Reflections of an Ecclesiastical Expatriate

by Peter Berger

For several decades sociologist Peter Berger has been one of the most interesting writers on religion and modern society. Perhaps best known for his text on the sociology of religion,The Sacred Canopy, Berger has also shown a keen interest in issues of development and public policy and in the nature of religious belief in the modern world, as evident in A Far Glory: The Question of Faith in an Age of Credulity (1992) and in his most recent book, Redeeming Laughter: The Comic Dimension of Human Experience. For the past 12 years he has been on the faculty of Boston University and director of B U’s Institute for the Study of Economic Culture.

This article appeared in The Christian Century October 24, l990, pp. 964-969. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.


Berger describes how the mainline Protestant churches have continued to be the home-of-choice for the middle class, but how this cultural captivity is also one of the reasons for the decline of these same mainline denominations.

Every ten years, it seems, the editors of the CHRISTIAN CENTURY ask me to write a piece on how my mind has changed. At first I'm pleased: Those people in Chicago still remember me; what is more, they apparently think their readers would still be interested in my ideas. Then, after this first flush of. self-indulgent gratification, the request takes on a slightly threatening quality. One disturbing thought obtrudes: Have I really developed my intellectual position in an interesting way during the past decade? For as long as I can remember, the CHRISTIAN CENTURY has been the principal forum for mainline Protestantism; yet that is a world completely foreign to me at this point, a world that, despite its continuing importance in my own society, barely attracts my attention and is nearly irrelevant to my ongoing concerns. This is a disturbing and puzzling observation. It stopped me short and forced me to reflect.

I encountered this world of the mainline almost immediately upon coming to America not long after World War II. I was young, very poor, European and Lutheran, and wartime desperations had shaped my social and religious sensibilities. America constituted an immense liberation from all this, a deeply satisfying experience of normality. The Protestant world I met fully represented the same normality. It was thoroughly identified with American culture, sensible, tolerant, far removed from the Kierkegaardian extremism that had up to then defined Christianity for me. It is hardly surprising that I had difficulties coming to terms with it.

While I could not accept the religio-cultural amalgam of the mainline churches, I found an ecclesiastical home right away in what was then the United Lutheran Church in America. It met both my religious and social needs. To be sure, the ULCA at that time was very much an American institution, and as such it partook of American normality (which, much later, as a sociologist, I would call the "OK world" of middle-class America). It was not a locale for desperate leaps of faith. However, it was sufficiently and clearly enough Lutheran to remain distinct from the pervasive Kulturprotestantismus of the other mainline churches. As one participated in its services enough "otherness" was present to assure one that what was being worshiped was not simply the goodness of the American way of life. While I was prepared to affirm the goodness of America, .I was not prepared to worship it or to equate its morality with Christian faith. After all these years, it seems to me I was quite correct in making this distinction.

The ULCA has disappeared, as has most if not all that was distinct in its successor denominations. Recently a cult of denigration has replaced the celebration of America, and various fashionable fanaticisms (all of them political rather than religious) have reduced the easygoing tolerance of that earlier period. But, curiously, what has not changed at all is the underlying principle of every variety of culture-religion: that the churches should reflect the moral concerns of their social milieu; even more, that the faithfulness of this reflexivity is the criterion by which the legitimacy of the churches' role must be judged. This principle can survive, and in this case has survived, even radical changes in the culture. I continue to believe, as I did those many years ago, that this principle is false and that it violates the very core of Christian faith.

It is always easier to perceive differences than continuities. Indeed, at first glance the differences between mainline Protestantism in the 1950s and the 1980s appear dramatic. The appearance is not deceptive. John Murray Cuddihy has written eloquently on the "Protestant smile," the certain sourire} of ingenuous niceness that he rightly saw as a sacrament of American civility. This smile still exists in many places, both inside and outside the mainline churches, but is much less evident on the public face of American Protestantism. That face now has a set and sour mien, an expression of permanent outrage. A Protestant scowl has replaced the Protestant smile. Feminism more than anything else has set this tone in recent years. This grimly humorless ideology has established itself as an unquestioned orthodoxy throughout the mainline churches. A newcomer to American Protestantism today would hardly be struck by an atmosphere of easygoing tolerance.

One of my first jobs after coming to this country was as an office boy in the headquarters of the Methodist Church, which was then on lower Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. I vividly recall walking down long corridors and looking through open doors into the offices: almost every office was occupied by a formidable looking woman (I have been puzzled by the charge that American Protestantism was a patriarchate; what impressed me then was how very feminized it was). Almost every one of these women was smiling..

I didn't quite trust the Protestant smile, though I found it agreeable enough. I tried to understand it. Though my reasons for taking up sociology of religion in particular were somewhat more complicated, decoding the Protestant smile was one of my early preoccupations. The result of this intellectual effort was my first publication, The Noise of Solemn Assemblies. The book came out in 1961 and attracted a certain amount of attention at the time; I still think it was a fairly adequate piece of analysis.

What has happened since those days of smiling Protestantism has been an essentially simple process, one that holds no sociological mysteries. It has been the working-out of two sociologically well-known forces, those of class and of bureaucracy. I have written elsewhere at great length about this development, but a brief restatement is in order.

Mainline Protestantism has always been in a symbiotic relationship with the middle-class culture, which is to a large extent its own historical product (after all, it is this type of Protestantism that has been a crucially important factor in the formation of American bourgeois civilization) and that continues to be its social context. In the 1950s mainline Protestant churches reflected the middle-class culture and constituted a sort of social establishment within it. Put sociologically, the principal function of these churches was to legitimate the middle-class culture of America, to certify that the latter was indeed "OK." The omnipresence of the national flag in churches (which at first shocked me) was a fitting symbol of this legitimating function. Once again it should be stressed that nothing is intrinsically pejorative about this understanding of the American church-society relationship. To the extent that one approves of the traditional middle-class values (by and large, I did), one will not necessarily be offended by their being religiously legitimated.

The offense, if any, is theological rather than moral. One will be offended theologically if one believes that the Christian faith must never be identified with any culture, not even with a culture that one finds morally acceptable or even admirable. America, despite its many faults, has been a remarkable moral experiment in human history; but America is not and never can be the kingdom of God. In other words, the key issue here is the transcendence of Christian faith: the kingdom of God is not of this world, and any attempt to make it so undermines the very foundation of the gospel.

What has changed is not the symbiotic church-society relationship of mainline Protestantism; rather, what has changed is the character of the society, more specifically of the middle-class society and culture that is the natural habitat of the Protestant churches. This change is, more or less accurately, formulated by the so-called New Class hypothesis. In America (and, incidentally, in all other advanced capitalist societies) the middle class has split. Whereas previously there was one (though internally stratified) middle class, there now are two middle classes (also internally stratified). There is the old middle class, the traditional bourgeoisie, centered in the business community and the old professions. But there is also a new middle class, based on the production and distribution of symbolic knowledge, whose members are the increasingly large number of people occupied with education, the media of mass communication; therapy in all its forms, the advocacy and administration of well-being, social justice and personal lifestyles. Many of these people are on the public payroll, employed in all the bureaucracies of the modern welfare, redistributive and regulatory state; many others, while working in private-sector institutions, are heavily dependent on state subsidies. This new middle class, inevitably, has strong, vested interests; equally inevitably, it has developed its own subculture. In. other words, as is the case with every rising class (Marx has taught this well), what is at work here is a combination of class interest and class culture.

The class interest, within the political spectrum of Western democracies, is on the left; in America this means "liberal," in current terminology. The reason for this is extraordinarily simple. This class has a vital interest in the maintenance and expansion of those state expenditures on which its social existence depends. Put differently, its class interest is in government rather than in the market, in redistribution rather than production of societal wealth. The old middle class, for equally simple reasons, has opposing interests. Therefore. it tends toward the political right; in America, this constitutes a "conservative" tendency. These interests, of course, are rarely, stated as such in public political rhetorics. Class interests are presented as general interests. Business people continue to believe, mutatis mutandis, that "what is good for General Motors is good for America"; the new middle-class professionals, no doubt with equal sincerity, believe that the "reordering of national priorities" that guarantees their privileges benefits the poor, the underclass or whatever other morally acceptable beneficiary can be plausibly cited. Whether or not these respective class interests represent these more general social goods is an empirical question that has little to do with public legitimation.

Class interest and class culture are never related in a perfectly functional manner. There were good functional reasons why the rising bourgeoisie emphasized the virtues of frugality and literacy; it would be hard to detect a comparable functionality in the particular manners and canons of aesthetic taste that came to be associated with bourgeois culture. However, while there is a degree of randomness in the manner by which a class acquires its cultural accoutrements, once acquired the latter. do fulfill an important function. Members of a class can now recognize each other -- sniff each other out -- by means of the institutionalized cultural signals. Clothes, table manners, speech and expressed opinions serve to identify individuals for purposes of inclusion and exclusion. Once more, this is particularly important for a rising class, which has not yet firmly established its societal footing. This goes for the corporate dining room as it does for the faculty .club; in each case, the cultural signals are known and quite easily recognized. As the new middle class took on a visible shape in the '60s its cultural signals too became known and recognizable. This new middle class identified itself, logically enough, as not being the old middle-class culture. "Bourgeois" became a negative word. Logically again, the new middle-class culture understood itself as "emancipatory" or "liberating" as against the traditional bourgeois virtues. Strictly speaking, it was just that. The break was most visible in the areas of sexual .and gender behavior, but it was by no means limited to 'these.

There was, however, one big difference between this and earlier rising classes. Much of the new middle class is actually in the business of culture, is in control of many of the institutions that produce and disseminate cultural symbols, notably in the educational system and the communication media. In consequence the new middle class has cultural clout enormously larger than one might expect from its relatively modest numbers and financial resources (the latter are considerable, but still modest when compared to the economic might of the business community). This evaluation explains many of the political successes of the new middle class, whose values and views continue to represent

a minority of the population. What is more, because of this control over the cultural apparatus, the new middle class has successfully infiltrated its "class enemy" with many of its own ideas, agendas and lifestyles. The business community, by contrast, is culturally passive and inept as it has always been The "thinkers" are elsewhere. As to the working class, it has always been the weakest party in the drama of bourgeois cultural imperialism. It resists where it can by using its sheer numbers in the democratic process and by a sort of sullen sabotage of the agendas of its "betters," but it lacks the cultural know-how by which an effective resistance could be mounted. Thus there has been an inequality in the cultural battles of recent decades; the new middle class has generally been on the offensive. Of course, this does not mean that it always wins. Its agenda has been restrained by the democracy, by the inertia and slow pace of the law, and by the dynamics of capitalism. Nevertheless, with good reason the values and views of this class have been perceived as the wave of the future, which others may resist or slow down, but which they must somehow adjust to.

Organized religion is a cultural institution par excellence; it would have been surprising indeed. if it had not been drawn into the Kulturkampf. The mainline Protestant churches were sucked into it from the beginning. Inevitably, they reflected the cultural break lines, and with a vengeance. In not a single denomination, of course, are members of the new middle class a majority. But the clergy and the officials of the mainline churches belong to the new middle class by virtue of their education, their associations and their "reference group." It is here that the dynamics of bureaucracy took over from the dynamics of class. The former reflects what Roberto Michels called the "iron law of oligarchy" -- the ability of a bureaucracy to maintain itself even against the will of a majority of constituents and their elected representatives. In denomination after denomination, people who represented the new culture took over the bureaucratic machinery and thus the public face of the community. Bishops and other traditional authorities were unable to understand let alone to stop this process. As to the laity, contrary to what some observers expected, it did not put up a fight either. Few people in mainline churches want to invest time and energy in ecclesiastical infighting; this is not why they go to church. Instead, laypeople voted with their pocketbooks and their feet: they reduced their contributions and, in large numbers, they left. As a result, all the mainline churches have been suffering from both a fiscal and a demographic hemorrhage. Both conditions are still critical, though one may expect them to stabilize at some point. Likely, a residue of denominational loyalty by some plus an adherence to the new values by others will ensure that none of these churches will disappear completely. What is more, because these churches so conform to the prevailing elite culture, the general public will continue to perceive them as the mainline.

To a considerable extent the evangelical resurgence since the mid-1970s developed as a "resistance movement" against the new culture. Its clientele has been mainly lower-middle-and working-class, relatively uneducated, heavily provincial. Through its size, evangelicalism has been able to achieve a number of political and ecclesiastical successes (such as in the role of the new Christian right in some recent elections or in the takeover of the Southern Baptist Convention). All the same, here too the cultural battle is unequal. These communities, even more than business, lack the institutions and the know-how to mount an effective cultural resistance. Their very social and political successes are their undoing. as they are sucked into the ambience of the national culture. As James Davison Hunter has. shown, the values of the other side are growing within evangelical Protestantism in exact measure as its members become better educated and upwardly mobile. And as recent survey data suggest, the growth of evangelicalism has. been the result of demography, not conversion: Southern Baptists have more children than Episcopalians, and disgruntled Episcopalians are more likely to become unchurched than to become evangelicals. The net gain of the emigration of mainline Protestants from their churches is, therefore, likely to accrue to secularization rather than to evangelicalism. As to the Roman Catholic community, it has been buffeted by the same social and cultural forces, especially since Vatican II (probably inevitably) greatly weakened the institutional defenses against the overall culture. Here too the "iron law of oligarchy" has been brilliantly in evidence, much to the bewilderment of the bishops. There are, of course, two important differences as against Protestantism. The Roman Catholic Church is an international and an authoritarian organization. Both its internationalism and its authoritarianism have. also been weakened by the post-Vatican II reforms, but, they are still enough of a reality to make it unlikely that American Roman Catholicism will lose its distinctiveness in the way that, for example, American Lutheranism did in the wake of the recent merger.

To return to mainline Protestantism, the sociological picture is quite clear. Its churches are dwindling in numbers, but their allegiance to the ascendant middle-class culture will probably guarantee their continued public role. This culture is highly secularized. The mainline churches will thus contribute in a double way to the secularization of America--by legitimating a set of highly secularized values and by contributing to the unchurched population through its emigrants. The public face of these churches will continue to be shaped by an officialdom that faithfully reflects the interests and the culture of the new middle class. The former are likely to be fairly stable -- interests are more perduring than cultural fashions -- and thus the political orientation of these churches will continue to be liberal. The ideological expressions of these interests, though, are likely to vary even while, broadly speaking, they remain left-leaning. It is likely that the worldwide collapse of socialism will moderate some of the more extreme leftist sentiments in these quarters (though there is always some unlikely Third World country that these people will look to as, at long last, embodying "true socialism").

At the moment, as previously mentioned, feminism is now the prevailing orthodoxy. , which is why "inclusive language" (which serves to stigmatize and exclude those who dissent from the orthodoxy) is pushed with such vehemence. Environmentalism and other forms of Green ideology may catch up. And other, though as yet invisible, doctrines and movements may come to command center stage. What is most unlikely to change is the underlying structure of these cultural interactions: the ideologies and agendas of the churches all originate outside them; the churches play a basically passive role in the cultural drama, as receptors and disseminators rather than as initiators; they "read the signs of the times." It does not seem to occur to them that they might write them. In all of this, the church-society and church-culture relationships of mainline Protestantism have not changed at all from the situation I described in The Noise of Solemn Assemblies. Now, as then, these are middle-class institutions, legitimating middle-class interests and values. It just happens that the American middle class has changed. The "assemblies" are the same, if you will (and more ."solemn" than ever); the "noise," to be sure, has changed.

Sociological understanding is a far cry from. moral and theological assessment. Morally, the new middle-class culture is a mixed bag, as was the old middle-class culture and indeed every human culture this side of the kingdom. There is a strong continuity between the two cultures in their self-righteousness and their propensity to engage in potentially fanatical crusades; these are morally unattractive features indeed. The new middle class, I would argue, has a number of morally positive features, especially in its attitudes toward race and toward ethnic or other cultural differences; it is a racially and ethnically tolerant culture, and this is good. I would also agree, up to a point, with its self-assessment as a liberating force against the overly repressive features of an earlier bourgeois culture.. I agree that a certain measure of hedonism was a good thing to inject into American middle-class Puritanism, and the latter's sexual mores were, indeed a bit oppressive (though not at all as oppressive as the would-be liberators pretended). In this context one should make special, mention of the earlier attitudes toward homosexuals. One need not subscribe to all the rewriting of history by the gay movement to agree that the treatment of homosexuality in Anglo-Saxon Protestant culture was barbaric; the change has on, the whole been for the better. On the negative side of the ledger one must., charge the new middle-class culture with. a formidable list of moral aberrations, such as the mindless endorsement of far-way tyrannies or. terrorist movements as long as these could be thought of as being "on the right side, of history,". the equally mindless endorsement of all types of domestic radical isms from the Black Panthers to Greenpeace, the insouciant acceptance of millions of abortions as simply an expression of the right to choose, not to mention the other (less tangible) damage done to many lives by the brashs social engineering of new middle-class professionals (for instance. in education.) The old bourgeoisie was by no means the wonderful world that conservatives nostalgically make it out to be; the new bourgeoisie, in my opinion, is even less wonderful. In terms of what the churches have been legitimating, there has been a considerable degree of moral slip- page.

Theologically, if one momentarily brackets the moral question, I see no difference between the old situation and the new. In both cases there has been an all-too-easy identification of Christian faith with sets of secular values and secular agendas. This was a distortion of the gospel then, as it is a distortion now. Needless to say, the distortion becomes even more disturbing if one removes the moral brackets: Making the American flag into a quasi-sacramental object is offensive; doing the same with the banner of this or that movement of murderous totalitarianism is loathsome. Yet one must always be cognizant that at no moment in its two millennia of history has the Christian church been free of such aberrations and distortions. It would be extraordinarily ahistorical to ascribe some special propensity toward apostasy to present-day churches. The gravity with which one views the present situation will also depend on one's ecclesiology. The question is how seriously one takes the public face of the churches. I'm unsure about this.

I'm well aware that in many hundreds of local congregations the gospel is being effectively preached, the sacraments are being reverently administered, people are praying and getting answers to their prayers, and the sick, the. sorrowful and the dying are being consoled -- and all this without any regard for the busy activities and pronouncements emanating from national headquarters.. I find this reflection, comforting, especially as I know a few such congregations. My comfort is disturbed, however, when I reflect further that the same could have been said about many local parishes at the time of the Borgias and this could have suggested that the Reformation was a .totally unnecessary exercise. The public face of the churches does matter because the Christian church, by its very mission, must be a public institution. Christianity, as we frequently hear, is not just a personal, private affair. It constitutes a community, which has a historical and a social location. National headquarters matter, and they .must be taken seriously -- perhaps more seriously than they take themselves, for it is the face of Christ that is being publicly distorted.

The church will survive until the Lord returns. In its ,worship today -- even where that worship is weak or warped -- the church participates in the eternal liturgy of all creation. Nothing can change this. The historical course of any particular Christian community, such as that of mainline Protestantism, is of only limited significance in that perspective. For a Christian this is a reassuring thought: it puts all mundane concerns in proportion; it encourages one to follow one's own vocation and leave all outcomes to the Lord of history

My own vocation is in the world; I try to exercise it responsibly. The developments in mainline Protestantism discussed here, and more especially the developments within the Lutheran community, have made me ecclesiastically homeless. I don't relish this condition; I can live with it. This need be of no particular interest to others, except for one observation: Despite various unique ' aspects of my own biography, my problems in this matter are not unique. I consider myself theologically liberal, at least in the sense that I would find it quite impossible to move into any branch of evangelicalism and almost as impossible to move toward Rome. At the same time, for carefully weighed reasons (almost all of them based on my understanding of the world as a social scientist), I cannot give assent to the left-liberal-liberationist politics that has become monopolistically established in non- evangelical Protestantism. In the latter milieu, in most places, someone like me can only be, at best, tolerated and marginalized. People like me are many. They find themselves stranded between two equally unacceptable fundamentalisms, the one theological, the other moral and political. This is obviously uncomfortable for them, but it also offers little comfort for anyone with responsibility for the future of American Protestantism.

I have not exactly fulfilled my. assignment; I have not reported on how my mind has changed in the past decade. In my business I must come up with hypotheses all the time, many of which are subsequently falsified by the empirical evidence. Changing one's mind as a social scientist is both an occupational hazard and a point of professional honor. Perhaps I can rise to the assignment by one final observation. Ten years ago or so I believed the re was a good chance that a group of committed individuals might yet reverse the Babylonian captivity to the Zeitgeist of contemporary Protestant Christendom. I see no evidence of such a turn. At least speaking sociologically., then, I have changed my mind about that. Speaking theologically, of course, such an assessment provides no alibi for giving up. Sociology cannot predict the movements of the Holy Spirit. All we can do is to follow our callings.