Therapeutic religion: A portrait of an experimental religious environment for the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the scarred

2008 2008

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Abstract (summary)

This is a case study of a therapeutic-religious community that serves GLBT African Americans, many of whom are economically at the margins and have problematic backgrounds. I present a portrait of this community, and describe what therapeutic religion might "look" like. I draw from ethnographic data, interviews, and sermons, and illustrate how the congregation has been transformed into a "disaster manager" of sorts, offering a faith-based solution to people with traumatic and problematic histories.

While therapeutic societies strive to equip individuals with "psychological capital," by giving people permission to engage in self-expressions and emotional release and by affirming the total person, regardless of the person's social identities and/or background, the experimental nature of therapeutic societies inadvertently may lead to certain excesses. Notably, this dissertation finds that the therapeutic ethic that characterizes Unity Fellowship Church has enabled some freedoms that are otherwise disallowed in traditional congregations. The visibility and regularity of certain behaviors, along with the permissive—indeed, sometimes graphic—sermon language, call attention to some of these excesses.

But this is not to say that therapeutic societies simply disregard conventional norms altogether. In fact, the interview narratives and sermons suggest that: (1) the church founder/pastor has set boundaries for his congregants; and (2) congregation members desire rules, boundaries, and traditions. Moreover, for the people the therapeutic societies serve, the occasional "messiness" associated with excess freedom matters far less than their need for a religion that does not alienate people. Hence, if the immediate goal of a congregation or society is to eliminate human suffering, distinctly therapeutic and highly experimental ways of doing things may be pivotal to help reintegrate the wounded back into the community folds. To this end, this dissertation suggests that therapeutic religion—especially in the context of marginalized populations—will require far more than what traditional religion offers. In particular, this dissertation finds that congregations may need to integrate diverse functions (in particular, the therapeutic functions) into its religious repertoire and develop a hybrid religious form that combines religion and therapy in relatively equal measures.

Indexing (details)

African Americans;
Social structure;
0318: Religion
0325: African Americans
0626: Sociology
0700: Social structure
0733: Gender
Identifier / keyword
Philosophy, religion and theology; Social sciences; African-American; Bisexuality; Black religion; Congregational culture; GLBT; Homosexuality; Homosexuality and religion; LGBT; Therapeutic religion; Transgender
Therapeutic religion: A portrait of an experimental religious environment for the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the scarred
Leong, Pamela
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 69/06, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
Lichterman, Paul; Miller, Donald E.
Committee member
Lichterman, Paul; Miller, Donald E.; Preston, Michael
University of Southern California
University location
United States -- California
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
Document URL
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