Complex Religion

Although scholars of inequality recognize that inequality is complex and constituted via many social structures – an argument often referred to as “intersectionality” – religion has not typically been a part of the research and writing that constitutes this conversation.  This is the case despite the fact that the study of religious inequality used to be a core part of the sociology of religion, with the class differences between American religious groups considered so germane that many early sociologists took them as a given.  As my research has taught me, again and again, that it is next to impossible to separate religion from other structures of inequality, I have developed a theoretical argument and line of research I call “complex religion.”

Complex religion argues that religion is part and parcel of racial, ethnic, class and gender inequality.  Its key take away is that research that focuses on inequality or religion would be better off taking those intersections into account more explicitly. In many ways, then, complex religion simply brings the field back to where it started – to a place where we acknowledge, and try to operationalize as best we can, the ways in which religion intersects with inequality.  I currently have a number of papers that examine different aspects of this argument (four of which are out, two of which are under review).

Two papers lay out the theoretical argument in general terms: “Complex Religion: Interrogating Assumptions of Independence in the Study of Religion” (in Sociology of Religion, 2017) and “Complex Religion: Operationalizing the Study of Race, Class, and Religion” (in Emerging Trends in the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2017), both with Patricia Tevington.

The first empirical paper that relates to complex religion, “Religious Inequality in America” (with Patricia Tevington and Wensong Shen, 2018, Social Inclusions) investigates the persistent and strikingly large amount of religious inequality that exists in the US today using the data from the General Social Survey and the Pew Religious Landscape Survey. The paper’s key argument is that sociology has largely ignored class differences between American religious groups, under the assumption that those differences either do not exist or are getting smaller all the time. In contrast to these impressions, the paper demonstrates that profound class differences remain between American religious groups.

My Annual Review of Sociology paper “How Complex Religion can Improve Our Understanding of American Politics” (with Lindsay Glassman, 2016), argues that intersections of race, class and religion have rarely been examined properly, and that is likely why our theories of the relationship between religion and politics are less than satisfactory. Two other papers, currently in progress, test various aspects of this argument empirically.

The first of these uses data from the General Social Survey and the Pew Religious Landscape Survey.  The paper, which is titled, “Resisting the World: The Unique Effects of Education on Evangelicals’ Attitudes” (with Patricia Tevington and Wensong Shen, under review) finds that, unlike other Americans, evangelicals do not become more progressive on a host of issues as they become more educated. Furthermore, on issues for which education is associated with increasing conservativism for most other groups— namely, economic redistribution— being an evangelical seems to amplify that effect. Thus, their unique reaction to education seems to be key to why evangelicals are the most conservative group in America today.

The second paper, entitled, “Blackness as Primacy: The Continuing Significance of Race for Black American’s Political Views” (with Haley Pilgrim and Wensong Shen, under review), uses the large sample of African Americans in the Pew Religious landscape survey to examine how religion and education intersect among a group that is often assumed to be relatively monolithic.  “Blackness as Primacy” demonstrates that in comparison to whites, religion and education matter very little for blacks’ political views.  Blacks remain progressive on redistribution and strongly identified as Democrats regardless of religious affiliation or education.

As I began to explore the ways in which religion intersects with race, class and gender myself, I realized that there is a great deal of research that is relevant to the debate, almost none of which has been engaged in the larger conversation about religion and inequality.  I thus edited a special journal issue on “Complex Religion: Intersections of Religion and Inequality” for the open-access journal Social Inclusions (June 2018). I am editing another special journal issue, “The Complexity of Religious Inequality,” for the open-access journal Religions (January 2021).

My interest in complex religion comes directly from my research on the factors that explain why some American religious groups liberalized before others on contraception – a project that has finally come to a close very recently in my forthcoming book Birth Control Battles.