Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1928-) Professor of Sociology, University of Oregon. After completing a B.A. in sociology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (where both his parents were prominent faculty members in the Department of Sociology), Johnson went to Harvard University for graduate study under the tutelage of Talcott Parsons, receiving a doctorate in sociology in 1952. Following academic appointments at Guilford College and the University of Texas (Austin), Johnson joined the Department of Sociology at the University of Oregon, where he has been on the faculty for almost 40 years, chairing the Sociology Department and the Department of Religious Studies. Unique among his peers, Benton Johnson has served as president of three major organizations in the social scientific study of religion: the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion (1980-1981), the Association for the Sociology of Religion (1987), and the Religious Research Association (1995-1996). He also has been Editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion (1972-1974).

Johnson's contributions to sociology include an undergraduate text on functionalism and Talcott Parsons (1975), but his scholarship has focused almost exclusively on theoretical issues in the sociology of religion and their application to the study of contemporary American Protestantism.

With a series of articles in the late 1950s and early 1960s on the church-sect typology (1957, 1961, 1963), Johnson endeavored to refine those classic sociological concepts while exploring their utility for understanding the fit between various aspects of ascetic Protestantism and American culture more generally. His applications of church-sect theory to twentieth-century Protestantism spawned a career-long interest in the relationship between religion and politics in the United States, in particular the political preferences of persons whose religious background (or orientation) is some form of ascetic Protestantism (1962, 1964, 1966). Together, these bodies of work established Johnson as both a major contributor to key theoretical debates in the sociology of religion and an important empirical researcher on the relationship between religion and politics in the contemporary United States. Johnson's work in the 1960s explored the Weberian thesis that "individuals who adhere strongly to traditional Protestant theologies are inclined to support political movements that emphasize individualism, lim- ited government, and private enterprise" (1966:200). Thirty years later, this would be considered a conservative political outlook, associated with Republican Party voting. In the 1980s when social scientists were surprised by the emergence of a cadre of politically active conservative Protestants, Johnson was prompted to title an article, "How New Is the New Christian Right?" (with Mark Shibley, 1989).

Given this intellectual backdrop and his own affinity for the liberal Protestant tradition, Johnson turned his attention in the mid-1980s to understanding the causes and consequences of membership decline in mainline Protestant denominations in the United States (1985, 1986) rather than focusing—as many sociologists of religion did—on the growth and political activism of evangelical Protestants. This interest in the apparent declining appeal and influence of liberal Protestant churches culminated in the publication of Vanishing Boundaries: The Religion of Protestant Baby Boomers (with Dean R. Hoge and Donald A. Luidens, Westminster 1994),a case study of membership decline among Presbyterians. Johnson and his coauthors show how a nonsectarian mainline church fosters an openness to the wider culture that over a generation diffuses commitment among members. Vanishing Boundaries won the annual book award given by the Society of the Scientific Study of Religion in 1994 and was praised as a definitive study of why so many young people left mainline Protestant churches in the latter half of the twentieth century. Johnson's work on liberal Protestantism has drawn the attention and praise of denominational staff struggling to understand the social sources of their membership decline.

Mark A. Shibley


B. Johnson, "A Critical Appraisal of the Church-Sect Typology," American Sociological Review 22(1957):88-92

B. Johnson, "Do Holiness Sects Socialize in Dominant Values?" Social Forces 39(1961):309-316

B. Johnson, "Ascetic Protestantism and Political Preference," Public Opinion Quarterly 26(1962):35-46

B. Johnson, "On Church and Sect," American Sociological Review 28(1963):539-549

B. Johnson, "Ascetic Protestantism and Political Preference in the Deep South," American Journal of Sociology 69(1964):359-366

B. Johnson, "Theology and Party Preference Among Protestant Clergymen," American Sociological Review 31(1966):200-208

B. Johnson, Functionalism in Modern Sociology (Morristown, N.J.: General Learning Press, 1975)

B. Johnson, "Liberal Protestantism," Annals 480(1985):39-52

B. Johnson, "Winning Lost Sheep," in Liberal Protestantism , ed. R. S. Michaelsen and W. C. Roof (New York: Pilgrim, 1986): 220-234

B. Johnson and M. A. Shibley, "How New Is the New Christian Right?" in Secularization and Fundamentalism Reconsidered , ed. J. K. Hadden and A. D. Shupe (New York: Paragon House, 1989): 178-198.

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