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Weber's "Churches and Sects" 100 years later


Reflections on Religion in America


by Ken Mondschein



"It was as if no matter how much hard work, no matter how good a person you are, the only way you'll ever be anything is through Jesus Christ," Mona Dobrich explained to a New York Times reporter why her family had made an exodus from her hometown of Georgetown, Delaware, to move all the way across the state to Wilmington. Like her mother before her, Mona's daughter, Samantha, had grown up the only Jew in her class. Like her mother before her, Samantha had become accustomed to hearing sectarian prayers at functions sponsored by the Indian River School District. However, when the pastor at Samantha's high school graduation prayed specifically for her "in Jesus' name," Monica decided it was time to stop turning the other cheek-and when a crowd shouted, "Take your yalmuke off!" at Mona's son Alex when he tried to tell a school board meeting how it hurt to be taunted as a "Christ-killer" by his sixth-grade classmates and death threats began rolling in after she appeared on a local radio show, Mona Dobrich knew it was time to leave.

Unlike many commentators who have criticized the Dobriches' neighbors' "ignorant, shallow attitude," "bigotry," and general sense of entitlement to Christian hegemony, I was less outraged by their case than I was perplexed. Delaware is, after all, not the Deep South. No barefoot urchins out of a Faulkner novel march along its rural roads; no attack dogs savaged civil rights activists on its city streets; backyard pools are more common than fishin' holes. The state governor, Ruth Ann Minner, is a Democrat, as are both senators, and though the one state Representative, Mike Castle, is a Republican, he's voted against the party line on repealing restrictions on stem-cell research, torturing "enemy combatants," and giving Federal courts jurisdiction on the Terri Schiavo case. If anything, therefore, one would expect Georgetown, located in Sussex County, home of the gay and lesbian vacation mecca Rehoboth Beach, to be more accepting than the norm. Why, then, do its denizens seem to equate Christianity with good citizenship, with social integration, with patriotism itself?

A century ago, the German sociologist Max Weber asked much the same question about the United States as a whole. Though he is better known for marrying Calvin and capitalism with his (now somewhat dated) bon mot on the "Protestant work ethic," Weber's lesser-known essay, "Churches and Sects in North America," has not only held up rather well over the past century, it should be required reading for anyone who wants to understand the power of religion in U.S. culture. "Churches," Weber argued, are distinct from "sects" in that the former, like the Lutheran church that dominated religious life in Germany, are all-inclusive and compulsory, while the latter are voluntary associations of those who feel themselves to be the spiritual elite.

Yet, for all of this, Weber saw membership in a Protestant sect as one of the most powerful political and social forces in the modern world. The "proof" of an individual's salvation, and the basis for his admission to a sect, was the external performance of morality, sobriety, and thrift. "This proof," Weber wrote, "became the exclusive foundation for the social cohesion of the congregation. And the great mass of social formations, which have penetrated every corner of American life, are constituted according to the schema of the 'sect.' " Conversely-and here is where Weber speaks directly to the Delaware case-an individual bereft of a sect (or who belongs to a different one, as the Dobriches did) is rootless, ostracized, alien. To profess religion is to be integrated into the community; to do otherwise is to be the Other.

In Weber's Europe, religion was not only structurally different from American sects, it was also functionally different. "The question concerning church affiliation. . . is on par with the Homeric question regarding place of birth and parentage, as a German nose and throat specialist, who had opened a practice in Cincinnati, discovered," he wrote. "On asking his first patient what was ailing him, the very first thing the man said, to the utter astonishment of the doctor, was: I am from the Second Baptist Church in X Street." Weber's deutsche doctor's astonishment at his patient's incongruous utterance is certainly understandable-at least until one comprehends the real meaning, which is that the physician needn't worry about his fee. In Weber's Germany, private religion was for the individual conscience, and the true public religion was the cult of imperialistic nationalism. Social credit derived from coming from a good family, no matter whether one's father had risen from the Junker squireocracy or descended from the purple of commerce. Just as modern college students are besieged by credit card offers, a student at Heidelberg found more than enough people willing to extend him credit after he had tasted blood in an elite dueling fraternity and "won his colors" (and perhaps a few facial scars)-a sure sign of a bright future.

Conversely, in America, a land of vast distances settled by dislocated immigrants, where a man could come from anywhere to do anything and where the aristocratic schmiss that was the lingering kiss of the schläger duel meant no more than having been kicked in the face by a mule, social credit came from church membership. In America, Weber wrote, one does not ask if someone goes to church, but rather to which church they belong. Membership in a church "of good repute" was essential for any business venture. "As far as I am concerned, everyone can believe what he likes, but if I discover that a client doesn't go to church, then I wouldn't trust him to pay me fifty cents," a traveling salesman said to Weber in Oklahoma. "Why pay me, if he doesn't believe in anything?" A man in a church is a man integrated into society; a man without a church is rootless. People in the past were no less cynical about politicians than we are now, but they could be assured that they would serve local interests and not loot the public treasury if they had been vetted by a sober congregation and admitted into the spiritual elite.

Weber's ideas about "sects" hit me like a bolt from above. Like most over-educated, ocean-hopping, politically liberal urban dwellers, organized religion has always been slightly embarrassing to me. Jewish members of my social circle tiptoe shame-faced past the Lubavitch mitzvah tank, order sushi on Yom Kippur, and decry circumcision as male genital mutilation. Catholics are more likely to be found chanting to Vishnu in yoga class than lighting candles to the Virgin, and Hindus cheerfully trade recipes for beef stroganoff. Unlike many of my friends, though, I don't characterize religious people as deluded, ignorant, or, in the Delaware case, inherently bigoted. As a historian of the Middle Ages, I am forced on a daily basis to consider how religion can both bind a society together and tear it apart. I know that faith is a force to be reckoned with-and while I may not believe in religion, I certainly do believe in religious people.

Moreover, it's clear to me that the collective willful ignorance of religion so prevalent amongst liberal intellectuals-the dismissal of faith and the faithful as an awkward cultural atavism-is our great blind spot, the fatal flaw of an ideology that is otherwise eager to embrace anything different from itself in the name of cultural relativism. The idea that religion is a concrete evil to be stridently fought tooth and nail-the approach taken by the don of atheism, Oxford behavioral scientist Richard Dawkins-is likewise the wrong tack. As Weber saw a century ago, without understanding how religion works in this country, and its effects on our political life, we can not understand how American society works-and therefore, we can certainly not hope to change the status quo.

Manifest Destiny

In my liberal agnosticism, I thought for a long time that the true character of American religious polity was best described by the 1534 Münster rebellion. In one of the more colorful events of the Reformation, an apocalyptically-tinged, paranoid sect of Anabaptists (so-called for their practice of re-baptizing converts as adults) seized the city and expelled all unbelievers. Their religious mania quickly spread to the execution of "heretics," mandatory polygamy, and the belief in the immanent descent of the Heavenly Jerusalem. The government response at Münster in 1534 was the same as it was in Waco, Texas in 1993: Lutheran and Catholic leaders united to begin an eighteen-month siege that ended with the storming of the city and the massacre of most of the surviving Anabaptists. Münster, I thought, illustrated the essential character of Protestant evangelicalism-the constitutional need for absolute political supremacy in order to found a "city on a hill" and the inability to accept anything less than absolute conformity to the faith. These ideas had been imported to this continent with the Puritans, and they have remained with us ever since in the tenets of the Baptist church.

What Weber understood, though, is that while much of America may call itself Baptist, our religious makeup is equally tinged with Methodism. Beginning as an eighteenth-century revival movement within the Church of England led by John Wesley and his friends, Methodism was the greatest religious movement the English-speaking world had seen since the Restoration of 1660 had installed moderate Anglicanism as the British state church. However, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Methodism represented a paradox: Simultaneously ecstatic and sober, traditional and charismatic, working-class and elite, revolutionary and insistent that it was merely a movement within the Church of England, it challenged contemporary ideas of how religion fit into the political landscape.

The essential religious divisions in post-Napoleonic Europe were between the conservative order that upheld monarchy, centrally-controlled economies, and the state church (the anti-Dreyfusards in France, for instance, published in Jesuit newspapers); liberal laissez-faire parliamentarians such as Weber who embraced Darwin and Adam Smith and quietly disparaged religion; and avant-garde socialists who saw all religion as "opium for the people." Yet the very fact that national churches had been a political reality in Europe since the sixteenth century meant that they were for the most part, under the radar, more likely to be dismissed than actively attacked. Even in Sweden, the country that American liberals most often hold up as an atheist, socialist paradise, the Lutheran church only automatically stopped enrolling newborns in 1996, and didn't separate from the government until 2000. While Upton Sinclair may have written that "When fascism comes to America, it will be wrapped in the flag, carrying a cross," fascism came to Germany precisely because of liberal thinkers like Max Weber, who was in favor of what J. L. Talmon called "totalitarian democracy" because he thought it would advance the cause of the German volk more efficiently than the Kaiser and his conservative order ever could.

Early America, on the other hand, was a land ill-served by the clergy of the established church. Methodist circuit riders, filling the vacuum with charismatic preaching, were eager to create communities out of scattered settlements—and the people were eager to have them. Peer-led, based on community acclamation, and ultimately democratic, the Methodist message appealed to everyone from Yankee industrialists to working men, farmers to shopkeepers, and slave-owners to African-Americans; it also sparked the mass religious movements of the First, Second, and Third Great Awakenings. Naturally, the Methodist dichotomy between ecstatic revelation and hard work, thrift, and sobriety could not stand, and the movement separated into separate strands, both respectable, such as the United Methodist Church attended by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and popular, such as the Pentecostal churches that embrace speaking in tongues and snake-handling.

As widely variant as the beliefs and practices of the Methodist-derived sects might be, one Methodist-derived idea that has infused all of American religious life is the idea of instantaneous conversion. We are all familiar with the script from George W. Bush's 2000 election campaign and any number of ironically-perused Chick tracts: Having hit mental, physical, and spiritual rock-bottom, terrified of an eternity spent in the flames of hell, a despairing sinner begs Jesus to come into his or her heart. Suddenly everything is illuminated; the sinner feels himself to be saved; and all sins are forgiven. This trope is not only a powerful incentive-it is also an eminently capitalist one in which unproductive behaviors are exchanged for a life of hard-working productivity and social credit in the bosom of the community. It is the spiritual equivalent of declaring bankruptcy: All bad credit is forgiven.

The implication of this cultural script is that anybody can join the community; all it takes is a simple act of will and the performance of conversion. (I mean "performance" here in the linguistic sense, in J. L. Austin's sense of phrases that are also actions, such as "I christen this ship the Queen Elizabeth" or "I pronounce you husband and wife.") Unlike early Methodism, in which God had to touch the individual, in modern conversion it is the individual who reaches out to God. Unlike Puritanism's stringent entry requirements, there is no need to prove oneself one of the elite; one can be an alcoholic, a drug addict, an unwed mother, or a homosexual. However, by entering the Church, one is reborn into the community. (The caveat, of course, is that one must continue behaving in a godly manner and fighting against one's anti-social impulses.)

The implications of the Methodist instantaneous conversion are, if anything, even more chilling than the elitist Puritan "city on a hill." If salvation is only open to God's elect, then the "city on the hill," in order to exist in a non-chiliastic world, will always need to compromise and make a place for the imperfect members of society. Methodist conversion, on the other hand, is manifest destiny incarnate. Everyone can be part of the congregation of the faithful; all that is necessary is the desire to join. Even Mexicans (the cultural and ethnic boogeyman of the moment) can become part of the community—that is, "Americanized"—by accepting Jesus in evangelical fashion. (And, indeed, much current evangelical missionary activity is Spanish-language).

Thus, there is no conceivable argument not to join. With salvation democratically open to all, excuses dissolve before the weight of community opinion. If one is in a milieu where the vast majority of people believe, the pressure to conform to social expectations is extreme. To deny the community's will is to do more than brand oneself as irredeemably Other; it's to brand oneself a sinner and worthy of community scorn. Thus the comment one made to Mona Dobrich about her eleven-year-old son: "If you want people to stop calling him 'Jew Boy,' you tell him to give his heart to Jesus."

Because of its evangelical nature, American religion has condemned itself to perpetual jihad against all those who believe differently. When Georgetown businessman Kenneth R. Stevens told a Times reporter that mandatory Christianity was Georgetown's "way of life," he was telling a deeper truth than he may have realized. The First Amendment aside, America is a Christian nation, just as to be a Swede is to be a Lutheran or to be Italian is to be Catholic. The difference is that, ostensibly cordoned off from the official governance by the First Amendment, never having its "establishment" questioned or been subjected to a Civil Constitution of the Clergy or kulturkampf, religion's ubiquity in American polity has remained unchallenged. With no establishment of religion, there has been no religious establishment to be attacked by radicals or discredited for supporting a government that had led the nation into a national calamity such as World War I.

For Part 2, click here


Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D student at Fordham University

Posted July 25, 2007 5:54 PM




There are so many things wrong with these propositions, your conclusion rather too facile. I hardly know where to begin, so in doing I would note that your invocation of Max Weber's observations of religion as applied to the culture of the United States is well applied. Your assumptions however do not so neatly follow, as the causes of conflicts are usually more primitive. Cultures collide, and reasons for acts of ostracization and even violence between them can be fostered wholly of the (often political) imperatives within one or the other of them (e.g. US attack on Iraq post 9/11/01, though scales vary). Failure to conform or belong is not enough of a reason to explain inter-cultural frictions, and rather often, if not always, is a matter of convenience. When scapegoating is seen to be a useful political tool and no suitable "outsiders" can be found politics can inspire members to turn on themselves with viciousness and alactrity. The fact that, lacking a fully set and gelled social hierarchy, new arrivals to America reach out to any social structures that will have them is not surprising or in itself negative. Many churches (and temples, and synagogues et. al.) in many places are open to the participation of any. Conditionally, as any social sub unit religion, family, gang, union, friends at the corner bar, have expectations that must be met to continue participation. As you noted organized religion has benefits and uses as well as the less positive extremes and risks. Keep looking. You are heading in the right direction.

Posted by: Forge at July 25, 2007 8:49 PM

Forge: Not only have you failed to refute the points made in the article, I believe you have managed to miss the point entirely. The author does not dispute that new arrivals will seek to become part of the social hierarchy, or that religions differences can lead to political scapegoating. He simply asserts that the evangelical conversion process increases the pressure on religious minorities to convert. Your argument that many churches are open to the participation of any does nothing to address the consequences for those in the minority who choose not to participate. This, I believe, was the whole point of the article.

Posted by: FarkUser at July 26, 2007 3:07 AM



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