Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why The Sociologists Have It All Wrong

Sunday seemed like a good day to talk about the role of religion in America as it has impacted our economic success. The Democrats and the sociologists want to remove religion from our lives and denigrate our uniquely American blend of religion and the work-ethic.

John Lamont at First Things refers to the large role that religion plays in the American psyche as "the Prophet motive." I like that. It elicits the true feeling that being rich is not evil, and being poor is not a virtue. The issue is, "how did you get there and what are you doing about it?" It also explains why the left is so determined to paint religious people as ignorant savages for misunderstanding the march of history. Society, they say, is the history of untutored farmers with their primitive beliefs advancing to the industrial and technical forms which require great intellect and don't need religion.

I've written in the past about American exceptionalism, and this is one facet of that exceptionalism which disproves the points of the elitists and sociologists. What they have said about the advance from the agrarian society to the industrial and technical society is largely true of Europe. But their analysis completely fails to address the very different state of religion in America and religion in Europe, then and now. The "secularization thesis" was originally formed by Emile Durkheim, Max Weber and Bryan Wilson. They stated that as nations modernized and gained scientific knowledge, they slowly rejected religion. The ancient farmer prayed to God for rain and healthy crops, the scientific farmer used irrigation and fertilizers. When less advanced society members got an infection, they prayed for healing. The modern human takes antibiotics.

So how come American religion has grown as it reached ever higher levels of education, industrialization and technology, eventually dwarfing the rest of the world? Like the fake evidence produced a few years back to prove that there were far fewer guns per capita in 1776 than in 1996, the secularizers have claimed that America was institutionally religious from its beginnings, and that religion has been in decline in America ever since. Sorry--bad statistics. On the day the Founders signed the Declaration of Independence, less than one-fifth of Americans were members of a church. By the mid-nineteenth century (the industrial revolution), the number had risen to more than a third. Today, church membership encompasses more than half of Americans, and those who say they are "religious" approaches 90 percent.

Since America obviously doesn't fit the theories of the secularists and sociologists, there must be a rational explanation that could account for the gross difference between Europe and America. I'll get to their analysis in a minute. Right now, I'll analyze what I consider to be the real explanation of the difference.

As Europe evolved, it did not become religious. It was already religious. Unlike America, an established religion was there before post-Middle Ages Europe became an entity resembling the current collection of modern states. The one unifying force that held the primitive feudal societies together was the Christian Church (and more specifically, the Catholic Church). Almost alone, monks and scribes recorded history and preserved the knowledge of the Greeks and Romans as Europe descended into chaos. It was almost inevitable that the Church would be a great power as civilization came back to life, and that government would be closely intertwined with religion.

Local kings came and went, primitive kingdoms rose and fell, but there was always the Church and until the time of Luther, the Pope. The Holy Roman Empire (successor to the barbarian empires) derived its authority from Rome. Emperors were brought to their knees if they defied Papal authority. As more than one wag has pointed out, the Holy Roman Empire wasn't holy, Roman, or much of an empire. But it was most definitely Catholic.

Religion wasn't merely an aspect of European life by the time of Charlemagne. It was life, and it applied from the lowest to the highest members of society. No matter what their personal beliefs, those in power relied on the Church universal to legitimate their high offices. And so, the Church became evermore institutionalized, and the state became evermore involved in promoting religion. Great cathedrals were as important as great palaces. In one way or another, all kings claimed they derived their power from God through the Church.

Luther changed the concept, but he didn't change the underpinnings. Luther merely rejected the church universal and replaced it with the church territorial. But nobody was yet claiming that Christianity was not an inherent part of the legitimate exercise of power. All kings, princes, dukes, emperors and the lesser nobility still claimed their power derived from God, and their state its legitimacy from the same source. Protestants were put to the torch in Catholic lands, and Catholics were tortured or exiled in Protestant lands, but in one form or another, there was always the Church. Each proto-nation chose a faith, and it became the official religion of that nation. Even in states where other religions were allowed, all were required to swear fealty to and support of the national Church.

Henry VIII of England wanted a divorce, and the Pope wouldn't give him one. So did Henry eliminate the Church? You all know that answer. He merely changed the form and became the official head of the Church in England, no longer subservient to the Pope. Henry never abandoned his proud title of "Defender of the Faith," he just claimed that the religion of Rome was no longer the right faith to defend. His daughter, Mary ("Bloody Mary") reestablished the Roman Church and lit up the sky with burning heretics. Upon her death, Elizabeth I de-established the Catholic Church, and took on the title of head of the Church of England, firmly established it, but allowed Catholics to practice privately (after she bumped a few of them off).

As the humanist movement advanced, and industrialization and technology came in, most European states became less and less religious, but the official churches remained (even to today in many European nations). The sociologists got it partly right. But they missed how much imposed religion actually weakens genuine belief. When religion becomes nothing but imposed form and required ritual, faith becomes secondary and eventually nonexistent. As Europe advanced technologically and scientifically, religion became about as important as the Sunday bath. And most of all, the established Church became an impediment to free thought. An established Church brooks no opposition, so those who believed the earth revolved around the sun, or that the earth was round and could be circumnavigated were suppressed. When the dissidents were proven right, the established Church lost its intellectual authority, and ultimately, over a long period of time, its religious power.

Americans figured this out early in their development, and took actions to promote belief by eliminating state-imposed religion. Prior to the Revolution, the colonies nearly all had official established religions. But after the time of the Puritans, few unofficial religions were seriously suppressed. Religion grew, even though the established churches seemed to be losing membership at an alarming rate.

And here's where the uniquely American confluence of religion and economic success comes into play. As the established churches began to disestablish, and the Constitution forbade the imposition of a federal Church, religions had to compete with each other. And compete they did. As Lamont describes the rational-choice school's view: "When a religion enjoys a monopoly in a given market, its leaders, lacking the spur of competition, will not try very hard to make religious practice an attractive option. But when a competitive market in religions replaces a monopoly, not only will the spur of competition be present, there also will be a process of natural selection among religions, with the more attractive religions gaining at the expense of the less attractive ones." Now how many of you ever considered a "market approach" to religion? But it actually worked.

"Heresy" lost its sting. Christianity thrived, in many forms, but until the last few decades, every church still held onto basic concepts, not the least of which was the divinity of Christ. And as the mainstream churches lost sight of that, they bled (and continue to bleed) membership while more traditional churches hold their own, and newer more vibrant forms of Christ-centered religion emerge.

Except for a few very clever religion-debasing pastors who exploited religion as a money-making commodity, the vast majority of church attenders and church founders didn't think in terms of religion being a beneficiary of free market economics, but it was, whether they recognized it or not. And that door swung both ways. The success of the churches that form the very vibrant faith of Americans works very nicely with the economic form of free choice. Choice, freedom, creativity, industriousness and deep faith have formed a nation that is both religious and the economic wonder of the world. The churches can suggest a myriad of economic solutions to economic issues, but no church can impose those solutions. The success of freedom of religion has strongly influenced the success of the free economy that has served us so well until government (the new state religion) began to impose its own secular state religion.

The free market approach can't explain everything about religion's steady hold on Americans, however. Canada eliminated state religion at about the same time as America, yet is is a far more secularist and non-religious nation. And most of Western Europe eliminated state-imposed religion over the past century. For multiple reasons, including the Founders insistence on the right to contract as a basic right, Americans have come to view their religion as a private contract, with a sanctity all its own, between themselves and God, without any need to consider the government, family, or community connections anywhere during the process. It has its odd tergiversations, such as Protestant cults which concentrate on handling poisonous serpents and Catholics who believe in abortion. But overall, the concentration is on a common faith. Religion in Canada and Western Europe, on the other hand, is very weak, and those who are from families of a certain belief rarely change their membership.

America was also a beneficiary of the "Puritan work-ethic." The early settlers in America saw enterprise and religion as hard work. Things don't just come to you, and they can only be beneficial if you are diligent in their pursuit. Laziness and acceptance of "things as they are" were among the great sins that the Puritans left England to escape. By the time the Puritans were long gone, the attitude remained. Neither religion nor wealth were easy things to grasp, and required thought and planning. More importantly, if the old way didn't work, and a new one did, Americans were free to change without anybody's permission.

Americans also enthusiastically embraced the Adam Smith doctrine of the "invisible hand" of the market contained in The Wealth of Nations. Already a religious lot, an "invisible hand" didn't seem all that different from a supernatural and invisible God who influenced human activity without making personal appearances. Try as they might, secularists have found it very hard to shake that belief, and religious people are free to think that the massive mistakes of "intellectually-gifted" big government planners are proof that man proposes, God disposes. They've certainly proven it to me, and I pray daily for the government planners to disappear into oblivion.

Naturally, the free market/free religion analysis is imperfect, but contains more truth than falsity. The sociological approach, on the other hand, is riddled with falsities and inconsistencies. The biggest one is that Americans are religious because of social pressure. Some are, most are not. To start with, it's hard to impose uniform social pressure on any but the smallest and most cohesive of communities. You're much more likely to see a Catholic American turn Protestant or vice versa simply because the social pressure said he couldn't do that. Social pressure has not worked out at all well for the mainstream church leadership. The more they abandon church doctrine, impose abnormal "norms," re-write scripture, and deny the importance of the divinity of Christ, the more they lose membership and cause the rise of Christ-centered movements which will read scripture their own way, thank you very much. The mainstream should be able to exert immense social pressure, but instead the mainstream is becoming the fringe.

It is also important to remember that market-based analyses can't fill all the holes. That which is unknowable is unknowable. But there is much to be said for freedom of religion being a parallel development with freedom of enterprise. It even leaves atheists free to believe religiously in free-market economics, and for liberation theology devotees to support economic determinism and Marxism. The ultimate result for all of them rests with fate, or historical progression, or inexplicable circumstances. I lean toward the invisible hand in the celestial realm, aka God. And I'm bloody well free to do so.


Tennessee Jed said...

A fine essay, Hawk. Religious freedom has been a tenant of our country, and I still believe it to be the noblest experiment in the history of mankind. Much of the statist's cultural push against religion comes from the fact, the all powerful state is required to replace religion.

While my family may well have been puritans, they were craftsmen as well so they may have simply come in 1634 because of hard economic times. I do know they quickly pushed west. One of the second generation was said to be an atheist, so maybe we weren't Puritans. On the other hand, self-responsibility and striving to be the best you could be was part of my upbringing that remains; e.g. puritan work ethic in spades. It clearly helped make me who I am and shape my politics.

I have my own brand of individual Christian spirituality, partially shaped by attendance at a Lutheran college. Loved the liturgy and music, and lots of great critical thinkers over the years among the Lutheran theologians, yet always tended more towards inner religion vs. organized religion.

Great post--thanks!

Unknown said...

Tennessee: I agree with most of what you've said, and where I don't, it's very simply a difference in personality. Like yours, my faith is very personal and deeply-felt. But I truly enjoy the ritual of the church, so I guess I have a strong hint of spiritualism as well. With a Catholic mother and a Lutheran father, I was encouraged to attend services but never required to. So naturally, I spent most Sundays at the local Baptist church where so many of my friends went on Sundays. But I did finally settle on the Lutheran Church, some time after my father died. But that streak is still there. German family, German stubbornness, and Germanic attention to detail.

Over the years, I watched the various synods joining each other, and as they did so, abandoning core principles and theology for the sake of some illusory unity, to the point that the Augsburg Confession and the divinity of Christ have become passe in the mega-synod--the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. I stopped attending Church (you can imagine how socially-engineered the ELCA is in San Francisco), but missed it and the ritual so much that I moved over to Missouri Synod. They aren't perfect, but at least I can still hear scripture and doctrine and observe the ritual.

HamiltonsGhost said...

Lawhawk--One of the phrases the early Americans and the founding fathers used often was "divine providence." The weren't afraid to thank God for their freedom and for their crops. That freedom allowed them to worship as they chose, and prosper as they worked.

Unknown said...

HamiltonsGhost: I think a restoration of that gratitude and a lot less feeling of entitlement could go a long way toward healing America's ills. America still has natural resources in abundance and a core population which knows that there's no such thing as a free lunch. The sooner we get government out of our lives, and enterprise back in, the quicker we'll heal from the damage done by the secularists who think they're smarter than either God or history.

Unknown said...

LawHawk. The early settlers at Plymouth attempted the concept of "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs." They thought that God might want that. They nearly starved and froze to death as the industrious few worked hard to feed the lazy majority who had no incentive to work.

Unlike socialists who impoverish nearly everyone, then say that the failure is caused by capitalist saboteurs, the Pilgrims quickly figured out that in God's plans, there are leaders, followers, workers, and layabouts. Nobody was denied the God-given right to rise to the top, and nobody was rewarded for laziness. They felt that God wanted those who were more fortunate to help those who could not help themselves and to be free to do so from their own free will.

Until the progressives decided to impose government largess in place of Christian charity, people helped each other, and it usually came out well, even after great disasters. Now, if you have a problem, don't ask God for you to be able to help yourself, just stick out your hand and wait for that government check.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, Excellent treatise on religion in America. I literally have nothing to add, except to emphasize that I think the correlation between the decline of religion and the state sponsorship of religion has become obvious.

Unknown said...

CalFed: Even when government might be able to provide some temporary relief that individuals and charities didn't have the immediate resources to provide, each such government program eventually became permanent, larger, less efficient and more damaging to the will and freedom to work one's way out of poverty. Roosevelt "helped" in the depression and turned it into the Great Depression. LBJ and the Great Society "helped," and created generations of people who chose not to work, claim "victim" status and live permanently off the hard work of others. Obama is following the same path, except he thinks that Roosevelt and Johnson moved too slowly.

In each case when puritan work values and Christian charity were replaced with government handouts, the cure was worse than the disease.

Unknown said...

Andrew: And not only have the Obama administration and its progressive predecessors destroyed the work ethic, they've formed a new state religion called "egalitarian redistribution." State-imposed traditional religion doesn't work for any considerable length of time in a truly free society, and secular religion imposed on a free people won't work for long either. Freedom of religion and freedom of enterprise produce free people. Imposed "religion," forced "charity" and government-controlled business produce (as Hayek said) a nation of serfs dependent on their masters for survival.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I can't dispute that either. Indeed, it's amazing how "religious" the left sounds when it comes to redistribution issues. And I mean that in a factual sense -- they really do start using religious nomenclature and paralleling many religious principles (though one sided and twisted). It really has become like a substitute religion for many on the left.

Joel Farnham said...


Communism has been compared to religion. Communism is a religion. It has all the signs. A god, Marx. A bible, communist manifesto. Several prophets, Saul Alinsky etc. Acolytes, most of the Democrat party. Liturgists, MSM. It's devils, most Conservatives and all religions. It's heretics. It's unbelievers.

Check it out.

Tennessee Jed said...

Senator Baucus actually spilled the beans on the health care bill being intended for income distribution. Of course, we always knew that's what all this is about, but interesting to hear him state it aloud.

Unknown said...

Joel: Communism is exactly one of those secular religions I'm talking about. The gods change (from Marx to Lenin to Stalin) or in Americs--Gaea, but there is no real theology, only process. And almost all secular "religions" deny free will.

Their gods have predetermined their path to the future, and will wreak plague and pestilence on those who disagree. Whether it's Marxism, or socialism, or global warming, or rabid egalitarianism, all the secular religions suppress free will and individual liberty in the name of "the greater good."

And they don't just create their secular gods. They also create secular devils--evil capitalists, heartless bankers, uncaring corporations, racists who oppose socialized medicine, etc., ad nauseam.

Unknown said...

Tennessee: Baucus reminds me of Gibbs. They're so thick-headed that if they go off-script for a second, they frequently spill the beans.

Joel Farnham said...


And here I thought you would be upset I compared Communism to a religion.

Silly me. :)

Unknown said...

Joel: Comparing communism to religion is a perfectly valid exercise. Even Marx said that religion is the opiate of the masses. But he wasn't stupid. He knew that people would still want their opiates when he removed God from the formula. So the "ideals" of communism needed to replace the faith of the religion. We ignore the religious fervor with which leftists pursue their various secular gods at our own peril.

My article was basically pointing out where American religious practice did the opposite of anesthetizing the masses. It energized them, and gave them realistic hope that the future would be better for them without waiting for their masters (even their masters in an organized religion) to tell them what to do and think. "The Lord helps him who helps himself" is not an original American thought, but more than any other people on earth, Americans have built that into their view of success.

Joel Farnham said...



Our current disagreement with Obama and his secularists could be considered a biblical war, in that it is about which religion will prevail. The freedom of choosing your religion or accepting the statist religion and all that implies.

Communism also is a flawed religion in that it doesn't exhalt the individual. My religion is more about my relationship with God. As is most of the religions in America.

Communism doesn't give a man that personal relationship.

Unknown said...

Joel: We're far from the first or only generation to notice the similarities. In 1949, Arthur Koestler and a group of intellectuals put a book together about the failure of communism to accomplish anything genuinely successful or humane. The title of the book was The God that Failed.

Joel Farnham said...


Don't shut your self down. We may not be the first, but we are here and now the best. We know what the Communist way of life is about. We know it's future. We are Americans. This minor kerfluffle with Communism will be a footnote by the time we are finished with it.

Something you and I in our sunset years will wow our great grandchildren with.

This year and the next six will tell the tale.

Unknown said...

Joel: Not to worry. My ex-wife once said I'd be late for my own funeral, and I'd still be lecturing as they dropped me into the ground.

StanH said...

Good read Lawhawk! It can’t be overstated the importance of religion in the formation and the sustaining of our great land. Our rights are given to us by God, “…endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights…” not by man, as man can remove said rights.

Unknown said...

StanH: That is one of the most important facets of the American form of religion. Our rights don't have to be filtered through either a state church or a government. They are ours from God, and ensconced in both the Declaration and the Constitution. That kind of personal freedom worked hand-in-hand with personal achievement.

rlaWTX said...

My psych prof discussed a study that was done on "Achievement" and it used electrical consumption as the measure of achievement. It also compared Protestant/Puritan work-ethic. And, lo and behold, the higher levels of achievement echoed those areas with an ingrained individualistic work-ethic. Go figure... I don't think that was really the prof's point, we were just discussing how to measure achievement, but truth does out...

(PS I'm linking on facebook, hope you don't mind.)

Unknown said...

rlaWTC: Group-think rarely produces much that is innovative or valuable. Individual creativity and cooperation between individuals enhance achievement. It's nice to know at least one scientific study supports that position, because logic and history clearly support it.

Happy to have you share us on FaceBook.

Individualist said...


I remember a discussion I had with a Jewish friend of mine. He was very Conservative and very religious and was the type of guy to wear both on his sleeve. Not unlike me in some respects. I remember one day he started on the Catholic Church bitterly complaining how they haed done this and taught that. he knew I was Catholic but we talked about this stuff so it wasn't offensive to me.

At some point I interrupted him to explain Hey I was raised in Catholic Schools by Nuns and I can tell you that is not what we are taught about Judaism at all. His remark perplexed me at the time.

He said "Understand I am talking about European Catholics, they are @$$holes. I find Amercan Catholics to be pretty cool". I never really understood what he meant by that. It would be interesting as a lark I guess to try to understand the difference between Americans and European Catholic Churchs though. MAybe he had a point and I missed it.

Unknown said...

Individualist: Your Jewish friend was not wrong. There's a lot of history to that. American Catholicism had its own early streak of independence, though Papal pronouncements on faith and morals were, until recently, still strictly adhered to. European Catholicism still maintains a strong streak of anti-semitism, but rarely among the clergy or the hierarchy. The official stand of the Roman Catholic Church is that some Jews and a large number of Romans brought about the crucifixion of Christ (a simple fact) but the Jews as a people and a religion are emphatically not "Christ-killers."

European local prejudices have distorted the official Catholic stance on the Jews, and primitive and ignorant communicants have perpetuated the blood-libel. Much of the European Catholic laity has, despite all efforts from the Church hierarchy, retained much of its superstitious and narrow-minded ways. American Catholics are about as close to their European counterparts as my Missouri Synod Lutherans are to the Lutherans in Sweden. Which is to say, hardly at all. Freedom from old prejudices and old ways is part of the American version of religion, including devout Catholics.

It's another example of how the "sophisticated and educated Europeans" are not nearly as enlightened as they would like others to believe, and Americans are not the ignorant rubes that they would like to believe themselves.

Individualist said...


I remeber that the Nuns and the priests drilled into us that "we had killed Christ". We being the students, the congregation of the church There was not much discusion of Judaism. The idea was the every sin we committed was another hammer on the nails into the Lord's extremeties.

The one discussion about Jews did involve the passion but the point was that we were the Jews. At that time the faith did not exist so the Jewish people in the crowd represented us. This was the stated reason why the parisioners read the responses on Palm Sunday.

Honestly they spent so much time making us feel guilty about it all that we had no time to think about anyone else let alone dare blame someone else because then we'd get in trouble for trying to back out of our own responsibility. Which we dared not do or fear of Sister Marcella's Ruler.

It was not until I kept hearing about how "controversial" this was that I even considered how a Jewish person might view it. I always thought it was a simple misunderstanding that could not be avoided because our religion came from theirs. This certainly puts a new perspective on it.

Unknown said...

Individualist: Times have changed, but every Catholic has a story about "guilt" (oddly so does almost every Jew). My mom was in her sixties when she converted to Lutheranism from her lifelong Catholicism. I was surprised, but pleased. My mom was a very smart woman, so I asked her why, expecting a very reasoned and logical reason for her conversion. She simply replied "I haven't been to Confession in nearly twenty-six years, and I'm not going to spend the rest of my life in that booth." LOL

Luther himself planted a great deal of anti-semitism, although he relented strongly toward the end of his life, so there were strong hints of it throughout European Lutherans who quickly supported the Nazis before the horrors were truly revealed. In America, however, it never gained that kind of foothold. My dad was about as Lutheran as you can get, yet was extremely fond of one of my two closest friends whose last name was Goldstein. It was so easy for me, that shortly thereafter I met my lifelong best friend, whose last name was Solomon. Why not have two Jewish friends? Except "Solomon" was the anglicized spelling of "Salomon," and I was amazed to find out months later (at the time Pope Paul VI died) that he was of Mexican-descent, and his family was very Catholic. Our religious convictions ran deep, but as typical Americans, our prejudices and disdain for those not like us didn't. So there we were, the classic good-humored joke that had many manifestations: "A priest, a pastor and a rabbi walk into a bar . . . ."

That attitude has served America, its religions, and its economy very well for over two hundred years.

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