Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

Table of Contents | Cover Page  |  Editors  |  Contributors  |  Introduction  |  Web Version

Sociologists of religion tend to emphasize the prevalence of order in society and in social organizations. They stress the importance of common values as the basis of societal and organizational stability. They view conflict and other forms of deviation as problematic. Their analyses imply the need to resocialize deviants and restore order. This research tradition tends to see religion as a cultural institution that brings people together for common purposes and, except for temporary disruptions, contributes to the overall well-being and orderliness of society.

However, the sociology of religion also includes a subordinate strand of theory and research stressing the prevalence of disorder in society and social organizations. Groups in society generally, and in the religious arena particularly, are prone to in-group/out-group distinctions: superior versus inferior, saved versus unsaved. Division and turmoil are natural extensions of such conflicting values and interests. Analyses in this tradition stress the normalcy of conflict between religious groups, the prevalence of conflict within religious groups, and the relationship between religion and societal conflict (Raab 1964, Menendez 1985).

Conflict between Religious Groups

There is a considerable body of literature on historic conflicts between Protestant groups. Studies document late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth conflicts between "mainline" supporters of the "Social Gospel," who felt religion should address social concerns such as urban poverty, and "fundamentalists," who insisted that religion's focus should be on spiritual matters. Studies also record struggles in the 1920s and 1930s between "modernists," who wanted religion to embrace modern science, and "conservatives," who stressed the importance of scriptural literalism and religious tradition. Finke and Stark (1992) document conflicts between mainline denominations and evangelicals over control of American radio waves in the 1930s and 1940s. These tensions persist in present-day "culture wars" between liberal mainline denominations and conservative evangelical groups (Liebman and Wuthnow 1983, Hunter 1983, 1991).

The history of conflict between American Protestants and Catholics also is well documented (Kane 1955). Protestant nativism was directed at eighteenth-century Catholic colonists and nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Catholic immigrants. The Know Nothing Party, the Ku Klux Klan, the Anti-Saloon League, and the temperance movement depicted Catholics as intellectually inferior and morally depraved. Protestants feared that, following orders from Rome, "papists" might try to supplant American democracy with an authoritarian state based on Catholic beliefs (Ray 1936, Billington 1938, Higham 1965). Catholics responded by establishing parallel institutions of their own (e.g., parochial schools, professional associations). Catholics' so-called ghetto mentality engendered prejudice against Protestants, who were seen as "separated brethren" and "holy rollers" who preached religious falsehoods.

Protestant-Catholic conflict also has been a prominent part of religious history in Northern Ireland. Religious differences are at the root of the tensions between the more affluent and politically powerful Protestant community against the economically and politically disenfranchised Catholic minority (Moore 1972). In Latin America, the Catholic Church has been dominant, often aligning itself with economic and political elites. Increasingly, Catholics have come into conflict with evangelical Protestants, who have sought the allegiance of working-class peasants who feel they have been abandoned by the Catholic Church. Liberation theology is the Catholic Church's attempt to realign itself with peasants and, in the process, stifle evangelical gains in the competition for Latin American souls (Burns 1992).

There is a long history of Christian anti-Semitism. Researchers have documented many forms of Christian discrimination against Jews in early-twentieth-century America, such as Ivy League universities' use of quotas to exclude Jewish students (Zweigenhaft and Domhoff 1982, Pyle 1996). Neighborhood and housing discrimination against Jews persisted well into the 1960s. Some evidence suggests that prejudice toward Jews is based on Christian particularism—the tendency to judge others in terms of Christian beliefs, including the tendency to see Jews as responsible for the crucifixion of Christ (Glock and Stark 1966).

Religious groups also have locked horns over issues such as religious truth, abortion, sex roles, and church-state relations. Religious truth has been at the root of numerous tensions between "mainline" religions and new religious groups, especially ones with cultlike qualities and unconventional religious practices. Legal challenges to Mormon theology and polygamous marital practices during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries are but one example (O'Dea 1957). More recently, cults have been seen as "brainwashing" their followers (Robbins and Anthony 1978, Shupe and Bromley 1979, Melton 1986). Liberal religious groups have tended to favor a pro-choice view on abortion, sexual equality (including the ordination of women clergy), the separation of church and state, and religious unity (ecumenism). Conservative groups have advocated "respect for life," traditional sex roles, prayer in schools, and doctrinal purity. These incompatibilities have taken the form of political, as well as religious, conflicts.

Conflict within Religious Groups

In addition to these intergroup conflicts, there also have been very intense intragroup struggles. Protestantism has known its share of intradenominational conflicts. Acrimonious conflict between denominational officials and seminary faculty led to a major schism within the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod in the 1970s (Scherer 1990). In the 1980s and 1990s, "fundamentalists" and "moderates" have struggled for control over national offices, publishing houses, and denominational seminaries in the Southern Baptist Convention (Barnhart 1986, Ammerman 1990).

Wood (1970) has demonstrated that high-ranking denominational officials often take liberal stands on controversial issues such as racial integration, against the more conservative wishes and interests of church members. Hadden (1969) and Hoge (1976), among others, have documented major differences between Protestant clergy and laity with regard to parish priorities and social issues.

There also are well-documentve provided a vivid account of how conflict between clergy with competing theological moded conflicts within Catholicism. Several analysts have described conflicts between "integrationist" or "Americanist" Catholics, who have wanted to assimilate into American culture, and "anti-Americanists" or "restorationists," who have wanted to perpetuate the Catholic Church's distinctive traditions and its goal of transforming American society (Greeley 1967, D'Antonio et al. 1996). Others (Seidler and Meyer 1988, Burns 1992) haels of the Catholic Church precipitated the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965). They also have documented the extent of clergy conflict in the wake of Vatican II.

There have been fewer studies of conflict in Judaism, but the divisions among Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform Judaism indicate the significance of theological pluralism. Class and ethnic differences have compounded the religious tensions among these Jewish "denominations" (Wertheimer 1990).

In addition to these studies of conflict within particular faith groups, there have been numerous studies of conflict at the congregational or parish level. Davidson and Koch (1997) use a political framework to explain conflicts over congregations' "inward [mutual benefit] and outward [public benefit] orientations." Wood (1981) has shown that, from time to time, congregational leaders are able to transcend parishioners' priorities and institutionalize social action programs oriented toward helping nonmembers. They do so by calling members' attention to superordinate religious values and gaining permission to engage in actions that individual members might not endorse. Hadden and Longino (1974) documented the fragility of an outward-oriented Presbyterian congregation that was unable to sustain its prophetic mission in the face of conflict within the organization and between the church and the larger community. Long (1991) has shown how clergy-laity conflict in Lutheranism devolved into a lose-lose situation in the 1970s and 1980s.

Religion and Societal Conflict

Religion is both a product and a source of social conflict (Maduro 1982). Societal conflicts often lead to bitter conflicts within churches. Several scholars have argued that conflict between the old capitalist class and "new class" of knowledge elites is at the root of today's conflicts between religious liberals and conservatives (Hunter 1980, Hargrove 1986).

Racial inequality—from the time of slavery to the present—has fostered racial divisions in denominations and local congregations. Race was at the base of nineteenth-century regional schisms in several Protestant denominations. In the 1960s, the gap between black and white churches grew as blacks formed new congregations based on "black theology" and as white churches opposed black demands for financial reparations for white churches' complicity in America's history of slavery and racial segregation (Lincoln and Mamiya 1990).

The women's movement of the 1960s-1990s has spawned religious debates over the roles of women in churches. Battle lines have been drawn between religious liberals who favor greater participation (including ordination) of women and religious conservatives who prefer patriarchal models of church life (Carroll et al. 1983, Lehman, 1985, 1993).

More recently, the gay and lesbian movement has led to sharp divisions in churches. Church leaders, in groups such as Dignity, have proposed an end to prejudice based on sexual orientation and insisted that homosexuals have a right to be ordained. They have been opposed by others who feel that scriptures portray homosexuality as a serious sin that should preclude ordination.

But religion also is a source of societal conflict. In addition to the religious bases of macro-level conflicts in Northern Ireland and the Middle East, churches initiate political agendas that often produce conflict. Black churches, and some white churches, took the lead in advocating racial justice in the United States during the civil rights era of the 1950s and 1960s (Morris 1984). The Catholic Church, some mainline Protestant denominations, and some evangelicals have taken prophetic positions against the increased concentration of wealth and power in America (Davidson et al., 1990). Peace churches (e.g., the Brethren) vigorously opposed the arms race and the Vietnam War. Evangelical Protestants have opposed the Supreme Court's ruling against prayer in public schools. Catholics and evangelicals have found themselves on the same side of the pro-life movement against abortion. These prophetic stands—both left and right—have precipitated prolonged debates, volatile rallies, political battles, and even violence between opposing forces.

James D. Davidson and Ralph E. Pyle


N. T. Ammerman, Baptist Battles (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1990)

J. E. Barnhart, Baptist Holy Wars (Austin: Texas Monthly Press, 1986)

R. A. Billington, The Protestant Crusade (New York: Rinehart, 1938)

G. Burns, The Frontiers of Catholicism (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992)

J. W. Carroll et al., Women of the Cloth (New York: Harper, 1983)

W. V. D'Antonio et al., American Catholic Laity in a Changing Church (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1989)

W. V. D'Antonio et al., American Catholic Laity (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed & Ward, 1996)

J. D. Davidson and J. R. Koch, "Beyond Mutual and Public Benefits," in Sacred Companies , ed. N. J. Demerath et al. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997)

J. D. Davidson et al., Faith and Social Ministry (Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1990)

R. Finke and R. Stark, The Churching of America (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1992)

C. Y. Glock and R. Stark, Christian Beliefs and Anti-Semitism (New York: Harper, 1966)

A. M. Greeley, The Catholic Experience (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1967)

A. M. Greeley, The Ugly Little Secret (Kansas City, Mo.: Sheed Andrews and McMeel, 1974); "Grosse Pointe's Gross Points," Time (Apr. 25, 1960): 25

J. K. Hadden, The Gathering Storm in the Churches (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1969)

J. K. Hadden and Charles Longino, Gideon's Gang (New York: Pilgrim Press, 1974)

B. Hargrove, The Emerging New Class (New York: Pilgrim, 1986)

J. Higham, Strangers in Our Land (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1965)

D. R. Hoge, Division in the Protestant House (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1976)

J. D. Hunter, "The New Class and Young Evangelicals," Review of Religious Research 24(1980): 155-169

J. D. Hunter, American Evangelicalism (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1983)

J. D. Hunter, Culture Wars (New York: Basic Books, 1991)

J. J. Kane, Catholic-Protestant Conflicts in America (Chicago: Regnery, 1955)
E. C. Lehman, Jr., Women Clergy (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1985)

E. C. Lehman, Jr., Gender and Work (Albany: SUNY Press, 1993)

R. Liebman and R. Wuthnow, The New Christian Right (New York: Aldine, 1983)

C. E. Lincoln and L. Mamiya, The Black Church in the African American Experience (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1990)

T. E. Long, "To Reconcile Prophet and Priest," Sociological Focus 23(1991):251-265

O. Maduro, Religion and Social Conflicts (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis, 1982)

M. N. Marger, Race and Ethnic Relations (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 1991)

J. G. Melton, Encyclopedic Handbook of Cults in America (New York: Garland, 1986)

A. J. Menendez, Religious Conflict in America (New York: Garland, 1985)

R. Moore, "Race Relations in the Six Counties," Race 14(1972):21-42

A. Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: Free Press, 1984)

T. O'Dea, The Mormons (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1957)

R. E. Pyle, Persistence and Change in the Protestant Establishment (Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1996)

E. Raab (ed.), Religious Conflict in America (New York: Doubleday, 1964)

M. A. Ray, American Opinion of Roman Catholicism in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1936)

T. Robbins and D. Anthony, "New Religions, Families, and Brainwashing," Society 15(May-June 1978): 77-83

R. P. Scherer, "Faith and Social Ministry," in Davidson et al., q.v . (1990): 97-121

J. Seidler and K. Meyer, Conflict and Change in the Catholic Church (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1988)

A. Shupe and D. Bromley, "The Moonies and the Anti-Cultists," Sociological Analysis 40(1979):325-334

J. Wertheimer, A People Divided (New York: Basic Books, 1993)

J. R. Wood, "Authority and Controversial Policy," American Sociological Review 35(1970):1057-1069

J. R. Wood, Leadership in Voluntary Associations (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1981)

R. L. Zweigenhaft and G. W. Domhoff, Jews in the Protestant Establishment (New York: Praeger, 1982).

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