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Religious Identity Development and Multicultural Competence: A Correlational Study of Counseling Students

In: Counseling and Values
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Heidi L. Henry From the School of Education, St. Bonaventure University, St. Bonaventure, NY, USA, hhenry@sbu.edu

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Chi-Sing Li Department of Counselor Education, Sam Houston State University, Huntsville, TX, USA

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Abstract

There is a lack of research examining the relationship between religious identity and multicultural counseling competency among counselors-in-training. A correlational design was used to investigate the relationship between age, religious identity development, and multicultural counseling competency of counseling students (N = 156) from cacrep accredited programs. The results, derived from a canonical correlational analysis, indicated a significant, linear relationship between religious identity development and multicultural counseling competency. Limitations, implications, and suggestions for future research are discussed.

Given today’s current sociopolitical climate, it is imperative that counselors are prepared and competent to work with diverse clients. With the recent killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, there is increased attention on the impact of systemic racism on Black, indigenous, and persons of color (bipoc). Working with racially diverse clients is just one area directly related to current sociopolitical issues in which counselors must be culturally competent; however, multicultural competence expands to cover a multitude of areas, including race, ethnicity, religion, spirituality, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, size, disability status, immigration status, language, etc. Attitudes, knowledge, skills, advocacy, and even a counselor’s own identity are key components in multicultural counseling competency development (Ratts et al., 2015). Throughout the literature, there seems to be a mixed relationship between how different aspects of a counselor’s identity, including religious identity, facilitates cultural competence among counselors (Balkin et al., 2009) and also how it negatively impacts the development of multicultural competence (Leak & Finken, 2011).

To address the increased discrimination towards individuals of color, aservic and many other counseling organizations have issued supportive statements on their websites and social media. In response to the unjustified killings of people of color, the Association for Spiritual, Ethical, and Religious Values (2020) posted on their Facebook that “Justice, equality, and compassion are core spiritual, ethical, and religious values that guide aservic. As such, we see and hear our clients, colleagues, students, and communities of color and stand in solidarity with all those supporting racial justice.” This statement reflects the commitment of aservic towards supporting the systemic issues clients of color continue to face and also suggests the importance in understanding the relationship between religion, spirituality, and multicultural competence.

Multicultural Competence

Historically, multicultural competence concerned one’s attitudes, knowledge, and skills in working with diverse populations. Recent changes to the multicultural counseling competencies, now known as the Multicultural Counseling and Social Justice Competencies (msjcc; Ratts et al., 2015) added the component of action and brought to the forefront the idea that the counselor and client’s intersectional identities can impact the counseling relationship. Identity is comprised of various components, and a counselor and client can possess identities that are simultaneously privileged and oppressed. Therefore, a counselor must become aware of how their own identity, including their religious identity, impacts their capacity to become multiculturally competent counselors.

Numerous studies have been conducted demonstrating that multicultural training produces more culturally competent counselors (D’Andrea et al., 1991; Dickson & Jepson, 2007; Estrada et al., 2002), and focusing on specific constructs, such as race or sexual orientation, might result in greater competency for counselors in those areas. Paone et al. (2015) found that white counseling students who took a race-based course increased their awareness of white privilege and their openness in confronting their privilege. Bidell (2013) discovered counselors reported significantly higher competency and self-efficacy scores for working with lgb clients after taking a course specifically devoted to lgb issues.

When counselors possess greater levels of multicultural competency, such as awareness, they are able to provide more culturally competent interventions to their clients (Benuto et al., 2020; Jones et al., 2016), resulting in more positive client outcomes (Gainsbury, 2017); whereas therapists who possess lower levels might contribute to poorer client outcomes (Anderson et al., 2019). Gainsbury (2017) identified how culturally competent practices, including translating materials into the client’s language, empathizing with clients’ diverse cultural perspectives, and including family and community in treatment for applicable clients, can result in increased participation, retention, and outcomes for clients with addiction issues. Anderson et al. (2019) found that clients who perceived their therapists as low in multicultural competency were more likely to prematurely terminate treatment.

Religious Identity Development

When studying multicultural counseling development, it is important to consider how identity factors might impact a counselor’s multicultural competency development, including membership in a historically oppressed group (Pope & Mueller, 2005), racial identity (Dickson & Jepsen, 2007), and sex, age, sexual orientation, and political affiliation (Green et al., 2010). Religious identity may also be a factor that can either facilitate the development of cultural competency (Balkin et al., 2009) or be a hindrance to developing culturally sensitive counseling practices (Sandage et al., 2015). Religious or spiritual identity is defined as a developmental process in which people explore and commit to their own personal beliefs, ideas, and practices of religion or spirituality (Griffith & Griggs, 2001). To better understand how religious and spiritual identity might impact a counselor’s work with diverse clients, it is important to understand different models of religious or spiritual development. Fowler (1981), the most notable theorist concerning faith development, stated that faith development may not always be religious in nature, but rather faith relates to how humans make sense of life and find meaning. Fowler (1981) stated, “Faith, it appears, is generic, a universal feature of human living, recognizably similar everywhere despite the remarkable variety of forms and contents of religious practice and belief” (p. 14).

Fowler’s (1981) Stages of Faith consist of six stages, were developed based upon Piaget’s Stages of Cognitive Development, Erikson’s Stages of Psychosocial Development, and Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development, and demonstrate how the influence of significant others, abstract thinking, cognitive dissonance, conscientiousness, and activism might contribute to faith development. Building off of Fowler’s six stages of faith, Veerasamy (2002) developed the Experiential/Rational Model of Religious Identity Development. The purpose of this model was to enhance Fowler’s six stages, which focused mainly on the cognitive aspect of religion (Fowler, 1981). Veerasamy’s (2002) model was developed on the premise that individuals process information through both an experiential and rational system, and an individual’s religious identity development is the product of the interaction of these systems. Similar to Fowler’s (1981) stages of faith, Veerasamy drew from Kohlberg and Erikson’s developmental models, but also considered Epstein’s theory of personality, which asserts that people process information through the interaction of both rational and experiential systems (Epstein, 2012).

Veerasamy (2002) also used the concepts of statuses, mirrored after Helms’ (1990) concept of statuses used in racial identity development models, which allowed for the ability to process increasingly complex racial issues. Statuses are defined as the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral processes by which an individual perceives interpersonal information from their surroundings. The statuses are sequential in development, and transitioning to the next status is triggered by the inability to cope effectively with one’s current religious experience. Individuals oscillate between experiential and rational ways of viewing and experiencing religion throughout the six statuses, each status allowing for an individual to confront and cope with increasingly complex religious issues; however, individuals can simultaneously possess characteristics from more than one status but usually display dominant characteristics from one status (Veerasamy, 2002)

Veerasamy (2002) referred to individuals displaying characteristics in the first status, the concrete status, as “unconscious conformists,” because they devoutly and passively adhere to rigid beliefs and consider their beliefs right while everyone else’s religious beliefs are wrong (p. 38). Their processing of religious issues is dominated by the experiential system. In the second status, the relational status, individuals manage most of their issues experientially but begin to engage in a conscious and cognitive processing of religion. However, their religious beliefs adhere mainly to the beliefs of significant others in their lives and their conscious efforts to learn religion are guided by the need to be rewarded by those significant others. Veerasamy (2002) referred to those in this status as “conscious conformists” (p. 38). Individuals in status three, the confusion status, experience a discrepancy between their religious beliefs and their emotional experiences. Being unable to assimilate new material into their religious beliefs, they feel angry and betrayed by significant others. This betrayal results in a rational processing of religious beliefs, and they turn to logic to guide their beliefs. In order to escape the anxiety they feel in status three, individuals must transition to status four, the cognitive-rationalization status, or back to the relational status. The cognitive-rationalization status is characterized by a strict processing of religion through only the rational system. Individuals dominated by this status are rigid in their thinking and values, may have knowledge of a variety of religious tenets and practices, but are unlikely to engage in any personal practice of religion. If they experience enough cognitive dissonance in their rational system, they may realize the need for both a rational and experiential processing of religious material and transition to the fifth status, the exploration status. Individuals in the fifth status are still dominated by the rational system, but they begin engaging in the experiential system and independently search for religious meaning. In the sixth status, the acceptance status, individuals realize that to fully appreciate and understand religion, there is a need for both experiential (faith) and rational (reason) ways to process religious material. They are devout in their own beliefs, but genuinely accept and value other religious practices (Veerasamy, 2002).

Religious Identity & Multicultural Competence

When viewing religious identity from a developmental perspective, such as Veerasamy’s model, one might be able to help parse out aspects of religious and spiritual identity that can facilitate the development of cultural competency and characteristics that might hinder this development. It is important to analyze how religious or spiritual development might impact a counselor’s capacity to develop multicultural competence, which might ultimately influence their ability to provide culturally competent treatment to diverse clients. When reviewing the literature, we found very minimal research concerning the relationship between religion and overall multicultural competence. Sandage et al. (2015) found a negative relationship between spiritual grandiosity (i.e. considering one’s self as more spiritual than others) and a change in intercultural competence among masters-level counseling psychology students who completed a multicultural counseling course. Quest religiosity, differentiation of self, and gratitude were all positively associated with intercultural competence in graduate students enrolled in helping professional programs (Sandage & Harden, 2011). According to Sandage and Harden (2011), quest religiosity refers to a person’s openness in questioning their own religious background and possessing enough cognitive flexibility to incorporate new experiences into their existing worldview, similar to characteristics displayed in the latter stages of Veerasamy’s (2002) model.

Conversely, certain religious qualities, such as petitionary prayer and religious acceptance, were found to be positively related to cultural competence among counseling-related students and professionals (Balkin et al., 2009; Sandage et al., 2015). Out of the three studies we found directly related to religion and cultural competence, only one study (Balkin et al., 2009) examined religion from a developmental identity perspective. Additionally, only 19 out of the 111 participants with an average age of 44 in this study were counseling students, and the rest were counseling professionals. Balkin et al. (2009) found that counseling graduate students and professionals who were more likely to adhere to the religious beliefs of significant others, experience greater dissonance between their religious beliefs and emotional experiences, and were more accepting of diverse religious beliefs reported higher levels of multicultural knowledge. This finding supports the idea that there may be certain aspects of religious identity (e.g. openness) that facilitate cultural competence and specific characteristics of religious identity (e.g. dogmatic thinking, parental influence) that might hinder the development of cultural competency. Because the development of cultural competency is directly related to client outcomes, there is a need to further study how religious identity development of counselors-in-training might impact their multicultural counseling competency development. Because the majority of Balkin et al.’s (2009) participants were counseling professionals (83%) rather than graduate students, the results are limited in their generalizability to counseling students.

Age

Although there seems to be a relationship between religion and cultural competence, it is worth noting that the religious landscape in America is changing, most notably with increased secularization and a decrease in individuals identifying as religious (Paul, 2018). Younger individuals tend to be less involved in attending religious services and engaging in religious practices than older adults. Concerning the importance of religion in one’s life, 40% of individuals ages 18–29 and 65% of individuals 65 and older reported religion being very important (Pew Research Center, 2015b). About 27% of people in the 18–29 age group reported attending religious services once a week, compared to 48% of individuals age 65 and older (Pew Research Center, 2015b). Given that younger individuals are less religious and about 80% of graduate students are under the age of 40 (National Center for Educational Statistics, 2016), age might be an important factor to consider when studying the relationship between religious identity development and multicultural competency in counseling students.

When reviewing the literature, we found mixed results in how age might relate to cultural competence. There seemed to be no significant relationship overall between multicultural competence and age (Chao, 2012; Pope-Davis et al., 1995); however, whenever there was a significant relationship between age and competence, it was specifically related to lgb competence. Kissinger et al. (2009) revealed that graduate students in helping profession programs younger than age 23 reported significantly more negative attitudes towards gay men and lesbians than did their peers in the age ranges of 24- to 35-years-old and older than 36-years-old. Similarly, Matthews et al. (2005) found that attitudes towards lesbians and gay men were more positive among older licensed addictions counselors than younger addictions counselors.

Given that there seems to be a significant relationship between religious identity and age in at least one area of cultural competence, i.e. lgb counseling competence, age is an important factor to consider when studying the relationship between religious identity development and multicultural competence.

Also, there seems to be a need for additional research analyzing the relationship between religious identity development and overall multicultural counseling competency, especially among counseling students. When reviewing the literature, we found only three studies that addressed this relationship, none of which studied mainly counseling students. Additionally, studying religious identity from a developmental perspective might provide insight into what specific characteristics, rather than religious behaviors or practices, facilitate and hinder multicultural counseling competency.

Researchers found that focusing on specific identity characteristics (e.g. being white) and specific constructs in multicultural training (e.g. race) resulted in greater competency related to those characteristics and constructs (i.e. white students taking a race-based course resulted in greater awareness and ability to confront racial privilege; Paone et al, 2015). By understanding if and how religious identity development affects multicultural competency, the results of this study might influence the way counselor educators approach multicultural training. The results might provide a rationale for adjusting multicultural counseling pedagogy to be tailored to address specific identity constructs, such as religious identity, resulting in more differentiated and inclusive training of counseling students from all religious backgrounds. This will hopefully result in effective, culturally sensitive counselors that can promote greater positive outcomes and well-being in diverse clients (Gainsbury, 2017). Therefore, the purpose of this study is to examine the relationship between age, religious identity development, and multicultural counseling competency among counseling students, in hopes that the results will give insight into how to best approach the multicultural training of counseling students at different levels of their religious identity development.

Method

Participants

Using Cohen’s (1992) power analysis table, we determined that at least 102 participants were necessary for a medium effect size at an alpha level of .05 with seven independent variables at 80% power. Participants in this study included 156 graduate students. Approximately 131 (84%) participants were master’s students, 23 (14.8%) doctoral students, and 2 (1.3%) specialist students. Of this sample, there were 101 (64.7%) clinical mental health students, 20 (12.9%) school counseling students, 7 (4.5%) community counseling students, 22 (14.1%) counselor education students, and 6 (3.8%) reported being in another counseling-related program track. The majority were female, 123 (78.8%), followed by male 26 (16.7%), followed by 2 (1.3%) participants in each of the following categories: transgender, genderfluid, and nonbinary. One (0.6%) participant reported “Other” for their gender identity. Regarding sexual orientation, 116 (74.4%) participants reported being heterosexual, 17 (10.9%) indicated being bisexual, 14 (9%) reported being gay, lesbian, or queer, 5 (3.2%) noted being pansexual, whereas 2 (1.3%) participants reported another sexual orientation and 2 (1.3%) did not answer.

Regarding race, there were 111 (71.2%) participants that identified as white, 17 (10.9%) identified as Black, African, or African American, 13 (8.3%) as Hispanic or Latinx, 7 (4.5%) as Multiracial, 4 (2.6%) as Asian or Asian American, 1 (0.6%) as American Indian, 1 (0.6%) as Pacific Islander, and 1 (0.6%) participant indicated that they identified as another race. The breakdown of religious orientation is reported in Table 1 with approximately 58% of respondents identifying as Christian. Participants’ ages ranged from 20 to 68 with a mean age of 31.95 (sd = 10.51). Two participants did not report their age. All participants completed at least 3 credits of a graduate level multicultural course as this was a requirement to participate in the study.

T1

Procedure

After the institutional review board accepted the research proposal, we used nonprobability sampling, both convenience and snowball sampling, to recruit participants. The first author created a database of cacrep liaisons from the cacrep website and found their email addresses from their university websites. She then emailed the liaisons a copy of the informed consent for the research study and asked that they forward the consent with a link to the questionnaire to their students. Additionally, in the email, we asked recipients to forward the study to any other participants or professors who would be amenable to taking or distributing the survey.

We used Qualtrics to electronically collect data from the demographic questionnaire and instruments. A demographic questionnaire was created that included various demographic questions, including a question related to age and whether or not participants had taken a 3 credit multicultural course. If students indicated that they did not take a multicultural course, then they were not included in the study.

Instrumentation

Religious Identity Development Scale (rids)

The rids measures an individual’s developmental level of their religious identity and is based upon Veerasamy’s (2002) Experiential/Rational Model of Religious Identity Development. It is a 28-item self-report inventory containing Likert-type response items ranging from 1 (strongly disagree) to 5 (strongly agree). The rids assesses the following six subscales: Concrete, Relational, Confusion, Cognitive-Rationalization, Exploration, and Acceptance. Individuals oscillate between experiential (faith) and rational (reason) ways of viewing and experiencing religion throughout the subscales, or statuses (Veerasamy, 2002).

Higher scores on each question indicate that a respondent possesses stronger identification with the characteristics of the subscales being assessed; characteristics of these subscales were discussed in detail in the literature review. Higher scores in the beginning statuses of the rids indicate that an individual is less developed in their religious identity, whereas higher scores on the later statuses indicate that individuals are more advanced in their religious identity development. Possessing stronger characteristics from more advanced statuses allows individuals to more easily process increasingly complex religious issues (Veerasamy, 2002).

Psychometric properties of the rids were established with a group of 211 participants, ranging from age 18 to 77 (Veerasamy, 2002). Males comprised 46.4% of the sample and 53.6% were female. White Americans comprised 68.7% of the sample. Black/African Americans made up 14.2%; 5.2% were Hispanic; 5.7% were Asian/Pacific Islander; 0.5% were Native American; and 5.7% identified as other. The religious makeup was diverse and consisted of 77.3% Christian; 8.5% identifying as having no religious preference, agnostic, or atheist; 2.8% Muslim; 0.9% Buddhist; 0.5% Jewish; 0.5% Hindi; 0.5% Sikh; and 9.0% did not respond. Internal consistency across subscales, measured by alpha coefficients, ranged from .60 to .87. Test-retest reliability coefficients ranged from .61 to .81 for the subscales at p < .01. Regarding construct validity, factor loading for the subscales ranged from .42 to .88. Regarding convergent and discriminant validity, a multiple regression was conducted with the six statuses of the rids as the predictor variables and anxiety as the criterion variable, resulting in a significant relationship between the variables, F(6, 204) = 3.48, p < .01, R = .31, and R2 = .10. A multiple regression was also conducted between the six statuses as predictor variables and dogmatism as the criterion variable, resulting in a significant relationship between the variables, F(6, 204) = 10.26, p < .00l, R = .48, and R2 = .23. Evidence for concurrent validity was established as a significant relationship existed between religious identity development and extrinsic religious orientation, F(6, 204) = 13.06, p < .001, R = .53, and R2 = .30 (Veerasamy, 2002).

Multicultural Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills Survey—Counselor Edition—Revised (makss-ce-r)

The Multicultural Awareness, Knowledge, and Skills Survey–Counselor Edition–Revised (makss-ce-r; Kim et al., 2003) was developed based upon Sue et al.’s (1982) model of multicultural competence—attitudes, knowledge, and skills. The makss-ce-r is a self-report assessment containing 33 items that participants rank on a Likert-type scale ranging from 1 to 4. The makss-ce-r has three subscales: Awareness-revised, Knowledge-revised, and Skills-revised and each subscale contains different criteria for the corresponding Likert-scale (e.g. strongly disagree to strongly agree, very limited to very good, and very limited to aware). Higher total scores on the makss-ce-r indicate greater overall multicultural counseling competence and the higher the score on each subscale, the greater the participant’s self-reported awareness, skills, and knowledge working with diverse populations.

Exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses were used to determine internal consistency of the makss-ce-r. Coefficient alphas were as follows: .82 for the overall makss-ce-r, .71 for the Awareness-R subscale, .85 for the Knowledge-R subscale, and .87 for the Skills-R subscale (Kim et al., 2003). Construct validity was established by a positive correlation (r = .67, p < .001) between the Awareness-R subscale of the makss-ce-r and the mckas-a subscale. A positive correlation (r =.48, p < .001) was also found between Knowledge-R of the makss-ce-r and the mckas-k subscale. To establish criterion-related validity, Kim et al. (2003) compared scores of participants who had taken at least one multicultural course with those who had not and found that students who had taken a multicultural course scored significantly higher on the makss-ce-r total scale, Awareness-R scale, and Knowledge-R scale.

Results

Prior to data analysis, the sums for the makss-ce-r and the means for the rids were calculated, and cases with missing data for those variables were deleted leaving 156 participants. A Mahalanobis distance was calculated to determine if there were any multivariate outliers at .01 for the makss-ce-r. Using a Mahalanobis distance is appropriate for identifying multivariate outliers because it recognizes any cases that fall outside the swarm of the variables’ means being assessed (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2019). There were 2 multivariate outliers and those cases were deleted. Assumptions for normality, linearity, and homoscedasticity were investigated through analyzing histograms, P–P plots, and scatterplots. Data appeared to meet the assumptions for normality, linearity, and homoscedasticity.

A canonical correlation was used to analyze the relationship between age, religious identity development, and multicultural counseling competency. All variables were continuous, and there were multiple predictor and criterion variables. We chose to use canonical correlation rather than using several multiple regressions to analyze the data because using canonical correlation helps eliminate the chance of Type I error that may occur when conducting multiple statistical analyses with the same variables. Additionally this type of analysis helps researchers examine real-life conditions because most variables in human behavior and cognition do not occur in isolation (Sherry & Hanson, 2005).

The analysis was conducted between the six rids’ subscales and age as the first set of variables and the three subscales of the makss-ce-r as the second set of variables. To determine statistical significance, an alpha level of .05 was used. Interpreting the canonical weights alone is difficult due to the effects of multicollinearity and the contribution of each variable to the other variables (Thompson, 2000). Structure coefficients were the primary focus for interpretation, and the coefficient cutoff of .3 was used for the structural coefficients (Tabachnick & Fidell, 2019).

The canonical correlational analysis yielded three functions with squared canonical correlations of .22, .07, and .0 for each successive function. Collectively, the full model across all functions was statistically significant using the Wilks’s λ =.72 criterion, F (21, 402.55) = 2.32, p = .001. Wilks’s λ represents the variance unexplained by the model, so 1 – λ produces the full model effect size in an r2 measurement. Therefore, the r2 type effect size was .28, indicating that the full model explained about 28% of the shared variance between the variables and had a small effect size. Dimension reduction analysis was conducted and revealed that Functions 2 and 3 were not statistically significant, Wilks’s λ = .93 criterion, F(12, 282) = .89, p = .055 and Wilks’s λ = 1.0 criterion, F(5, 142) = .13, p = .985, respectively.

The variables in the rids subscales that were correlated with the first canonical variate were Concrete (= -.32), Relational ( = -.62), Confusion ( = -.55), and Exploration ( = .53) and scores on the subscales from the makss-ce-r were Awareness ( = .77) and Knowledge ( = .56). Concrete, Relational, and Confusion were inversely related to Awareness and Knowledge, while Exploration was positively correlated with Awareness and Knowledge. Participants who possessed less dualistic and passive thinking, were less influenced by significant others regarding their beliefs, and less likely to question their religious beliefs reported greater levels of multicultural awareness and knowledge. Participants who were more intentional about their search for religious meaning and more likely to explore alternative religious views reported greater multicultural awareness and knowledge. Age was not a significant variable in the function. Table 2 presents the standardized canonical function coefficients, the structure coefficients, and the squared structure coefficients for the first function.

T2

Discussion

The results of this study demonstrated a relationship, with a small effect size, between religious identity development and multicultural competence in counseling students. Counseling students who experienced more devout, passive religious beliefs (concrete), those who were heavily influenced by significant others (relational), and those who were unsure of their religious beliefs (confusion) all reported lower levels of multicultural awareness and knowledge. Conversely, those who reported higher levels of individual and intentional search for religious meaning also reported higher levels of multicultural awareness and knowledge.

A possible hypothesis regarding the results is that individuals possessing strong characteristics from the concrete, relational, and confusion statuses might not be open to receiving information regarding multicultural populations that is different from what they were taught growing up. Reasons for this include that those who reported higher scores on the concrete status were more rigid in their thinking. Additionally, those with higher relational scores have not yet departed from the religious thinking of significant others in their life, e.g. grandparents, parents, etc. Kaiser (2005) found similar results when analyzing religious identity development and personality. She found that the concrete status was significantly and inversely related to Openness to Experience on the neo-ffi personality assessment, meaning those more dogmatic in their religious thinking were less likely be open to diverse experiences. Also, Strickland (2017) found that those who engaged in more dogmatic ways of spiritual thinking were less likely to engage in social justice advocacy. It appears that looking at religion from a developmental perspective might be beneficial because it is not religious orientation alone that inhibits multicultural competency development, but rather inflexible, dogmatic thought.

Implications

Counselors-in-training need to examine their own religious identity development and how it might influence their ability to work with clients from backgrounds different than their own, including diverse racial or ethnic backgrounds, sexual orientations, gender identities, and religious or spiritual backgrounds. Religious identity can negatively impact counselors’ abilities to develop cultural competence (Balkin et al., 2009; Sandage et al., 2015); therefore, it is important for counselor educators to facilitate the examination of counseling students’ religious identity and its impact on the ability to work with clients from diverse backgrounds (aservic, 2009; cacrep, 2015). By examining the impact of their religious identity on cultural competence, counselors-in-trainings’ abilities to work with diverse clients might improve.

One specific population that is particularly impacted by a lack of cultural competence in counselors is Black, Indigenous, and Persons of Color (bipoc). There are several reasons for this, including reported adverse experiences with mental health providers (Woods-Giscombe et al., 2016). Clients of color are more likely to have negative experiences with mental health providers, including lack of consensus regarding treatment goals, less respecting of their rights, and more incompetent providers (Cai & Robst, 2016).

Another potential reason for a lack of cultural competence when working with bipoc clients is because bipoc clients have unique religious or spiritual beliefs. Black individuals are actually more likely to seek out alternative forms of coping and treatment, including spiritual or religious help (Thurston et al., 2018; Vaterlaus et al., 2015). One way counselor educators can improve students’ discovery of religious identity and its intersection with cultural competence is by teaching counseling students about the unique religious and spiritual beliefs of bipoc (Constantine et al., 2004; Ojelade et al., 2011). Providing education about these spiritual practices will increase multicultural knowledge and their ability to integrate these practices into future work with diverse clients. However, counselor educators will need to further assess counseling students’ comfortability and beliefs about utilizing techniques in counseling with which they are not familiar or do not practice themselves. If counseling students possess dogmatic and inflexible beliefs, then they might be less likely to utilize those religious and healing practices to help bipoc clients. If discovered, counselor educators can implement gatekeeping and remediation procedures to assist the student or to ultimately dismiss a student from the program if the student does not improve in their ability work with diverse clients.

Limitations

Limitations in this study were mostly related to the sample, which may affect generalizability. The sampling methods used were convenience and snowball sampling, which may have resulted in sampling bias because we did not have access to every member of the population being studied (i.e. counseling students from cacrep programs; Whisenhunt & Varga, 2017). The recruitment method used meant that only students who received recruitment emails forwarded from the cacrep liaison would be able to participate in the study. Additionally, those who received the emails and decided to participate might have a vested interest in the topic being studied, and this type of volunteerism is a source of sampling bias (Whisenhunt & Varga, 2017). There was also a lack of diversity among the religious orientations of those studied. Approximately 58% of respondents reported identifying as Christian. It is worth noting though that the survey was more diversely representative of religious affiliation compared to the United States population overall, of which about 71% identify as Christian (Pew Research Center, 2015a).

Additional limitations were related to instrumentation. Both the rids (Veerasamy, 2002) and makss-ce-r (Kim et al., 2003) might be considered dated instruments. They were chosen at the time of the research because they were determined to be both reliable and valid instruments, but the research could be improved when more updated and reliable instruments are available. All of the instruments used relied on self-report; therefore, the results are only as valid as the participants’ responses. The impact of social desirability, which was not accounted for in the statistical analysis, might have led individuals to respond more positively to survey items.

In regards to the rids (Veerasamy, 2002), Grajales and Sommers (2016) found that Veerasamy’s acceptance and relational statuses did not significantly predict religiosity nor did commitment mediate the relationship between Veerasamy’s statuses and religiosity. Additionally, they identified that the religious identity statuses were intercorrelated, so they suggested the need for further research analyzing Veerasamy’s model in relation to religiosity and religious commitment, and also using multilevel structural equation modeling to analyze the correlations between the different statuses of Veerasamy’s model.

Suggestions for Further Research

This study sets the groundwork for identifying a relationship between religious identity and multicultural counseling competence in counseling students; however, further research is needed to expand upon this connection. This study and the literature reviewed used somewhat dated assessments to measure multicultural counseling competency. Although these assessments have strong reliability and validity data, they are not modeled after the most recent multicultural counseling standards, the Multicultural and Social Justice Counseling Competencies (msjcc; Ratts et al., 2015) and do not include the construct of social justice or advocacy. There is a need for the development and validation of updated instruments studying the constructs of multicultural competency, social justice, and advocacy.

In addition to updating the assessments used to measure multicultural competency, different methods are needed to assess competency. The instruments used in this study and throughout the literature are self-report. Rather than using self-report, studies need to include the assessment of cultural competency in either real-life sessions or through video role-plays and case studies. Clients could potentially rate their clinicians on the level of multicultural competence perceived. Sessions could be recorded, transcribed, and then analyzed for the level of multicultural competence portrayed by clinicians in the sessions.

Another area for further study is determining how counseling students and counselors progress through their religious identity development. How do individuals with dogmatic religious beliefs develop more open views of religion? The answer to this question is necessary in order for counselor educators to foster this process and development within students, because the results of this study demonstrated that counseling students who were more open to exploring other religious beliefs reported higher levels of multicultural competence.

An additional area for research includes studying how religious and spiritual identity impact a counselor’s ability to work with transgender clients. Although, we found some research addressing the relationship between religion, spirituality, and lgb competency (Bidell, 2014; Matthews et al., 2005; Kissinger et al., 2009), the literature related to transgender competency was scarce. It is also important to note that sexual orientation is a different phenomenon than gender identity and it is important to address competency specifically related to counseling transgender and gender non-conforming clients. The assessment used for this study, makss-ce-r, contains questions related specifically to working with gay men and lesbian women; however, it fails to include questions assessing competency related to transgender clients.

Conclusion

It is important that counselor educators are providing opportunities for counseling students to examine their own religious identity and how it impacts their beliefs about social justice and multiculturalism. Different characteristics of religious identity development may facilitate multicultural counseling development or hinder it, resulting in potentially ineffective and culturally irresponsible treatment of diverse clients. The results of this study substantiated the connection between religious identity development and multicultural counseling competency, identifying that those with more dogmatic and rigid beliefs are less multiculturally competent. Additionally, those who were more open towards and appreciative of diverse religious beliefs possessed greater levels of multicultural counseling competency. The results demonstrate that there is a need to assess counseling students’ religious identity development and abilities to work with diverse clients by examining how their religious identity development impacts their knowledge, attitudes, skill levels, and actions towards working with clients from backgrounds different than their own. Additionally, the results of this study provide rationale that there needs to be a greater focus on religious identity, its development, and its impact in multicultural counseling training.

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