Tag: George Yancey

On Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project of American Sociology

“A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.”

Emile Durkheim, Elementary Forms of Religious Life

I recently read Christian Smith’s new book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology (Oxford University Press, Sacred Project2014).  Smith is a professor of sociology at Notre Dame (and will be speaking for Spring Arbor’s Focus series in March). His work is well known in sociology of religion circles and he is one of the principal investigators on the National Survey on Youth and Religion.

Sacred Project is a different kind of book than his more empirical work. A footnote in the introduction spells out his strategy: “this book can be read as ‘a sociology-of-religion of sociology-as-discipline’ (p. x).” Smith is using Durkheim’s work in a very specific way, so it’s good for me to paint a quick picture before getting to the substance of his argument.

Emile Durkheim’s work in Elementary Forms focused on the beliefs and practices of Australian Aboriginal tribes (based on fieldwork by his nephew). It’s “elementary” because it is the most simple and primitive approach (at least according to Emile). It’s a clan organization with a divided sense of time: there is origin time and everyday time. The origin time in populated by spiritual beings/animals (which is why it’s called animism) who work out the creation narratives. Everything else in everyday time is a recreation of the origin time. The rituals the group engage in are representations of that time that is sacred, “that is, set apart and forbidden”. But Durkheim’s analysis concludes that the sacred realm is a reproduction of the group’s social order and that the outcome of the everyday rituals is to guarantee fealty to the group’s values. A related element is Durkheim’s work is that such tribal societies deal with deviance and rule-breaking by what he called repressive law — violators were excluded from the tribe.

It is in this narrow way that Christian Smith is talking about a Sacred Project in sociology. Like the origin time for the aboriginals, there is an overarching story that binds sociology and a system of ritual practice that reinforces that story on a regular basis. The actual sacred story is rarely if ever examined.

For sociology, Smith argues, the sacred vision is one of a particular form of society. It’s not just that sociologists use certain methods or introduce specific concepts in their sociologizing. It’s that they do so in service of the larger sacred goal. How he outlines that goal takes on different forms throughout the book. Sometimes, he is fairly objective in describing an unexamined vision of the world sociologists share:

American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experiential, material, and bodily pleasures (pp. 7-8, italics Smith’s)

I’m more comfortable with the first half of the formulation than with the second. Sociologists do share a vision that perhaps can best be stated as critique: we’re concerned about exploitation, about the contingencies of birth, about dynamics of social inequality. In short, the dynamics of structures and patterns within the larger society that unduly rob some of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. There is a shared and unexamined notion that our ideal sociological world wouldn’t look like that.

But he also conceptualizes the Sacred Project in words that sound far more pejorative:

We might say that it stands in the modern-liberal-Enlightenment-Marxist-social-reformist-pragmatist-therapeutic-sexually liberated-civil rights-feminist-GLBTQ-social constructionist-poststructuralist/postmodernist “tradition” (p. 11, italics Smith’s).

He traces the development of American sociology from its Chicago days to its current state and seems to suggest not only that all of these descriptors are connected, but embraced by the discipline. Some of them are directly contrary. It is undoubtedly true that sociology has had a bias for those left behind within society — from Chicago’s Polish girls to contemporary issues around race and criminal justice.

Smith reviews recently published books at ASA meetings, themes in contemporary sociological journals, or major assumptions underlying conference themes. He spend a chapter doing a remarkable critique of the leading Intro to Soc textbook (Macionis), suggesting that the tripartite structure of theory groups (structural functionalism, conflict theory, and symbolic interaction) works to a) show conflict theory as preferable to order theories, and b) to legitimize the social constructivist assumptions of modern sociology. Another important critique is that research gets repeated that seems to match the default assumptions of the Sacred Project even when it’s been critiqued long in the past.

These patterns, it seems to me, have a great deal to say about the institutional structures of the sociological enterprise. How does one get to be an intro book author or reviser? Which books get reviewed by major publications? Perhaps to get a book noticed by an editor one has to pick up one of the victimization themes common to the book exhibit. What I’m suggesting is that the sociological analysis we’ve all gotten used to can be turned back on sociology.

Another layer to this is also evident in Smith’s argument. He recognizes that the patterns he describes don’t reflect the biases of most sociologists but do speak to elites. They also are represented within the major doctoral programs and promotion-tenure processes in competitive sociology departments.

A key element of the book has to do with the way conservative sociologists have been treated in the discipline. He spends most of a chapter reviewing the Mark Regnerus saga from 2012 (Smith wrote a defense of Regnerus in the Chronicle of Higher Education). There are very real issues of research being used for or against certain prescribed positions and sociology is not better off for such exclusion. This is where Durkheim’s repressive law comes in. Take a position outside the established view and risk exclusion — figurative at best, career destroying at worst.

This isn’t an isolated argument. Just today, I saw a report from a group of social psychologists describing the theoretical problems arising from a lack of political and ideological diversity. My friend George Yancey has regularly been researching issues of ideological discrimination within academe.

So I’m left agreeing with Smith in part and disagreeing in part. Sociology does seem to take default positions, evident in textbooks and research presentations, that there is only one idealized vision of how the world should work. Even though there is far more diversity among sociologists in general than there is within the elite echelons, those of us calling for a more complex position are somewhat deviant (this is especially true for the sociology of religion subset).

And yet I’m not as troubled by the various labels described in the second quote above. Sociologists, especially Christian sociologists, are rightly concerned with issues of inequality, of diminishment, or power abuse. Not because we blindly adopt an enlightenment rationalist vision. But because we’re pursuing a Kingdom vision. It is a sacred drive but it’s a different sacred project than Christian Smith describes. It’s one that takes God’s restoration of creation as its telos.

One more thing: he ends his book with an appendix describing what he calls Critical Realist Personalism. In this view, which I really want him to unpack further, he wants us to explore the complexity of causal forces in the social structure. More importantly, he wants not to focus on autonomous individuals but “persons”. Rather than drawing on Enlightenment images, he wants to draw on Aristotelian interconnectedness. This approach also is consistent with basic Christian theological assumptions.

In the end, while I certainly agree with much of Smith’s critique, I am more optimistic about the alternatives. There is a great deal for students to pursue even without the biases he’s worried about. It’s a Sacred Project truly worth pursuing.

Academic Freedom and Christian Colleges: Responding to the Conn Articles

This is not the Conns.

This week a pair of opinion pieces concerning Christian Higher Education burst onto my social media feeds. Since I had been on the road, the second one caught my eye first. Steven Conn, professor of history at Ohio State, wrote a piece in the Huffington Post titled “Is ‘Christian College’ an Oxymoron?“.  While trying to get my head around his very incomplete argument, I started seeing responses to a Conn article that had appeared in the Chronicle the beginning of the week. This one, titled “The Great Accreditation Farce“, was written by Peter Conn, professor of english and education at the University of Pennsylvania. I’m not sure how Steve and Peter are connected but I did find at least one piece that they co-wrote, so I’m assuming that they are brothers. (This is not a picture of them but every time I think of the idea of Conn brothers, these guys come to mind.)

I’ll try to summarize their arguments (using first names for brevity). Steven’s argument is that a school with an a priori faith commitment, especially one with a formal faith statement faculty must adhere to, is incompatible with academic freedom. Using examples of Bryan College (which he initially placed in Dayton, OH instead of Dayton, TN), Cedarville University, and Wheaton College (IL), he explores actions taken by administrators that have caused faculty members to leave (or been fired). He suggests that taxpayers might be unaware that “we subsidize religion through our system of support for higher education”. His complaints about Bryan come primarily from New York Times stories on the Bryan controversies and Cedarville’s from an 18 year old story from Harpers. He rightly looks at the religious history of American universities and says that their religious groundings shifted at places like Cornell and Harvard late in the 19th century. He goes on:

And for good reason. Higher education is dedicated to untrammeled inquiry rather than faithful submission. It starts with questions and explores them to their limits, not with answers that are then back-filled. It cultivates skepticism rather than insisting on credulity. Christian colleges pursue the opposite agenda. Questions already have answers …

Peter’s argument begins with a standard recitation of concerns about regional accreditation: too much focus on inputs, not enough attention to quality concerns, too tradition bound. He suggests that the primary motivation for schools to be accredited is for their students to gain access to Title IV funds (Pell Grants, Work Study, and Subsidized Loans). He cites two reports from the past decade that suggest accreditation needs attention. He also mentions his experience in overseeing a self-study and serving on an evaluation team at another school. Then he turns to his real agenda. Christian colleges should not be accredited because “they erect religious tests for truth”. He cites a faculty member at Bryan (from the New York Times) and critiques Wheaton for having its faculty sign faith statements. He says:

Providing accreditation to colleges like Wheaton makes a mockery of whatever academic and intellectual standards the process of accreditation is supposed to uphold.

There have been some wonderful responses written in the last few days. Baylor Humanities professor Alan Jacobs and Wheaton Provost Stanton Jones provided excellent rebuttals. Jacobs focuses on the actual dynamics of accreditation (as opposed to those suggested by Peter). Jones writes eloquently about the moral foundations of all scholarly inquiry.

My responses to the Conns is based on my unique career path. I have been in Christian Higher Ed for 33 years, serving as faculty member and as senior academic administrator. I’ve been in five different Christian institutions and know quite a bit about a score of others. I have served as an evaluator in two of the six accreditation regions and been trained for the Higher Learning Commission. I’ve written a self-study, dealt with academic freedom questions from my faculty colleagues, and teach sociology in Christian institutions (which needs academic freedom protections from time to time!).

I’ll respond to Peter’s claims first. From everything I learned in my years working with accreditors (I’ve done three full-scale visits, four follow-up visits, and served on a program review panel) the central theme has always been about the primacy of institutional mission. What does it mean for Wheaton College to pursue its unique role? That must be clearly defined and give direction to all other aspects of the life of the College. Academic Freedom is seen within the context of mission. The same is true at the University of Pennsylvania. For the record, the last ten years has seen the regional accreditors moving rapidly to student outcome measures, increased focus on issues of alignment, and the significant role of faculty governance as part of protecting that alignment of mission, program, and policy. Boards of Trustees must be independent bodies that, while perhaps representing a sponsoring denomination, cannot be answering to the denomination. The schools are expected to be independent and protecting the educational mission at it impacts students. (That’s another distinction one could explore: academic freedom should find its expression in student learning and not simply in faculty statements.) I would wager that our impact on students at Christian institutions, especially on controversial issues, is greater that than of the University of Pennsylvania.

Steven’s argument about academic freedom is hard to fathom. He focuses on two somewhat rogue institutions (even by Christian college standards). I’ve written before about both Bryan and Cedarville. In both cases (as with Shorter), the situation was one where the administration violated principles of shared governance and forced changes upon existing faculty. They did have their academic freedom limited by dominant positions on Adam and Eve or the role of women in ministry.

But this was not inherent in all Christian Colleges. it  was the result of failure of alignment of mission and educational process in two specific institutions. Here’s a recent piece on on a Calvin College faculty member’s academic freedom regarding the study of human origins. The schools I’ve served carefully wrestle with the need for considering alternative viewpoint in ways that are accessible by students. It’s true that one needs to be more nuanced about how to present those viewpoints and that a capable academic administrator (I pray I was one) is able to deflect external attacks by pointing back to the centrality of institutional mission.

As I’ve written, our commitment as Christian institutions and as Christian scholars is not to some rigid dogma that constrains our free thinking. It is a belief that we are doing important work in preparing our students to live in the Kingdom of God. Through the leading of the Holy Spirit and the hard work of community, we model what real inquiry looks like. I would love for Steven (who thinks he couldn’t be invited to Cedarville) to spend a few days with the faculty at Spring Arbor. He’d learn quite a bit.

One more thing: My friend George Yancey has written on anti-religious bias in the academy. While he and I disagree on the extent of that, these articles seem to demonstrate his point. I cannot imagine either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the Huffington Post publishing a takedown of research universities as sloppily argued as the pieces by the Conns. We’d have a much higher standard to meet in terms of structure of argument and evidentiary support. The bias comes out in how easy it is for critics to cherry-pick egregious cases.

This is why the rest of us have got to find a way of changing the media narrative about Christian Higher Education.