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Into the public square: explaining the origins of religious interest groups.

Religious interest groups have been an important part of American politics throughout the history of the republic. On issues like slavery, prohibition, civil rights, aid to Nicaragua; organized religious interests have had much influence. It is impossible to understand politics fully without considering the role of organized religion. In the academy, increasing numbers of people have written about religion and politics. Focusing on religious interest groups, several scholars(1) have focused on several issues including the relationship between leaders and members and the tactics of religious lobbyists. Yet no study has focused on the question of the origins of religious interest groups.

In the social sciences, explaining the origins of groups has been an important topic. In political science, an important debate has taken place between the representatives of two theoretical traditions. Followers of the pluralist tradition have stressed the openness and accessibility of the political process; all groups can register their complaints before the state. With a long intellectual heritage, the pluralist tradition, in its extreme form, views government as a neutral identity which arbitrates group conflict by forming public policies in response to group pressure. In response, critics argue that pluralists understate both the obstacles to group formation and the neutrality of the state. As a result of these obstacles, many groups are barred from entering the political process and petitioning the government. To illumine these obstacles, these scholars have focused on the action of leaders to form groups. Arguing that groups do not form simtly because of shared interests, these scholars point instead to the exchange relationship between leaders and members as the primary explanation of group formation. This article attempts to assess the degree to which these two theoretical traditions can explain the origins of religious interest groups.


The major scholar in the pluralist tradition is David Truman.(2) Focusing on the role of leaders are the by-product theory of Mancur Olson, the exchange theory of Robert Salisbury, and the patron theory of Jack Walker.(3) In developing pluralist theory, David Truman contends that groups form in response to disturbances. He identifies two types of disturbances that will cause groups to form. The first kind is the result of the increasing complexity of society.(4) For example, the advent of computers will cause computer users to organize and lobby for gains in favorable public policy. The second type of disturbance is a bit more vaguely defined. This is a cataclysmic event which causes groups to form.(5) Examples would be severe economic downturns, wars, unfavorable legislation, or the formation of groups opposed to potential members' fundamental values. These disturbances cause groups to organize in order to rectify or ameliorate the initial disturbance.(6) organization also causes countervailing organization from opposing groups. As a result, Truman contends that group organization and counter-organization usually occur in waves.(7)

Many have challenged the adequacy of pluralist theory to explain the origins of groups. Particularly troublesome is the idea that individuals will form groups in response to collective disturbances. Robert Salisbury challenges the claim that group membership grows in times of adversity and declines during prosperity.(8) Arguing the opposite, Salisbury points to a proliferation of agricultural groups organized to respond to economic disturbances in the late nineteenth century; however, the number of groups began to decline long before the disturbing economic conditions subsided. In addition, there were industrial abuses of consumer safety long before the rise of consumer activist groups. In response to this data, Salisbury asks why some disturbances provoked the formation of groups while others did not. Salisbury concludes that Truman's theories do not "seem adequate to explain the succession of organizational failures among people who, it has generally seemed, were in considerable distress and needed political and organizational help."(9)

Salisbury's work builds upon Mancur Olson's explanation of the origins and maintenance of interest groups.(10) Using a model from his discipline of economics, Olson contends that collectively experienced disturbances are not enough to cause group formation or maintenance. Similarly, collective benefits, available whether a member joins or not, are insufficient to entice enough members to form a viable group. To successfully form and maintain a group, leaders must give potential members particular benefits which are available to individuals only upon joining the group. The benefit extended to the individual member for joining the group must be greater than the cost of not doing anything. Only then is it rational to join a group. Olson does say that some groups may form in the absence of selective material benefits, but he claims that these groups are in some sense irrational and beyond the scope of his analysis. Since Olson puts religious and other charitable groups in this category, his work is not directly relevant to this study.

Salisbury preserves the basic logic of Olson's theory, but broadens it to include non-material benefits. To do this, he borrows from the work of Wilson and Clark who speak of solidary and purposive benefits. Solidary benefits are opportunities to meet people as the group forms and continues to meet.(11) Members will benefit then from the friendship, support, and perhaps the status of the group. The more a group interacts, the greater the amount of solidary benefits conferred. Purposive benefits are the sense of satisfaction members get from working to live out their religious beliefs.(12) In the context of religious interest groups, these benefits are present when people join a group to work for political goals which they feel are consistent with their religious faith. Successful group formation occurs when an entrepreneur offers a profitable exchange of any kind of benefit - material, solidary, and/or purposive - to prospective members. By using these additional concepts, Salisbury preserves the individual exchange relationship of Olson's theory but expands it to account for non-material exchanges.

Jack Walker also looks to the entrepreneur, but is concerned about the role of patrons in the group formation process. In his analysis of 564 interest groups, he found that the primary catalyst of group formation was a patron who provided the primary source of financial support.(13) In this case, the patron's support could obviate the need for leaders to relate to members. However, leaders would still maintain a successful exchange relationship with their patron. In this sense, patron theory is a variant of exchange theory.

There are no further tests of Walker's patron theory, however Jeffrey Berry explicitly tested the theories of Truman and Salisbury concerning the formation of public interest groups. He found that Salisbury's theory explained the origins of 55 out of a sample of 83 Washington-based public interest groups. Among 5 religious groups, he found that Salisbury's theory explained the origin of 4 groups while the disturbance theory only explained the origin of 1 group. There were 4 other religious groups in Berry's sample which he excluded from his sample because they evolved out of longstanding denominational units.(14) In Berry's work, if there was both a prominent leader and a disturbance, the conclusion was that the disturbance explained the group's origin. Only in the absence of a disturbance was the role of the entrepreneur considered primary. Berry used this rule to avoid the truism that all groups have leaders.(15)


Among religious groups, disturbances and discontent could cause group formation. Much religious history includes reactions to disturbances in society. When the Israelites were held captive in Egypt, that captivity became so brutal and disturbing that the Israelites organized to make their exodus from Egypt. Similarly, a central part of religion is the prophetic tradition which is a powerful critique of the disturbances and inequities of society caused by the oppression of the poor.(16) And for Christians, the ministry of Jesus includes admonitions to feed the hungry, liberate the captives, and cure the sick. This activity could be interpreted as an admonition for Christians to rise up whenever there is a disturbing evil and organize a response.

Alternatively, a leadership or exchange theory might explain group origins. The exodus from Egypt can be explained through the leadership ability of Moses(17) rather than the disturbing conditions of life under the Pharaoh. In addition, the traditions of prophets and pastors usually put an individual at the center of each group's formation. Individuals like Jerry Falwell or Martin Luther King Jr.(18) could be described as entrepreneurs who triggered the formation of many groups and indeed a movement. For the patron theory, it is clear that foundations and denominations have long played a major role in the funding of new groups.

This article will test the adequacy of the pluralist, exchange, and patron theories for explaining the origins of religious interest groups in Minnesota. My definition of a religious interest group is a group of people who share a common belief in a supreme being and have public policy goals as a central part of their agenda. This imprecise definition is narrow enough to exclude denominational groups for which public policy goals are not central concerns, but it is broad enough to include groups as diverse as Lutherans for Life, a group whose primary activity is education on the abortion issue, as well as the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition, a group whose purpose is the direct lobbying of the state legislature. Undergirding this breadth is a desire to include groups that engage in direct as well as indirect lobbying and political activity. Education is political if it works to teach a specific position on a public policy issue. Lutherans for Life fall within my sample because they aim to teach a specific "pro-life" position on abortion. Encouraging members to contact their legislators is political even though it does not require registration as a lobbyist.

Using these criteria, 31 religious interest groups were located in Minnesota. This search was made by consulting the Encyclopedia of Associations, local newspapers,(19) and some people in the field.(20) To secure data about group origins, the leader or a person closely connected with the current or rounding action of the group was interviewed by telephone. The interview consisted of 20 questions (see appendix) and took 20-25 minutes to complete. People were called and in many cases agreed to do the interview immediately. Others requested that we schedule another time. In only 2 cases did anyone refuse to interview. So out of a universe of 31 groups, I was able to get 25 interviews, 2 refusals, and 4 groups which I was unable to contact.


The interest groups in this study are younger, poorer, and smaller than other interest groups as indicated by other surveys of a broader segment of interest groups in Minnesota and the United States as a whole (see Table 1). Their age or year of origin will be discussed in the next section. Regarding resources, these groups are not wealthy. 80% of the religious groups (21 out of 25) had a budget of less than $50,000. This compares to 13% in Berry's survey(21) of public interest groups with offices in Washington, D.C. and 33% of Minnesota interest groups in a survey conducted by Virginia Gray.(22) The sample in Gray's survey is those groups that have a registered lobbyist in the state legislature. It should be noted however that all 5 groups in this study that have registered lobbyists in the State Capitol have budgets over $50,000.

The membership of the groups in my sample was also smaller than surveys of non-religious interest groups. 80% (16 out of 20) of the groups had memberships of less than 500 while 33% of the Minnesota groups in Gray's survey were in that category. In addition, a high proportion (20%) of religious organizations had no paid staff. This compares to 8% of the sample in Gray's survey and 4% of Berry's sample.

Looking more closely at the nature of these groups, there were roughly six types of groups found. First, there were seven groups that can be classified as conservative evangelical groups. These are groups that interpret Scripture literally and share similar positions on a number of issues including support of school prayer and opposition to gay rights activity and abortion. Secondly, there were seven mainline liberal groups who were closely connected with one or more of the mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic Churches. One of the groups in this category was partially funded by a Council of Jewish synagogues. All these groups share a non-literal interpretation of Scripture and generally take liberal stands on political issues. For the most part, they favor decreased military spending and increased government spending to aid the poor. Third, there were six groups whose primary agenda centered around disarmament and peacemaking in general. Fourth, there were seven groups whose primary concern was United States policy in Latin America, primarily Central America. Fifth, there were two pro-life or anti-abortion groups. Finally, there were two groups whose primary concern were first amendment issues as they relate to religious groups and organizations.
Table 1. Descriptive Statistics of Groups

                           Religious    Gray    Berry
Percent of Groups            Groups    Survey   Survey

Budget Less Than $50,000       80        20       13
Membership Less Than 500       80        33       NA
No Paid Staff                  20         8        4



Many observers point to a significant increase in the number of religious groups involved in politics. Frequently, conservative religious groups are cited as the most rapidly growing category. Looking at the formation of all these groups, one finds that 21 of the 31 groups in the sample have formed since 1980. Of that 21, only 5 can be classified as part of the religious right. Since the data do not reveal sufficient information about the size or influence of the groups, those five groups could be the largest. Whatever the size of individual groups, it is clear that the increase in religious interest groups has not been confined to the religious right.

This rate of increase is much more rapid than the increase in all Minnesota groups. Among all Minnesota groups, 67% of the groups were formed after 1946.(23) Among religious groups, a similar proportion have emerged since 1980. A study by Jack Walker of all Washington-based interest groups shows similar results.(24) For the citizens' groups in his sample, 67% of the groups were formed after 1950. For private groups, a similar number were formed after 1930. For non-profit groups, one has to go as far back as 1920 to account for 67% of the groups' origins. This data reveal a more rapid increase in religious groups in Minnesota than other groups in Minnesota and the United States.

The nature of these new groups is varied. In addition to the conservative groups, the data show a significant number of new groups concerned with Central America and peace issues. Between 1978 and 1988, there were seven new Central American groups and six new peace groups. Surprisingly my search for anti-abortion groups, a cause often linked to religion, only showed two rather small groups. If there is a link between anti-abortion activism and religion, most religious anti-abortion activists must be pursuing their goals in groups that are not openly religious (like Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life). This confounds political analysis. Religious groups, while unique in their theistic foundation, are often not unique in their political activities. Limiting the sample to religious groups means that other non-religious groups with similar concerns are excluded. This focus obscures the discovery of a broader proliferation or wave of groups in one area.

A further weakness in the sample is the difficulty of identifying groups that terminated their existence. Some groups in my sample are not currently active. It is hard to assess the total number of groups that have terminated and my search may have missed some of these groups. As a result, the data may have overstated the recent increase in the number of groups. However, the number of groups that have formed in the last two decades are nonetheless impressive and much larger than earlier decades. Despite some misgivings about the data, most evidence points to an increase in the number of religious groups involved in the political process.


At first glance, the rapid increase in recent years resembles a wave of groups forming in response to a disturbance. This would seem to confirm Truman's disturbance theory. But there is no plausible disturbance which would explain the origin of all religious groups. Such a disturbance would be some kind of religious persecution or some threat to a common religious value held by all religious groups. While the religious groups share some common convictions, there is no crosscutting issue that has caused the organization of all religious groups in politics.(25)

While no disturbances are common to the entire sample, there are some common disturbances which pertain to different categories of groups. The Latin America groups can be tied to a disturbance of Reagan administration policy in Central America which was deemed unacceptable to the activists involved. A leader of the Inter-Religious Coalition for Central America spoke of a group trip to Central America that roused disagreement with Reagan administration foreign policy and a deeper interest in Central America. A contact person for Witness for Peace(26) also spoke of their group's deep frustration with Reagan/Bush administration policy and their search for ways to oppose that policy. That search led them to send Minnesota citizens to Nicaragua during the 1980s to stand with the Nicaraguans against the U.S. sponsored contras or freedom fighters. The original leader of the Twin Cities Sanctuary Coalition mentioned the assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero and four nuns in El Salvador as a key catalyst for their group and the broader nationwide sanctuary movement. He said that "there is a real feeling that the government of El Salvador, which the United States supported, is against both the church and the people. Hence, there is a real need for churches to provide sanctuary to people who are fleeing oppression. This is deeply rooted in the religious tradition."

Except for one small group, Heirs of the Reformation, there was no counter-organizing in response to groups that organized to oppose Reagan/Bush policy. A person connected with that now defunct group stated that, "The group was organized to counter what we felt was an incorrect liberal bias among many church people and groups on the Central America issue. They felt that you could be both a Marxist and a Christian. We disagreed." But this was a very small group which did little except hold a series of forums in a large downtown church. The data show that the initial disturbance of Reagan administration policy was sufficient to ignite only the formation of groups critical to that policy. The equilibrium reached was the Reagan presidency and an array of critical groups.

A similar kind of analysis can be made for the peace groups. The disturbance was the Carter/Reagan arms build-up and the perception of a lackadaisical attitude toward arms control. People of Faith peacemakers was a group founded in the late 1970s during Senate consideration of the SALT II treaty. A member of that group emphasized that the concerns for peace in the group were longstanding, however, the immediate catalyst for the group was the "arms escalation begun by the Carter administration." The group's initial name was People of Faith United to Reverse the Arms race. The group saw its primary purpose to reverse an intensifying arms race. In subsequent years, it took on broader goals and renamed itself People of Faith Peacemakers. Moving into the 1980s, the coordinator for the Lutheran Peace Fellowship(27) recalled his organization's expansion in 1983 and stated that the Reagan administration was "good for business."

Among the conservative evangelical groups, one could also refer to a disturbance. Previously, most conservative Christians shunned politics. When asked about their group's entry into the political process, most of the leaders pointed to a disturbing law or trend in society. For some, it was the Roe v. Wade abortion decision in the Supreme Court. For others, it was advances in the gay rights movement, increases in pornography, or violence on television. For one fundamentalist leader, it was a court order preventing a Roman Catholic principal of a parochial school from refusing to hire a teacher because he was a homosexual. That event spurred the formation of group which attracted 10,000 people to one of the group's initial rallies. Other fundamentalist leaders referred to some disturbing trend in society which spurred them into the political arena. The leader of the Minnesota Association for Christian Home Educators exemplified this view when he said that, "We were unhappy with the moral fiber of society. And we were unhappy with the education system. We sought a way to work for change in a positive way."

There was some counter-organizing to the fundamentalist surge. Sometimes, leaders of mainline denominations were critical in their public remarks. One Minnesota group, the Minnesota Interchange Network, was organized specifically to counter the religious right. That group was founded in 1981 and consisted of 400 members and 33 organizations at its peak in the late 1980s. One of its leaders was quoted in a St. Paul newspaper saying, "The religious right must be opposed so that individual rights and social responsibility will be observed.... Our group will work to monitor the Moral Majority and similar groups and confront them with our own religious values."(28) This would seem to be a quintessential case of the kind of counter-organizing which Truman wrote about.

Some groups were formed in response to the disturbances of the sixties, the most prominent being the Vietnam War. Both Clergy and Laity Concerned (CALC) and the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition (JRLC) began in direct response to America's involvement in Vietnam; CALC began as Clergy and Laymen concerned about the War in Vietnam. And the JRLC was actually started as a service requirement for a person who was a conscientious objector to that war.

Other groups that can be tied to disturbances include Catholic Charities, a social services agency, which hired a lobbyist at the State Capitol in the midst of Reagan administration cutbacks in human services budgets. In addition, the Catholic League for Religious and Civil rights received a great impetus in the court case of a Wayzata High School student who was suspended for distributing religious literature at his school. They were also deeply disturbed by a 1976 issue of the Minnesota Daily which devoted virtually an entire issue to religious satire.

But other groups formed differently. The origins of mainline liberal groups are difficult to connect to a particular disturbance. These groups seemed to evolve from denominations or the activity of a group of entrepreneurs. One example was the Hunger Action Coalition that was formed by the efforts of a number of key leaders. People's awareness of hunger in America increased significantly in the 1960s. Several contributing factors included the widespread attention to books like Michael Harrington's The Other America(29) and the extensive media coverage of fact-finding trips by Robert Kennedy and others to hunger-stricken areas. That the Hunger Action Coalition did not form until the late 1970s is evidence that no key disturbance served as the catalyst for group formation; rather the efforts of group leaders caused the group to form.

But the formation of 80% of the groups (20 of 25) can be tied to an identifiable disturbance. This finding is at odds with most of the recent literature which has favored the entrepreneurial theories. To test the entrepreneurial theory, one must look at the exchange of benefits. While most material benefits would be anathema to much of the religious tradition, one could envision a religious organization offering something like health or life insurance to its members. But that does not seem to be the case. 17 of the 25 groups had newsletters and some offered more extensive issue analysis and legislative alerts, but it is hard to imagine that this information provided sufficient material benefits to cause the formation of any groups.

Some kind of solidarity seems very likely for religious groups, but, surprisingly, few groups offered fellowship or meetings as a significant part of their activities. Because meeting together seems an important part of most religious traditions, I expected the opposite. However, my survey showed that only a small number of groups held frequent meetings in which the solidarity might have provided the primary explanation for group formation. One group which met frequently was People of Faith Peacemakers. During their peak in the mid 1980s, they met for breakfast twice a month and sometimes had additional gatherings for worship. Another group which met frequently was the Twin Cities Sanctuary Coalition; their meetings focused around the specific task of preparing to host a Latin American refugee. But these groups are clearly the exception and only 3 of 25 groups met with any kind of regularity.

One possible explanation is that groups may use congregations as their primary organizing base. Since there are many opportunities for fellowship in existing congregations, there is no need for additional meetings in the new groups. 14 of the 25 groups used congregations as the primary focus of their recruiting or programmatic activities. A number of the other groups did not use congregations per se but instead utilized a loose network of people which allowed for a rather effective kind of word-of-mouth organizing. Lutherans Concerned for Latin America is an example of this. The organization emerged after a number of people traveled together to Nicaragua, Honduras, and El Salvador. From that association and an increasing network of people who had been to Central America, the group formed. Beginning initially with about 50 members, the group peaked in the late 1980s with an active membership of 200 and a mailing list of 2000.

Another example of the informal ties was the Purah Project. An article in the major newspaper of St. Paul described that group as a "moral conservative network which operates almost as an extended coffee klatch.... Members often spread the word through informal groups such as interdenominational prayer chains that include members of a dozen conservative churches."(30) This indication of informal ties complicates any analysis of the amount of solidarity in these groups. The informality of the organization makes it difficult to assess the significance of group solidarity in the formation and maintenance of groups.

Whatever the possibilities for fellowship and solidarity, the primary reason for these groups' formation is theological not sociological. The most intense or even fervent answers in my interviews were to the question concerning the group's beliefs and goals. Some of the answers to that question of purpose were: "to develop a prayerful and Biblically based group who stand with the people of Nicaragua;" "we sought politics based on Christian principles;" or "to bring people to a relationship with Jesus Christ and assist people in finding moral expression of that relationship in their personal and political lives." Many of the group's leaders articulated these purposes eloquently enough to attract sufficient members for group formation. Some groups like the Purah Project or Citizens Alert for Liberty and Morality were virtually the creation of one person. Yet each was responding to some specific event or trend of events which they found quite disturbing.

In addition to the disturbance and exchange theories, Walker's patron theory may explain the origins of some religious interest groups. The existence of outside funding would confirm this theory. Yet my survey shows no such funding sources. More typical was a group like the Berean League, a major conservative group who receives all its funding from its members. The leader in that group went out of his way to state that his group was founded with the help of no "sugar daddies." One might also suspect that denominations exist as major patrons for these groups. However, this does not seem to be the case. Only 6 of the 25 groups received any denominational money. And in only three cases - the Lutheran Coalition for Public Policy, the Hunger Action Coalition, and the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition - was a denomination's contribution to the group's original budget greater than 50%. In one case, the contribution of denominations to the Hunger Action Coalition fell from 100% to 25% during the life of the organization. Rejecting the patron theory, I conclude that the major competing theories to explain the formation of religious interest groups are the theories of Salisbury and Truman.

Since groups often both have leaders and respond to disturbances of some kind, both theories have some plausibility. The analytical question is to find the better explanation. This question is similar to the age-old dilemma about leadership. One asks, "Do the times make the person or does the person make the times?" Similarly, the political scientist asks, "Do crises or disturbances almost automatically produce leaders to address the problems? Or do great individuals offer creative and bold leadership regardless of any external disturbing conditions?" The answer is no doubt a little of both, but the disturbance theory offers the better explanation. Because formation of groups occurred in small wave(s) with easily identifiable disturbance(s), Truman's disturbance theory offers a more adequate explanation for the formation of most of the religious interest groups in my sample.

A primary reason for this is the unique nature of religious groups. As stated earlier, the religious tradition directs believers to work to respond to the injustices and disturbances of society. This challenges Marxist analysis which asserts that religion functions as an opiate which obscures the injustices of this world. While some religions direct their believers into a quietistic retreat, many religious traditions provide a rich tradition for vigorous political action in response to injustice.

And for some groups without such a legacy, many traditions are evolving to favor and encourage involvement in the political process. One of the board members of the Lutheran Coalition on Latin America (LuCola) said that "Lutherans are sometimes afraid or reticent about getting involved in politics and they need permission to do so." She saw LuCola as fulfilling that need. One Roman Catholic leader traced recent increases in involvement back to "Vatican II and the sense of justice it spawned. The trend continued with the movement for justice in Latin and Central America. These and other developments mark important steps by the church to respond to injustice and oppression." At the other end of the political and theological spectrum, some conservative evangelical leaders spoke about a new need for Christians to get involved in politics and make their views known. One leader said that he felt compelled to get involved in politics when he "saw the Legislature reforming policies and liberalizing in Minnesota...especially in areas of gay rights, lowering the drinking age, legalization of marijuana, sex education in the schools, values clarification, and abortion. We asked the question, 'Who will speak for the Christian position?'." Given these statements, it seems clear that the religious groups and their traditions respond to developments and events in the world. The religious tradition can shape that action; but the action in the world also seems to shape the tradition.

Interpreting this action through the exchange/leadership theory fails to illumine the disturbing external event which motivated the leaders to form a group. This response to injustice and immorality is the central essence of religious political action. Focusing only or primarily on the leader/entrepreneur directs the analysis away from this. It is this response which gives passion to the efforts of religious groups. And one also loses the group character of the political action, something that is antithetical to much of the teachings of religious groups. The relationship between leader and member is not unimportant, but the relationship between the religious group and the world, a word that disturbs and provokes, is more important.

The problem will always be that some disturbances will often go unaddressed. Truman's theory will not explain the failure of some groups to form. For example, it is surprising that only two groups - the Hunger Action Coalition and Catholic Charities - were organized solely to address problems of poverty.(31) Poverty has been a problem that has received increased publicity in recent years. Some groups like the Joint Religious Legislative Coalition have devoted considerable energy to AFDC funding in the State Legislature. Clergy and Laity Concerned has also dealt with issues of poverty in some way. But somehow I would expect a greater number because no Biblical injunction is clearer than the call to alleviate poverty. Understanding this through the lens of Truman's theory, I can only conclude that the problem is not disturbing enough. In that case, the formation of more anti-poverty groups will occur only if poverty becomes a more disturbing and public problem.

One could also understand the shortcoming of Truman's theory by referring to the work of Salisbury and others. In that case, there is no proliferation of anti-poverty groups because of a failure of leadership. This points to the dilemma of this article. Neither theory provides a complete explanation for group origins. But while my purpose is not to reject either theory completely, I do conclude that the disturbance theory provides the best explanation. Leaders and the resources they mobilize or benefits they offer will provide some explanatory power, but the disturbance theory provides a more persuasive and powerful explanation of group origins.


1. A. James Reichley, Religion in American Public Life. (Washington, DC.: The Brookings Institute, 1985); Allen Hertzke, Representing God in Washington: The Role of Religious Lobbies in The American Polity. (Nashville, TN: University of Tennessee Press, 1988); Daniel J.B. Hofrenning, In Washington But Not of It: The Prophetic Politics of Religious Lobbying (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1955); Robert Zwier, "The World and Worldview of Religious Lobbyists," Paper presented at the Midwest Political Science Association Meeting, April 4-6, 1988, Chicago, IL.

2. David B. Truman, The Governmental Process (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1951, 1971).

3. Mancur Olson Jr., The Logic of Collective Action (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1965); Robert H. Salisbury, "An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups," Midwest Journal of Political Science, 13 (1969): 1-32; Jack L. Walker, "The Origins and Maintenance of Interest Groups in America," American Political Science Review, 77(1983): 390-405.

4. David B. Truman, The Governmental Process, pp. 52ff.

5. Ibid.

6. The second part of Truman's theory argues that group formation will tend to occur in waves. The initial disturbance causes a disequilibrium. Then a group will organize to counter that disturbance. Another group will organize which will counter the initial group. This process will go on until a kind of equilibrium is restored. The actual case which Truman used to confirm his theory was the proliferation of agricultural groups in the late 1800s in response to the disturbance of economic distress. Ibid., p. 59.

7. On the issue of group formation, the commitment theory of Paul Sabatier is consistent with pluralist theory. Sabatier argues that group leaders are those who have a zealous commitment to collective benefits. In pluralist language, this is similar to Truman's argument that groups form when a group of people share common reaction to a societal disturbance. On other issues such as the maintenance of groups and the congruence between leaders' and members' views, Sabatier's approach offers more unique insights. Paul Sabatier, "Interest Group Membership and Organization: Multiple Theories," in The Politics of Interests: Interest Groups Transformed, edited by Mark P. Petracca (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1992).

8. Robert H. Salisbury, "An Exchange Theory of Interest Groups," Midwest Journal of Political Science 13(1969): 1-32.

9. Ibid., p. 7.

10. See Moe for a more complete analysis of Olson's theory including the implications of Olson's theory for a theory of group formation. Terry M. Moe, The Organization of Interests (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1980) and "Toward a Broader View of Interest Groups," Journal of Politics 43(1981): 531-543.

11. Peter B. Clark and James Q. Wilson, "Incentive Systems: A Theory of Organizations," Administrative Science Quarterly 6(1961): 129-166; James Q. Wilson, Political Organizations (New York: Basic Books, 1973).

12. Ibid.

13. The government is the only major patron whom Walker subjected to empirical analysis. Future research might look more fully at other patrons such as foundations. Walker, "Origins and Maintenance of Interest Groups in America," pp. 401-402.

14. Jeffrey M. Berry, Lobbying for the People (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1977) and "On the Origins of Public Interest Groups: A Test of Two Theories," Polity (1977):379-397.

15. Jeffrey M. Berry, "On the Origins of Public Interest Groups," p. 389.

16. Cf. Walter Brueggemann, The Prophetic Imagination (Philadelphia, PA: Fortress University Press, 1978) and Abraham Joshua Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1962) for a fuller discussion of the prophetic tradition.

17. For an interesting treatment by a political scientist of the leadership of Moses see Aaron Wildavsky, The Nursing Father: Moses as a Political Leader (The University of Alabama Press, 1984).

18. Dennis Chong, Collective Action and the Civil Rights Movement (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1991) for an analysis of the civil rights movement using models of collective behavior.

19. The primary media sources consulted were the Minneapolis Star and Tribune and The St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press.

20. At the end of some interviews, I asked the respondents to help me identify additional groups. This was usually quite helpful.

21. Cf. Jeffrey M. Berry The Interest Group Society (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1984) for his descriptive comments and tables concerning public interest groups in Washington, DC.

22. This is a currently unpublished survey conducted by Virginia Gray of the University of Minnesota. Her sample represents all groups with registered lobbyists in Minnesota.

23. Ibid.

24. Cf. Jack L. Walker "The Origins and Maintenance of Interest Groups in America," particularly the table on p. 395.

25. This again points to the extent of diversity in the political beliefs of the religious groups. Far from being a monolithic force, groups are found in many parts of the political spectrum. Recent analyses which have tended to focus on the religious right have overlooked this diversity. Political Scientist, Robert Booth Fowler Religion and Politics in America (Meutchen, NJ & London: The American Theological Association and Scarecrow Press, 1985) made the claim that religion is extremely involved in America but a major reason that it is not that influential is that it is "above all, pervasively pluralistic in theology, tradition, attitudes toward politics and government, policy objectives, and much more" (p. x). Fowler describes political activity by religion as extremely active but so diverse in its activity that the net influence is slight. And so we are left with the description of the network of religious groups that differ in both their theological and political beliefs. Their only common characteristic is their religious roots.

26. A local chapter of a national organization with headquarters in Washington, DC.

27. An organization which began in 1941 to aid conscience objectors to World War II.

28. Karl J. Karlson, "Religious Right Confronted by Rights Group," St. Paul Dispatch, April 28, 1981, p. 1B.

29. Michael Harrington, The Other America: Poverty in the United States (Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1962).

30. Bill Salisbury, "Religious Right Grasps for Small Gains in '84," St. Paul Pioneer Press and Dispatch, February 20, 1984, p. 1A.

31. Perhaps the popularity of Kevin Phillips's The Politics of Rich and Poor: Wealth and the American Electorate in the Reagan Aftermath (New York: Random House, 1990 & 1992) and Boiling Point: Republicans, Democrats, and the Decline of Middle Class Prosperity (New York: Random House, 1993) as analyses of economic injustice will provoke group formation.

Daniel J.B. Hofrenning is assistant professor of Political Science at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is completing a book on religious lobbying.
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Author:Hofrenning, Daniel J.B.
Publication:The Social Science Journal
Date:Jan 1, 1995
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