The Sociology of Language and Religion: Change, Conflict and Accommodation

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It has often been observed in the sociological literature that the sect is a lower-class protest phenomenon. The conditions of life of different social strata influence the psychological make-up and need dispositions of their members. Consequently, social classes and strata develop different religious needs and sensibilities. Niebuhr stated that the religion of the disinherited may be observed in the rise of many sects and that Christianity was at first the religion of those who had little stake in the civilization of their time. Troeltsch concluded that all really creative religious movements are the work of lower strata.

Niebuhr stressed the importance of economic success in the transformation of protesting sects into denominations and pointed to the fact that the churches of the poor sooner or later become churches of the middle class.

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The sect exhibits complex functions in society. It often offers an outlet for strains and frustrations incumbent upon lower-class status and for the condition of being socially and economically disinherited.

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In allowing catharsis, it at the same time provides a meaningful community, together with a set of values that promotes a personal reorganization of the members. Not only may the sect reconcile the disinherited to their situation through the various compensations of this-worldly community and other-worldly expectations, but it may also bring new meaning to them in its reinterpretation of their life experience.

In doing this it may socialize its members in virtues which lead to economic and worldly success. Moreover, the sect, with its close community of human beings and its new values which give meaning to life, offers a way out of anomie to many who have been disorganized in the impersonal milieu of the modern city. When the founding generation passes away, the established sect continues to perform similar functions for individuals who are attracted to it and provides for its born members the setting for acting out their established values.

Sects may take on a number of new functions when their social composition and their specific social situation change over time.

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When established organizational conditions offer insufficient expression to the religious needs of people or when established institutions fail to meet needs of particular strata and groups at all, it is easy for charismatic leaders to arise and organize a following. Such developments issue in movements of protest of a marked sectarian character. The charismatic leader as a rallying focus and an active initiator plays a strategic role in the origin of sects and often impresses his own self-interpretation upon the group as the model for its behavior and beliefs.

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The accommodation and routinization of churches and the development of sects into denominations is often the occasion for schism, which is an important source of sectarian movements. Moreover, conditions and social change within the general society, altered economic status for particular groups, urbanization, increased mobility— geographic and psychological—and other phenomena associated with industrialization all contribute to the rise of sects.

The sect as a sociological ideal type is therefore to be understood as the embodiment and expression of rejection of some significant aspect of secular life.

It represents a protest against compromise with the society and its values and the institutional development of the church itself as an aspect of this accommodation. It is charismatic, lay, egalitarian, and voluntaristic religion in contrast to the established, professional, hierarchical, and ascribed religion of the church. In this typology the sect represents an ideal type: empirical reality and specific historical development present a greater variety than does the typology itself. Many protest movements display sectarian characteristics but to different degrees and often in somewhat different respects.

Most of the important protest movements in Christianity, while highly influenced by sectlike elements, endeavored to achieve organizational forms which also involved many of the characteristics of the church. Thus the Reformed churches of the Protestant Reformation vary along a complex continuum from Anglicanism with its episcopate and quite ecclesiastical structure, at one end, to the sectlike organizations of the Baptists, at the other, with interesting combinations of church and sect attributes characterizing the in-between groups, for example, the Churches of the Standing Order in colonial Massachusetts.

Joachim Wach has called a number of them independent groups and has pointed out that they vary in form from churchlike hierarchical structures to egalitarian covenants of laymen. However, not all protest is secessionist in intention, nor does protest necessarily issue in separate organization outside the established bodies. Monasticism and the later religious orders offer an outstanding example of protest groups which remain within the older ecclesiastical body.

Monasticism exhibits a number of sectarian qualities: it establishes a separate community, practices austerity and asceticism, and employs segregating rules and peculiarities of dress. Like the geographically isolated sects, it creates its own distinct community but remains dependent upon the larger body for replacement of personnel. In its origin Christian monasticism was both a protest against the accommodation of the church and a rejection of the world.

Its relationship to the sacramental church was ambiguous, and it could have become a secessionist movement. But in the rule of Basil in the East and of Benedict in the West, it was reintegrated formally and solidly into the structure of the church. Here it continued to play a role of witness and to advocate reform. Moreover, it placed its enormous energy at the disposal of the church for missionary and other activity. In the High Middle Ages, the Franciscan movement represented a similar tendency. It was contained within the church at first by the personal character of its founder.

Later on, its integration into the church was the cause of a great struggle in which both schism and heresy as well as reintegration of the order into the church resulted. Moreover, the routinization process from sect to denomination is also found in the history of religious orders.

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Such routinization is often the cause of schism and divisions and the rise of reforming leaders of the charismatic type. The Mormons.

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A religious body of a marked sectlike character which seeks geographical isolation may, when circumstances are propitious, develop into an entity resembling an ethnic group or even a nation. The Mormons, a sectlike group choosing to imitate the Biblical model of Israel, found themselves in circumstances where such recapitulation took on realistic significance. Persecuted and driven from their settlements, achieving victories and suffering defeats, the Mormons built up in a decade and a half a folk tradition and mentality of their own. In moving to the West they found a vast unoccupied expanse of land upon which they could expand their vision of an earthly kingdom of God to imperial dimensions.

As a result the semiecclesiastical organization which developed was at the same time the organized core of a Mormon people held together by kinship ties, common beliefs and values, a common history of achievement and suffering, and a common homeland. Churches have also become the core of ethnic groups, as under the Turkish millet system in the Middle East , which granted a degree of political autonomy to religious communities. Wilson has shown that it is possible to distinguish types of sects on the basis of their ideological orientations.

He distinguishes first the conversionist sect , which seeks to convert others and thereby to change the world; second, the adventist sect , which expects drastic divine intervention and awaits a new dispensation; third, the introversionist sect , which is pietistic in its orientation, withdrawing from the world to cultivate its inner spirituality; and the gnostic sect , which offers some special esoteric religious knowledge. Such sects will experience the effects of routinization differently and will also exhibit different structural tendencies to some degree Wilson ; Moreover, since the terms church and sect are ideal-typical constructions, what is observed in real life situations only approximates the specifications of the theoretical definitions.

Such ideal-typical concepts have an analogical character and are most useful for observation, analysis, and interpretation when utilized with flexibility. This analogical character of the Troeltschian concepts is best seen in the behavior of churches when placed in circumstances which elicit sectlike behavior from them. The Roman Catholic church in the United States in the nineteenth century found itself a minority religion, largely lower class in character, constituted in its vast majority by ethnic groups of recent immigrant origin, and therefore of lower prestige in the general American society.

Moreover, the value system of American society was largely derived from Protestantism, and the various forms of Protestantism constituted something like an unofficially established national religion. The Roman Catholic church responded by separating itself from the surrounding Protestant world in a wide range of activities and by constructing its own institutional contexts for education from the primary grades through the university, for social welfare work, for hospitals and other institutions for aid, and for sports and entertainment. Moreover, the mentality of American Catholics took on a number of sectlike attributes, such as apartness and defensiveness, rigorism in morality, and militancy in religious identification.

While this situation was in part conditioned by the defensive character of post-Tridentine Catholicism in Europe and by the Irish background of so many American Catholics, there is no question of the importance of American conditions in bringing about a sectlike result. What has evolved from the time of Troeltsch is a typology of religious groups which has proven its utility in description and analysis in the sociological study of religion.

It may be summarized briefly as follows: The church is the embodiment of institutional religion and accommodation to the world. It gives rise to protest groups and movements.

The Sociology of Language and Religion: Change, Conflict and Accommodation

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