Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1902-1979) Leading American sociological theorist and student of religion; "a somewhat backsliding Protestant of Congregationalist background" (1978:233) who spent most of his career as Professor of Sociology at Harvard University; President, American Sociological Association, 1949; Chairman of the Committee for the Scientific Study of Religion (CSSR, the nascent SSSR), 1952-1953.

Parsons developed a general, voluntaristic theory of action, based on influential, imaginative readings of the sociological classics, which he applied to a wide variety of sociological problems. He played an important role as an early translator of major European studies, most notably Max Weber's Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Scribner 1930). An active figure in his discipline, Parsons was prominent in numerous professional organizations and cofounded the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion. Parsons trained and influenced many acclaimed scholars, notably specialists in the study of religion such as Robert Bellah, Clifford Geertz, and Benton Johnson. Although he had a direct impact on the work of such scholars, Parsons's ideas, long the subject of extensive debates in sociology, currently have a more limited and diffuse influence than they did during his career.

Parsons's Synthesis

Religion played an integral part in Parsons's work from beginning to end. His overall project can be described as an effort to refute a Weberian view of modernity with Durkheimian means. Theoretically, he regarded religion as a source of general images of order and specific societal values, crucial to maintaining minimal coherence in any society. Historically, Parsons interpreted American society as successfully institutionalizing certain values rooted in individualistic, ascetic Protestantism under conditions of social differentiation and cultural pluralism. America represented a phase in the Christianization of the world. Parsons's own progressive view of religious evolution in the West actually sharpened his attention to continuing tensions between religious meaning and potentially destructive aspects of worldly human experience. He also analyzed social and cultural movements that opposed (he thought ineffectively) the complex-but-viable framework of America as an open-but-religious society.

Parsons's first and last publications (1928-1929, 1979)—on Weber's and Sombart's view of capitalism and on economic and religious symbolism in the West, respectively—display the strong Weberian thrust in all his work. Like Weber, Parsons was interested in the religious roots of modern culture, which he sought in the implications of the Protestant Reformation. Similarly, Parsons thought of Christianity, especially in its ascetic Protestant incarnation, as giving special significance to such "worldly" domains as the economic and erotic while at the same time introducing a special tension between worldly motives and transcendent religious aspirations. But whereas Weber thought that Protestantism was bound to lose its social influence in a rationalized society, Parsons claimed that the Protestant worldview remained significant in modern times. Specifically, he considered dominant American values, described as instrumental activism and institutionalized individualism, to be new, generalized versions of Christian universalism, individualism, and world mastery. The institutional form of American religion, denominational pluralism, similarly reflected Protestant notions of faith as a matter of individual choice, and organization as a matter of voluntary allegiance. Even American citizenship, aiming for maximum inclusion of all persons irrespective of ascriptive features, appeared meaningfully linked to Protestantism's eminently democratic "priesthood of all believers."

For Weber, the modern world increasingly became disenchanted; for Parsons, a liberalized version of Christian culture continued to shape American society in the mid-twentieth century. For Weber, differentiation meant that gods proliferated, and individuals were left to their own devices; for Parsons, differentiation was matched by new modes of integration, and individual choice was guided by shared normative standards. In this sense, Parsons attempted to refute Weber. Yet until the end, he also adhered to the Weberian insight that Christian ambivalence toward "the world" could not be resolved. The tension between religious culture and economic action could not be eliminated. In this respect, he actually extended a Weberian idea. In the West, Parsons argued, religion maintained a crucial cultural role precisely in counteracting the potential dominance of economic thought and action. Were such tension to disappear, one may infer, Western history would come to an end.

Durkheim came to provide the analytical tools for Parsons's ambivalent struggle with Weber. In The Structure of Social Action (McGraw-Hill 1937), Parsons had been skeptical of positivist elements in Durkheim's sociology, which seemingly denied the autonomy of cultural categories by treating them as epiphenomenal effects of basic social processes. He also continued to question Durkheim's equation of church and society, because it denied the possibility of differentiating a religious and a distinctly social sphere. Still, Parsons's view of action and order owed much to Durkheim. Without shared normative regulation, rational action remains rudderless—little more than the idle individual pursuit of random ends. Without general normative regulation of its institutional framework that inspires binding commitments on the part of members, a society cannot cohere for long. Such regulation selects possibilities of action, but to be effective requires the operation of many other components of a social structure. Parsons's treatment of the normative is anti-idealist in principle; institutionalization of values is always a contingent process. Yet the normative pattern that provides a society its identity is the single most important functional facet that Parsons emphasizes throughout. The Durkheimian influence is evident. Whatever else it is, a society must be a moral community; those who belong to it necessarily share a religion in some sense—and vice versa (1978:250).

Parsons on American Religion and Society

American society, Parsons claimed, in fact functioned as a moral community bound by a civil religion that consisted of very general but transcendent values. The secret to America's success as a viable, complex modern society was that it had transformed its sacred canopy in a manner that made highly differentiated social action and allegiance to many different worldviews possible. Out of Weberian components, America had fashioned a Durkheimian solution to the problems of modernity.

Parsons used his evolutionary interpretation of Christian history (1968) to bolster this view of America. Although Christ was divine and human, Christianity preserved God's transcendence while crucially breaking His special bond with the "Chosen People." Belonging to the Christian church was a matter of belief, available to all, in principle. At the same time, the early Christian church dramatically differentiated itself from the secular society of its time, which both facilitated its long-term survival and its later ability to reshape secular society according to its norms. In spite of fluctuations over time, the Western church's autonomy and theology inspired a mission for the world, a long-term effort to build the kingdom of God on Earth. This was intensified in the Western, ascetic branch of Protestantism, which maintained the radical dualism between the transcendental and the "world," and thereby stressed the importance of human agency in creating a holy community. Individuals, all with equal religious obligations and capacities, were to participate in building the kingdom, as members of the invisible church in the world.

The visible church "had" to become a voluntary association, a religious development only firmly institutionalized after the formal separation of church and state in America. Because of the importance of associational involvement and the religious legitimation of individual achievement, American individualism was by no means "anarchic" but effectively helped to build a large-scale society that left considerable free space to individuals. The basic framework of American ascetic Protestantism was also flexible enough to allow the inclusion of non-Protestant groups in the national community, still a "nation under God." In short, Christian history, mined with Weber's help, provided many of the materials needed to construct a new culture, true to core Christian principles yet upgraded to support a large-scale, highly differentiated society.

Thus, in Parsons's view, American society constituted an evolutionary breakthrough; it displayed a higher level of organized complexity than any other. This advance was made possible by its distinctive adaptation of Christian values and its elaboration of denominational pluralism. At the leading edge of social evolution, America was both the most secular and the most religious of modern societies. By the problems it faced and the answers it found, it showed a path toward modernity for others to follow. Yet Parsons did not think of evolutionary change in a unilinear manner. America was a beacon, but not a model to the world; in different religious traditions, different kinds of adaptations would have to be developed. Even the Christian tradition, after all, had become internally differentiated; only one branch happened to contribute to and "fit" with the main pattern of modernizing change. But in the system of modern societies, everyone must confront the same basic realities. The fundamental question, to Parsons, was whether a society had the cultural resources to respond to modern predicaments by legitimating differentiation and pluralism, economic growth, and social inclusion.

Even within the United States, Parsons had pointed out, fundamentalists resisted the thrust of evolutionary change by harking back to the security of sectarian values as the basis of a simple communal life. As his wartime essays on Germany showed (1954), when societies experience traumatic change in a basically illiberal culture, a violently romantic movement may result. Some movements, notably Marxist ones, could adopt the economic factor that seemed to usher in the modern era in the first place as a guiding principle. Their eschatological and utopian view, holding out the prospect of ultimate emancipation and undifferentiated community, is itself a quasi-religious response to problems of meaning posed by economic change. Marxism was part of the "religious drama over the significance of things economic" (1979:24)—plausible mainly in countries that had not been through the Reformation. But its attempt to base a new form of solidarity on economic factors alone must fail: It ignored many critical dimensions of action and could not do justice to the actual complexity of modern social systems. Thus even the most powerful and coherent absolutist response to the modern predicament could not succeed. Modernity defeats absolutisms absolutely. But this is not to say that antimodern reactions will simply disappear. Modernity allows for considerable pluralism; culture and society function in relative autonomy. Thus there are ample sources of critical reaction to the direction of change, even in societies like America, where a minimal societal religion obtains, according to Parsons.


Many aspects of Parsons's work are subject to criticism. Neither he nor his students ever offered a full-fledged analysis of religion as an institution or an "action complex" in the technical terms of his theory. The very foundations of that theory have been called into question, including Parsons's claim that it embodies a synthetic convergence in the views of classic predecessors. Parsons's own applications of his theory appear to betray an idealist bias, stressing the dominant integrative role of religiously derived values. The historical analysis of Christianity was deliberately selective; in a presentist manner, Parsons searched for those elements that bolster his view of contemporary American society; almost every single historical claim of his requires the most critical scrutiny. Those who think of secularization as the inexorable decline of religion's social significance would challenge Parsons's view of America as an essentially (Judeo-)Christian society. Scholars might similarly question the extent to which American civil religion provided America with a base for normative integration, or the extent to which the remnants of ascetic Protestantism continue to infuse America's social system with creative tension. Parsons's belief in the leading role of America as a cultural innovator, rather than as an economic power, would necessarily encounter considerable resistance in contemporary global debates. Yet Parsons is one twentieth-century scholar whose very ambitions continue to inspire and whose mistakes continue to be fruitful. As a religiously attuned, confidently liberal interpreter of American culture in his time, if not as an empirical sociologist in the conventional sense, Parsons will serve as a benchmark in the social scientific study of modern religion well into the twenty-first century.

Frank J. Lechner


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

C. Geertz, "Religion as a Cultural System," in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973): 87-125

T. Parsons, " 'Capitalism' in Recent German literature," Journal of Political Economy 36-37(1928-1929):641-661, 31-51

T. Parsons, "The Place of Ultimate Values in Sociological Theory," International Journal of Ethics 45(1935):282-316

T. Parsons, Essays in Sociological Theory (New York: Free Press, 1954)

T. Parsons, Sociological Theory and Modern Society (New York: Free Press, 1967)

T. Parsons, "Christianity," in International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences 2(1968):425-447

T. Parsons, Action Theory and the Human Condition (New York: Free Press, 1978)

T. Parsons, "Religious and Economic Symbolism in the Western World," Sociological Inquiry 49 (1979):1-48

R. Robertson et al., "Talcott Parsons on Religion," special issue, Sociological Analysis 43, 4(1982): papers by V. Lidz, R. Robertson (which influenced this article), R. Baum, and E. Tiryakian, and an extensive bibliography by Robertson and M. Cavanaugh.

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