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Rediscovering the Sacred: Perspectives on Religion in Contemporary Society by Robert Wuthnow

Robert Wuthnow is a Century editor at large and a member of the faculty at Princeton University. This volume was published by William E. Eerdmans Publishing Company in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1992. This material was prepared for Religion on Line by William E. Chapman.

Chapter 7: International Realities

At no time in its history has the Judeo-Christian tradition been able to confine its interests within narrow ethnic, regional, or national boundaries. The Hebrew scriptures tell of a people forced to migrate beyond their own borders in search of food, displacing local gods with a God of the heavens, and recurrently finding themselves caught in the intrigues of warring empires. Jesus constantly ran into the limiting presuppositions of such boundaries in his day, and he repeatedly cut through them to enlarge his followers’ vision. When the lawyer asked him for a definition of neighbor, Jesus pointedly told a story showing that compassion must extend beyond ethnic borders. He was crucified by Roman soldiers. And when he commissioned his disciples, he admonished them to go into all the nations.

Over the centuries, the international dimension has been an integral feature of Western religion. By the end of the fourth century, Christianity had spread to nearly every corner of Europe as a result of the Romans’ conquests. In 1095 the great crusades began, pitting Christianity against the Muslim empire. By the end of the fifteenth century, Spanish and Portuguese explorers had taken their faith to the New World. In 1517 a wave of reforming zeal broke out in central Europe which was to shape permanently the location of national boundaries and the strength of territorial sovereigns. And by the end of the nineteenth century, the Western church was deeply implicated in the affairs of every continent as a result of missionary activity, trade, coloni­zation, and war.


Today, as never before, the tender edges of our religious convictions are exposed to the wider world. Each day’s headlines remind us that there are millions of people in the Far East, in the Soviet bloc, and in Islamic states who believe differently than we. Refugees arrive at our borders in a steady stream, seeking better lives and fleeing civil unrest from governments kept weak by the policies of our own. They seek protection from our churches and force us to focus our attention on the wider world. A third of the world languishes in hunger and poverty while the average American generates twenty-five pounds of trash a week. Questions of human rights and social responsibilities have never needed to be asked on a wider scale. Land developers burn forests in Latin America to feed the cattle that fill the cavernous appetites of fast food chains in the United States — and the entire planet gradually warms, leaving even the experts in doubt about the future of our global ecology. Opinion polls reveal how closely our faith in ourselves is linked to the performance of the American economy. And yet the performance of our economy is contingent as never before on foreign investment, shipping routes, exploitable pools of cheap labor, and favorable rates of currency exchange. If religion in today’s world still supplies (in Peter Berger’s words) the “sacred canopy” for our ordinary lives, it has surely become as precarious a canopy as the thinning ozone layer.

And yet the models offered by the social sciences for making sense of modern religion pay scant attention to these international and global realities. A few years ago, a comprehensive bibliographic guide listing more than 3,500 books and articles in the sociology of religion was published.1 It provides a telling commentary on where the major theoretical and empirical emphases have been. Over 500 of the entries deal with the social psychology of individual religiosity, and another 400 examine the beliefs and practices of individual believers. Seven hundred deal with clergy and laity roles, and another 600 focus on the organizational characteristics of churches and synagogues, denominations, and sects. More than 200 deal with religious movements, and an equal number present abstract theoretical perspectives. But not a single section heading, subheading, or index item focuses directly on the international or global characteristics of religion.

This is not to say, of course, that these characteristics of modern religion have been entirely neglected. One can scarcely read Durkheim without observing his concern for the tensions between religiously legitimated expressions of moral community and more universalistic orientations toward humanity in general. Studies of cargo cults, messi­anic movements, and Third World millenarianism, including widely read classics such as Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound and Bryan Wilson’s Magic and the Millennium, have paid close attention to the effects of international relations on domestic religious developments.2 In increasing numbers, books have appeared on the religious situation in strategic parts of the globe, such as the Middle East and Latin America, and with growing frequency articles on American religion refer to issues such as global consciousness, nuclear disarmament, and the effects of U.S. involvement in foreign affairs. Among these, Eric 0. Hanson’s The Catholic Church in World Politics is especially valuable.3

Among sociologists at large, the past decade and a half has also witnessed the development of a strong interest in so-called “world-system” theory.4 Along with more conventional Marxist approaches and an eclectic array of studies concerned with “world conflicts,” world-system theorists have initiated an important new line of inquiry focused specifically on the properties and dynamics of social configurations larger than the national society. But this work has also contained a distinct Marxist bias, causing it to dismiss religion as epiphenomenal, while privileging studies of economic transactions, material inequality, and political structure.

It must be with humility, then, that the social scientist ap­proaches the topic of religion from a larger, global perspective. The social scientist engaged in this pursuit is like the proverbial physicist struggling up the steep cliff of higher learning to discover the meaning of life, only to find upon reaching the top a humble guru who had-been sitting there all along. The practitioners of religion have often been much more attuned to the international realities of the present world than their counterparts in the social sciences. They have had to be because their missionary and evangelization efforts have been truly international in scope. Nearly all the major denominations and faiths in the United States — Roman Catholics, Jews, Episcopalians, Pres­byterians, Methodists — are themselves transplants to American soil and continue to be part of broader federations whose memberships span the globe. The universalistic normative concerns of the Judeo-Christian tradition have also forced its leaders to be attentive to such global issues as peace, hunger, poverty, and human rights. At least at these levels, the global concerns of American religion have simply been waiting to be discovered by social scientists.

The point, though, is not to engage in recriminations but to proceed in a positive direction. It is one thing to list such obvious topics as war and peace, poverty and prosperity, and exploitation and social justice and to call for more studies and more understanding. It is quite another to move toward a more systematic theoretical perspective that links even the more mundane questions of religiosity and religious organization to broader concepts of world order. Indeed, we should begin by asking pointedly what, if anything, we might gain from adopting a theoretical perspective that specifically attempts to take into account the forces of some social unit larger than the society itself.

Let us be modest at the outset. Indeed, let us candidly admit that many of the forces to which individual believers and their religious organizations respond are entirely local. An individual parishioner loses a loved one, and a member of the clergy responds. An established neighborhood sees its population age, causing a decline in the membership of a local church. The pastor of a suburban congregation finds herself increasingly torn between a dozen committees as her neighborhood grows and the membership of her church expands. We have social-psychological theories about meaning and belonging that help us understand what is happening in the first instance, demographic models for the second case, and studies of congregations and leadership roles for the third. In such a context it is questionable what of value might be gained by adding a world-order perspective.

Beyond this, we can readily make a great deal of headway toward understanding the social influences on religious organizations by focus­ing on familiar attributes of the national society. Suppose we do want to understand aging and bereavement in a larger context. Studies of the age composition, family status, and health characteristics of the national population are likely to be most revealing. Or suppose our interest lies in predicting the impact of denominational loyalties and religious convictions on a congressional or presidential election. Clearly, societal data and societal models are more relevant than studies of global dynamics.

Indeed, both the level of organization of our major denominations and the method in which data are collected argue for societal models. Denominations are administered as national units, even if their constituencies are clustered in one part of the country more than another. When they conduct research and when they consider the social environment most relevant to their memberships, they think in societal terms. And standard means of data collection in universities, government, and private industry, such as the numerous surveys from which we infer trends in religious indicators, are designed to ensure national representativeness.

To urge that we incorporate a global perspective to contribute to our understanding of religious establishments, then, is to pursue only a marginal increase in understanding, not a wholesale replacement of our standard theories and methods of data collection. It is to suggest that the brute realities of our increasingly interdependent world force us to consider religion at more than an individual, community, or national level. In some cases, the benefits of incorporating the global perspective will be clear; in other cases, parsimony would perhaps continue to dictate emphasizing more proximate factors, but seeing things in context might argue for adding in less proximate effects in order to enhance our consciousness of global interdependence itself. Following are some ways in which a global perspective might assist in gaining a clearer understanding of the nature and dynamics of contemporary religious establishments. For convenience, I have divided them into three general types of contribution.

A Focus on Generalizable Patterns

One advantage we gain from taking a global or international perspective is that our attention is inevitably drawn to the more general dynamics of modern life. I begin with this because it is most familiar. It is, after all, what our theories and comparative studies, actual or implied, are supposed to provide anyway. They sensitize us to the generalizable, to representative or dominant patterns and trends rather than the purely idiographic. Secularization theory provides a familiar example. It suggests to us that declining church membership rolls or the declining influence of religion in public life is not simply an idiosyncratic occurrence; these declines, our theories tell us, may be part of a global trend, a pattern associated with rising industrialization, affluence, the growth of cities, and increases in knowledge. A global perspective tells us to think big, to raise questions about dominant trends, to consider what plays not just in Peoria but in Pretoria as well.

It seems to me that theories of secularization and, more broadly, theories of modernization have been useful in orienting our inquiries to these dominant patterns. Some of them, to be sure, are pitched decidedly at the societal level. The differentiation between religion and the state that is said to characterize modern societies, for example, focuses squarely on processes within individual societies. But a closer reading of the argument reveals that the pressures leading to this kind of institutional differentiation are understood in a transsocietal context. Institutional differentiation occurs, the theories argue, because societies must adapt to their environments, and they do so competitively with other societies. This competition makes the environment itself more complex, and those societies that differentiate their institutional sectors presumably gain a competitive edge in adapting to complex environments. Modernization theory views such processes of institutional change within American religion as the alleged differentiation of private piety from public policy, the growing differentiation of secular education from its religious roots, and the emergence of professional therapy as a distinct alternative to pastoral counseling as bellwether trends in advanced industrial societies generally and suggests that they may be in some way influenced by broader international patterns.

Other influences are even more clearly global in origin. The effects of science on religion do not arise within narrow societal contexts. Neither Einstein’s theory of relativity nor Heisenberg’s principle of uncertainty was discovered in the United States, but both have apparently had profound effects on American theology. The iron cage of expanding rationality that exercised Max Weber’s imagination has spread in more subtle ways. Religious organizations have borrowed rational procedures from the courts, from state bureaucracies, and from institutions of higher learning since the Middle Ages. These are part of a world culture that continues to have profound effects on contemporary religious organizations.

The list of such patterns and trends can be expanded greatly. It includes the growth of the modern state, about which I will say more later. It includes the growth of professionalism and what has been called a “new class” of knowledge workers and information specialists — growth that has, to say the least, occurred at the expense of the privileged position that clergy in past centuries occupied within the professions.5

At present, much discussion has also focused on the nature and sources of individualism. It may be true, as some have argued, that individualism has colored American religion in a particularly decisive way. But others have pointed Out that individualism is not only a feature of the cultural landscape between Boston and Los Angeles; it is reinforced in all advanced industrial societies, even in the Soviet Union, by the state’s efforts to supply services and legal guarantees. It is also reinforced by the workplace and by educational systems that attach credentials to the individual and encourage the individual to carry these credentials wherever he or she may go. And it is part of an ideological system that adapts to complex, heterogeneous environments by decoupling arguments and personalizing them to fit unique situations.6

These are all features of a world culture. Studies of national constitutions, legal patterns, educational systems, child-rearing habits, curricula in schools, and so on all reveal the extent to which such characteristics of modern societies have converged over time and the extent to which new societies imitate the patterns of more established societies.

They are also features of the environment to which students of religious organizations should pay heed. Where do the models come from that major denominations in the United States rely on to govern themselves and to conduct their business? From government and business, of course: particularly since the end of the nineteenth century, denominational officials have looked to corporations and other bureaucracies to guide them along pathways toward greater efficiency.7 At the congregational level, boards of trustees often resemble, and sometimes are consciously modeled after, corporate management committees. And if individual believers switch denominations and argue that their beliefs are their own rather than the property of some ecclesiastical tradition, they are simply following patterns institutionalized in the marketplace with increasing intensity since the advent of the money-wage economy. None of these developments is unique to the United States; all, to one degree or another, are characteristics of a growing global culture that defines how organizations should behave and what it means to be modern.

It is scarcely a new idea that sociological theories of this kind have often implicitly articulated a global dimension. But recent studies do indicate the importance of modifying standard theories to take international factors more explicitly into account. One such modification involves paying closer empirical attention to international influences and cross-societal convergences. Consider what might be learned from examining school curricula, for example. Standard theories of secularization might be interpreted to suggest that all societies would witness a gradual erosion of the place of religion in school curricula as they became more modern. If so, the prevalence of religion in school curricula across large numbers of societies should show a strong negative correlation with an indicator of modernization such as Gross National Product per capita or industrial contribution as a percent of Gross Domestic Product. In fact, these correlations are rather low. With a few exceptions, all societies have reduced the role of religion in school curricula, regardless of how advanced their economy is. The patterns suggest a developing global culture — a norm that says, in effect, that legitimate regimes in the modern system of states should sponsor secular learning but not religious indoctrination.8

Standard theories have also been modified in recent years for greater sensitivity to the dynamics of global patterns. In some formulations, theories of secularization, rationalization, and the like seemed to posit only gradual, long-term, but inexorable tendencies in modern societies. Over the centuries, religion would become more clearly differentiated from the state, less influential in public affairs, and more characteristically individualistic and rational. Particular historical events — the Edict of Nantes, Bismarck’s unification of Germany, or World War I — may have accelerated these trends, but the timing and severity of such events are treated as if they were exogenous to the system itself. More recent formulations try to offer more systematic accounts of these events and other short-term fluctuations. World-system theory, for example, has argued that economic cycles, called Kondrotieff waves, lasting approximately fifty years each, can be identified over and above whatever secular economic trends may be at work. These cycles might be expected to have their own effects on religious organizations. World-system theory has also suggested that under-developed societies may be caught in permanent downwardly spiraling cycles of dependence. For this reason, reactions against modernization, including resurgences of religious tradition, might be expected rather than steady secularizing processes. Indeed, instances of religious fundamentalism in many parts of the world suggest there may be some validity to these arguments.

Even if the empirical questions that occupy one’s attention are limited to changes in, say, Protestant denominations since World War II, then, the advantage of adopting a global perspective may be considerable. Linking such changes to arguments about world order provides a way of thinking about their place in longer-term historical patterns and their relation to trends in the wider system of societies.

A Focus on Deeper Changes

A second advantage of adopting a world-order perspective is that we sometimes stand to gain insight into the deeper changes underlying what seem to be more proximate influences on religion. Here I have in mind specifically those immediate social effects that can account for changes in religious establishments perfectly well by themselves. This simply makes it easier to overlook the point that these factors are in turn linked to broader patterns of change in the global order and that taking these broader patterns into account may give a fuller understanding of what is happening. It is best to give some specific illustrations.

One topic that I believe can be greatly facilitated by understanding it in a larger context is the question of sectarianism. Discussions of church and sect have abounded in the sociological literature at least since Weber, and especially since Troeltsch. Even in recent years there have been new efforts to define the two, to create typologies of sects, and to discuss the evolution of sects into churches. For present purposes, it will suffice to say that one standard way of defining sects, and of distinguishing them from churches and cults, is to focus on their origins: sects arise as splinter groups through schisms from churches or other sects, whereas cults generally arise independently as autonomous organizations. It will also suffice to mention two standard arguments about sects: (1) they arise from some kind of organizational or societal strain, such as a catastrophe in the environment or a dispute over doctrines, and (2) they gradually evolve into established churches. For questions about stability and change in religious establishments, then, these are relevant arguments indeed.

In a general way, the value of adding ideas about world order into the picture can be seen by relocating Troeltsch’s classic discussion in its historical context. Troeltsch was thinking specifically about the origin and evolution of sects in Europe from the Reformation through the end of the nineteenth century. During most of this period, at least from the middle of the seventeenth century through the end of the nineteenth century, the world economy was expanding. The Protestant countries in which most of Troeltsch’s sects were located lay at the core of this world economy, especially in Britain and Germany and, to a lesser extent, in Scandinavia and the Netherlands. Economic expansion in this core was associated with two other dominant trends: growth in population (the so-called demographic transition, which both facilitated, and was facilitated by, industrialization) and the geographic inclusion of previously isolated, local, and ethnic sectors of the population into the commercial and industrial labor force.

What some have taken as a universal characteristic of sectarianism, therefore, was contingent on a very particular set of historical circumstances. The inclusion of isolated population segments into the dominant economy created permanent disruptions in the moral economy of rural life — social upheavals that generated potential recruits for sectarian movements. Expanding population and material resources contributed positively to the numbers and variety of these movements. And their inclusion into the dominant economy increased the likelihood that these movements would gradually become established churches. Certainly the Methodist case fits this trajectory; other dissenting sects, brethren groups, and free churches seem to as well.

Given different dynamics in the larger world economy, quite different patterns of sectarianism might be expected. Under more stagnant conditions, for example, social disruption may be present, but resources are likely to be lacking to transform dislocation into orderly social movements. Theories of world order also point to the importance of different patterns and rates of incorporation into the dominant economy. While workers were being drawn into the industrial labor force as individual breadwinners in Europe during the nineteenth century, for example, other workers in Europe’s colonies were being drawn into a permanent state of dependence as producers of raw commodities — in mines and on plantations. Under these circumstances, as Eric Wolf and others have shown, religious movements were less likely to take the form of sects at all, and when they did, they seldom followed the path of their counterparts in Europe in becoming prosperous middle-class churches.9

Of course, this is to paint with a very broad historical brush. Some empirical rigor, as well as clearer applicability to the present situation in the United States, can be added by drawing on the results of recent research on sectarian schisms. Two of my colleagues, Robert Liebman and John Sutton, and I recently developed a data set for 175 Protestant denominations in the United States from 1890 to 1980. The data cover all denominations that were part of the four major Protestant families and that had at least 1,000 members at some point during this period. They include 55 Baptist denominations, 50 Lutheran denominations, 34 Methodist denominations, and 36 Presbyterian or Reformed denominations. Among these denominations there were 55 schisms, all of which resulted in the formation of new denominations. Formally, the resulting organizations meet the definition of sectarianism, although for present purposes their actual conformity in substance to the definition of sect is unimportant. Thus far, we have examined only a small number of the potential explanatory factors that might account for the occurrence of these schisms. Using a variant of instantaneous hazard analysis, we have, however, been able to rule out differences associated with denominational family and church polity types — that is, the evidence indicates that denominations with congregational polities are no more and no less likely than denominations with presbyterial or episcopal polities to experience schisms. We were also able to show significant effects from four contextual variables. Rates of schisms were positively associated with the size of the parent denomination, negatively associated with membership in the National Council of Churches (and its predecessor, the Federal Council of Churches), positively associated with rates of failure among business organizations, and curvilinearly associated with the density of other schisms in the religious environment. Descriptively, these results produced rates of schisms that were highest in the 1930s and 1960s, although no decade in the past century was free of schisms.10

None of these results bears directly on properties of the larger world order. This, then, is a case in which arguments about world order can at most enhance our interpretation of more proximate effects. Each of the four findings can, in fact, be interpreted in a broader context. The effect of denominational size, we know from other research, can be linked in turn to the effect of immigration to the United States, to competition among denominations and between Protestants and Catholics for members, and to the so-called “baby boom” that followed World War IL In other words, in the United States, sectarianism has been associated with demographic expansion in the world system, just as it appears to have been in Europe in earlier centuries. The negative effect of the National Council of Churches needs to be understood in relation to the history of the NCC itself, especially the extent to which it was modeled after the United Nations and was prompted by an interest in global religious concerns. Sectarianism, in this sense, has been reduced by efforts to create organizations aimed at better meeting the challenges of world society. Business failures, of course, occurred most widely during the Great Depression, which represented a major upheaval in the world economy at large and resulted in a permanent shift away from the monetary institutions on which the nineteenth-century world market had been organized. It appears that sectarianism was at least modestly encouraged by this shifting of the gears in the world economy. Finally, the curvilinear relation with other schisms suggests a modified. contagion effect: a few schisms tend to adapt to whatever strains have been present in the environment, but after this a larger number of schisms generates an exponential increase in the likelihood of further schisms. Thus, during times of instability from economic downturns or other environmental strains, schisms are likely to become producers of further schisms, causing more turbulence in religious organizations than might be predicted otherwise.

These, of course, are highly speculative arguments. To be more credible, data on schisms in other societies and in other time periods would also be necessary. To the extent that they are valid, though, they suggest some of the ways in which religious establishments in the United States may have been affected by changing features of the broader world order during the twentieth century. Further population increase is likely to produce more schisms if denominations continue to grow in size. And a major downturn in the economy could witness a new round of sectarian splinter groups.


A second illustration comes from considering the effects of rising levels of education on American religion since World War II. Rising levels of education, as we know, have had a number of serious consequences for American religion, both direct and indirect. There is an education gap in styles of religious commitment now that was not present as recently as the late 1950s. The better educated are less likely to participate in religious services regularly, less likely to believe literally in the Bible, more likely to have experimented with new religious movements, more likely to support social activism among clergy, and more likely to favor relativistic and androgynous images of God. A major shouting match, as we know, has also developed between religious liberals and religious conservatives, the two sides taking widely differing positions not only on theological orientations but also on social and political issues, and holding strongly negative views toward the other. Differences in levels of education are one of the strongest predictors of the cleavage between these two groups.11

The effects of higher education on religious orientations can be interpreted entirely at the social-psychological level or within the context of American society by itself. But what were the less proximate forces behind this rapid expansion in higher education? To answer that question, it becomes useful to bring in arguments about changes in world order. Specifically, a very rapid expansion in higher education in the United States took place during the 1 960s, and it did so not by some strange magic in the modernization process itself but as a result of conscious planning and huge outlays by the federal government. Why was the federal government suddenly interested in higher education? A major reason was the Cold War, and particularly the space race that developed with the Russians in the late 1950s. A second reason was that an increasing share of U.S. trade in the world economy after World War II came to be concentrated in high-technology industries. A tertiary reason had to do with scaling down the armed forces after World War II and keeping veterans out of the labor force until it could expand sufficiently to absorb them. And beyond the sheer rate of expansion in higher education during the sixties, the fact that it took place when it did was extremely consequential. It took place during the buildup of the war in Vietnam, which in turn signaled a major realignment of world power between the U.S. and the Soviet Union and China. In short, education was the proximate cause of religious change, but the timing of its expansion was closely linked with broader changes in world order.

The other example I wish to mention in this context concerns the effects of government activity on church membership. Clifford Nass and I have demonstrated a significant negative relation between government expenditures and rates of Protestant church membership in 1950 and 1980, taking states as the unit of analysis.12 This effect appears to hold when other factors influencing church membership, such as religious composition, urbanization, region, and migration, are held constant. Over this period, government expenditures tripled, even taking account of inflation.


But was this increase simply the result of willy-nilly policies by spendthrift administrators? Or does it need to be understood in some broader context?

It was not simply a function of rising military and defense costs, because we excluded those from our analysis. Rather, it was largely the result of the federal government shouldering increased responsibilities for entitlement programs such as Social Security payments and workmen’s compensation, for education, and for infrastructural services such as roads and hospitals. Government involvement in such activities has, however, been a global phenomenon, at least among advanced industrial societies. Partly it has been a function of imitation, beginning in the nineteenth century with Bismarck’s social welfare programs in Germany, and partly it has been prompted by international economic competition, again starting in the nineteenth century, with national governments playing an increasing role in regulating and promoting all forms of economic activity.

A Focus on Alternative Interpretations

As these examples suggest, world-order perspectives can be useful in understanding changes in religious establishments even when more proximate factors provide the most parsimonious accounts. The third possibility I want to focus on is that a global perspective may actually force us to interpret phenomena in a different way. The issue here is not one of gaining a broader understanding of what is going on but of seeing that things may not have been what they seemed.

Let me illustrate this use of world-order theory with reference, first, to several examples that have nothing to do with religion but provide striking evidence of how one may be forced to draw new conclusions. An example from European history concerns the development and institutionalization of modern science in the seventeenth century. The fact that science flourished at all in this period is puzzling, for sociologists from Weber to the present have generally argued that decentralized political conditions are most conducive to intellectual innovation, and yet the seventeenth century was the great age of absolutism. To make sense of this anomaly, sociologists and social historians did comparative studies — studies that tended to put England in a favorable light compared with France and thus could be reconciled with received wisdom by pointing out that England was less absolutist than France, benefited from the Puritan work ethic, and so on. The only problem with this approach was that France, by most standards, had a pretty respectable showing in science as well.

Viewing Europe as a larger social entity — as a world system — provides a better solution. From this perspective, France and England (along with some of the German states) occupied structurally similar positions at the core of the world economy, and scientists themselves migrated back and forth, joined scientific academies as international members, carried on a brisk correspondence with other scientists across the Continent, and, when political pressures came, simply moved on (or threatened to move on) to more favorable contexts. From this broader perspective, Europe was in fact a decentralized polity of the kind that other theories predicted would be conducive to scientific development.

A more contemporary example comes from research on the effects of international relations on economic development. Both classical economic theory and more recent variants of modernization theory have predicted that international trade has a positive effect on economic development in Third World countries. It opens markets, provides jobs, encourages capital investment, and creates a more favorable trade balance. Viewed from the standpoint of individual societies, these arguments seemed to make sense. Third World countries would eventually become more modern, just like Europe and North America had, as they participated in industry and commerce.

When these relations began to be viewed from a more global or systemic perspective, though, other arguments rose to the surface. Part of the reason Europe and North America were modern, it was argued, was that they exploited the raw materials and cheap labor of the Third World. More international trade for the Third World meant being drawn into the world economy as a dependent partner. Resources actually flowed out of the country, rather than in, and the development of an export economy often proved disadvantageous for achieving a balanced and strong domestic economy. Much like the disadvantaged person who is forced into a workfare program and as a result fails ever to gain any marketable skills, Third World countries suffered rather than benefited from incorporation into the world economy. At least this was the argument, and some empirical research has supported it, although the final verdict is by no means in.13.

How might a shift in perspective of this kind lead to new ideas about the functioning of religious establishments? The dependent development case actually has a close parallel in religion. At the same time that policy analysts began rethinking the effects of foreign trade, religious leaders began to question standard assumptions about the role of foreign missionaries. Earlier arguments had presumed that carrying Christianity to the Third World was a good thing not only spiritually but culturally as well. Indigenous peoples would learn Western values, become literate, and eventually modernize their own countries. With nationalist and anticolonial movements, however, these assumptions came into question. As a result, the missionary efforts of most mainline denominations in the United States have been scaled back considerably. Evangelical and fundamentalist mission agencies have grown in proportion, while mainline bodies have focused more on assisting indigenous ministries, supplying social services, lobbying for social justice through political channels, and even turning the cultural conduit around by sponsoring reverse missionary programs.14 Viewed from only the American context, it appears that mainstream Protestantism has suffered a serious decline in its missionary efforts. Viewed from a world order perspective, the decline may be less serious than it would otherwise appear.

A second example involving religion comes from thinking about America’s position in the world economy over the past half century or so. How we perceive ourselves as a nation plays an important role in shaping the content of what has been called our civil religion, and our civil religion in turn influences what we think of our churches and what we feel they should be doing. One interpretation of America’s position has focused on its exceptionalism — its deep (or at least widespread) religiosity, its affluence, its democratic traditions. In this view, America has been the leader of the so-called free world, flying higher and moving faster than all its allies, pulling them along, and protecting them from communism. This perspective is not exactly unmindful of international realities, but it primarily takes a diachronic view of history: at one point, the Roman Empire dominated; more recently, the British empire; and now, the United States. Its religious implications coincide well with arguments about American millennialism and the relation between religion and national strength. Our ascendancy is often associated with the Christian heritage in popular discourse, and evidence of economic or military stagnation is referred to in rhetoric calling for deeper commitment to the churches.

The alternative view is more synchronic. It emphasizes the multilateral nature of contemporary world order rather than American hegemony. If the United States emerged from World War II as leader of the free world, this view suggests, it nevertheless emerged with partnership commitments to Western Europe and Japan and in competition with a strong Soviet bloc. In this scenario, core power in the contemporary world has remained divided to a much greater extent than it was, say, during the nineteenth century under British rule. At least three implications follow for the analysis of American religion. First, the qualities of American civil religion must be seen in terms of their boundary posturing functions in relation to other dominant world powers. That is, civil religion not only reflects our past and serves (as Durkheim might have argued) to promote domestic cohesion but also serves to differentiate us from our competitors and buttress our identity within the wider global culture. Second, we must understand and emphasize the universalistic aspects of American civil religion in order to reckon with the pluralism of world power; we cannot assume that American culture is simply generalizable to the rest of the world. And third, religious establishments are likely to be influenced more by the placement of their constituencies in relation to the heterarchic structure of world order than by simple upswings or downswings in the American economy.

This last point needs greater explication. In an upswing-downswing scenario, the fate of religious establishments, it is likely to be argued, will depend chiefly on the countercyclical functions of religious compensations. During downswings, fundamentalist commitment is likely to grow; during upswings, liberal religion and/or secular humanism is more likely to grow. There is, incidentally, little convincing evidence that either supports or refutes these arguments.

In the multilateral world power scenario, a dual economy is envisioned: one part depends more on domestic markets, autarky, and protectionism; the other part depends more on international markets, stable diplomatic relations, and free trade. The composition of these two sectors, of course, varies constantly, as does the relative prosperity Of the two, because of shifting currency rates and foreign competition. Nevertheless, sociopolitical attitudes are likely to be rooted in one set of interests or the other. And modes of religious identification will at least partly reflect these attitudes and interests as well.

For example, sectors of the population whose prosperity is linked to protectionist, domestic, or autarkic policies may well emphasize traditional morality, American particularism, and the localistic-familial values of Protestant fundamentalism. Specific groups in this sector might include the petit bourgeoisie or small merchant class, farmers (insofar as protection against foreign competitors and government policies aimed at selling freely in protected overseas markets are relevant), members of the military, and those who work in threatened industries such as steel production and heavy manufacturing. In contrast, sectors of the population linked to international trade, occupying a dominant position in world markets, and depending on open diplomatic channels might well find themselves more in sympathy with lower defense budgets, higher education outlays, cosmopolitan values, and liberal religious institutions whose theologies favor universalism and whose moral teachings favor relativism and discretion. Specific groups in this sector might include scientists, employees of multinational corporations and the international service sector, artists, media and entertainment specialists, and those with advantageous levels of education.

Little has been done to test these ideas either, it should be noted. But they would buttress the argument that the important development in American religion in recent decades has not been simply the rise or decline in religion generally or the relative rise of fundamentalism and the relative decline of liberal mainline institutions but rather the consistent and widening gap between liberalism and conservatism itself. Neither side is so consistently related to America’s position in the larger world economy that its progress depends on the policies of a particular administration. For example, religious conservatism during the 1980s may have grown partly through reinforcement from a regime that championed a strong military defense, the protection of domestic markets through low taxes and limited social services, and the values of small-town America, even though this same administration was also firmly committed to free trade and international markets.

The point, though, is that both sectors are integral features of the American economy, and the multilateral shape of the world order is such that it necessitates continuous realignments of policies favoring one or the ocher. The religious orientations associated with the two, therefore, are each likely to gain periodic reinforcement from government, and, at the same time, divisions of opinion in the wider policy arena are likely to reinforce the tensions between these orientations.


Clearly, more research needs to be done to assess the merits of arguments such as these. But more theorizing is also needed to guide this research. How we think about world order, and how we view the United States’ position in the world order, will greatly affect the kind of theorizing we do.

It also bears mentioning, in closing, that the gains from thinking about religion from a broader global perspective accrue not only to the academic researcher in pursuit of recondite problems to study but also to the practitioner of religion and to those whose interest in world affairs resides simply at the level of informed citizen. They do so partly by tempering the ways in which we think about assertions that frequent the public realm. These assertions often do not differ markedly from the kinds of theoretical and explanatory arguments prevalent in the social science literature, but they serve as rhetorical appeals aimed at shaping the way we think about our world, the ways we vote, and the policies we support.

For example, the arguments advanced by public officials, and especially by candidates during political elections, often invoke causal statements aimed at influencing our assessments of public responsibility, and these assessments in turn influence how we think and vote. Indirectly they also support or conflict with the positions taken by our religious leaders. When Republicans, for instance, damn Democratic leaders for high prices and inflation, some individuals may be led to blame the Democratic Party and vote Republican despite misgivings about Republican preferences for the wealthy at the expense of the poor. Others may dismiss the Republican assertion, attributing high prices and inflation during the 1970s to the turmoil in the Middle East rather than the Democratic administration. Similarly, when Democrats take credit for promoting higher education through tuition credits and payback plans, some will dismiss their rhetoric, recognizing the pressures that world affairs place on both parties to advance science and technology. There is no simple relation between this kind of analysis and one’s political or religious preferences, but it does provide a broader context in which to speculate about responsibilities and the constraints of social circumstances.

The other practical implication comes from recognizing that responsibility itself is closely linked to the ways in which we understand sovereign authority, and our understandings of authority are closely linked to ways of experiencing the divine. When there is no higher authority than man, it has been said, man becomes God. Similarly, when there is no sense of any unit more powerful than the nation, national sovereignty becomes divine. But when individual and national authority are understood — and relativized — in the context of social relations that affect all of humanity, then a broader, more encompassing, and even more transcendent sense of the sacred becomes necessary. This sense of the sacred may encompass nothing more than a triumphal vision of humanity itself. But it may also point toward a sacred dimension that is even more powerful than the global order we have inherited.


                           END NOTES

1.                  Anthony J. Blasi and Michael W. Cuneo, Issues in the Sociology of Religion: A Bibliography (New York: Garland, 1986).

2.                  Peter Worsley, The Trumpet Shall Sound: A Study of Cargo Cults in Melanesia (London: MacGibbon & Kee, 1957); Bryan R. Wilson, Magic and the Millennium (London: Herder & Herder, 1973).

3.                  Hanson, The Catholic Church in World Politics (Princeton: Princeton Uni­versity Press, 1987).

4.                  See especially Immanuel Wallerstein, The Modern World-System: Capitalist Agriculture and the Origins of the European World-Economy in the Sixteenth Century (New York: Academic Press, 1974). For a brief critical overview, see Charles Ragin and Daniel Chirot, “The World System of Immanuel Wallerstein: Sociology and Politics as History,” in Vision and Method in Historical Sociology, ed. Theda Skocpol (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1984), pp. 276-312.

5.                  James Davison Hunter is currently engaged in research examining these changes in the United States, Germany, and Great Britain.

6.                  For a useful empirical study on the sources of religious individualism that is sensitive to questions of world order, see George M. Thomas, Revivalism and Cultural Change: Christianity, Nation Building, and the Market in the Nineteenth-Century United States (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

7.                  For a useful historical study, see Ben Primer, Protestants and American Business Methods (Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979). On the relations between rationality in government and rationality in religion during the Protestant Reformation, see my Communities of Discourse: Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Socialism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989), especially chap. 4.

8.                  See Aaron Benavot, David Kamens, Suk-Ying Wong, and Yun-Kyung Cha, “World Culture and the Curricular Content of National Education Systems: 1920-198 5,” paper presented at the annual meetings of the American Sociological Association, Atlanta, August 1988.

9.                  See Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982).

10.              See Robert C. Liebman, John R. Sutton, and Robert Wuthnow, “Exploring the Social Sources of Denominationalism: Schisms in American Protestant Denominations, 189O-1980,’~ American SociologicalReview 53 (1988): 343-52. Some additional findings are given in John R. Sutton, Robert Wuthnow, and Robert C. Liebman, “Organizational Foundings: Schisms in American Protestant Denominations, 1890-1980,” paper presented at the 1988 meetings of the American Sociological Association in Atlanta, Georgia. Copies of these and subsequent papers can be obtained from John R. Sutton, Department of Sociology, University of California, Santa Barbara, California.

11.              For a more detailed discussion of this point, see my book The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).

12.              See Robert Wuthnow and Clifford Nass, “Government Activity and Civil Privatism: Evidence from Voluntary Church Membership,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 27 (1988): 157-74.

13.              See especially Christopher Chase-Dunn, “The Effects of International Economic Dependence on Development and Inequality: A Cross-National Study,” American Sociological Review 40 (1975): 720-38.

14.              Some evidence of these changes is given by W. Richie Hogg in “The Role of American Protestantism in World Missions,” in American Missions in Bicentennial Perspective, ed. R. Pierce Beaver (South Pasadena, Calif.: William Carey  Library, 1977), pp. 354-502.



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