Chapter 6: The Shifting Location of Public Religion

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

Chapter 6: The Shifting Location of Public Religion

In many parts of the world — Africa, the Philippines, Iran, Lebanon, Nicaragua, Brazil, the United States — the relations between religious institutions and the reigning powers are undergoing dramatic changes. Opposition movements have sprung up in sectors of the religious community that only a few decades ago seemed to have bargained away their political soul. Alliances have been forged between representatives of religious traditionalism and segments of the technical intelligentsia in a way that would have seemed peculiar up until recently. Fighting, physical and verbal, has broken out between religious factions that once stood united against other faiths and creeds.

These developments have challenged policy makers and religious leaders at a very practical level. But they also pose challenges to the ways in which we think about the public place of religion in the contemporary world. They have forced us to question whether our conventional theories are adequate to the task or whether we need to push toward new understandings. They have at the very least raised the stakes for finding effective approaches from which to consider the relations between religion and politics.

In reflecting on the dynamics of religious change, some scholars have shown a tendency to abandon formal theoretical frameworks entirely. They advise that one should go to the field, write up what out sees, and forget trying to mold these observations to fit some preconceived theory. Social science should, in their view, be like good journalism: it should richly describe but keep interpretation and explanation to a minimum.

There is of course much merit in shedding theoretical blinders in order to see with fresh eyes what may really be going on. But, we must also ask, how completely can the assumptions and presuppositions that go with received theoretical frameworks be abandoned? Even when we try to be purely descriptive, we choose selectively to write about some things and to ignore others. As proof, compare books on religion and politics written by political scientists and anthropologists. Even when the subject matter is ostensibly the same, we see quite different questions animating these studies.

It is for this reason that some effort to review the main theoretical frameworks implicit in studies of contemporary religious change seems in order. I have chosen four such frameworks that constitute important perspectives in their own right: modernization theory, world-system theory, what I will call "structural contingency" theory, and some recent work on systems theory and the lifeworld. I shall indicate briefly what each of these four traditions suggests about changes in the relations between religion and politics and then consider some of the more general presuppositions that these theoretical perspectives illustrate. Finally, I offer some observations of a more synthetic nature about factors relevant to an understanding of religious restructuring.


Theories of modernization, despite the rather serious attacks to which they have been subjected in recent years, have been so prominent in the social sciences, and have played such an important role in our thinking about social change, that any effort to consider the changing relations between states and religious institutions must begin here. The variation in substantive arguments that have huddled together under the general rubric of modernization is, of course, vast. In considering modernization less as an explicit theory than as a broader set of implicit assumptions, it is nevertheless possible to speak of it more or less as a coherent framework.

The central presupposition of modernization theory is that something can be identified that distinguishes "modern" societies from those that are less modern (i.e., "traditional" societies). Among the characteristics that might signal the presence of greater modernity are higher levels of industrialization, a greater use of advanced technology, overall indicators of higher economic development, more literacy, a more comprehensive educational system, greater urban density, and more extensive administrative capacities on the part of the state. It is argued that these characteristics may be associated with one another at a sufficiently high level that overall portrayals of various societies as more or less modern make a good deal of empirical sense.

The modernization perspective also suggests that a kind of wholesale movement in the world has been going on for some time — movement along the continuum from less modern to more modern. Some societies, like Great Britain and the United States, started along this path relatively early and thus have progressed considerably, while others (e.g., South Korea) are relative latecomers with much remaining to be accomplished, and still others (e.g., Ethiopia) have hardly started down the track at all.1

The progression from traditional to modern is thought to have serious repercussions for religion, since religion has everywhere been an integral feature of traditional societies. Moving toward more modern social arrangements is presumed to entail a displacement or devaluation of traditional religious institutions, or at least some concessions on the part of such institutions to the secular environment. "Secularization" refers either to the fact that religion, in this process, comes to have a less prominent or influential position in modern societies or to the fact that it retains its influence only by conforming increasingly to such norms as rationality and relativism or by making compromises with science, economic concerns, and the state.2

Many specific doctrinal and organizational changes have been associated with the secularization process. As societies modernize, doctrine is expected to focus more on happiness in this life than on other-worldly compensations. It is also expected to become less dogmatic, taking on live-and-let-live orientation conditioned by the fact that people become more aware of the realities of competing worldviews. The gods themselves may undergo a transformation, as people cease to attribute miraculous deeds to them or conceive of them as unquestioned authorities, viewing them instead as symbolizing love and redemption or sanctioning ethical systems. More emphasis is in fact expected to be placed on symbols because people come to recognize the differences between religious symbols and the underlying truths these symbols are supposed to convey. Religious functionaries lose some of their unique claim to power as a result of competition from secular professionals and in conjunction with a more general rise in education and values stressing individual discretion. Religious organizations, in turn, come to focus on a narrower range of social functions and are likely to adopt marketing strategies and formal bureaucratic procedures in order to compete effectively.3

For the most part, modernization theory emphasizes the long-term direction of such changes. But it also provides for assertions to be made about the rate, timing, and severity of shorter term adaptations. An especially important "take-off" period, lasting only several decades, may occur within the much longer transition from tradition to modernity. In this period, the economy may grow by quantum leaps, a new mode of production may come into being, or the political regime may change in a way that promotes subsequent economic change. The consequences for religious institutions may be exceptionally severe. Old patterns may be overthrown within a relatively short period, making new patterns all the more visible and controversial.

There may also be reversals in the modernization process, or at least segments of the society who mobilize temporary resistance. Thus, some of the turmoil one sees in the religious sphere may be understandable as protests against modernization. Should industrialization spurt ahead, for instance, religious traditions rooted in agrarian lifestyles are likely to mobilize sentiment against these economic changes. After a rapid advance of this kind, any temporary economic setback may play directly into the hands of such opposition movements, giving them greater credibility and funneling dissidents into their ranks.4

Modernization theory has been applied most widely, of course, to societies in the Third World that have undergone rapid change in recent decades and experienced religious turbulence in conjunction with this change. It forces analysts to pay attention to the ways in which political development undermines religious tradition and therefore provides an implicit framework in which even many studies that have not bought into all of its assumptions have been cast.5

The Modern World-System

Critics of modernization theory have focused particularly on its tendency to treat societies as isolated units. Rather than viewing each society as a separate entity moving along a track from less modern to more modern, the critics of modernization theory argue that societies interact with one another as parts of a larger system. The reason one Society is a laggard may have something to do with the fact that other societies are not.

World-system theory has emerged over the past fifteen years as leading contender with modernization theory.6 As the name suggests, world-system theory emphasizes the larger set of social, economic, and political relations that link societies together. According to world-system theorists, these relations began to emerge in the sixteenth century, chiefly as a result of international trade and diplomacy among the European states. Gradually, this system became the driving force of modern capitalism, and its influence spread over most of the globe by the end of the nineteenth century. World-system theorists maintain that in today’s world the contours of societal change on virtually every continent must be understood in terms of the dynamics of this larger system.

The intellectual origins of world-system theory can be traced most directly to various offshoots of Marxism, including studies of political economy, theories of imperialism, and ideas about dependent development. Because of the epistemological assumptions in these traditions, world-system theory has paid little attention specifically to the role of religious beliefs or religious institutions. It has thus been necessary for other theorists to suggest ways in which the world-system perspective might be useful for understanding changes in these beliefs and institutions.

Applications of world-system theory to questions of religious change have focused to a great extent on the ways in which short-term changes in the world economy may affect the stability of religious institutions. Some of the arguments that have been advanced do not differ markedly from those advanced within the modernization framework. Generally, though, world-system theory has placed greater emphasis than modernization theory on the abrupt, disruptive, and conflictual nature of changes in the world economy. Because societies’ fortunes are said to be so closely connected with the dynamics of the broader system, many things can happen over which societies themselves have little control. For instance, a periodic downturn in the business cycle can have severe repercussions for a tiny country whose economy depends heavily on exports. Or an outbreak of war may cut off trading channels, resulting in equally serious disruptions in exporting societies. Religious institutions may be caught in the middle of such changes: pro-Western religious orientations may suddenly become unpopular because of changes in trading alliances, peasants may turn to millenarian or folk religions to revitalize economically threatened communities, communist or nationalist movements among oppressed urban workers may strike out at traditional religious organizations, and so on.7

World-system theory’s roots in Marxism have made it particularly sensitive to the cyclical and conflictual nature of modernization. Rather than conceiving of modernization as moving happily toward greater prosperity and enlightenment for all, world-system theorists depict it as moving in fits and spurts, as a kind of Hobbesian drama. As capitalism spreads through the world economy, it produces war, oppression, and hardship for many, even though it may generate prosperity for a few.8 Capitalism also becomes subject to its own internal contradictions.

Cycles of rapid expansion in economic production are likely to be followed by downturns conditioned by slackening demand; the costs of acquiring and protecting new markets through diplomatic deals and military intervention eventually outweigh the gains to be had from these markets; dominant countries gradually lose their hegemonic power; and the whole system becomes subject to the strains of realignment as new countries or new modes of production rise to prominence.

Within a single society, the social dislocations attendant on these broader strains may look very similar to the observer who focuses only on that society and the observer who emphasizes world-system dynamics. What the world-system theorist insists on bringing into the picture, though, is some understanding of the external forces that bring about these dislocations. Two lines of inquiry are likely to follow. One stresses the ways in which regimes and elites in a particular society respond to these external forces. Rather than seeing religious conflict strictly as a domestic issue, the observer looks at it in terms of the military obligations, foreign debt, trade advantages or disadvantages, coups d’etat, and so on that may be inspired by broader diplomatic, military, and economic considerations. The other line of inquiry stresses ways in which such conflicts and dislocations in particular societies may exemplify patterns of a more general or systemic nature. Rather than viewing upheavals in Central America in isolation from those in the Middle East, for example, observers are inclined to ask how both may reflect debt patterns in the world economy or the competition among superpowers for energy supplies or the arms race.

Perhaps the key attraction of world-system theory, overall, is that it sensitizes social scientists to the growing global interdependence that now exists among nation-states. For studies of religious and political change, this interdependence has clearly begun to be a critical consideration.

Structural Contingency Models

A third perspective — which, for lack of a common term already in use, I will call "structural contingency" — can be identified in a variety of work that has arisen over the past decade or so in criticism of both the modernization and world-system perspectives. The common denominator in this work is a conviction that modernization and world-system theorists paint with too broad a theoretical brush. Certainly Central America and the Middle East are both subject to the broader forces of modernization or the broader dynamics of world capitalism, say these critics, but look at the differences. We need some way to take account of the fact that the colonial histories of the two regions is quite different. And we should also pay heed, especially in the present case, to differences in the religious histories of the two.9

The structural emphasis in these studies might be described as an interest in institutional arrangements. The relations among various agencies of the state, organized economic actors, the ecclesiastical elite, and opposition movements or parties have been of special interest. Rather than simply emphasizing levels of institutional differentiation, as many modernization studies have, proponents of structural contingency have stressed the importance of resource flows, overlapping memberships, mutual and competitive interests, and organizational interactions. And rather than focusing on a society’s general placement in the world system, they have devoted attention to the dynamic relations between this position and the opportunities, resources, and constraints under which influential actors may operate. Thus, for example, it may be especially important in the Central American case to know that dominant land-owning families also hold important positions in the government but not in the church, while in the Middle Eastern case it may be important to know that political officials have relied heavily on money from exports and have therefore needed to depend less on the merchant elites in local markets that dominated power structures in the villages.10

The contingency emphasis can he seen in the tendency of these analysts to argue that variations in societal development depend on the ways in which institutional arrangements were configured historically Societies that have retained a strong relation between landowners, religious elites, and the central governing bureaucracy, for instance, may respond to new crises or economic developments in vastly different ways than societies that at some point in their history threw the landowners out of power, reformed the church, and gave mass representation to the industrial working classes.11

Studies exemplifying structural contingency ideas have been especially prominent in the literature on religious movements. Starting with observations about the relations between the state and established religious institutions, these studies show how religious movements position themselves in relation to both. When the state holds powerful control over the religious hierarchy and other public institutions, popular religion may become a nursery for political opposition. The appeal of popular religious groups in Brazil, Chile, India, and Poland has been examined in these terms.12

Lifeworld Colonization

The tendency that seems evident in studies influenced by world-system theory and in studies emphasizing structural contingencies is a shift away from abstract theoretical models toward somewhat more down-to-earth approaches that give considerable room for empirical induction. These approaches, of course, gain ready support from regional and area specialists and ethnographers whose studies rely heavily on firsthand observations and extensive familiarity with the traditions of particular societies.

The danger in moving entirely to strategies of empirical induction is that integrative, and even prescriptive, perspectives lose out.

The recent work of German sociologist Jurgen Habermas, in which questions about the formal characteristics of social systems in general and the dynamics of the lifeworld are the focus, exhibits a clear preference for deductive theory of a prescriptive sort.13 Habermas has drawn eclectically from modernization theory and Marxism to create what he calls a reconstructive model of cultural evolution. In this model, the modern epoch is characterized by an abandonment of the three-tiered or dualistic universe of traditional religion, a reliance on scientific and technical reasoning, and increasing intervention by the state to promote advanced industrial capitalism and to combat its ill effects on social life. We are, however, on the verge of transcending the modern epoch and moving into a post-modern period. Habermas regards this as a vital step that we must take in order better to master the contingencies we face.

According to Habermas, the twin evils that beset us resemble the evils identified by Weber and Marx in the nineteenth century. From Weber, Habermas borrows a concern for the effects of bureaucratization, and from Marx, a focus on the evils of the capitalist market. The former is associated mainly with the modern state and, strategically, gives Habermas a means of criticizing his neighbors to the east, while the latter conjures up the dangers of rampant free enterprise which, to many Europeans, the United States epitomizes. Underlying both tendencies, however, is what Habermas calls "technical reason." This is a reliance on instrumental logic and the means of adapting to the material environment. It contrasts with an emphasis on open and free debate about the goals and values of society itself — what Habermas calls "communicative action." To gain command of our collective destinies, Habermas believes we must cultivate communicative action.

From this perspective, many of the religious movements we see emerging in various parts of the world — especially those in advanced industrial societies — can be understood as protests against the growing bureaucratization and monetarization of the lifeworld. Habermas suggests that we are finally becoming aware of the threats that confront our quality of life, our sense of ourselves, and our natural environment. Consequently, we see an increasing number of movements attempting to combat these threats. As examples, he cites the various mystical and human potential groups that have arisen in opposition to the impersonality of modern life, the efforts mounted by established religious groups to advocate equality and social justice in the name of traditional or divine values, communal experiments with the reshaping and redefinition of work, and special interest groups concerned with gender roles, the family, and environmental pollution.

Habermas takes a critical view of all these movements because he regards their own theoretical vision as being too narrow. The solution, he argues, must come from a better understanding of the communication process itself. Thus, some developments in theological hermeneutics attract him as examples of such progress. But in the meantime, he predicts a heightening of social unrest in which various short-lived religious movements play an important role.

On the Uses of Theory

I have, in sketching the contours of these four theoretical perspectives, deliberately refrained from offering evaluative remarks. I do not thereby mean to suggest, however, that the choice is merely a matter of indifference or personal taste, or that a synthesis of all four perspectives may be best. On the other hand, these clearly are not alternative theories that may be decided among on the grounds of which one "best fits the data." Indeed, the scientific model of theory testing is likely to lead us very much astray in the present context. Specific hypotheses could perhaps be derived from the literature reflecting these various perspectives, and then evidence could be adduced to see whether one hypothesis made better sense than another. But that kind of exercise in positivist social science lies at an entirely different level of discussion than the one we are engaged in here.

For present purposes, the idea of perspective carries more appropriate connotations than the notion of hypotheses. I have chosen these four theoretical perspectives because they help make explicit some of the assumptions that are likely to influence the ways we think about the relations between religious institutions and state structures. We need, therefore, to pay closer attention to these assumptions, now that the general frameworks have been described.

One of the choices these frameworks set before us concerns the fundamental stance we choose to take toward the general thrust of economic development in the world today. At the extremes the choices are clear. One extreme emphasizes the light; the other extreme, darkness. Implicit in many variants of modernization theory is the assumption that economic development is both inevitable and desirable. While the transition to modernity may be painful, perhaps especially so for practitioners of traditional faiths, the overall gains must be positive. Physical health, prosperity, greater individual freedom, and cultural sophistication are the measures of these gains. At the other extreme, many variants of world-system theory and some variants of the other perspectives regard economic development as inherently productive of conflict, oppression, and exploitation.

What we look for in studies of religion and the state depends greatly on the stance we take in relation to these two extreme interpretations of the development process. Studies conducted during the 1950s and early 1960s often took an optimistic view of economic development and, in keeping with this outlook, showed how traditional religions were adapting to westernization and saw value in the accompanying cultural shifts toward rationalization and individual piety. More recent studies, particularly those informed by the war in Vietnam and concurrent critiques of neocolonialism and dependency, have taken a more pessimistic view of economic development. It has become much more common, therefore, to see analyses focusing on the role of religion in resistance movements, on exploitative alliances between regimes and established religions, and on the political implications of millenarian, messianic, and other grass-roots religious movements.

A second choice concerns what temporal and spatial framework we think is most useful to emphasize. The perspective implicit in modernization and lifeworld colonization theories, and in some interpretations of the other two frameworks as well, takes centuries as the appropriate time frame for studies of social change. How societies have evolved since, say, the thirteenth century is the central issue. Moreover. the spatial framework is often left unspecified, except for references to the West, Europe, or the capitalist system, or a concept of society (meaning the territorially bounded nation-state) is adopted. Over against these highly macroscopic designations, some studies have taken a much more specific spatial and temporal orientation, focusing for example on a specific event such as the overthrow of the shah in Iran or a series of related episodes such as the conflicts between Jews and Palestinians in Israel.

I shall suggest below that a more useful strategy than either of these extremes lies in focusing on religious changes over a period of several decades and involving at least several levels of spatial organization. The problem with the purely long-range macro-level theories is that they often ride too easily over the complex terrain of historical reality. The result is a closed theoretical system that seldom stands corrected by new empirical research. The problem with the more descriptive studies of single episodes is that such episodes are never in reality isolated from all others and, together, they may add up to changes of more massive proportions than any of their component elements might have suggested. Many of the religious conflicts we read about in the newspapers have prehistories and antecedents that need to be traced over a period of several decades or longer, and many represent reactions and counterreactions to other movements both in the same society and in the larger international system.

A third choice hinges on the extent to which we think events can usefully be organized into some coherent system or pattern. Modernization theory, world-system theory, and lifeworld colonization theory all assume that social change follows certain general patterns. Structural contingency theories assume that patterns of relations can sometimes be reconstructed in retrospect but emphasize the nonrecurrent nature of historical events to a much greater extent. Many descriptive studies and ethnographic reports, of course, deny the value of searching for broader patterns at all.

The social sciences are currently in much ferment over these questions in general. There is, however, at least one promising development — a development that perhaps registers the heightened sensitivity to language that has emerged in the social sciences in recent decades. This is the tendency to distinguish more sharply between the conceptual apparatus of the social scientist and the lived experience of social actors. Or put differently, it involves more nuanced distinctions among layers of abstraction. Consequently, one may speak of "bureaucratization" as a master trend in societal evolution and yet recognize that the specific manifestations of this trend in religious hierarchies and in government agencies may be quite different. Similarly, one may argue for the importance of economic resources to any episode of religious change but acknowledge that these resources may be constrained by organizational arrangements specific to particular societies.

Stated differently, the various concepts now available from a number of competing theoretical perspectives provide sensitizing devices rather than empirical indicators. To account for the shifting locus of public religion in a specific society, one uses these sensitizing devices to orient oneself to the relevant factors that must be considered. Much like an artisan’s tools, these concepts help produce a nuanced, multifactoral account of what happened. One does not expect to find changes in a different situation conforming to the same processes. Rather than working with a parsimonious specification of master trends, social laws, or correlations among variables, the analyst works with a complex set of concepts and empirical observations, piecing them together in ways that reveal underlying processes and interconnections.14

Fourth, there are choices to be made about where religion, or cultural patterns in general, fit in. At one extreme, world-system theory, as I have indicated, would at most regard religion as epiphenomenon subject to the more profound influences of political economy. At the other extreme, some variants of modernization theory have examined religious change solely within the context of its own internal unfolding; in such treatments, specific forms of doctrinal innovation seem to depend more on previous levels of ideological development than on any features of the economy or polity. Lifeworld colonization theory credits secular cultural patterns (e.g., rational communication processes) with an active role in social change, but it minimizes the importance of religion. Structural contingency theories are more likely to emphasize the institutional qualities of religion than some other approaches, but they often neglect patterns of value and belief.

At present, the rediscovery of culture in the social sciences, at the debate over methods of studying culture empirically, promises to shift studies of religion and politics more in the direction of looking at religious and political culture. Already, studies have been appearing in which greater attention is given to religious and political symbolism.15 Some studies have also begun to locate symbolism more squarely in the domain of everyday social practice, including discourse. sermons, speeches, and the emergence of dialogue within and between religious communities.16

Finally, in all of this, different emphases depend to some extent on how interested we are in change itself. There is, to be sure, a bias in the social sciences toward assuming that modern societies are faced with unprecedented crises. The language of predicament and paradox is altogether common, as are diagnoses that emphasize radical departures from the past, Significantly, a host of recent studies have challenged these biases and have shown the importance of continuities with the past even in situations of seemingly radical religious innovation.

Studies in which timeless truths are sought, which consequently pay little attention to questions of change at all, also remain of value. The relevance of the debate about change, however, is likely to deepen rather than abate. The question itself will undergo some degree of redefinition in the process. Whereas the earlier studies of modernization focused primarily on questions of movement from one point to another, more recent studies prompted by the other approaches suggest more complex and erratic trajectories of change.17 In examining the relations between religion and the state, therefore, it becomes especially important to consider what in particular has changed under certain conditions and what in particular has not changed.

Some Observations on Religious Restructuring

I have suggested, then, that many of the choices governing the ways in which we understand contemporary relations between religion and politics are contingent on the broader assumptions we find built into our major theoretical perspectives. How we evaluate particular studies depends as much on these assumptions as on more empirical issues and matters of evidence or validity. No single practitioner can dictate the choice among these broader assumptions. All that can be hoped for is greater sensitivity to the existence of these choices.

At the same time, I have suggested that certain shifts of perspective have been taking place in studies of religion and its public locations. We may hope that some of these shifts represent learning from past mistakes and a closer reckoning with the complexities of the subject itself. Let me, therefore, conclude by outlining a framework — a focus on religious restructuring — that draws together several of these recent emphases.18

For any consideration of the relations between religion and politics, the symbolic boundaries that divide institutions are clearly important. We need to know how religion is defined, how the political is defined, and how the two are separated from or connected with another. We may also need to understand other cultural divisions that bear on the relations between religion and politics. For example, the division between public and private may be important to understand, especially if politics is seen as the domain of the public and religion is a private concern.

An emphasis on institutional boundaries can be derived from modernization theory. It tells us to pay heed to the growing differentiation that characterizes modern society in general and modern religious systems in particular. What I have in mind here, though, is not the seemingly inevitable progression toward ever more complex cultural distinctions that has fascinated modernization theorists. It is instead the concrete demarcations that are constantly subject to negotiation in public discourse. Religion and politics may indeed be more formally differentiated as two distinct institutional domains in modern society than they are in traditional societies, but the events happening in country after country reveal that these domains are also in constant contact with one another. They interact and, perhaps more importantly, the content of each and the proper relations of each to the other are subject to continuous processes of negotiation. Officials stake out their turf, religious leaders contest these definitions, struggles ensue in tin courts or in assembly halls, movements mobilize to sharpen their claims, and the newspapers and television provide commentary.

Sensitivity to the ways in which cultural categories are defined can provide valuable clues to understanding the dimensions and directions of religious restructuring. One can think of these cultural definitions as fissures which, when subjected to stress, become major fault lines along which changes in religion take place. A minor rift between two ethnic factions, for example, can break into open warfare when aggravated by other social changes. More subtly perhaps, ambiguities about the character of public morality can provide a basis for religious conflict when one faction chooses to take a hard line on motivations and another takes an equally hard line on results.

The main point is that symbolic boundaries provide an empirical context in which to trace the likelihood of religious change or its aftershocks. When established boundaries fade away, space may be created in which new demarcations can arise with special significance. When the rights and responsibilities of individuals and groups are defined ambiguously, other social changes may render these tensions more opaque. And when such ambiguities have consequences for the distribution of social resources, acute struggles may be set in motion to determine how they are resolved.

If cultural boundaries can be likened to the fissures that run through the social terrain, then any effort to understand religious restructuring must also pay attention to the great forces that bring pressure to bear on these fissures and that effect a reshaping of the entire landscape. At the broadest level, some of these forces are likely to be understandable only in terms of dynamics in the larger world-system. At more proximate levels, one can also focus on domestic societal dynamics and on the shifts internal to religious organizations themselves.

Changes in the larger world-system are likely to consist of shifts in overall rates of economic growth, changes that reverberate from the rise and fall of great powers, alterations in international relations, variations in uncertainty and conflict, and even modifications of the extent to which people are aware of these larger relations. As suggested earlier, many of these changes occur in the relative near term and thus may have serious repercussions on religious and other institutions. These are likely to be exogenous shocks to any particular society. And they may have especially serious fallout for religious organizations. Even though religious leaders themselves may not be in the forefront of international trade or diplomatic negotiations, religious traditions are likely to be a significant part of what separates or joins two societies’ cultural orientations. Religious groups can facilitate or undermine the legitimacy of alliances, and any such alliances may spell victory, defeat, or at least minor alterations in the opportunities of population segments, whose identities are defined by religious commitments.

Domestic social changes are likely to constitute the more immediate conditions under which religious restructuring takes place. Many of these changes may ultimately have international dimensions as well, but it is the more proximate contexts to which religious loyahtst"o respond. Examples include the more or less routine transitions from one regime to another that accompany the electoral process, more abrupt political transitions that may come about as a result of coups or assassinations, policy initiatives that open new jobs in certain sectors of the economy and close down others, programs designed to alleviate human suffering and satisfy demands for minimal levels of social welfare, and social changes associated with the educational upgrading, professionalization, or gender redefinition of the labor force.

Shifts internal to religious organizations themselves are likely to focus on schisms and mergers, the resolution or reopening of conflicts between organizations, the assumption or abandonment of certain functions by religious organizations, or the emergence of new organizational forms. Social scientists have traditionally focused on a rather limited range of organizational forms in religion — specifically, churches, sects, and cults. More attention needs to be directed toward the conflicts and competition between organizations, federations as supraorganizational means of resolving some of these conflicts, and more innovative organizational forms such as parachurch agencies and special interest groups. It is within these organizational contexts that the opportunity to redirect religious energies lies. One can think of religious restructuring as partially motivated enterprise in which organizational leaders and followers produce ideas and actions within given institutional constraints.

The state is likely to be an especially important actor in all these changes. As the foregoing examples suggest, most of the social changes that happen in the relative short term (say, a decade to a half century or so) result from specific policy initiatives. These initiatives, in turn, may well represent responses to broader social conditions; and their consequences may be for the most part unforeseen and even undesired. But social change in the modern era is increasingly characterized by the intended and unattended consequences of planning, and such planning typically involves agencies of the central bureaucratic state.

We must not, however, assume that religious actors and organizations merely respond to changes set in motion by the state or by other agencies in the larger society. In our own context we can think of numerous instances in which major movements oriented toward social reform have been initiated or encouraged by religious organizations. Such initiatives, and similar movements oriented in opposition to government programs, have served as nettlesome reminders of the continuing ability of religious leaders to make their voices heard in the public square.

It is important to consider both the social and the cultural resources that religious actors may have at their disposal. In some societies private charity has kept religious organizations prosperous long after government contributions were cut off. The significance of an educated clergy, colleges and seminaries under religious auspices, and even places of worship that can double as meetinghouses for political purposes should not be overlooked. Religious actors also have at their disposal the narratives and rituals that continue to speak to primordial needs and concerns even in otherwise secular societies. Visions of hope and statements about meaning and purpose in life remain very much the preserve of religious functionaries.

Among these resources are the kinds of relations that structural contingency models have emphasized. It is, again, naive to assume that religious leaders operate entirely within their own domains while political functionaries stay exclusively within theirs. Preachers and mullahs in public office provide only the most visible exceptions. In one country after another, periods of peaceful coexistence between church and state have been made possible by carefully orchestrated deals. Government policies would not be criticized by religious leaders as long as religious organizations’ finances were not questioned. Central regimes would build roads, but local religious functionaries would still administer welfare relief. Religious organizations, therefore, are likely to have influence over at least some agencies of the state, and vice versa.

If religious organizations are strong enough to make their voice heard in public affairs, this voice will nevertheless be heard in ways that reflect religion’s social position. In the United States, conservative religious leaders have made themselves heard on decisions of abortion, homosexuality, and public morality. But their ability to carry the day has been limited by broader cleavages in the culture that put them against religious liberals on all these issues. Neither the conservative leaders nor their liberal counterparts have been able to speak with unquestioned authority as a result of this larger division. Where such conflict has existed in the past, it has often given other actors an opportunity to suggest alternatives to religious appeals of all kinds.

The concerns evident in Habermas’s framework gain special relevance here. Among its other roles, religion may be in an especially privileged position to raise questions about fundamental collective values. This position can be compromised, however, by religion’s relations to the state on the one hand, and to the marketplace on the other hand. Religion is a lifeworld that can be colonized by the forces of bureaucratization and monetarization. In some contexts, the temptation has been to build ever larger bureaucracies in hopes of becoming more effective at lobbying for religious causes. In other contexts, religious leaders have been seduced by the market model of success: striving for larger and larger churches, bigger operating budgets, more effective television programming, and so on. In either case, a concern for institutional aggrandizement subverts the capacity to think openly and critically about basic values.

All of these considerations assume, of course, that the relations between religious institutions and their host societies are not static. That assumption may be more appropriate in some societies than in others. Certainly it appears that the position of religion in a great many societies has taken new and unexpected turns in recent years. The specific turns can perhaps not be predicted beforehand, but some of the factors influencing these dynamics can be anticipated. Clearly, it is within the canon of most religious traditions themselves to regard their followers as a pilgrim people whose tents must always, in a sense, be in motion through the wilderness.



  1. For an overview, see C. E. Black, The Dynamics of Modernization: A Study in Comparative History (New York: Harper & Row, 1966).
  2. The work of Peter Berger represents one of the principal foci of modernization theory as applied to matters of secularization; see especially "A Sociological View of the Secularization of Theology," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 6 (1967): 1-18, and The Sacred Canopy (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967). For an overview, see Phillip E. Hammond, "Religion in the Modern World," in Making Sense of Modern Times: Peter L. Berger and the Vision of Interpretive Sociology, ed. James Davison Hunter and Stephen C. Ainlay (London: Routledge, 1986), pp. 143-58.
  3. A theoretical treatment of these changes that remains most useful can be found in Robert N. Bellah’s Beyond Beliefi Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), pp. 20-50.
  4. On the dynamics of modernization and demodernization, see Peter Berger, Brigitte Berger, and Hansfried Keilner, The Homeless Mind: Modernization and Consciousness (New York: Random House, 1973); see also Daniel Bell, "The Return of the Sacred? The Argument on the Future of Religion," in The Winding Passage: Essays and Sociological Journeys, 1 960-i 980 (Cambridge, Mass.: Abt Books, 1980), pp. 333-45.
  5. For a strongly stated argument against modernization theory’s assertions about religion, see Mary Douglas, "The Effects of Modernization on Religious Change," Daedalus 111 (Winter 1982): 1-20.
  6. The basic perspective is outlined in Immanuel Wallerstein’s The Modern World-System, vol. 1 (New York: Academic Press, 1974), and The Capitalist World-Economy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979). For a critical review, see Daniel Garst, "Wallerstein and His Critics," Theory and Society 14 (1985): 469-96.
  7. For examples of applications and adaptations of world-system theory to questions of religious change, see Gary Nigel Howe, "The Political Economy of American Religion: An Essay in Cultural History," in Political Economy: A Critique of American Society, ed. Scott G. McNall (Glenview, Ill.: Scott, Foresman, 1981), pp. 110-36; Phillip E. Hammond, "Power Changes and Civil Religion: The American Case," in Crises in the World-System, ed. Albert Bergesen (Beverly Hills: Sage, 1983), pp. 155-72; George M. Thomas, Christianity and Culture in the Nineteenth-Century United States: The Dynamics of Evangelical Revivalism, Nationbuilding, and the Market (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989); and Robert Wuthnow, Meaning and Moral Order: Explorations in Cultural Analysis (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1987), pp. 2 15-64.
  8. Without adopting the "world-system" label, other studies of the expanding world order have also focused on these disruptive consequences; see, for example, Eric R. Wolf, Europe and the People without History (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1982), and Peter Worsley, The Three Worlds: Culture and World Development (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984).
  9. For specific criticisms of the world-system perspective along these lines, see especially Mayer N. Zald, "Theological Crucibles: Social Movements in and of Religion," Review of Religious Research 23 (1982): 317-36.
  10. For two examples that account for historic variations in church-state relations in Europe by examining institutional arrangements, see Mary Fulbrook, Piety and Politics: Religion and the Rise of Absolutism in England, Wurttemberg, and Prussia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), and David Zaret, The Heavenly Contract: Ideology andOrganization in Pre-R evolutionary Puritanism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
  11. David Martin’s A General Theory of Secularization (New York: Harper & Row, 1978) can be read as an application of structural contingency logic to the question of national variations in secularization.
  12. For example, see Scott Mainwaring, The Catholic Church and Politics in Brazil, 1916-1 985 (Stanford: Stanftrd University Press, 1986), and Amrita Basu, "Grass Roots Movements and the State: Reflections on Radical Change in India," Theory and Society 16 (1987): 647-74.
  13. See Habermas, The Theory of Communicative Action, 2 vols. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1984-87). For a brief critical overview of Habermas’s arguments, see Hugh Baxter, "System and Life-world in Habermas’s Theory of Communicative Action," Theory and Society 16 (1987): 39-86.
  14. I believe this is one of the lessons to be learned from the recent theoretical work of Jeffrey C. Alexander in Theoretical Logic in Sociology, 4 vols. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1983) and Action and its Environments (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988). For an appreciative essay on this contribution, see Randall Collins, "Jeffrey Alexander and the Search for MultiDimensional Theory," Theory and Society 14 (1985): 877-92.
  15. For an empirical study that argues strongly for mapping out the cultural terrain of religion and politics, in opposition to Marxist interpretations, see Karen E. Fields, Revival and Rebellion in Colonial Central Africa (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985).
  16. Studies of liberation theology have been especially cognizant of these relations between ideology and practice. See, for example, Clodovis Boff, Liberation Theology from Confrontation to Dialogue (New York: Harper & Row, 1986). In a different setting, see the emphasis on "symbolic practice" in Jean Comaroff’s Body of Power, Spirit of Resistance: The Culture and History of a South African People (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985).
  17. These erratic trajectories receive special attention in the essays included in Religious Resurgence: Contemporary Cases in Islam, Christianity, and Judaism, ed. Richard T. Antoun and Mary Elaine Hegland (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1987).
  18. My own attempt to utilize a perspective of this kind is The Restructuring of American Religion: Society and Faith since World War II (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988).