The Class Struggle in American Religion

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, February 25, 1981, pp. 194-199. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


If one says of a particular political position that it and no other is the will of God, one is implicitly excommunicating those who disagree. The effortless linkage between reactionary religion and reactionary politics is most troubling, especially in terms of an aggressive and at least potentially bellicose nationalism.

The fanatical mullahs have been let loose in the land, this land. They travel all across America in the flesh; even more alarmingly, they fill the air with the electronic projections of their presence. They are not a monolithic group, to be sure, and some seem more threatening than others. What they have in common is that unity of religious and political certitude which, despite all the ideological differences, is uncomfortably reminiscent of the fanaticism unleashed by Muslim fundamentalists.

Leave aside for the moment such endearing theological opinions as the one that God refuses to accept the prayers of those outside one particular congregation of certitude -- an expression not so much of anti-Semitism, one would guess, as of a peculiarly electronic conception of the divinity: "Sorry, sir, this number is unlisted." More relevant to the present considerations is the mind-blowing specificity of the messages received from the great switchboard in the sky by these people: God is against Salt II but for the MX missile. God is for prayer in the public schools but against ERA. And so on.

Flag-Wavers and Flag-Burners

One does not have to believe that the country is about to be taken over by enragé Southern Baptists to be alarmed by the recent upsurge of the Christian right. Theologically, the terrible simplicities of this neo-fundamentalism must be disturbing to anyone with more complicated notions of God’s interventions in the human condition. Politically, what is most troubling is the effortless linkage between reactionary religion and reactionary politics, especially in terms of an aggressive and at least potentially bellicose nationalism. Flag-waving preachers are always disturbing; they become truly frightening in an age of nuclear weapons. The alarm provoked by the Christian New Right, then, is not unreasonable.

Inevitably, however, the religio-political extravaganza on the right has reminded fair-minded observers of the comparable extravaganza on the left -- a phenomenon which, far from having been laid to rest with the late 1960s, is still going full blast and has even been institutionalized in important agencies of mainline religion in this country. Inevitably, one must ask by what criteria one deems good the pronouncements of left-of-center geese while condemning the preachments of right-of-center ganders. This question is, of course, at least in part a constitutional one. If it was wrong for the Internal Revenue Service to make threatening noises against church groups opposing the Vietnam war, then it would be wrong for the Federal Communications Commission to start harassing broadcasters for airing the political views of another set of church groups. But the issue is much deeper than the proper relations of church and state in the American democracy, important though these are. The issue touches on fundamental questions about Christians acting in the world, and ultimately it touches on the central question as to the nature of the Kingdom of God announced in the gospel.

If it is wrong to sanctify Americanism in Christian terms, how about the virulent anti-Americanism that permeates Christian church agencies and seminaries? Why is flag-waving objectionable, while flag-burning was an admirable expression of the prophetic ministry of the church? After all, what is prophecy to one is a reprehensible misuse of Christian symbols to another. And the specificity with which the political implications of Christian faith are spelled out on the right can be matched, pronunciamento by pronunciamento, on the left. An individual with even a modicum of detachment from the contemporary American scene may wonder how Christians can be so sure that God is either for or against all these specific political and social positions, or how Christians make it plausible to themselves that Jesus was either a capitalist ("The Man Nobody Knows") or a socialist ("The Man Only Good Guerrillas Know").

Obviously, the degree of alarm with which one perceives these two sets of militant American mullahs will depend on one’s own political convictions. It will also depend on just where one happens to live. A resident of, say, Texas will understandably be more alarmed by the mullahs on the right. If, on the other hand, one resides in, say, Boston, the left-of-center mullahs are much more real and consequently more likely to get on one’s nerves.

Let it be assumed, though, that Christians can aspire to some freedom from these ideological and geographical determinations (if they cannot, there must be something wrong with their understanding of the gospel that sets us free). In that case it is possible -- should be possible -- to draw some lessons from what is currently going on in American religion. It might even be possible, then, that the advent of the Christian New Right may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, and not only for those with right-of-center political opinions.

The Presence of the Kingdom

Specifically, there is a theological and a sociological lesson to be learned. The theological lesson is an old one, but since it is periodically forgotten, it may now be in need of repetition: It is not the purpose of the Christian church to sanctify political institutions or programs. Further: This applies to programs that would preserve the status quo as well as to those intending to replace it.

The church is the presence of the Kingdom in this world (or, if one prefers, in this eon -- for the present purpose, either formulation will do). Yet the Kingdom is not of this world; it is yet to come, in God’s own time. As the Kingdom embodies a promise of justice, the church must be concerned with justice in this world, and it is inevitable that this concern will embroil Christians in the political realm. And as Jesus proclaimed the Kingdom first of all to the poor and the despised, Christians must have a particular concern for the victims of every sort of oppression.

Probably most Christians, of whatever political persuasion, would assent to these basic propositions. And insofar as the concern for the oppressed means acts of compassion, there is hardly any controversy (one may think here, for example, about the work of the churches on behalf of refugees or in the alleviation of famine). The problems begin, of course, when the political involvement of Christians goes beyond this kind of diakonia to engagement in political action in the service of what some perceive as a quest for justice. And, needless to say, what to some Christians appears as such a quest for justice will appear to other Christians as an exercise in futility or even moral delusion.

It is not possible to say that the church must never legitimate any human endeavors whatever. For one thing, to say this would be to demand what is empirically unfeasible. Religion, for reasons that cannot be developed here, always gets into the business of legitimation in human society and history -- that is part of its nature -- and the Christian religion is no exception. The church itself, in its worldly shape, is an institution among others, subject like any other to social and political forces.

Also, however, it would be theologically inappropriate to say that the church must never legitimate anything, because that would imply a denial of the sacramental view of the world disclosed by Christian faith. Thus, for example, the Bible legitimates human parenthood by speaking of God in parental terms: the point here is not primarily that human symbolizations are employed to make God understandable (although that, of course, is the case), but that specific human acts or gestures come to be seen as adumbrations of a divine, metahuman reality. But it is the parent who shields a child from harm who adumbrates the sheltering love of God, not the parent who thrusts a child into danger or loneliness. By the same token, Christian faith legitimates loving parenthood -- and, in so doing, cannot fail to legitimate institutions that embody the acts of loving parenthood, notably the family.

What is not included in this legitimation, however, is any specific sociological configuration -- say, the bourgeois family as it developed in the modern West, or any modification thereof that someone may propose. In other words, the theologically appropriate legitimation must remain on a level of considerable generality, even abstraction, and will therefore be hard to apply to specific institutional concretizations.

Where to Draw the Line

It will be objected here that such abstraction makes Christian faith a ready tool for anyone who wishes to employ it. Historically, no doubt, this has frequently been the case. Therein lies the vulnerability of the church in the world. It is all the more important that Christians know how to make distinctions -- especially in the political realm, where ideological legitimations are always in demand. Christians must be engaged in the quest for justice. The church must affirm not only the quest as such but those human gestures that embody justice, such as the gesture of one who has power and shields the powerless.

To that extent, the church must even legitimate the state, which, at its best, institutionalizes the gestures of justice. That legitimation, however, is a long way from legitimating specific forms of government. Both a benevolent despot and a modern democracy may exercise power to shield the powerless, and the church can affirm the legitimacy of these uses of power. But the church was wrong when it drew out of this a doctrine of the divine right of kings, as the church would be wrong today in sanctifying the American form of government as the only one mandated by God. The same considerations pertain to all political institutions or programs.

Admittedly, it is often difficult to draw a line here. Perhaps different lines have to be drawn at different moments in history. In the late 1960s a very radical notion of how to draw the line was suggested by a man who is still one of the most interesting ecclesiastical figures in Latin America, Sergio Méndez Arcéo, the bishop of Cuernavaca. Méndez then took the position that, in the political realm, the church must never bless, only condemn. He since then changed his mind, at least for a while when he became convinced that the church must endorse socialism as the only way out of the human miseries of Latin America. The earlier position was not only more radical but also more persuasive. Thus, in 1968, after the Mexican army had fired on a student demonstration and killed a large number of people in the so-called Tlatelolco massacre, Méndez read a statement from the pulpit of his cathedral condemning the government for this act. He did this in his capacity as a bishop, speaking ex cathedra for the entire church.

In retrospect, there is no reason to question what he did. The facts were readily available, and their moral import was clear. No particular expertise was required to say that soldiers firing with machine guns on unarmed students were violating fundamental moral principles. Méndez, at that time, did not follow up his condemnation of the government with an endorsement of any specific program designed to reform the political system of Mexico. Wisely, he understood that this was not within his competence as a bishop. Unwisely, he assumed such competence when he endorsed socialism -- a program for alleviating misery on which every conceivable category of experts has failed to reach agreement and concerning which the training of a bishop hardly bestows expertise. Again, mutatis mutandis. these observations pertain to political issues across the board, in the United States as much as in Latin America.

The church has every competence to condemn terror, or starvation, or exploitation -- more specifically, to condemn the specific political arrangements that allow these oppressions to take place in an institutionalized form. But the church does not have the competence to bless any particular political modality either practiced or proposed as an alternative. And it is precisely in failing to make this distinction that American churches have gone astray, on both sides of the political spectrum.

Thus it was right when, in the 1950s, many in the churches condemned communism for its violations of human rights and dignity; it was wrong to deduce from this an unquestioning legitimation of the foreign policy of the United States in that period. Similarly, in the 1960s, it was right to condemn atrocities committed by the United States and its allies in Indochina; it was wrong to go on from this stand to an endorsement of the political goals of the North Vietnamese regime.

As in the case of the bishop of Cuernavaca, the reasons for this distinction are not only theological but also eminently empirical. Those who speak for the church have, very commonly, a fine sense of what is morally unacceptable in particular human situations. It may even be said that such a sense of injustice or inhumanity is one of the fruits of the Spirit. But these same people have no more expertise than others (and usually less) in designing practicable programs for political action. Put simply, one has good reason to be respectful of a bishop who condemns a military atrocity; one usually has very little reason to be respectful of that bishop’s opinions on the political dynamics of southeast Asia -- especially when the bishop is an American who has never been there.

Inflationary Prophecy

Quite apart from the preceding theological considerations (and even if one should disagree with these), the representatives of the church deceive the public if they lay claim to an expertise (political, economic or what-have-you) which in fact they do not possess. The idea that moral sensitivity somehow bestows the competence to make policy recommendations on every subject under the sun is delusional. It is also an idea that seems to have deep roots in American church history (let the experts on the latter decide whether the Puritans are to be blamed for this, along with so much else they have been blamed for, or whether the causes should be sought elsewhere).

The consequence, repeatedly, has been what one might call inflationary prophecy. The prophet who solemnly tells people what they ought to do may get away with this once or twice, especially if the recommendations do not lead to immediate and highly visible disaster. The prophet who keeps on doing this soon loses credibility. It simply is not credible that God’s will can be ongoingly specified in terms of the details of political life.

What is more, human beings seem to have a limited capacity for being inspired. The average person can psychologically cope with a couple of crusades in one lifetime. When every other day this or that political agenda is prophetically elevated to the status of a crusade, people get tired, bored, incredulous, or all of these. When prophecy (self-styled) is institutionalized in modern organizations, the end result is that the only people who are eagerly awaiting the next solemnly launched position of a particular church organization are the bureaucrats in the other organization down the block. This is what appears to have happened to mainline Protestant organizations already; there is every likelihood that, eventually, the same will happen to the evangelicals who are drawing all the attention now. After all, how many specific weapons systems can God be expected to endorse?

In all of this a distinction ought to be made between the church as the gathered community of the faith and individual Christians (including such individuals banded together for a particular political purpose). If the Christian concern for the world is to have any reality to it, it must, of course, express itself in concrete activity on behalf of specific purposes. Individuals and groups can do this, even in the name of their Christian faith, without identifying their activity with the church as such, and without insisting that the church endorse this activity with some modern variant of the formula "Thus saith the Lord." It is important to understand that, as soon as this distinction fails to be made, one of the most basic characteristics of the church is put in jeopardy -- namely, its catholicity.

If one says of a particular political position that it and no other is the will of God, one is implicitly excommunicating those who disagree. Contemporary American Christians, presumably without acknowledging that this is what they are doing, have been widely engaged in this sort of mutual excommunication. If one believes that it is indeed God who wills the building of the MX missile, or the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment, or any other specific political purpose, then one cannot remain in communion with those who reject this view and thereby posit themselves in open rebellion against God. The formula "Thus saith the Lord" always implies the correlate "Anathema be the one who denies this."

Another way of saying this, in a lower key, is that the incorporation of specific political agendas into the public worship of the church makes it impossible for those who disagree to join in that worship. This may not be understood as excommunication by those who do it, but the empirical consequence is the same. The theological error is that political partisanship is now counted among the notae ecclesiae. The sociological effect is that the church ceases to be catholic and is broken up into ideological conventicles, each claiming the authority of the gospel for its respective program.

A Struggle Between Two Elites

This last point leads up to the sociological lesson that may be drawn from the current excitement about the new American fanatics: It is not the purpose of the church in contemporary America to take sides in the current class struggle.

This class struggle, let it quickly be said, is not the one that Marxists still fantasy about, proletariat pitted against bourgeoisie, the wretched of the earth rising against their oppressors. Rather, it is a struggle between two elites. On the one side is the old elite of business enterprise, on the other side a new elite composed of those whose livelihood derives from the manipulation of symbols -- intellectuals, educators, media people, members of the "helping professions," and a miscellany of planners and bureaucrats. This latter grouping has of late been called the "new class" in America -- a not wholly felicitous term that is likely to stick for a while.

It is not possible here to discuss what some people, a little generously, have called the theory of the new class. But the main features of the theory are not difficult to grasp. In modern technological societies a diminishing proportion of the labor force is occupied in the production and distribution of material goods -- that activity which was the economic base of the old capitalist class or bourgeoisie. Instead, an increasing number of people are occupied in the production and distribution of symbolic knowledge; these are the people enumerated above, and, if a class is defined by a particular relation to the means of production (as Marx, for one, proposed); then indeed there is here a new class. Like other classes, it is stratified within itself. And like other classes, it develops its own subculture.

The current class struggle is between the new knowledge class and the old business class. As in all class struggles, this one is over power and privilege. The new class is a rising class, with its own very specific (and identifiable) vested interests. But, in the public rhetoric of democracy, vested interests are typically couched in terms of the general welfare. In this, the new class is no different from its current adversary. Just as the business class sincerely believed (presumably still believes) that what is good for business is good for America, the new class believes that its own interests are identical with the "public interest." It so happens that many of the vested interests of the new class depend on miscellaneous state interventions; indeed, a large portion of the new class is economically dependent an public-sector employment or subsidization.

Once this is seen, it comes as no surprise that the new class, if compared with the business class, is more "statist" in political orientation -- or, in other words, is more on the "left." Many if not most of the great liberal programs since the New Deal have served to enhance the power and privilege (not to mention the prestige) of the new class; not surprisingly, its members are devoted to these programs.

Symbols of Class Culture

It should be emphasized that to say this is not thereby to invalidate any particular claims made on behalf of the liberal agenda for the society -- just as one does not invalidate a political program simply by pointing Out that it may benefit the business community. The point is simply to be aware that political purposes, in contemporary America as elsewhere, are not concocted in some Platonic heaven of ideas divorced from class interests. What is essential is the perception that many if not most current political issues have a class component. Some of these issues are directly related to class interests. This, for example, is eminently the case with the issues raised by the environmentalist movement -- a virtually pristine new-class affair, which has created a plethora of organizations devoted to the alleged protection of the environment, providing numerous jobs for members of the new class.

Other current political issues are not so directly linked to class interests. They have a wore symbolic character, but the symbolism too has a class component. An example is the abortion issue. Attitudes on abortion divide sharply along class lines, with the new class in the vanguard of the pro-abortion movement. It is not altogether clear why this should be in the class interest of this particular stratum: but, for whatever historical reasons, the issue has attained a symbolic nexus with this stratum, so that members of the new class do indeed strongly tend to be in favor of abortion, while their class adversaries tend to be against it.

Other examples could readily be enumerated. The symbols of class culture are important. They allow people to "sniff out" who belongs and who does not; they provide easily applied criteria of "soundness." Thus a young instructor applying for a job in an elite university is well advised to hide "unsound" views such as political allegiance to the right wing of the Republican party (perhaps even to the left wing), opposition to abortion or to other causes of the feminist movement, or a strong commitment to the virtues of the corporation. Conversely, a young business school graduate seeking a career with one of Fortune magazine’s "500" had better not advertise his or her career in the new politics, or views associated with the environmentalist, antinuclear or consumer movements.

A Class Component to Moral Beliefs

What does all this have to do with the church? And, more specifically, what does it have to do with the current effervescence of the Christian right? The answer is: almost everything!

Precisely the issues on which Christians divide today are those that are part of the current class struggle and of the Kulturkampf that symbolizes it. One of the easiest empirical procedures to determine very quickly what the agenda of the new class is at any given moment is to look up the latest pronouncements of the National Council of Churches and, to a somewhat lesser extent, of the denominational organizations of mainline Protestantism.

Conversely, virtually point by point, the Christian New Right represents the agenda of the business class (and of other strata interested in material production) with which the new class is locked in battle. What is more, while undoubtedly there are religious reasons for the upsurge of right-leaning evangelicalism, much of it can in all likelihood be explained as a reaction against the power grab of the new class. In that, of course, evangelicals are part of a much wider reaction, the political crystallization of which (temporary or not -- that remains to be seen) was the major event of the 1980 national elections. As to the reasons for this alignment of different religious bodies, they could not be simpler: the main reason, of course, is the class character of the respective constituencies of these bodies.

To repeat: the sociological disclosure of a class component to political or moral beliefs does not (and methodologically cannot) settle the question as to the justice of these beliefs. For example, historians have argued that antislavery sentiment was strong in the northern business class because this sentiment was in accord with the interests of that class. Maybe so. But, having duly noted this linkage, one may still affirm that the antislavery cause was morally just. More contemporaneously, it can be shown that the new class, probably more than any other group in the American population, has freed itself from the poisonous beliefs of racism. It can also be argued that there are class interests involved in this: the new class staffs the welfare-state and civil-rights institutions, the major putative beneficiaries of which are the racial minorities of America. This argument, if granted, still need not detract from one’s moral approval of a group relatively free of racist superstitions. The same holds for every one of the issues about which Americans divide along class lines today.

Striving for a Measure of Distance

That, however, is just the point that must be made here: no class has a monopoly on moral insights. From a Christian point of view, no class can claim, in its vested interests and symbols in the aggregate, to be. closer to the Kingdom of God. Christian ethics, without a doubt, will have to disaggregate. Thus, one might conclude on grounds of Christian ethics that the new class is "more Christian" in its resolute antagonism to racism, but "less Christian" in its uncritical allegiance to the cause of abortion.

But for such reflective disaggregation to take place at all, the churches must cease from responding with Pavlovian automatism to their respective class cultures. They must instead, in the freedom of the gospel, strive for a measure of distance from the immediate pressures of class location and class struggle. This is certainly not going to be easy and, sociologically speaking, it can probably never be achieved fully. Unless it is tried, however, the class divisions between American denominations will become near-absolute. Prophecy, so-called, will be nothing but propaganda on behalf of the one or the other class. Each congregation will be the one or the other class gathered for prayer. And that, every Christian should be able to affirm unhesitantly, is not the will of God.