In Honor of My Textbook Co-Author Keith A. Roberts

On December 31st, I submitted the revised manuscript for the 7th edition of Religion in Sociological Perspective. I am Keith Roberts’ co-author on this textbook.

Keith brought me in to do the revisions for the 5th edition over a decade ago. This was wonderful for me because I had always wanted to do a textbook, but the prospect of writing one from scratch was daunting. Through 2 revisions, I was able to build on what Keith started and learn from him in the process.

Unfortunately, Keith died in July 2018. What a loss.

When I submitted the manuscript at the end of 2019, it was overdue. The publisher, SAGE, wanted it available for fall 2018, but with Keith battling cancer beginning in 2016, I couldn’t motivate myself to work it. When he died, I wanted nothing to do with it.

I actually asked 2 younger colleagues if they would come on as a 3rd author. Thankfully, they both said “no” (or perhaps “hell no”). Working on the revision has become a way for me to honor Keith Roberts’ legacy and contributions to the discipline of sociology.

RSP Book CoverKeith and I first met on the editorial board of the journal Teaching Sociology. His profound commitment to teaching and learning and professional service were evident then. Shortly thereafter he won the American Sociological Association’s Distinguished Contributions to Teaching Award.

The same year our 1st co-authored edition of Religion in Sociological Perspective was published, 2012, Keith won the J. Milton Yinger Award for Distinguished Lifetime Career in Sociology by the North Central Sociological Association, which was appropriate because Yinger profoundly shaped his thinking about religion

Also at the start of our collaboration Keith had co-founded a teaching/professional development award program with SAGE Publications that provides funds for grad students & jr faculty to attend the ASA Sec on Teaching & Learning pre-ASA workshop each year. The award is funded by a portion of royalties given by Sage textbook authors. It is now known as the SAGE Publishing Keith Roberts Teaching Innovations Award.

Keith was not only a wonderful citizen of our profession but also of his own college. Many of us strongly connected to our professional associations often neglect this work. He served 15 yrs(!) as department chair and was also a Faculty Marshall and Parliamentarian at Hanover College.

Keith thought globally and acted locally. But he also acted globally for social justice as part of human rights delegations to Central & South America. He had hoped to do more of this work in his “retirement,” which sadly did not last long enough.

Keith remained a deep thinker and active learner to the very end, authoring a book subtitled A Theologically Trained Sociologist Reflects on Living Meaningfully with Cancer. It was published just months before his death.

I can’t say that I knew Keith Roberts well. I wish I had the chance to know him better. But by all accounts he was a good human being.

So while I hope my professional colleagues think the 7th edition of Religion in Sociological Perspective reflects well on our field, I hope even more that Keith Roberts is proud of my effort to keep his considerable legacy alive.

Bibliographic Reflections on the Sociology of Religion

The manuscript for the 7th edition of my textbook, Religion in Sociological Perspective, is due to Sage Publications by the end of 2019. Which is just days away. One of the the last major tasks I had to complete was the bibliography. This was no small task. Including the 269 new citations I added for this edition (almost 20 per chapter) and all of the old citations (many of which would eventually be deleted), the bibliography ran to 136 double-spaced pages.

Because I don’t use citation management software (to be remedied for the 8th edition for sure), I had to cross-check every citation in the 600 manuscript pages of text against the bibliography (with considerable assistance from my spouse!). In the end, the final bibliography runs 87 double-spaced pages. (A 51 page single spaced version is available as a PDF document here.)

Although time consuming (it took 6 hours), doing this by hand rather than by machine allowed me to observe some interesting patterns in the bibliography.

A core idea of the textbook is that the sociology of religion as a field involves an ongoing conversation among scholars in dialogue with existing scholarship and the social world. The field is constantly evolving as more and new voices enter the conversation and new aspects of the social world emerge or are discovered.

My textbook’s bibliography reflects my particular view of that conversation. This can be seen in those scholars I cite most, those who are up and coming, and those who have largely been excised from this edition of the text.

Most Cited

  • Pew Research Center – 21 reports cited plus 7 “Factank” blog posts covering every possible aspect of individual religiosity in the US and globally.
  • Rodney Stark – 18 citations (11 of which he is first author, dating back to the 1960s, and 6 of which are co-authored with Roger Finke).
  • Mark Chaves – 15 citations including essential work on secularization theory, women’s ordination, congregations, and religious trends.
  • Christian Smith – 12 citations on a range of topics from evangelicals to social movements to youth.
  • Robert Wuthnow – 9 citations from his work on new religious movements in the 1970s, the restructuring of American religion in the 1980s, small groups and spirituality in the 1990s, and global religion in the 2000s.
  • Darren Sherkat – 9 citations. I was a bit surprised by this at first, but his work is very empirically sound, approachable, and addresses issues that are very central to the field in a number of areas.
  • Robert Bellah – 7 citations. The number doesn’t fully reflect his influence on me as his work on religious evolution is really foundational to my understanding of religion.
  • Phil Gorski – 7 citations. One of Bellah’s students, who was a TA for Bellah’s sociology of religion course when I took it as an undergrad at UC-Berkeley, Gorski ended up serving on my dissertation committee at Wisconsin. If Bellah highlights the Durkheimian side of the Durkheim-Weber nexus that informs his work, then Gorski highlights the Weberian side.
  • Nancy Ammerman – 7 citations. If you could only read one person on congregations, start and end here.
  • Michael Emerson – 7 citations, all but one of which addresses the struggle for racial integration in religious organizations. It is that big an issue.

Up and Coming (Alphabetical)

Here I list not the TOTAL number of citations to each scholar, but the number of additional citations added in the 7th edition (which may but does not necessarily equal the total number of citations).

  • Amy Adamczyk: +3 citations on religion and LGBTQ-related issues
  • Orit Avishai: +4 citations on religion and gender
  • Kelsey Burke: +3 citations on religion and sexual behavior
  • Ryan Cragun: +5 citations on nonreligion/atheism and sexual/gender minorities
  • Kevin Dougherty, Mitchell Neubert, Jerry Park: +5 citations on religion, work, and entrepreneurship
  • Gerardo Marti: +5 citations. His 8 total citations actually puts him on the “most cited” list but I put him in the up and coming section because of the large number of new citations in this edition.
  • Samuel Perry: +4 citations on 3 different topics (pornography, bivocational clergy, and Christian nationalism)
  • Landon Schnabel: +3 citations on gender and sexuality
  • David Smilde: +3 citations on research programmes in the sociology of religion
  • J.E. Sumerau: +3 citations on the cisgendered reality of contemporary religion
  • Andrew Whitehead: +3 citations on sexuality and Christian nationalism

Missed Friends

Not really an analytic category, but I was surprised when I was surveying the changes to the bibliography and saw that some old friends of mine didn’t get as much play as they deserved in previous editions. The following individuals had +2 new citations added to this edition of the textbook: Joseph Baker, Courtney Bender, Tricia Bruce, Lynn Neal, Melissa Wilcox, Melissa Wilde, Richard Wood, and Bradley Wright.

Excised from the 7th Edition

Looking back at previous editions of this textbook (the first of which was published in 1984) is like looking at time capsules of the field at different points in time. To avoid bloat, I deleted about one old reference for every new reference I added to the bibliography.

Rather than naming names, I will indicate what subjects I have scaled back on considerably in this edition of the textbook. In no particular order:

  • Sects: Sect-formation, sect-development as part of church-sect theorizing
  • Mystical/ecstatic/religious experience, including the paranormal
  • “Why conservative churches are growing,” the “circulation of the saints,” and related debates
  • The changing shape and future of mainline Protestantism
  • Promise Keepers, Satanism, violent cult stuff
  • 1950s/60s era racial prejudice work
  • Televangelism
  • Magic (as distinguished from religion)

Some of these deletions are not because I find the areas unimportant, but simply because it is impossible to fit everything into a single textbook. The material on religious experience is a case in point.

Excluded from the 7th Edition

If the sociology of religion as a field is like a mighty river roaring by me, this textbook reflects my attempt to pull a bucket of water out of it.

I have consciously attempted to diversify the content of the 7th edition, including trying to get beyond Christianity, congregations, beliefs, borders, and even beyond religion itself. I do this to the extent possible given limitations on my time, energy, and intelligence, and existing scholarship, but know I can do better.

If you look at the bibliography for the 7th edition, who and what am I missing? Revisions for the 8th edition start on 1/1/2020.

 

A justification as to why a leave is essential to complete the proposed project

I am completing an application for a university funded one-semester research leave at full pay to work on a book related to my ongoing research with Katie Day on church security (generously funded by the Louisville Institute).

As much as I enjoy teaching, I am grateful for the opportunity to take a leave from teaching periodically in order to focus my complete attention on research and writing. At the same time, our teaching responsibilities at Wake Forest are 9 courses every 4 semesters with no graduate student advising on top of that. Which leaves plenty of time for research and writing under normal circumstances.

Because of this reality, as I was working on my leave application this past Saturday, one of the pieces of information requested rubbed me the wrong way. Although I subsequently re-wrote my response to remove the snark, below is what I originally wrote.

(4) A justification as to why a leave is essential to complete the proposed project, included justification for the timing of the leave relative to the proposed project.

Of the 27 semesters I have completed at Wake Forest, I have had 2 semesters of research leave. During that time I have published two books, completed two revisions of my sociology of religion textbook, edited a major handbook in the sociology of religion, served 7 years as editor and associate editor of leading journals in my field, published 15 articles and book chapters, and written countless reviews and other occasional pieces.

Clearly, a leave is not “essential” to completing this project or any productive faculty members’ projects. I will complete the project with or without the support of a research leave. However, there is no question that without the gift of time and space a research leave provides it will take longer to complete, create more opportunity costs in terms of other work I can do as a teacher-scholar, and (perhaps most significantly) extract a greater toll on my personal health and relationships.

Handbook of Religion and Society

As my last big project in the sociology of religion I edited a Handbook of Religion and Society for the Dutch publishing giant Springer. The book was published in 2016, but I just received a book performance report from the publisher which prompted me to mention it today.

The handbook includes 26 chapters by a distinguished, diverse, and international collection of experts, plus one chapter (on “Sport”) and an “Introduction” by me.

The contributors really did a great job of surveying the work in their respective areas and suggesting avenues for future research. It’s a great starting point for anyone who wants to get up to speed quickly on the social scientific (especially sociological) study of religion.

But don’t just take my word for it. According to the review in CHOICE:

“Editor Yamane has assembled the contributions of 26 authors who assess the state of current theory and research and expand the scope of the analysis of religion and society to include discussions of racial, ethnic, gender, and class diversity in a global context. … An indispensable resource for undergraduates and advanced scholars who seek short, cogent essays that will introduce them to the subspecialties of the sociology of religion. Summing Up: Essential. All levels/libraries.” (J. H. Rubin, Choice, Vol. 54 (5), January, 2017)

Of course, the financial model for this kind of book is to make money primarily from libraries through purchases and subscriptions. But according to the book’s website, the individual chapters have been downloaded quite a bit also.

Now that the book has been out for a while, the option to purchase a paperback copy somewhat more affordably (relatively speaking) through Springer or Amazon or Barnes & Noble exists. Of course, $100 for a book is not cheap, but having seen the effort that went into producing the chapters and the quality of the results, I would say it is worth it for someone actively involved in the field.

Sociological Key Words: Guns, Gun Culture

The American Sociological Review was founded in 1936 as the official publication of the American Sociological Society. (The ASS was founded in 1906, and was apparently unaware of acronyms until 1959 when it changed its name to the American Sociological Association.)

The ASR remains the flagship journal of the ASA, and is one of the top 2 US journals in the field (the other being the American Journal of Sociology). It is a difficult journal to publish in because peer reviewers and editors set a very high bar for acceptable quality.

Recently I was asked to review an article submitted in my former area of expertise, the sociology of religion. I responded that I did not want to review the submission because I am not longer working principally in the sociology of religion, but I would be happy to review any submissions received on the topic of guns or gun culture.

An editorial assistant kindly responded to tell me that the key word “religion” was removed from my reviewer profile so I would no longer be sent manuscripts on that topic, but no key word existed in their database for “firearms,” “guns” or “gun culture” so they could not be added to my profile.

This is telling and reflective of the reality of what is published about guns and gun culture in sociology.  To find an article in the ASR about guns that isn’t primarily about gun violence or crime, you have to go back nearly 30 years to 1988 for an article by Douglas Smith and Craig Uchida called “The Social Organization of Self-Help: A Study of Defensive Weapon Ownership” or 1980 and 1981 for articles by Alan Lizotte and David Bordua on “Firearms Ownership for Sport and Protection.”

Without the modifier “violence,” guns are simply not a key word in sociology.

Religion and Guns Research Digested in Academic Minute

For those of you who would rather listen to me explain my recent article on religion and guns in America than read it, you can do so thanks to WAMC Public Radio’s Academic Minute program, which is also available on the Inside Higher Education website.

academic-minute

Or if you are a real glutton for statistical punishment, go ahead and read the full paper (yamane-2017-journal_for_the_scientific_study_of_religion).

Robert N. Bellah (1927-2013)

This is not an obituary or remembrance of Robert Bellah. I don’t have the emotional energy to spare for that, even though it has been over a year since he passed. There are many such tributes, though, some collected on the website maintained in his name.

This is simply the text of an entry I wrote on Bellah in 1997 for the Encyclopedia of Religion and Society, which I recently found posted online at the website of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. It says alot about what an amazing thinker he was, and what an inheritance (and challenge) he left behind.

Copyright (c) 2008 by Andreas and Philip Guther. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Copyright (c) 2008 by Andreas and Philip Guther. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bellah, Robert N.

(1927-) Elliott Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has been on the faculty since 1967, chairing the Center for Japanese and Korean Studies from 1968 to 1974 and the Department of Sociology from 1979 to 1985.

One of the most distinguished sociologists of the post-World War II era, a “public intellectual” seeking to address a wide audience, Bellah is conversant with sociologists, anthropologists, and political scientists as well as ethicists and philosophers, theologians, and the general public. (Significantly, although he is widely known, Bellah has not held a major office in any professional association.) At Harvard, where he earned a joint Ph.D. in sociology and Far Eastern languages in 1955, Bellah was a student of Talcott Parsons. Although Parsons’s influence on Bellah’s thinking is evident, during his career Bellah has worked within several theoretical traditions.

Although his later work increasingly manifests a Weberian ambivalence toward rationalization, his early work exemplifies the “modernization theory” of the 1950s and is clearly and self-consciously structural-functionalist. A Durkheimian concern for shared symbols and the obligations they articulate runs through many of his writings. Bellah’s more recent work also has been informed by the critical functionalism of Habermas, especially the idea that economic and political “systems”—wherein the primary media of communication are money and power, respectively— invade and “colonize” the “life-world”—in which the medium of communication is linguistic and ideally oriented toward mutual understanding.

Religious Evolution

Bellah’s dissertation, published as Tokugawa Religion: The Cultural Roots of Modern Japan (Free Press 1957, second edition 1985), provides a Weber-like analysis of Japanese development, explaining the role of premodern cultural values in modernization. Against a Parsonian theoretical background, Bellah identifies the indigenous equivalent of the Protestant ethic in the motivational ethic of inner-worldly asceticism fostered by certain religious movements in the Tokugawa period (1542-1868). This early work and Bellah’s later contributions to the study of religion can be characterized as variations on a theme most clearly articulated in his essay “Religious Evolution” (1964), which he developed in a course on social evolution cotaught with Parsons and S. N. Eisenstadt at Harvard.

Bellah begins by defining religion as “a set of symbolic forms and acts that relate man to the ultimate conditions of his existence.” He argues that beginning with the single cosmos of the undifferentiated primitive religious worldview in which life is a “one possibility thing,” evolution in the religious sphere is toward the increasing differentiation and complexity of symbol systems. His evolutionary religious taxonomy specifies five stages: primitive (e.g., Australian Aborigines), archaic (e.g., Native American), historic (e.g., ancient Judaism, Confucianism, Buddhism, Islam, early Palestinian Christianity), early modern (e.g., Protestant Christianity), and modern (religious individualism). In the modern stage of religious evolution, the hierarchic dualistic religious symbol system that emerged in the historic epoch is collapsed and the symbol system that results is “infinitely multiplex.” In this posttraditional situation, the individual confronts life as an “infinite possibility thing,” and is “capable, within limits, of continual self-transformation and capable, again within limits, of remaking the world, including the very symbolic forms with which he deals with it, even the forms that state the unalterable conditions of his own existence.”

This argument foresaw the reflexive individualism that characterizes both the intellectual culture of post-modernism and the “new religious consciousness” of the 1960s and 1970s. With Charles Glock, Bellah undertook a project in the early 1970s to investigate the latter, the results of which were published as The New Religious Consciousness (University of California Press 1976). In his concluding remarks, Bellah foreshadows the argument of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life —written with Richard Madsen, William M. Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven M. Tipton (University of California Press 1985 [second edition 1995], hereafter Habits )—in arguing that the deepest cause of the 1960s counterculture was “the inability of utilitarian individualism to provide a meaningful pattern of personal and social existence.” The crisis of the 1960s therefore was “above all a religious crisis.” As a response to the sterility of the utilitarian worldview, the counterculture turned to the American tradition of expressive individualism in the form of a spirituality grounded in the primacy of individual experience and the belief in nonduality, exemplified by the appropriation of Zen Buddhist practices. Again foreshadowing the argument in Habits , Bellah highlights the danger that expressive individualism may come to articulate with utilitarian individualism, to which it was originally a response. When expressive individualist-inspired religious symbols and practices “become mere techniques for ‘self-realization,’ then once again we see utilitarian individualism reborn from its own ashes.”

Thus, by the 1970s, Bellah’s positive embrace of the “wide-open chaos of the post-Protestant, postmodern era” in Beyond Belief: Essays on Religion in a Post-Traditional World (Harper 1970) had grown more cautious as the full consequences of the “modern” religious epoch became more evident. By the 1980s, the relationship is clearly strained. Understanding that the treatment of religion in Habits is an elaboration of the fifth “modern” stage of religious evolution makes clear that the “infinite possibility thing” he lauds in “Religious Evolution” has become the hyperprivatized “Sheilaism” (“my own religion”) he laments in Habits . Particularly troubling about the personalized and privatized modern religion examined in Habits is that it is underwritten by what Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981) calls an “emotivist” view of ethics that reduces the foundation of moral claims to the subjective feelings of individuals and renders the development of common moral understandings difficult if not impossible.

Civil Religion

Bellah’s strong position that “any coherent and viable society rests on a common set of moral understandings” is a Durkheimian thread that runs throughout his work and draws attention back to his work in the 1960s. While his guiding theoretical framework is encapsulated in the “Religious Evolution” paper, Bellah is best known for his landmark “Civil Religion in America” (1967), an essay that, according to Bellah, he has “never been allowed to forget” and that “in important respects changed” his life. Alongside church religion and distinct from it, Bellah argued, is an elaborate and well-organized civil religion . It is actually a religious “dimension” of society, characteristic of the American republic since its founding. It is not Judeo-Christianity but grows out of the American historical experience, which is heavily influenced by Protestantism. Civil religion is “an understanding of the American experience in the light of ultimate and universal reality” and can be found in presidential inaugural addresses from Washington to Kennedy, sacred texts (the Declaration of Independence) and places (Gettysburg), and community rituals (Memorial Day parades). It is especially evident in times of trial for the nation such as the Revolution and Civil War.

In Varieties of Civil Religion (coedited with Phillip Hammond, Harper 1980), Bellah ties this argument to the religious evolution framework, arguing that every society has a “religio-political” problem, and that in premodern phases the solution consists either in a fusion of the two realms (archaic) or in a differentiation but not separation (historic and early modern). Civil religion proper comes into existence only in modern society, where church and state are separated as well as differentiated. A civil religion that is differentiated from both church and state is possible only in a modern society.

Although Bellah concludes his 1967 essay by declaring American civil religion to be “still very much alive,” he also warns that the nation is facing a third time of trial centered on “the problem of responsible action in a revolutionary world.” Decrying U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Bellah claimed America to be “at the edge of a chasm the depth of which no man knows.” Just as his hope in “Religious Evolution” became more cautious in Habits , so too does his concern at the conclusion of “Civil Religion” turn somewhat despairing in his American Sociological Association Sorokin Award-winning book, The Broken Covenant: American Civil Religion in Time of Trial (Seabury 1975 [second edition, University of Chicago Press 1992]) in which he famously declares American civil religion to be “an empty and broken shell.” Written at the time of Watergate and the continuation of the Vietnam War, there was little to temper Bellah’s pessimism in the mid-1970s. By the 1980s, however, some hope began to emerge once again.

Although he never uses the term civil religion in Habits , the “biblical and republican traditions” championed in Habits are a new and more dynamic conceptual response to the same substantive issues. A public focus on commitment to the common good as opposed to the excesses of utilitarian and expressive individualism is possible, for Bellah, if the once-dominant cultural language of the biblical and republican traditions—relegated in contemporary America to the status of “second languages”—are reappropriated by citizens actively pursuing the good society in common. The obstacles to forging a national community based on common moral understandings are considerable—they are institutional as well as cultural, as Bellah states in The Good Society (Knopf 1991)—but as any Durkheimian would argue, surmounting them is essential.

Symbolic Realism

As should be evident, Bellah has always been a cultural sociologist, taking seriously the causal efficacy of values, the centrality of meaning, and the sui generis reality of symbols. His famous definition of religion in “Religious Evolution” is unmistakably cultural. This perspective on religion is also evident in his major methodological statement on behalf of a nonreductionist perspective in the social scientific study of religion, the perspective of “symbolic realism.”

In the essay “Between Religion and Social Science,” Bellah criticizes the “Enlightenment myth of secularization . . . the view that there is only a mechanical relation between science and religion, namely, the more of one the less of the other.” He argues that the theories of Marx, Freud, Durkheim, and Weber contribute to this myth because of their reductionist view of religion. Even when they correctly see the symbolic (nonrational, noncognitive) dimensions of human life and hence religion (Freud’s unconscious, Durkheim’s collective effervescence, and Weber’s charisma), they end up explaining religious symbols away as expressing some other more fundamental “reality.” Bellah, in contrast, advocates a position he calls symbolic realism in which religious symbols are seen to express a nonreducible reality, a reality sui generis. While not denying that rationalistic and reductionistic approaches have something to tell us about religion, he refuses to allow them to be the only voices.

Social Science as Moral Inquiry

That the social sciences regardless of their empirical focus must have a moral voice is a point Bellah has made in various essays, but nowhere more clearly than in the Appendix to Habits , “Social Science as Public Philosophy.” Against those who would place social science firmly on the former side of the allegedly unbridgeable divide between “is” and “ought,” Bellah argues for a reappropriation of the larger, synoptic view of a social science that is at once philosophical, historical, and sociological. Such an approach would embrace the ethical aims of social inquiry: holding a mirror up to society, being a form of social self-understanding, discerning the good society from actually existing societies, or, as any good Durkheimian would say, distilling the ideal from the real. A social science that ignores its ethical meaning not only fails to live up to its highest calling but also can more easily be put in service of manipulative ends by those with political and economic power. For Bellah, then, the social sciences must always be moral sciences.

In conclusion, it must be said that the meaning of Robert Bellah’s work cannot be fully understood without recognizing that he is a man of faith (see 1991). At Harvard, he came under the influence of the Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich during the period when Bellah was “reappropriating” his Presbyterian religious upbringing on his own terms. Indeed, there are as many references to Tillich in Beyond Belief as to Durkheim and Parsons. The question Tillich posed in The Theology of Culture (1959) is the one with which Bellah seems to be wrestling: “How can the radicalism of prophetic criticism which is implied in the principles of genuine Protestantism be united with the classical tradition of dogma, sacred law, sacraments, hierarchy, cult, as preserved in the Catholic churches?” As Bellah himself has said, “Discipleship and citizenship and the relation between them have been my enduring preoccupations.”

David Yamane

References

R. Bellah, “Religious Evolution,” American Sociological Review 29(1964):358-374

R. Bellah, “Civil Religion in America,” Daedalus 96(1967):1-21

R. Bellah, “Between Religion and Social Science,” in Beyond Belief (New York: Harper, 1970): 237-259

R. Bellah, “Comment,” Sociological Analysis 50(1989):147

R. Bellah, “Finding the Church,” in How My Mind Has Changed , ed. J. Wall and D. Heim (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1991): 113-122

A. MacIntyre, After Virtue (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1981)

P. Tillich, The Theology of Culture (London: Oxford University Press, 1959)

Religion on the PGA Tour

Although I am not a sociologist of sport, I have enjoyed those times when my work in the sociology of religion comes into dialogue with the world of sport.

Here is some material I am working up for the 6th edition of my sociology of religion textbook:

When Webb Simpson won the 2012 U.S. Open – one of professional golf’s four major championships – he joined an illustrious group of golfers who played collegiately at Wake Forest University. But unlike his fellow Wake Forest alumns and U.S. Open Champions, Arnold Palmer and Curtis Strange, Simpson (born in 1985) is a “digital native.” So it is not surprising that he maintains a regular presence on social media, including posting from his Twitter account @webbsimpson1.

What may be surprising to some is that Simpson (a religion major in college) is well-known for his Twitter posts of Bible verses, quotes from religious thinkers, and other faith-related content. A quick sampling of his Tweets reveals statements such as: “Where sin runs deep, Grace is more.” “#Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance, the only thing it cannot be is moderately important” (C.S. Lewis). “Hebrews 4:14-16 is more than comforting to the Christian.”

In a November 2012 story in Golf Digest magazine, “The Soul of Pro Golf,” writer Max Adler observes that Simpson is not alone in making his Christian faith very public. Although the story begins with Simpson telling interviewer Bob Costas how much he prayed during the final holes of the 2012 U.S. Open, Adler goes on to discuss a dozen other professional golfers for whom faith is central to their identity.

As sociologist of religion Mark Chaves notes in the story, the visible religion in golf, as in American sport generally, is distinctively evangelical Protestant. Through their fellowship with one another and a strong theology rooted in “Muscular Christianity,” evangelical Protestant golfers maintain a strong plausibility structure which supports them in their public expression of their faith.

Thus, Christianity on the various professional golf tours is not free-floating. It is supported by formal sport-based ministries like FCA Golf – run by the Fellowship of Christian Athletes (fcagolf.org) on the minor league Web.com Tour – the Ladies Professional Golf Association (LPGA) Tour Christian Fellowship, and the PGA Tour Players’ Bible Study, led for over 30 years by “tour chaplain” Larry Moody. Attendance at Moody’s Wednesday night traveling fellowship can range from a dozen to over 100, depending on the size and location of the tournament, but the largest and most consistent attendance is at the Champions (Senior) Tour fellowship, which was led by Tom Randall of World Harvest Ministries from 2000-2013.

Perhaps because it comes from a particular religious point of view, the public sharing of that faith is not embraced by all. A Golf Digest survey asking people their “reaction when you hear a tour pro in an interview thanking God after winning a tournament” found:

  • 8% Completely fine with it. Tells me who this player really is.
  • 4% OK, but move on.
  • 1% It’s a little awkward.
  • 7% I’m offended by it. Doesn’t belong in a sports contest.

Although not a scientific survey, these results show the very different perspectives people have on the issue of religion in sports. [If anyone knows anything about this survey, please let me know. Max Adler won’t Tweet back at me!]

Golfers like Bubba Watson, who thanked his “Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ” after winning the prestigious Masters Tournament, are sometimes ridiculed for thinking that God has nothing better to do than to get involved in a mere sporting event. But the theology that animates many athletes, including professional golfers, is more subtle than that. “The Lord couldn’t care less whether I win or lose,” Adler quotes Watson as saying. “What matters to Him is how I play the game.”

SOURCE: Adler, Max. 2012. The soul of pro golf. Golf Digest (November), 102-108.

Lecture on How People Become Catholic at College of the Holy Cross

I was fortunate recently to be asked by my old friend Tom Landy to deliver one of the Deitchman Family Lectures on Religion and Modernity at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.

My talk, “How Do People Become Catholic?” was based on my book, Becoming Catholic: Finding Rome in the American Religious Landscape.

I’m excited to note that the lecture was videotaped and is being made available by the Rev. Michael C. McFarland, S.J. Center for Religion, Ethics and Culture at Holy Cross.