirituality influences how we engage our civic and political lives,” said Bob Boisture, Fetzer Institute president and CEO. “Based on decades of Fetzer experience, and confirmed by this study, there is both a depth and diversity of spirituality within and outside faith traditions that isn’t yet reflected in our main cultural narratives. Particularly amid the pandemic and a national racial reckoning, the deeper understanding of spirituality provided by this study can illuminate the many resources people are drawing on to sustain themselves amidst loss, uncertainty, and change.”

The study, entitled “What Does Spirituality Mean to US?, A Study of Spirituality in the United States,” seeks to provide a better understanding of religious and spiritual identities in the United States, finding that most Americans consider themselves spiritual regardless of religious affiliation. Seven-in-ten survey respondents say that spirituality is important in their lives, with the vast majority of people considering themselves both spiritual and religious.

“The Fetzer study is an extensive examination of spirituality in the contemporary United States,” said Tom Smith, senior fellow and director of the Center for the Study of Politics and Society at NORC at the University of Chicago. “It covers the topic more extensively and in greater depth than any other national study. Using this data, we and other researchers can enlarge our overall understanding of the nature of contemporary spirituality, its trends, and how it relates to societal domains.”

Additionally, six-in-ten people aspire to be more spiritual—and the more spiritual or religious people see themselves, the more likely they are to aspire to be even more so.

“The health and racism pandemics of 2020 have spurred social and personal upheaval, prompting many people to evaluate their aspirational convictions, and even question traditional sources of meaning, values, and beliefs,” wrote Pamela Ebstyne King of the study’s findings. King is the Peter L. Benson chair of applied developmental science in the Thrive Center for Human Development within the School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary. “Through spirituality, people potentially have access to prosocial ideals and beliefs, a community to support them, and a source of transcendence that motivates behaviors aligned with their spiritual ideals.”

The findings of the two-year study, which can be accessed at, come from a nationally representative survey of 3,609 individuals ages 18 and above, conducted online and by phone between January 16 and February 2, 2020, by NORC at the University of Chicago; as well as 16 focus groups conducted across the country between fall 2018 and spring 2019, and 26 in-depth interviews with individuals of different religious and spiritual backgrounds, recruited through NORC’s AmeriSpeak® Panel.

“One of the most striking findings of this study is what happened in the focus groups: People who came in with one view of themselves, their spirituality, and its effects on their lives often came to different conclusions by the end of the discussion. When it comes to what we think spirituality is and how it works, it matters who you are talking to,” wrote Nancy T. Ammerman, Boston University professor emerita of sociology of religion. “While spirituality is an increasingly widespread topic in US culture, it doesn’t have an officially designated definition, and there are few if any organized locations where people talk together about what it means—except, of course, organized religious groups.”

Focus group participants were asked to draw representations of what spirituality meant to them. The drawings show similar themes among participants, including the importance of being in nature, community, religious beliefs and practices focused on the self as common elements of how study participants defined spirituality.

In addition to an analysis of the findings, the study’s report, which can be downloaded from the website, includes expert insights and commentary from scholars and practitioners including Ammerman; King; Ruth Braunstein, associate professor of sociology at the University of Connecticut; Omar M. McRoberts, associate professor of sociology at The University of Chicago; Roman R. Williams, executive officer of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion; and Charlotte vanOyen Witvliet, Lavern ’39 and Betty DePree ’41 VanKley professor of psychology at Hope College.

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