Historical Sociology of Religion: Politics and Modernity

Bryan S Turner. Handbook of Social Theory. Editor: George Ritzer & Barry Smart. 2001. Sage Publication.

Sociology has been specifically concerned to understand the origins and development of modernity, and it has seen religion as a crucial component of this social process of modernization. In fact we can break this interest down into three distinctive components. The sociological study of religion in the historical development of modern societies has been concerned to study: the impact of religion on economic norms and behaviour; the contribution of religions to the philosophy and development of political regimes such as democracy; and the consequences of religion for cultural development broadly conceived. These issues cover the whole of sociology; therefore in order to give this chapter some definite shape and horizon, these sociological themes are analysed within the framework of Max Weber’s historical sociology (Turner, 1992). Weber’s sociology has been said to involve the study of the economic ethics of the world religions, but this interpretation is too narrow (Tenbruck, 1980). To this notion, we must add that Weber’s sociology also involved the study of the political ethics of the world religions. If we combine these two dimensions—economics and politics—we have an adequate framework within which to consider the historical sociology of religion. This chapter attempts specifically to examine the implications of Weber’s historical sociology of religion for the study of politics.

Weber’s sociology of religion was implicitly developed as an answer to two interconnected questions (Weber, 1966). The first asked whether Christianity, as a cultural precondition for rational economic behaviour, could ultimately survive capitalism. The second question considered whether the democratic ethos of secular institutions would eventually undermine the hierarchical notions of charismatic authority that are embedded in ecclesiastical organizations. With respect to these two questions, Weber was generally negative (Weber, 1930). His sociology was characterized by the theme of the fatefulness of Western institutions, an idea that he derived from Nietzsche (Turner, 1996). Religious asceticism was self-defeating in producing the spirit of capitalism, which came to negate Christian spirituality. Weber also thought the modern power politics would have relatively little connection with Christian brotherly love. In many respects, his pessimism of values has not been fully supported by the historical development of Western cultures. In particular, religious institutions and values have proved to be remarkably resilient against the corrosive impact of secularization in Western societies. While sociologists and historians might dispute the validity of Weber’s historical sociology of religions, his sociological questions about religion, politics and economics have proved to be extraordinarily productive and imaginative.

Although Weber’s sociology of religion is a productive framework for thinking about religion and politics, it does raise intractable problems about Orientalism (Turner, 1994). The first is the Orientalist problem of the specificity of the thesis that democracy, or more narrowly citizenship, as a Western mode of political life was the unintended consequence of Christian spirituality. This chapter is primarily about the relationship between Christian institutions in relation to capitalism and democracy, but we should note that this-worldly soteriologies are not peculiar to Christianity and that the sacred/profane division, as ‘mile’ Durkheim (1954) noted, appears to define religion as such. We might expect, therefore, that the division between the world and religion is present in a variety of traditions. For example, within the Abrahamic religions, politics and religion have remained in a dialectical tension, and this tension has played a creative role in the development of democracy as an urban form of participatory politics. Because religion had a universal and sacred notion of justice, it has functioned as a powerful criticism of the state. The essential point of this introductory comment is that, if we regard the tensions between religion and world as constitutive of the leverage towards rational economic behaviour, then we can regard the same tension as the leverage towards modern politics

The doctrine of the Church as a community free from coercion provided a powerful contrast to the state, which Weber (1978) famously defined as that institution which has a monopoly of violence within a given territory. The Church as a parallel society provided a set of normative criteria by which bad government could, in principle, be evaluated. It provided a cultural space within which concepts of justice, equality (‘brotherhood’) and community evolved as components of a theology of political institutions. However, the association of the Church with this world exposed the religious community to corruption and co-optation. For example, the rise of the national church involved religious functionaries in power-sharing. Thus, the dialectic of sacred and profane force can be seen as a paradox that assisted the rise of the modern citizen. This dialectic is not peculiar to Western culture. Similar arguments can and have been made about the relationship between Buddhism and society, specifically between the monastic order and the secular state. In Western history, the Christian king is one who assists salvational history through the wise management of the state, and who if necessary employs force to secure Church and state. In Buddhist legend, King Asoka was both conqueror and Buddhist monk (Ling, 1966).

It was this interweaving of religion and politics, brotherly love and violence, that constituted the tragic vision of Weber’s sociology. Politics requires authoritative methods for the distribution of resources and must resort to coercive means to establish order. In the last analysis, politics is about the wise use of force in society to preserve order. Political institutions must exert violence and religious communities are based on brotherly love. Politics and religion must exist in a state of tension, but paradoxically they are both required for the creation of order. For Weber, religious institutions are channels of symbolic (charismatic) violence that coerce behaviour through sacred force, while political institutions require secular force.

Religion as Charismatic Force

This analytical insight into religion as a cultural lever for modernity in Weber’s sociology was developed by Talcott Parsons (1962) and adopted as an explanation of the dynamic nature of American culture. The core feature of this theory is the explication of the historical role of charisma in human societies. Weber employed a theory of charismatic breakthrough to understand the secular dynamic of authority and leadership in social institutions. His main intention was to compare and contrast three types of authority: charismatic, traditional and legal-rational. In Economy and Society, the term ‘charisma’ is ‘applied to a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is considered extraordinary and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities’ (Weber, 1978: 241). Traditional authority involves the acceptance of an implicit rule that expresses a custom, namely an established pattern of belief or practice. Finally, legal-rational authority is typical of bureaucracies, in which formal and explicit rules of conduct are underpinned by procedural norms. These forms of authority are in turn modes of compliance. Tradition depends on compliance through empathy; legal-rational authority rests on rational argument; and charismatic authority and leadership require inspiration.

Charismatic authority is confronted by a generic problem of succession with the death of the leader and is consequently unstable. With the death of the charismatic leader, the disciples typically disband, but occasionally alternative solutions for continuity will be developed. In the case of the Christian Church, the charismatic authority of Christ was invested in the Church itself (as the body of Christ) and thus in the bishops, who, by their control over the ‘keys of grace,’ enjoy a stable vicarious authority. This ‘institutionalization of charisma’ becomes over time increasingly formal, bureaucratic and impersonal. Weber defined the ‘routinization of charisma’ in terms of the transformation of the charismatic power of Christ into a set of formal procedures and bureaucratic rules. Charisma is institutionally important in the definition of different religious roles and patterns of organization. For example, Weber distinguished between the prophet, who, as a charismatic figure, has a personal call, and the priest, who has authority by virtue of his office in the Church and his service in a sacred tradition. The prophets, who may emerge from the ranks of the priesthood, are unremu-nerated, and therefore depend on gifts from followers.

Weber also distinguished two forms of prophecy as represented, on the one hand, by Buddha and, on the other, by Zoroaster and Muhammad. The latter represent ‘ethical prophecy’ and are conceived as mere instruments of God. These prophets receive a commission from God to preach a revelation and demand obedience from their disciples as an ethical duty. By contrast, exemplary prophets demonstrate to their followers a salvational path through the example provided by their own lives. Exemplary prophecy was, according to Weber, characteristic of Asia, and ethical prophecy, of the Abrahamic religions of the Middle East (Zeitlin, 1984).

The institutions through which people gain access to charismatic gifts have important implications for broader issues of social organization and political power. Where the Church was able to claim an exclusive monopoly of the means of grace, then there was a rigid and detailed hierarchy of authority between priests and laity, and the hierarchies of this world were a reflection of sacred hierarchies. As we will see, the Reformation challenged the medieval hierarchy of authority and sanctity through the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers (Weber, 1930). An important sociological issue is therefore the historical development of a sacramental priesthood in Western culture, and the challenge of alternative forms of authority.

Within the dialectic of sacred and profane, the radical doctrine of equality in Islam provides an important case study of a religious system that has rejected priesthood and sacrament. Islamic doctrine is radically egalitarian, because its monotheistic fundamentalism precludes any ontological hierarchy in either human society or nature. Its first doctrinal premise is the affirmation in the Surah of Unity (Surah cxii): He is God alone, God the Eternal. This monotheistic vision rules out hierarchy. Although Muhammad is the Messenger of God, it is a fundamental misrepresentation to refer to Islam as a religion, namely as ‘Muhammadanism.’ All beings are subordinated to Allah, because Qur’anic orthodoxy precludes any divine associates. This theological notion of Unity lays the foundation for a belief in the radical equality of human beings. In sociological terms, however, actual Islamic societies have been profoundly hierarchical, and as a result, there is a permanent tension between the religious vision and the mundane realities of Muslim societies in history (Marlow, 1997).

In its historical inception, Islam was an egalitarian brotherhood that assumed the equality of free male believers, developing neither Church nor priesthood. This radical monotheism complemented Arabic tribalism, which also had an egalitarian ethic, but these doctrines were quickly compromised by the success of Islamic military expansion, which encouraged the growth of a more status conscious and hierarchical social order. The prominent religious roles played by women in early Islamic communities were also eventually overshadowed by the patriarchical cultures of imperial powers. These tendencies were increasingly legitimized by the Islamic incorporation of Greek political thought, which conceptualized the city as a hierarchical political formation. In the polis, social order requires the harmony that is produced by a wise but despotic leader. In Iraq and Iran in the Sassanian period, social inequality became progressively hereditary, and the dominant class was a landed nobility.

The pre-Islamic Iranian priestly model of despotism was imitated by later Islamic regimes, whose aristocratic power was legitimized by the religious leadership (ulama). For example, the works of al-Mawardi (974-1058) described a rigid social world composed of aristocratic horsemen, priests, peasants and merchants. The model was both functional and hierarchical. In response to these despotic institutions, political conflict in Islam has been subsequently organized around utopian criticism of urban hierarchy, a utopian opposition that often appeals nostalgically to the egalitarian asabiyya of the pristine community as celebrated in the Qur’an. For instance, in the Iranian Revolution of 1977-9, Ayatollah Khomeini mobilized the oppressed (mazlum) and the innocent (bi gunah) against the urban elite, who were the principal agents of the Shah’s authoritarian programme of economic modernization, in the name of a radical Islamic state. The Revolution involved a successful alliance between the clergy behind Khomeini, sections of the urban working class and the dispossessed (Mostaz’afin), who were typically landless rural migrants. In radical Islam, the voice of the people became an expression of divine will against the inequalities of the secular state (Shar’ati, 1980). Contrary to Weber’s Orientalist account of Islamic conservatism, Islam shares with Christianity a tradition of radical politics that is driven by a utopian vision of a community of love set against the greed and violence of this world.

The different ways in which societies manage the challenge of charismatic powers has an important relationship to the rise of citizenship, because the specific manner of institutionalization of charisma has established the division between the authority of ecclesiastical institutions and the secular power of kings. In this discussion, I shall be primarily concerned with the division between Church and state, but similar arguments also apply to Judaism and Islam, and to a lesser extent to so-called ‘Asiatic religions’ such as Buddhism. In Islam, the death of the Prophet in 661 ce created similar problems of succession, resulting eventually in the split between Shi’ism and Sunni Islam with respect to the source of authority and leadership within the Islamic community. The evolution of Shi’ism into a separate but suppressed religious movement produced the doctrine of the Hidden Imamate, in which the secular state had no ultimate authority over the community (Richard, 1995). This doctrine (the Occultation of the Hidden Imam) provided the radical seed of the Iranian Revolution, in which the modernizing government of the Pahlavi Shah was condemned as heretical. The authority of Ayatollah Khomeini provided a charismatic challenge to the secular institutions of the modern state (Arjomand, 1984). By contrast, Sunnism accepted the caliphates of the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties as a legitimate form of government. Fundamentalist Islam in the twentieth century challenged this traditional compromise between the private sphere of religious devotion and the public arena of social institutions, and between the religious leadership of the community (umma) and the secular authority of the state.

Thus the routinization of charisma in religious movements compels religious authorities to develop a compromise with secular power. When a messianic religion becomes domesticated, there is a parallel evolution of religious citizenship within the religious community and political citizenship within the state. Because the religious community was an institution of consent, the participation of the laity within the Church often provided a primitive model of secular citizenship.

The Evolution of Church and State

In the West, the division between secular and profane authority was a central feature of political institutions. Jesus was part of the lineage of radical Jewish prophets who condemned the evils of this world against the demands of a righteous God. Early Christianity emerged as a millenarian and chiliastic movement that eagerly anticipated the end of the world in the Second Coming of Christ. Building on Christ’s prophetic utterances (such as ‘My Kingdom is not of this earth’), the early Church regarded the affairs of this world as transient and ultimately irrelevant to the salvation of souls. Political life in this world was sharply separated from religious phenomena.

The Christian community had eventually to adjust to the absence of a Second Coming and was forced to develop institutions and doctrines that recognized the continuity and importance of secular institutions. In a post-chiliastic society, Christian theology was forced to begin the task of developing a view of citizenship, because it had to conceptualize how Christian souls would behave in secular institutions. It was necessary to have a normative understanding of how Christians ought to behave in this world, just as Christian thought had an understanding of life in the next. Christians came to think of themselves as merely visitors or foreign residents in this world, because true citizenship was in another world. However, the very persistence of the Christian Church gave rise to the need for organizational structure and administration. The development of a state within a state involved an inevitable compromise with the world. In the works of Origen (185-254) and Tertullian (160-220), we see the emergence of an official view of the Church as a parallel society and of the Christian as a person with a double citizenship. In his reflections on martyrdom, Origen had argued that life in this world was merely an apprenticeship for the next. Although the Church is a superior society, Christians working and living in this world should be law-abiding, honest and trustworthy. Patristic theology thus created a bridge between the teachings of Jesus and the classical world, within which Plato’s doctrine of the forms perfectly suited the needs of an emergent Church.

The persecution of the Christian community and the martyrdom of the faithful had the consequence of protecting the Church from compromise and from rapid assimilation into this world. However, this tradition of conflict and suppression came to an end with the conversion of the Western emperor Constantine to Christianity in 312. This conversion can be seen as a traditional Roman practice of accepting a range of gods into the empire under the broad authority of an abstract being. Constantine, who had been devoted to Sol Invictus, may have found an acceptance of the Christian God as the Light of the World unproblematic. The Church was now under the protection of the Roman state, and the emperor restored confiscated property and transferred great wealth to the Church. Constantine began to act as the head of the Church, and called the bishops to the Council of Nicaea in 325 to defend the unity of the faith behind the doctrine of the Trinity. Under Theodosius the union of Church and state was further consolidated, and the emperor came to regard Christianity and the Trinitarian faith as the social foundation of the imperial system. Paradoxically, acceptance of orthodox Christianity had became the principal condition of citizenship within the empire (Maddox, 1996: 80).

This reconciliation of Christianity as a millenarian religion of salvation and the imperial society of Rome produced a profound reaction against the materialism of Roman society, namely Christian monasticism and mysticism. The most profound articulation of this spiritual crisis can be found in the work of St Augustine of Hippo (354-430), namely the City of God. This work was composed as a response to paganism on the occasion of the fall of Rome to Alaric the Goth in 410. Augustine’s City of God was composed between 413 and 426, and has remained a central text of Western political philosophy. Augustine absorbed the idealism of Plato, for whom the world was transient but the forms or ideas of mind were permanent, and the republican philosophy of Cicero. Augustine starts by rejecting the view that the Roman Empire was a necessary step in the redemptive history of the Church on earth. He was critical of alleged virtues of the pre-Christian Empire, arguing that the military advances of the Empire were not motivated by true virtues. He rejected Cicero’s view of the glorious foundations of Rome and championed Christian virtue as the foundation of a civilized society based on love of neighbours (Weithman, 2001). The Roman Empire was corrupt and Christians should focus their attention on the City of God, which alone is perfect. However, Augustine did not support any spiritual flight from the world. While the Christian remains alien in this world, Christians should co-operate with the state and its administration.

Because Augustine hated civil disturbance and war, he accepted the state as a necessary regulation of society. Christians could not wholly ignore their secular responsibilities and had duties to attend to in this world such as alms-giving and the education of children. While the Holy City was driven by caritas, the secular city was based on cupiditas, and hence the secular life of men involved a society of conflict and struggle. Thus ‘the earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord’ (Augustine, 1972: 593). The earthly city was nevertheless important in providing for the Christian community in terms of an administrative order. It has often been said that the radical element of Augustine’s teaching was a vision of history that was linear and teleological, thus breaking with the cyclical view of the classical world (Wolin, 1961). The Holy City was a city at the end of human history, and secular politics was important in so far as it served that historical purpose. The two cities existed in a dialectical relationship in which the secular city was part of the same order as the Church itself. The secular city could be justified as a coercive order when it assisted the Church in its divine purpose.

The legacy of Augustinian theology was a conception of the state and human society as entirely secular and amoral institutions. In this respect, Augustine departed radically from Eusebius of Caesarea (264-340) in that religious membership was no longer the basis of political citizenship. For Eusebius, Christianity was completely identified with the Roman Empire, and Constantine was compared with Christ as a light sent to inspire humanity. By contrast, Augustine, in book xix of the City of God, defined a people as ‘the association of a multitude of rational beings united by a common agreement on the objects of their love’ (1972: 890). He did not regard Roman society as just, and with the collapse of the empire in the west, he came to the conclusion that the Church could not rely on any particular state.

Medieval political theory moved in a very different direction and was concerned to find some reconciliation between Church and state, and, in particular, ecclesiastical teaching returned to a view of the prince as a religious leader who ruled wisely and, where necessary, forcefully. The problem was specifically to develop a view of feudal kingship as, at least potentially, a religious institution. This theological trajectory was established by Charlemagne (742-814), who was crowned the Emperor of the Romans by Pope Leo III in St Peter’s basilica in 800. The resulting Carolingian theory of rulership combined theocracy with some degree of consent. We can see this amalgam in the writings of Charlemagne’s teacher Alcuin, who argued that the emperor had two swords, one to keep the Church internally free from heresy and the other to quell its pagan enemies. Like King David, Charlemagne combined the roles of ruler and priest.

With the development of European feudalism, theories and institutions of rulership continued to evolve. Medieval society was characterized by a permanent tension between a descending interpretation of power in which the king had no equals, and an ascending principle in which the king was a feudal lord surrounded by his lords (Ullmann, 1965). The growth of coronation rituals including anointment consolidated the theocratic legacy of the Carolingian period at the beginning of medieval feudalism. The descending theory acquired over time a religious ideology of theocratic rule in which the absolute king was the representative of God. At the beginning of the modern period, the work of Robert Filmer produced a comprehensive theory of patriarchy in which the king represents the authority of God over his household just as the husband exercises patriarchal rule over an earthly family (Schochet, 1975). It was against this patriarchal theory of power that John Locke developed his political theory of limited government. The ascending principle laid the foundation for an element of participation in which kings had to justify their actions before a council of equals and eventually before a parliament of men. This democratic, or at least collective, element of restraint on royal powers created a political tradition, stretching from Magna Carta in 1215 to legal judgments of Sir Edward Coke in the seventeenth century against the arbitrary extension of royal privilege, that denounced the capricious exercise of power. Within feudalism, we see the emergence of principles of immunity, arguments about rights and institutions that attempted to restrain the absolute and arbitrary powers of kings. The ascending principle thus recognized that the political connection between king and vassal was a contract based on mutual consent, which implied that the king could not rule in a tyrannical and subjective manner.

Political life in the Middle Ages revolved around the conflicting roles and status of monarchical and papal authority. It is a mistake, however, to conclude that medieval political thought was constructed on a set of dichotomies between secular and sacred powers. The religious debates around papal powers were essentially political and laid much of the foundation of modern thought: the legitimacy and scope of the derived powers of the pope, the importance of moral leadership over Christian society, and the nature of obedience required by its subjects (Wolin, 1961: 137). The defence of papal authority challenged the idea that the state had a monopoly on governance, but the ironic consequence was that the language of theology had become deeply politicized. This debate raised important questions about the nature and scope of political authority, and hence the range and conditions of political obedience. Is there any obligation for a Christian subject to obey an unjust lord, or an unworthy cleric? The medieval debate in this respect paved the way for both Machiavelli and Luther.

Individualism and the Protestant Challenge to Ecclesiastical Hierarchy

The creation of European nation-states from the seventeenth century necessarily involved the creation of nationalistic ‘imaginary communities’ (Benedict, 1983) which asserted and partly created homogenous populations which were held together, against the pressures of class, culture and ethnicity, by nationalistic ideologies. If we identify the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 as the juridical origin of the modern world-system of nation-states, then state formation involved the creation of nationalist identities on the basis of a double colonization, both internal and external. For example, anti-Semitism provided the pretext in many European states for earlier versions of ethnic cleansing in order to create a homogenous population, but in a less violent form one can find various political and social pressures to create civil societies on the basis of common languages, common religious rituals and beliefs, and a single ethnic identity. This process was the cultural basis for the creation of national forms of citizenship in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The rise of the system of nation-states was connected with the rise of national forms of competitive capitalism. The capitalist mode of production undermined historical patterns of rural communities based on traditional forms of agrarianism. Through urbanization and the demographic revolutions of the early nineteenth century, industrial capitalism produced a large urban proletariat that was a potential threat to the new order of nation-states. Nationalism was created by nation-states either as a substitute for or in combination with religion as the social cement of an urban society that was organized around conflicting social classes.

The political history of Europe was the history of Christendom, and the evolution of fundamental Western institutions such as the state and civil society cannot be understood without an analysis of ecclesiastical institutions. As we have seen, during the Roman Empire, the Christian community was originally a cult whose millenarian doctrine sharply separated the sacred and the profane. Eschatological expectations about the Second Coming meant that Christian leaders had little interest in shaping this world. The conversion of Constantine, the foundation of Constantinople as a Christian city and the acceptance of Christianity as the official religion of the Empire brought about the end of Christian chiliasm. In the late fourth and fifth centuries, the papacy emerged as a governmental institution that exercised rulership.

The collapse of the Roman Empire and the advance of barbarian kingdoms in the fifth and sixth centuries created the foundations of feudalism. As Christianity came to adjust to the existence of the secular institutions of this world, it was forced to reconsider the relationship between the Church and the state. Medieval Christian theology provided basic models of power, kingship, corporation and immunity that have been and remain influential in Western political institutions. Throughout the medieval period, Christian theologians, as we have seen, struggled to reconcile two problematic principles: the state was an institution of violence, but it was necessary for social order; and the Church, whose foundation was a divine act, depended upon the state to secure its soteriological purpose. What was common to medieval belief and what came to shape the growth of constitutional theory was the assumption that power should exist within a normative framework.

While the medieval Church inherited the impulse of primitive Christianity to disengage from political life, this other-worldly impulse could not be comprehensively obeyed since the Church was ultimately dependent on state institutions. The political importance of the Protestant Reformation created a new vision of independent, self-governing communities in which the sanctified individual would be liberated from the tyranny of secular powers and the corruption of ecclesiastical institutions. Lutheranism embraced a nostalgic vision of the purity of the primitive Church with which to challenge Catholic institutions, but the sins of this world were the pretext for a theory of the state as a moral authority. Luther went further to recognize that the state was necessary to release Christian souls from the tyranny of the Church in the world. The fundamental instability of this relationship between the sovereignty of the state and the divine mission of the Church produced an endless cycle of reformation and counter-reformation that structured political life in Europe for centuries.

Luther followed Augustine in recognizing the existence of two kingdoms, but Luther’s world was very different from the social and political context of Augustine’s City of God. Whereas Augustine had sought to defend Christianity in the context of imperial Rome, Luther sought to nourish individual piety in the context of the imperial power of the Roman Church. Luther’s calling was essentially religious, namely to articulate the problem of individual salvation in relation to a God who could not be influenced by the human institutions of penance and ritual. Because human beings are deeply depraved, society requires a powerful state to subdue the sinfulness of human nature. Catholicism had developed a view of sin as a series of acts that were cumulative, and hence confession and penance meant that sin could be cancelled piecemeal. In Lutheranism, sinfulness was total and systematic, and hence it could not be resolved progressively through the use of the means of grace. The assault on evil required far more dramatic, profound and total methods.

One consequence of Lutheranism was to justify absolute political power. For example, Luther’s condemnation of peasant resistance to the German aristocracy was ruthless and yet the unintended political consequences of Lutheranism were revolutionary, as Friedrich Engels (1956) clearly recognized in The Peasant War in Germany. First, Luther was deeply opposed to the earthly political powers of the Roman Catholic Church, which exercised a tyrannical control over the sacraments. Secondly, he insisted on the equality of all Christians in a priesthood of all believers, and thereby challenged the hierarchical organisation of the Roman Church. Following Augustine, he recognised that the Church was a fraternity or a union of souls (communio sanctorum) rather than a coercive hierarchy of power. Authority for the interpretation of divine laws rested in the last analysis with the congregation rather than an episcopate. Thirdly, Lutheran theology established a commitment to the principle of freedom through the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. Although Luther had in mind a spiritual freedom, it had powerful political implications by challenging the authority of the offices of the Church in matters of spiritual governance. We might argue that Lutheranism created the idea of a spiritual citizenship in which individualism was tempered by a clear notion of the Church as a congregational democracy.

Despite Luther’s attempts to contain social unrest, Lutheranism unleashed an antinomian crisis in western Christendom, because it legitimated preaching against the corruption of the Church and the state in the name of an individual interpretation of the purposes of a righteous God. The extreme Anabaptists sects illustrated the revolutionary potential of the idea of Christian equality. The followers of Thomas Munster wielded holy violence against a corrupt world that had turned its back on holy scriptures. It was Calvin who, in his The Institutes of the Christian Religion, attempted to restore a Christian commitment to law, order and civility. In part, he modified Lutheranism by emphasizing a division between the invisible and the visible Church. The invisible Church was a society of saints, but the visible Church on earth contained sinners and required discipline, law and institutions. The unity of the visible Church required the beneficial effects of the sacraments and the teaching of scripture. The consequence of Calvin’s sociology of ecclesiastical administration was an institutionalization of the Christian community without resort to a papal authority; it was an important step towards a democratization of the congregational structure of Protestantism without the antinomian consequences of the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers. The centralized authority of the Roman Church papacy had been successfully challenged by the Protestant Reforms, but the universalism of the Catholic Church was also compromised by the growth of nationalism and the nation-state. The Reformation unleashed powerful movements towards the creation of a system of national churches that were parallel to the creation of nation-states. The Treaty of Westphalia produced a political system of nation-states and forced the churches to operate within national boundaries.

The republican and revolutionary ideas of John Milton and the English Civil War were part of the legacy of the Puritan Reformation. For example, the Areopagitica would have been impossible without the radical politics of Luther and his followers (Kendrick, 1986). Milton wrote in a period of English history where radical millenarianism had captured the imagination of the political movement against the monarch. The radicals preached that the Pope was the Antichrist whose overthrow would bring about the new millennium, and that God’s Englishmen were the main opponents of the Antichrist. Milton accepted this millenarian view of the special role of England in providence, and his acceptance of the religion of the heart, adult baptism and political libertinism put him well within the ranks of the antinomian preachers (C. Hill, 1977). It was a religious vision of the transformation of power to godly rule that inspired a revolutionary tradition in Europe and North America.

Religion and Secularization

The French Revolution and American War of Independence went further in creating a system of nation-states and national ideology as the cement of modern society. The emphasis on equality and individualism created the modern notion of national citizenship and a secular republican tradition that profoundly challenged European Catholicism. Modernization has been necessarily associated with secularism and the growth of scientific criticism of revelation as the foundation of Christian belief. Radicals like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels regarded working-class socialism as a necessary condition for the effective criticism of religion as the ideology of a dominant class. These revolutionary traditions that embraced nationalism and secularism created the notion that a modern democracy could only emerge out of the ashes of religion.

It has been a basic assumption of the sociology of religion that the Christian churches in Europe have, from the nineteenth century, been subject to a profound and ineluctable process of secularization. In The Social Teaching of the Christian Churches (1931), Troeltsch argued that the oscillation between Church and sect that had shaped much of European history had come to an end with the final erosion of the universal Church. Religious life would become a matter of private belief and practice. The growth of an urban industrial society had undermined the social, cultural and intellectual conditions that made religious attachment and belief possible (MacIntyre, 1969).

It is, however, important to differentiate between the history of Protestantism and Catholicism in European politics. Catholicism, prior to political liberalization in the late twentieth century, was central to the expression of nationalism in continental Europe. In Ireland, too, national identity and republicanism have, since the time of Edmund Burke, been thoroughly merged within a Catholic tradition, and the Protestant-Catholic divide in Northern Ireland has remained an obstinate fact of political violence. Owing to the political alienation of the population from the pre-1922 British state, the majority equate being Catholic with being Irish. This pervasive social and cultural influence of Catholicism is closely associated with its influence over education. In Ireland, for example, while the state provides over 85 per cent of funding, Catholic boards of managers control most schools and remained a major counter-force to secularism. The dominance of the Catholic Church on the European right guaranteed that regional, party and class divisions were often drawn along religious lines. Indeed, since the nineteenth century, Catholicism has represented a major counter force to communism, and recognition of Catholicism for moral leadership of the working class produced a notion of ‘hegemony’ in the study of European politics (Gramsci, 1971).

After the Second World War, Catholicism also played an important cultural and political role in relation to atheist communism. The Polish Solidarity movement demonstrated decisively the capacity of Catholicism to survive communism and to act as a conduit of social protest and change, because it is embedded in national identity. With the end of the Cold War and the fall of communism, Catholicism may play a diminished role in the articulation of nationalism and national identity. In Spain, General Franco rose to power in 1936 following his attack on the socialist government. Franco’s regime was decidedly Catholic and supported traditional values against godless atheism. The collapse of the Franco regime following his death in 1975 has resulted in the diminution of the public authority of the Catholic Church. While economic prosperity and growing multiculturalism have brought about a partial divorce between state and Church in Europe, the communal and cultural basis of national citizenship has typically flourished on religious soil. In short, the relationship between Catholicism and modern citizenship is complex. Catholicism has played a major role in the development of human rights, the formation of grass-roots radicalism in Latin America and European socialism through the worker-priest movement but it has also been criticized for its conservative view of women, contraception and family life. There is no satisfactory generalization about the relationship between Catholicism and citizenship.

This complex picture underlines some of the certainties of the ‘secularization thesis,’ which was one of the most influential aspects of the sociology of religion in the 1960s and 1970s. Sociologists largely accepted the idea that secularization was part and parcel of the modernization of society. Sociological perspectives on religion have changed to take into account such issues as the continuing importance of religion in American culture, the global development of fundamentalism, the impact of Islam on social development, and the effervescence of ‘New Age’ faiths. While there is clear evidence of secularization in the sense that membership of and participation in Christian churches have declined, religious identity continues to play a generic role in national identity and consciousness. This reassessment of the secularization thesis suggests that we need to be more sensitive to the ways in which the secular world was and is shaped by the sacred, including the diverse ways in which the political is constituted by the religious.

Religion and Associational Democracy

Sociological inquiry has often neglected the religious roots of contemporary associational political theory. For example, modern associational philosophy can be derived from the history of English Methodism. John Wesley (1703-91), who created the Wesleyan circuit of chapels and preaching houses in the eighteenth century, attempted to take Anglicanism back to the faith and practice of the primitive church, but paradoxically created a movement that was critical of the religious and political establishment. The relationship between Methodism and working-class politics has been a controversial historical issue (Thompson, 1963). Historians (such as Halevy, 1961) have argued that England was spared the revolutionary fervour of France because Wesleyan Methodism functioned as a social ladder that encouraged social mobility out of the working and artisan class. Nevertheless while Methodism may have contributed to the absence of a violent political revolution in eighteenth-century England, the tradition of independent chapels and the social participation that they fostered did contribute to the civic culture that made the peaceful development of citizenship possible. Although Wesley was specifically opposed to radical politics and interpreted Methodism as a spiritual revolution, the independent Methodist chapels were associated with working-class protest and eventually, with the development of Primitive Methodism, they came to shape the social development of the Labour Party. Methodism provided the working class with discipline, literacy, abstinence and leadership. It had the unintended consequence of transforming sections of the disorganized working class into an effective political movement. As a result, John Wesley’s conservative sermons and Charles Wesley’s emotional hymns were an important cultural component of the making of the English working class (Semmel, 1973).

Similar developments took place in the United States, with conservative consequences. There is the argument that the Protestant sects provided capitalism with a disciplined and restrained working class. The chapels worked closely with the owners of capital, because business were willing to support preachers who condemned alcoholism among the workers (Pope, 1942). In addition Protestants did not disrupt or challenge the racial structures of the southern states (Dollard, 1998). The general development of denominationalism in America became an essential part of American culture, providing a means for the acculturation of migrant communities into the American racial melting-pot (Niebuhr, 1957).

In Germany, neither Lutheranism nor Catholicism offered any challenge to the rule of the dominant classes. The role of the state in creating and maintaining order was a basic assumption of established religion, and the majority of clergy regarded working-class agitation as a dangerous anticipation of atheist socialism. The Russian revolutions confirmed the fears of German intellectuals that the possibility of a peaceful transition to bourgeois democracy in Russia was unlikely (Weber, 1995). The biography of Friedrich Naumann (1860-1919), a personal friend of Max Weber, provides a useful insight into the political culture of liberal Protestantism prior to the outbreak of the First World War. Naumann worked as an assistant to Johann Heinrich Wichern in the so-called ‘Rough House’ near Hamburg, which provided pastoral support for the industrial working class. It was evident that the German working class was alienated from the churches and that the religious leadership was completely out of touch with the realities of proletarian culture. Winchern and Naumann worked towards a re-Christianization of German society through active evangelism and through Christian socialism, which, while accepting capitalism as an economic system, attempted to improve the material condition of the working class through social ethics (Theiner, 1987).

One might argue that Christian socialism was a cynical strategy to bridge the gap between the churches and German society with a view to preventing the growth of atheistic socialism in the industrial proletariat. In Germany, Christian socialism, under the influence of pastors like Adolf Stoecker, often assumed a powerful nationalist flavour and embraced anti-Semitic values. Naumann, working through the Protestant Workers’ Association (Evangelische Arbeitvereine) and the Evangelical-Social Congress (Evangelische-sozialer Kongress), attempted to distinguish the ‘young Christian Socialists’ from the conservative direction of Stoecker. By 1894 the attitude of the church authorities towards Naumann and the ‘socialist’ clergy became hostile, and eventually the clergy were forced to choose between retreating back into their clerical roles or working outside Protestantism. Christian socialism in the late nineteenth century failed to re-Christianize society by winning the working class back into Protestantism and the churches became increasingly nationalistic and supported the military build-up of Germany.

It was this crisis in Protestantism that contributed to the reconstruction of Christian thought through the radical work of Karl Barth (McCormack, 1995). Against the liberal compromise of the Protestant establishment, Barth emphasized the alienation of the Christian in the world, and returned to an orthodox eschatology that situated human hope on divine intervention in history. Without a radical division between politics and religion, capitalism and nationalism would compromise the German churches. Barth’s christological criticism of state power was ultimately a defence against reactionary Christianity. Unfortunately, the history of the Second World War demonstrated that the churches followed the nationalistic and militaristic tendencies of nation-states. In the postwar period, both Catholic and Protestant churches in Europe sought to improve their relationship with the working class through such reforms as the worker-priest movement (Wickham, 1961). In Latin America, the Roman Catholic Church has, often reluctantly, become associated with radical political movements through its articulation of liberation theology (Villa-Vicencio, 1992).

Globalization and National Religions

The thesis of this chapter has been that religion made a contribution to the growth of democratic citizenship by sustaining a deep division between politics and religion, by developing an articulate criticism of state violence, and by creating a public space outside the state where informed debate could occur. However, the Church’s role as an independent site of social criticism has been constantly compromised by the fact that religious institutions have frequently become an arm of the state. In Europe, the Church has often been a dominant element in the political establishment, and has acted, in terms of Marxist social theory, as an ideological apparatus of the state system (Althusser, 1971). In the post-Westphalian settlement, the churches were reorganized as national churches providing part of the ideological cement that held nation-states together. The clergy in Scandinavian societies were part of what we might call a spiritual civil service, and in England, the Anglican Church was the Conservative Party at prayer. In Germany, the pastors were, generally speaking, enthusiastic supporters of nationalist militarism. Radical churches and chapels became the conduit of class interest and, like Methodism, their base was eroded by the social mobility of their members.

In the era of Western colonialism, Christianity was inevitably the cultural vehicle of the civilizing mission of the European states. Decolonization and globalization have to some extent cut the cord that tied the churches to Western colonialism through missionary activity. The globalization of modern cultures presents religions with an interesting political challenge and an opportunity because, with the partial erosion of the sovereignty of the nation-state, religion might once more articulate a utopian vision of a global community. Religion can function as a utopian global social bond, as a form of cosmopolitan virtue to express a collective responsibility for the environment and for the diversity of human cultures (Turner, 2000a, 2000b). If globalism presents new opportunities for a religious articulation of the global condition, it also poses significant problems of McDonaldization and co-optation of religious movements. Religion often becomes a component of modern consumerism, offering a bland message of self-improvement and individual meaning.

The contemporary debate about globalization has, with some obvious exceptions (for example, Beyer, 1994), neglected the religious dimension of global processes. From the point of view of cultural politics, globalization theory has ignored the obvious fact that ‘the world religions’ have been global forces before the rise of international politics and have remained a basic condition of global processes in the modern period. The Roman Empire was obviously an early example of global change within which religion provided the social glue that held the Empire together. The republican version of a global world developed a cosmopolitan ideology in which hearth gods, local deities and the monotheistic god of Judaeo-Christianity were incorporated within a single pantheon (L. Hill, 2000). From the standpoint of religious evolution, Rome provided an interesting illustration of ‘glocalization’ (Robertson, 1992: 173-4). In the pre-modern period (before 1500), religion, especially those religious traditions with a significant evangelical dimension, was important in the development of interregional exchanges between Europe, the Americas and Asia. In the early modern period (1500-1850), there was a significant expansion of world religions through the growth of world trade that made possible the growth of missionary activity in Africa, Asia and Latin America. With modern globalization (1850-1945), new technologies (railways, shipping, telephone and radio) increased the intensity of global cultural exchange, consolidated the political power of the West and facilitated global military expansion. Religions were a constitutive part of Western colonialism where missions and trade developed simultaneously, and provided much of the ideological and spiritual inspiration for movements of decolonization (Venn, 2000). Contemporary globalization from the end of the Second World War has consolidated the power of American culture and Western secularism, but it has also created the conditions for fundamentalist revivals, promoted the articulation of native religions and underpinned the vitality of religious militancy. The importance of religion in world politics may point to yet a new social process, namely ‘the desecularization of the world’ (Berger, 1999).

The debate about globalization inevitably raises questions about the interrelationships between the world religions in a shrinking globe. Any discussion of a clash of civilizations (Huntington, 1997) leads into an analysis of Orientalism and Islam. As a result, there has been considerable interest in Islam in relation to globalism in recent social science. If there is the possibility of creating a form of global governance, then there are important questions about the coexistence of different world religions and different assumptions about citizenship within a global village. In the medieval period, Islam developed as a world religion, but, given the limitations of technology, transport and literacy, it could not exercise world hegemony. Islamdom was constituted as an ideal that could never be fully realized in practice. With the globalization of communication systems and with the collapse of communism, Islam can for the first time function as a genuinely global religion and the pilgrimage to Mecca has served as an important factor of cultural integration in modern Islam. These global processes have increased conflict between Western political systems and Islam, creating in turn conditions for the growth of militant Islamic movements (Tibi, 1998).

Perhaps the principal consequence of global modernization is the constitution of ‘religion’ as a separate, differentiated and specialized sector of modern society—a cultural sector that is often thought to refer to and assumed to manage the private world of values and meaning. Religion in the modern world has been transformed into that institution that refers to the issues that trouble individuals, namely what they think is of ultimate concern. Globalization and modernization convert religion into an activity within the private sphere. In order to achieve this privatization of religion, it also had to be converted into a denominational religion of separate but tolerant and equal communities within civil society.

Secularization and modernization make ‘religion’ in this sense a special ‘problem of modernity,’ and thereby place it more explicitly in public discourse. The effect of globalization is to export this Western pattern of religiosity as a general cultural theme of the world order. As we have seen, the Westphalian creation of a world-system of nation-states was based on the notion that the Wars of Religion (1550-1630) were an inevitable outcome of the persistence of religion in public life. Intolerance and violence were to be contained by confining religion to the private sphere (Thomas, 2000). The Peace of Augsburg and the Congress of Westphalia promulgated the principle of structural differentiation. Within a given political jurisdiction, the ruler was to decide which particular brand of Christianity could obtain as the official religion (‘cujus regio, ejus religio’). This seventeenth-century settlement created religious pluralism among the states and confined religion to the private sphere. It also provided the modern political conditions for religious toleration, and determined that citizenship would acquire a specifically secular framework.

Of course, this specialization of ‘religion’ is not entirely unfamiliar to theological thinking about religio in the sense that it has been common to distinguish between ‘religion’ as a social system and ‘faith’ as an authentic and personal response to divinity. However, globalization has involved the export of this predominantly Western and modern model of private and individualistic religiosity, and as a result fundamentalist Judaism and Islam are definite responses to such a process of normalization. Fundamentalism attempts to ensure the dominance of religion in the public spheres of law, economy and government, and is thus a response to Weber’s tragic vision of the separation of the value spheres. These forms of globalization challenge the western assumption that citizenship is a secular identity that is determined within a national framework. This process of exporting an individualistic version of Latin Christianity, and global reactions to it, has been described as ‘globalatinization,’ namely the alliance between Christianity, technology and capitalism (Derrida, 1998: 13).

In the religious conflicts of the twentieth century, the Western model of denominational pluralism was increasingly adopted as the model of religious (and hence political) tolerance. The history of American migration and denominational pluralism provided the normative model for global peace-making. However, it is important to recognize that the historical model of denominational pluralism was also a model of standardization through the melting-pot of coexistence. The toleration of religious differences in colonial America was originally a toleration of Protestants. America produced a model of tolerance through sameness. Religious difference is incorporated through conformity to a Protestant model of religious organization and practice (Walzer, 1997: 67). Similar patterns of assimilation characterized American multicultural migration in the twentieth century. The Herberg thesis (Herberg, 1955), in which the melting-pot was composed of Protestants, Catholics and Jews, now embraces Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism. Assimilation into American life has resulted in the denominationalization of different religious traditions to create a normative tolerance at the cost of doctrinal distinctiveness. Social participation and inclusion, and thus social citizenship, is made possible by a denominational melting-pot. The denominationalization of cultural differences through the creation of separate but equal zones of religious activity has become the norm of citizenship inclusion in multicultural societies following the American model, especially in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. While this model has not so far been effective in embracing indigenous religions and cultures, it does hold out a principle of acculturation as a route to political incorporation in societies where civil society is divided and fragmented by religious division.

Fundamentalism would appear to be a potential threat to this political and social compromise. The growth of fundamentalist movements in Islam, Christianity and Judaism is often interpreted as a response to the disruptions of traditional life and values that result from globalization. Fundamentalism is seen to be a movement that preserves tradition against the cultural melting-pot that follows global migration, tourism and mass consumerism. While Islamic fundamentalism has come to the attention of the Western media, fundamentalism has also been increasingly characteristic of the religions of Asia, especially Hinduism. Fundamentalism has become the target of Western criticism because it is seen to be incompatible with a liberal democracy that attempts to create an open and diverse public sphere (Touraine, 2000). Religious fundamentalism is treated by social scientists as the most potent antidote to modernity, because it celebrates ‘tribalism’ against the standardization of cultures that flows from the global marketplace (Barber, 2001). It is consequently now regarded as an essential ingredient in the modern ‘clash of civilizations.’


There are many ways in which one could write a ‘historical sociology of religion and religions,’ but such an account would have to be selective. In this chapter, I have accordingly provided a selective perspective on religion from the standpoint of Weber’s sociology of religion with special reference to Christianity and Islam. Weberian sociology is typically ironic and tragic. Like Nietzsche, Weber was concerned to explore the crisis of values in modern society, particularly the crisis of religious values. An important theme of modern sociology, therefore, has been the paradoxical relationships between religion and politics, which I have examined through the notion of the routinization of charisma. Although religion and politics are assumed to be mutually exclusive, religion was nevertheless important in creating public spaces within which many aspects of political life, such as citizenship, evolved.

Although the question of religion in the shaping of the modern world had been an important issue for classical sociology from Marx to Parsons, religion was somewhat submerged in the intellectual agenda of postwar sociology. The secularization thesis suggested that religious phenomena would not be important in modern societies, and with the development of postmodern cultures it was assumed that sport and consumption would be substitutes for religious membership and could function as the principal means for entertaining the masses. The historical role of charisma as a sacred force would be replaced by entertainment, and the cult of celebrity (Rojek, 2001), that is made possible by the new media, would replace the cult of the saints. If religious cultures survived at all, religious practices would become merely elements within consumer lifestyles.

Growing awareness of the globalization of culture has challenged these narrow limitations of the secularization thesis. With the collapse of communism, it was evident that Islam was a religious system that could effectively mobilize opposition to Western capitalism and provide potent religious identities to inspire mass political movements. Islamization as a social process has been made possible by globalization. Political conflict has thus polarized Islam and the West, and rekindled the embers of traditional Orientalism as a paradigm for understanding Islam in particular and Asia in general (Turner, 2002). However, fundamentalist Islam shares many features in common with fundamentalist Protestantism and with Jewish fundamentalism. The political crisis that has followed 11 September has divided the world into friend and foe, thereby lending dramatic support to the political theology of Carl Schmitt. In The Concept of the Political, (1996) Schmitt had condemned the legacy of parliamentary democracy, because liberalism had reduced the political to a set of procedures and could provide no decisive protection against the threat of communism. One might say of the contemporary situation that the state of emergency is one in which the political division between friend and enemy has been defined by religion, and the historical centrality of religion to the development of political institutions is once more tragically confirmed.