Distinctiveness Reconsidered, or Writing About Religion from a Sociological Perspective

I've been fortunate to be involved now in two waves of the  American Mosaic Project here at the University of Minnesota, with my terrific colleagues Joe Gerteis and Doug Hartmann. Working with people who primarily research race, political culture, and solidarity has been generative for my own thinking, as has the opportunity to work with first-rate graduate students who approach the study of religion from a wide range of theoretical perspectives and empirical research interests.

Recently, I've realized that my work for this project, along with research with Kathy Hull on how Americans think and talk about social controversies, has led me to a broader insight about how sociologists understand the nature of religious commitment and the role it plays in everyday life. 

The short answer?  We often get it wrong, for two reasons.  First, we have tended to treat emic (insider) understandings of religious commitment as analytically sufficient.  Second, we have confused the way that members of particular groups understand and enact their religious commitments with the more general question of the role that religious commitment plays in the lives of a religiously and racially diverse population.  These two ways in which we get it wrong are related, and they stem from a tendency to focus too much of our analyses on the study of White Evangelical Protestants and to treat them empirically as a "bellweather group" and theoretically as inhabiting the ideal-typical form of religious commitment.  This approach has been critiqued elsewhere, and you can find a review of those critiques in my 2012 Annual Review of Sociology piece.

So if we often get it wrong, what does "getting it right" look like? What are the models out there for doing a different kind of sociology of religion?  In a recent series of publications using AMP data and working with graduate students in my department, I'm developing an argument about what it means to try to "get it right" when it comes to religion.

  • First, getting it right involves taking an explicitly intersectional approach to religious effects on social behavior and social attitudes.  In a recent article in the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion on religious effects on attitudes toward racial inequality, with Jacqueline Frost as the lead author, we show that race, gender, income, education, and age all have larger effects on racial attitudes than religion does.  We also show that religious effects on racial attitudes are dependent upon social location.  In a recent paper with Jacqueline Frost and Evan Stewart, we show that choices about non-religious identification -- the particular labels that people adopt and use -- are driven by social privilege, as less powerful social actors seek to insulate themselves from stigma and avoid the social costs of taking on a stigmatized identity.
  • Second, getting it right involves expanding our understanding of religious culture beyond a focus on individual religiosity, religious subculture, or religious tradition.  In two papers with Evan Stewart and Jack Delehanty, we show that it is not only, or even primarily, private religiosity that drives attitudes towards religious minority groups, or that determines whether members of non-religious or minority religious groups feel included in American civic life and public culture.  Instead, we find that it is attitudes toward public religious expression that matter -- attitudes that cannot be deduced from private religious beliefs and behaviors.  One paper on this is now forthcoming in The Sociological Quarterly, while another is under review. 

What these papers add up to is an argument that builds upon the work of other scholars like Mark Chaves and Melissa Wilde, who argue that we cannot any longer treat religion as a unitary identity and set of beliefs that has a straightforward effect on social attitudes in a way that is independent from social location.  

Instead we have to investigate how race and class and gender -- and in some cases, age and region -- fundamentally shape which religious (and non-religious) beliefs and symbols people find resonant, compelling, and relevant.  Moreover, we have to focus more on how religious elites engage in "coherence projects" -- attempts to tell individual religious persons how to "bundle" religious beliefs with stands on particular social and political issues.  Even for White Evangelicals, about whom it has been argued that they have a highly bounded and coherent subculture, it is race that drives political attitudes and affiliations. Moreover, what matters more than religious tradition is the centrality of religious belief to one's own identity and one's willingness to endorse the public expression of discourses and symbols that embrace a Protestant, white, Judeo-Christian heritage as a marker of cultural membership

Getting this right - being willing to step beyond an understanding of religion as a central aspect of identity, one that makes a person a part of a coherent and bounded subculture, one that has the same effect on all those who share a particular tradition - getting it right has real stakes. For one thing, not getting it right can lead us to unintentionally support and reproduce a central cultural underpinning of white supremacy -- one that views White, Protestant Americans as capable of the moral individualism required of good citizenship, while others (historically Jews and Catholics, now Blacks and Latino/as) are motivated "only" by interest or race.  For another, it can stymie attempts to come up with empirically valid measures of religiosity that are relevant for the whole population -- an essential element in survey work that seeks to be both valid and representative.  It can also get in the way of having meaningful dialogue with sociologists who study politics, national identity, and nationalist movements.

It is my hope that this work that we are doing here on the Mosaic project can serve as a resource for scholars who want to get it right, who are working on the links between religion and political identity, religion and social attitudes, and related topics.  New work on Christian Nationalism, for example, is only helpful if it gets beyond the straightforward assumption built into our analytical categories that religious action is always moral action.  What if, in the case of certain White Evangelicals, a language of religious moral action is embraced because white privilege allows it, or because it is more socially acceptable than claiming white privilege directly?  Not even being able to ask the question seems to me like a poor place to start.  And the inability to ask this and other tough questions is rooted, it seems to me, in a particular emic understanding of religiosity that takes the White Evangelical understanding of religion as its starting point.  

What would be different if we started instead with the primacy of one's structural location in a society with long-standing and historically persistent structures of inequality organized around race, gender, and class?

I'm hoping we do the work, collectively, to find out the answer to that question.