Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Social scientists bring their assumptions as well as their particular scientific theories to their work. The fact that many social scientists have lived and still do live in generally Christian societies leads us to expect that unspoken Christian tenets shape their research questions and interpretations. For example, the very idea of religion as a worship-centered supernaturalism comes from the Jewish-Christian heritage. The distinctness of religious from political organization and from ethnic identity is predicated on the circumstances in which Christianity first flourished as an alternative to the Roman imperial cult and as a competitor to the Jewish ethnic religion.

By the time sociology developed as an academic discipline in the universities, Christian thinkers as well as their secular counterparts found good reason to be critical of the capitalist social order. The exploitation of child labor by industry undermined the family as an institution; the prevailing low wages dehumanized the general workforce; the fast-paced materialism among the prosperous classes left only token space for religious pursuits. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, what was termed the social question generated a reformist impulse in both the social sciences and Christianity.

In Europe and Latin America, official Christian church organizations were identified with social classes that were not the disprivileged or exploited sectors of society, and the churches often also were identified with regimes that were unfriendly toward reformist movements. In a few notable instances, European social scientific thinkers brought religious perspectives into analyses of social conditions—Frédéric Le Play in France, Thomas Masaryk in Czechoslovakia, and Luigi Sturzo in Italy—but it was in North America that religious reformism thrived. In early American sociology, reformism paralleled but did not stem from the Protestant Social Gospel movement (Swatos 1983). A number of early University of Chicago sociological theses and dissertations treated religion as an ethnic cultural resource for social betterment (Tomasi 1993). Parallels between early sociology and the tenets of the Social Gospel movement made sociology an acceptable course of study in many of the American denominational colleges (Morgan 1969). The Social Gospel movement itself became an object of inquiry for some social scientists (Horton 1940, Crysdale 1975) well after a post-World War I pessimism marked the end of the movement's heyday.

Meanwhile, the presence of Catholic working-class immigrants in the United States and Canada gave that denomination a class identity that it had lacked in Europe. Rerum novarum and subsequent papal encyclicals that criticized both unchecked capitalism and secular socialism were used by "labor priests" as a charter for providing intellectual leadership to the mainstream North American labor movement. Msgr. John A. Ryan was the most influential spokesman for this "social Catholicism"; he drafted a significant 1919 statement on social reconstruction that was published by the American bishops, and he provided the broad framework for the program of social legislation adopted by the Franklin Roosevelt administration in the 1930s and 1940s. Social Catholicism was also the ethical perspective of the generations of American Catholic sociologists who founded the American Catholic Sociological Society and then transformed it into the Association for the Sociology of Religion. Some of these sociologists, such as Eva Ross, Gerald Schnepp, Paul Hanley Furfey, Franz H. Mueller, and Marie Augusta Neal, wrote treatises in or about the social Catholic tradition as well as strictly sociological works, while others such as Joseph H. Fichter, Thomas P. Imse, and Joseph P. Fitzpatrick predicated their personal perspectives on it, while not generally mentioning it in their writings.

Both the Social Gospel movement and social Catholicism were concerned about economic justice. Children were not to be required to work for a living but were to experience a childhood that allowed for self-development and were to attend schools that would prepare them to be productive citizens. Work was to be compensated at rates that would afford one-wage families a reasonable standard of living as well as medical insurance and retirement plans. The state was to provide for the disabled with programs that would be funded by a progressive tax system. Labor would have the right to migrate across national boundaries and to organize in unions. There would be freedom of religion, opportunities for cultural pursuits, and protection from unsafe and unwholesome consumer products. Both the Social Gospel and social Catholicism defined social justice in terms of class issues but failed to foresee the importance of racial, gender, and other status group issues.

Anthony J. Blasi


S. Crysdale, "The Sociology of the Social Gospel," in The Social Gospel in Canada , ed. R. Allen (Ottawa: National Museums of Canada, 1975): 263-285

P.B. Horton, "The Social Orientation of the Church," Sociology and Social Research 24(1940):423-432

J. G. Morgan, "The Development of Sociology and the Social Gospel in America," Sociological Analysis 30(1969):42-53

W.H. Swatos, Jr., "The Faith of the Fathers," Sociological Analysis 44(1983):33-52

L. Tomasi, "The Influence of Religion on the Chicago School of Sociology," Clinical Sociology Review 11(1993):17-34

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