Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1946-) Andlinger Professor of Social Sciences and Director of the Center for the Study of American Religion at Princeton, Wuthnow studied under both Robert Bellah and Charles Glock at the University of California, Berkeley, where he received his Ph.D. in 1975. Chair, Section on Sociology of Religion, American Sociological Association, 1995; Chair, Section on Sociology of Culture, American Sociological Association, 1996; Executive Council, Association for the Sociology of Religion, 1987-1990; Executive Council, Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, 1978-1981.

Wuthnow's intellectual pedigree is acknowledged by his dedicating to Bellah and Glock his book Meaning and Moral Order (University of California Press 1987), which establishes Wuthnow as a leading sociologist not only of religion but also of culture and theory. A central concern of this work is to understand cultural change in terms of the social ecology of ideologies: their production, competition, selection, and institutionalization. He applies this perspective in Communities of Discourse (Harvard University Press 1989), the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion's Distinguished Book of 1990. The book consists of historical studies of the social structural conditions that favored the institutionalization of the ideologies of the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European socialism. In these studies, Wuthnow addresses the "problem of articulation": the reality that ideas must articulate closely enough with their social settings to be taken seriously, but not so closely that they appear parochial. The problem of articulation is solved only in concrete living-and-breathing communities in which discourse is produced and becomes meaningful. Notable for their theoretical breadth and empirical richness, these works bring Wuthnow's interest in religion to a broader audience of sociologists.

Wuthnow's specifically religious research bears the marks of Glock's quantitative orientation and Bellah's cultural-interpretive approach as he regularly embeds statistical analysis of survey data in broad cultural arguments without regard to polemics about their incompatibility. Although his work ranges widely, his main concern has been to understand the overall forms and structure of postwar American religion. A recurrent theme is that religion has neither beat a wholesale retreat nor persisted unchanged in modern society. While it is impossible to summarize his entire corpus, three major variations on this theme can be highlighted.

The New Religious Consciousness

Wuthnow's early work grew out of the "New Religious Consciousness" project directed by Glock and Bellah. In The Consciousness Reformation (University of California Press 1976), Wuthnow argues against "structural" explanations of the counterculture, suggesting instead that a long-range cultural shift created a context conducive to social experimentation in the 1960s and 1970s. He uses data from a San Francisco Bay Area survey to argue for the existence of four distinct meaning systems (distinguished by what is identified as the primary force governing life): theistic (God), individualistic (the individual), social scientific (social forces), and mystical (unintelligible forces). Wuthnow finds that attitudes toward experimentation vary with adherence to different meaning systems and concludes that the general cultural drift in American society has been from theistic and individualistic to scientific and mystical meaning systems. Experimentation in American Religion (University of California Press 1978) takes up in greater detail the specifically religious experimentation that seemed so prominent a part of the cultural ferment of the time. Again using the Bay Area survey, Wuthnow dissects the factors for selection into and the consequences of membership in "new religious movements." Although he stops short of arguing that people leave churches specifically to join new religious movements, Wuthnow sees the advance of the youth counterculture and the retreat of mainline religion in the 1960s and 1970s as mutually reinforcing patterns.

Restructuring American Religion

The second major cluster of Wuthnow's works takes up the concern with the religious mainstream more centrally. In The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton University Press 1988), Wuthnow investigates the overall structure of the religious field. By structure he means "an identifiable pattern in the symbolic-expressive dimension of social life." Such cultural structures can be identified by "looking for symbolic boundaries that divide up the social world and by looking at the categories created by these boundaries." Thus Wuthnow is concerned to understand the patterns of religious boundaries and how they shift with changes in the broader social environment (he highlights especially the state-sponsored expansion of higher education as a motor of change). Wuthnow's major claim is that postwar America has witnessed a concurrent decline in the significance of denominationalism and an increase in the significance of special purpose groups organized around extradenominational interests. Historic denominational divisions are "restructured" in contemporary society into a division between religious liberals and conservatives engaged in what Wuthnow has called The Struggle for America's Soul (Eerdmans 1989).

Religion in the Voluntary Sector

From the structure of the religious sphere, Wuthnow turns his attention to the social location of religious groups and organizations among the many thousands of other voluntary associations that are central to the societal sphere alternatively called "civil society" or the "voluntary sector." This third cluster of studies is motivated by Wuthnow's belief that a strong voluntary sector, especially religious institutions, is vital to foster the caring and compassion that are needed for a good society. In Acts of Compassion (Princeton University Press 1991), Wuthnow focuses on Americans' voluntary caring behavior and finds religious people more compassionate, especially when they have ties to organized religious communities (as opposed to an individualized spirituality). An increasingly prominent form in which religious communities manifest themselves is the small support group, and it is here that Wuthnow finds much of the caring in an increasingly anomic society. He explores this phenomenon in Sharing the Journey (Free Press 1994), arguing that the cultivation of compassionate relationships in these small groups is effecting a redefinition of the sacred itself. God becomes more an internal presence than a transcendent authority, a comforting intimate rather than a judging lord.

While Wuthnow recognizes the benefits of small groups, he also fears that their excessive focus on comforting people to the exclusion of challenging them will have negative effects, especially for the role of religion in the public sphere. This same concern surfaces in Wuthnow's study of the relationship between religion and economics, God and Mammon in America (Free Press 1994). He argues that in general religion has too little effect on individuals' economic lives and materialistic attitudes, evidence that "churches do a better job of comforting the afflicted than they do of afflicting the comfortable." Wuthnow has most recently considered volunteering in the teenage years, which he sees as a key transition from the primary caring of childhood to the institutional kindness of adulthood. In Learning to Care (Oxford University Press 1995), he argues that virtue—"the habitual practice of courage and compassion"—must be instilled in society's youth because it is the key to responsible citizenship in a good society.

Overall, Wuthnow's story about the voluntary sector is optimistically cautious. Americans do care about others and are committed to communities despite an individualistic culture, but that same individualism also renders caring and commitment precarious. Religion plays an important role in civil society by making the provision of charity (broadly understood) a more stable part of the institutional structure of America and the character structure of Americans.


While Wuthnow's accomplishments distinguish him as a consummate academician, his vocation is in no sense narrowly academic. On the editorial board of both the mainline Christian Century and the evangelical Books and Culture , Wuthnow is a public intellectual to mainline Protestants, evangelicals, and participants in the voluntary sector. His success in addressing a wide audience is reflected in the fact that Acts of Compassion was nominated for both the Pulitzer prize and the National Book Award.

David Yamane


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