Scholars pursuing questions on the links between religion and social class typically examine several distinct sets of dynamics. A main research focus has addressed how religious beliefs, behaviors, and experiences vary across different social class contexts. Studies in this tradition draw on quantitative and qualitative data to illustrate such differences. Statistical studies have demonstrated economic and educational differences in patterns of an array of religious beliefs, religious service participation, and other religious behaviors, and especially social and political attitudes on everything from gay rights to gun control to political party preference. Qualitative work typically delves into the lived religious experiences of individuals from different classes as well as examining the ways in which religious expression is itself shaped by class cultures. A significant portion of this type of research examines how religion impacts the life and work experiences of those at the bottom of the class hierarchy, the working and nonworking poor. Here the way that faith shapes how poor people view the challenges of their lives and their views of the larger society are particularly central concerns. Addressing a second related set of questions, researchers also examine how participation in religious communities contributes to forms of social mobility in terms of socioeconomic status indicators. Statistical analyses dominate in this area, illustrating how denominational affiliation and measures of religious belief and practice predict views regarding income and wealth accumulation, educational attainment, and occupational choice. Another distinct area of scholarship examines the role religion has played in shaping the history of capitalism and the dynamics of the traditionally understood industrial working classes and the organized labor movement. Here, too, scholars examine how working-class individuals use religion as a way to understand their work and the evolution of global capitalism. Labor historians in particular have examined historical and contemporary instances in which religious leaders and organizations play active roles in industrial conflicts. Whichever route one takes to explore religion and social class, studying their intersections has been of longstanding interest to social scientists, historians, religious studies scholars, and theologians for more than a century. This article bridges these approaches and provides an overview of their complex intersections in contemporary social contexts.
William A. Mirola
Philipp Robinson Rössner
Martin Luther is often considered, by historians, theologians, and economists alike, to have had no, primitive, or antiquated knowledge on economic matters. New research has suggested the opposite. Luther’s economic insights were deep, sharp, and modern and even carry much relevance for today. The misinterpretation of Luther as a medieval ignoramus shouting helplessly against the forces of emerging capitalism of his day rests on a double misconception. First, it is often assumed that capitalism broke through in the early Luther age (1480–1520s). But at that time, the German economy, which served as a source for inspiration to Luther, contracted: incomes, output and real wages went down after 1500. Moreover, capitalism had been there for centuries when Luther came forth. Secondly, Luther’s dismissal as a contributor to modern economic knowledge also rests on a decisive misconception of what “modern” economic knowledge entails. Only if we define “modern economics” as neoclassical economics, i.e., the post-1940 academic mainstream consensus in the Western world, based on the assumption of perfect competition, fully transparent information, rational actors, and a free-market economy, does Luther’s economic vision appear out of tune. How could Luther have been ignorant of the rise of the new economy when there was no such rise at his time, or “modern” economic knowledge when neither this type of knowledge nor a modern neoclassical vision of the economy existed?
Cara Lea Burnidge
Scholars of American religious liberalism, like the historical subjects they study, wrestle with the place and power of modernity in American history and culture. Recognizing and articulating the influence of modernity requires constant attention to what is, broadly speaking, “foreign.” It includes religious people, groups, ideas, and practices that developed in relationship to liberalism as a historically transnational ideology and movement, as well as those people, groups, ideas, and practices classifiable as “liberal” in relation to the contemporary moment. The historical events, figures, and ideas central to liberal ideological movements in America felt connected, through both their perception and experiences, to ideas, places, and people outside of “America.” This heightened the sense of belonging to an exceptional, if not universal, culture while also placing that culture in global perspective. Identifying who and what is and has been “liberal,” as well as narrating their history, thus requires attention to what Thomas Tweed and others have referred to as “global flows.” As a result, “American religious liberalism,” as a subject of study, does not merely denote a religious liberalism located within the geopolitical borders of America, but a religious liberalism formed, expressed, and experienced through a context of “America.” Consequently, foreign relations have a long and tangled history with American religious liberalism and liberalizing cultural moments and movements in the United States. Foreign figures, ideas, movements, and institutions are a constitutive element in the historical narrative of America’s religious liberalism. From German theologians who introduced American Christians to new biblical hermeneutics to transnational reform movements inspiring new forms of religious practice through social and political activism, global intellectual networks have encouraged Americans’ development of liberal modes of thought and practice. The politics of global empires and international society has also inspired liberal activism through international societies and nongovernmental organizations advocating for anticolonial, pacifist, abolitionist, suffragist, human rights, and many other humanitarian causes. This global context for American reform activism has been a significant factor in the development of liberal factions of numerous religious affiliations. The “global flow” of liberal reform pushed Americans toward spiritual experiences in developing areas of the world through both missionary efforts and individual spiritual exercises. Contact with the “outside” world often turned otherwise conservative or moderate missionaries toward liberal or liberationist theologies. Liberalism also brought “world religions” to American shores. Engagement with “others,” however, is not the only key factor in the intersection of American religious liberals with foreign relations. Religious liberalism has animated each “tradition” defining the history of U.S. foreign policy. Not least of all, religious liberals were instrumental in crafting and promoting internationalism in the long 20th century. Theologically liberal Protestants were in many ways the ideological architects behind interventionism as U.S. foreign policy. Liberal Protestant metaphysics and political activism assumed that intervention was necessary because it improved the lives of those deemed less fortunate and, consequently, was a universal agent for good in the world. Liberal religious institutions and the theologies they produced encouraged intervention (in all its various forms: economic, cultural, militaristic, diplomatic, etc.) on local, national, and international scales for the sake of a nebulous “greater good,” the more sectarian notion of “social salvation,” or even ultimately, and unironically, world peace. To liberal Protestant eyes, such intervention followed the example set by Jesus, fulfilled God’s will for humanity, and provided an opportunity to meet God in the natural world, either through encountering the “least among these” or establishing peace on earth. By the mid-20th century, liberal Catholics and Jews helped to reconstruct public perception of this “American way” around the notion of a shared Judeo-Christian foundation to American identity and action in the world.
American Christianity and commerce are bound together by their mutual history. In colonial America, Puritans excelled at the skills of capitalism, and in the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries, Christian corporations have tied together religious and corporate culture. Even when corporations and churches have maintained a distinct boundary between faith and the market, American religion and capitalism seem to be uniquely compatible. Ministers and gurus use mass media to disseminate their message (via TV, radio, bookstores). Religious folk in the United States tend to act like consumers, choosing their theologies and churches based on their individual needs and desires, rather than relying on tradition to dictate their religious practices. Selling and buying in the American marketplace share many similarities with Christian categories of piety and evangelization. Further, corporations and religious communities have since the early 20th century collaborated in politics and social movements. In much of the scholarship on Christianity and commerce in the United States, this relationship is discussed as a strategic partnership between two distinct spheres of life: religion and the market. Recent scholarship, however, has questioned this neat division, arguing that the fluid relationship among commerce, consumption, and Christianity in the United States emerges from the historical co-development of capitalism and religion. If Christianity and the market in the United States look very similar, or are particularly friendly, it is because they were never separate to begin with.
Conrad L. Donakowski
A variety of economic, ideological, aesthetic, and nationalist forces shape Christian worship in its varied manifestations today. Historical perspectives and areas of knowledge which are too often discussed in compartmentalized fashion are presented here as acting with and on each other and often serving each other’s purposes. Liturgical, musical, artistic, and architectural expressions are shown to be inextricably bound not only to theology, philosophy, and ecclesial hierarchy but also to political and socioeconomic structural change, technological innovation, and—not least—the culture and the human need for authentic spiritual experience. The Enlightenment “Age of Reason,” Romanticism, the nation-state, and the Industrial Revolution from the 17th through the 19th centuries affected religious practices that were the only mass medium that reached into every town, house, and heart. Connections are established with not only overtly religious events such as urban Evangelism, preservation of old architecture, the Oxford movement, and tradition versus innovation but also socialistic communal experiments and ethnic conflict among US immigrants.
J. Brent Crosson
Contrary to many of the predictions of secularization theory, religion seems to be at the heart of political contests in avowedly secular nation-states. While religious identities seem to define many modern polities or political orientations, “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR) has arisen as a growing identification that eschews these forms of “organized religion.” The politics of the spiritual in contemporary worlds points toward neoliberal emphases on flexible labor and self-making, but also indexes a longer genealogy of the categories of religion and superstition in colonial contexts. From Reformation invectives against superstition to colonial regulations against superstitious practices, a history of the distinction between “true” and “false” religion has informed the more recent separation of spirituality from religion proper. Emerging in the 19th century, movements emphasizing personal spirituality in opposition to organized religion both extended post-Reformation visions of true religion while also adopting some of the very practices that European reformers had deemed false religion. To complicate matters further, the notion of religion that spirituality came to oppose also contradicted what scholars have deemed a “Protestant” theological bias in the formation of the modern category of religion. This bias asserts that personal dispositions rather than outward manifestations are the essence of religion, but the “organized religion” that spirituality opposes is defined precisely by outward manifestations of structure and power. In this way, spirituality both extends and rejects the contradictory poles of the modern category of religion as both the essence of community and an eminently personal affair. Spirituality does not simply foreground these shifting poles of religion and not-religion in the modern era, but also highlights contemporary transformations in the category of politics itself. The emphasis on personal experience and self-transformation in “spiritual but not religious” movements points toward a similarly therapeutic register in movements for restorative justice or human rights. No longer confined to the realm of collective contests for state power, contemporary politics often speaks in the psycho-juridical register of spirituality.