Crossing the line: Democracy, spirituality and politics in the United States anti-nuclear social movements

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Social Sciences


John S. Burdick


Participatory democracy, Feminism, Peace, Social justice, Democracy, Spirituality

Subject Categories

Arts and Humanities | Feminist, Gender, and Sexuality Studies | Political Science | Social and Behavioral Sciences | Sociology | Women's Studies


This feminist action-research dissertation investigates how social movement groups develop strategies, and how strategic approaches affect outcomes. I study three social movement groups of differing socio-economic and racial composition that have histories of success in changing nuclear weapons policies through legislative victories and cultural change. The Coalition for Peace Action is a mostly white middle-class group based around Princeton, NJ; Shundahai Network is a group of indigenous people and allies near the Nuclear Test Site in Nevada and Utah. The Piedmont Peace Project, which no longer exists, was a working-class, mixed race group in the Piedmont area of North Carolina. Through this research I identify a broad range of approaches that have been effective.

I expected that understanding strategy would require observing how activists interpret, respond to and create political opportunities (that is, conditions for mobilization based on "the set of power relationships within a given society..." 1 ). Once in the field, I realized that other criteria were more important to the strategy decisions of some organizations: While the Coalition does primarily consider state politics in determining their direction, the main determinant for Shundahai Network was faithfulness to spiritual values, while PPP focused on democratic process.

Using my "ecological comparison" method, I find lessons these groups can share without holding them to a single norm. My study of the Coalition reveals ways that people with access to academic and religious leaders turn this into a political resource. Through Shundahai Network, I build on research of Christian Smith 2 , to examine the effectiveness of religion/spirituality in social movements, affirming solidarity, sustenance, creativity and material support as assets and raising divisions and diversions as risks. My research on PPP extends work of Polletta 3 on effectiveness of participatory democracy, noting "solidary, developmental and innovative benefits", to which I add a "visionary" advantage of deepening their understanding of their place in society.

Insights from this study have practical applications to social movement and other civil society groups, and theoretical and methodological contributions regarding social movement strategy, outcomes, and comparison.

1 Smith, Jackie and Pagnucco, Ronald (1992). "Political Process and the 1989 Chinese Student Movement" Studies in Conflict and Terrorism , 1992, 15, 3, July-Sept, p. 171. 2 Smith, Christian (1996). Disruptive Religion: The Force of Faith in Social Movement Activism . NY. Routledge, p. 9-17. 3 Polletta, Francesca (2002). Freedom is an Endless Meeting . Chicago, University of Chicago Press. p. 2.


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