Niebuhr: On the Middle Class Church

We’re shifting this week to H. Richard Niebuhr’s 1929 book The Social Sources of Denominationalism. Niebuhr was an American professor of Christian ethics in the 20th century, and this book deals with – I guess with the sociology of religion. It’s about where different denominations come from, and why they continue to exist. We’ve talked about this a bunch of times over the past several years, but there is I think an open question within Christian thought as to how things come to be. What makes things happen? If you stick your hand in a fire, does the fire burn you, or is it God working through the fire? (Aquinas: Is God Hot?) Are miracles really divine interventions, or are they just well-timed natural events? (Schleiermacher: What’s a Miracle?) And what makes people hold certain beliefs? Are they driven by intellectual conviction, or by their psychology? (Richard Rohr: On Criticism)

That last question is really the most pointed for us today. When we take a sociological lens on an issue, we’re probably going to come up with sociological answers. We’re going to tend towards explanations that suit the lens that we apply. If our text is called The Social Sources of Denominationalism, it’s going to be about the idea that different denominations stem from social sources, and not necessarily from some grand theological debate between masterful theologians. And I’ll say up front – I do tend to find the sociological explanation the most compelling. I’ll confess my biases here, right. When I see people move from church to church, it’s almost never for doctrinal reasons. I’ve never seen someone take a hard line over infant baptism or the exact metaphysics of communion. I have seen people change their church for social reasons, for cultural reasons. They don’t like the vibe. The people are unkind. It’s overwhelmingly questions that – to my eye – can be explained by social demographics more than by any sort of intellectual conviction. Nobody cares about theologians and their word duels. I just don’t think they make things happen.

In any case, regardless of where you fall on that question, there’s value in a sociological lens – even just in terms of how it frames and accentuates certain features of the different churches. For example, in The Social Sources of Denominationalism, Niebuhr suggests that we can group churches by their socioeconomic level. He argues that “the psychology of the middle class contains certain constant features which are reflected in its religious organisations and doctrines.” There are certain things that you expect to see: “the general level of education and culture in the group, the financial security and physical comfort which it enjoys, the sense of class which it fosters, and the direct effect of business and trade upon its code of ethics.” That last one is really key – if you think about some medieval peasant, their job in life is going to be largely determined ahead of time. If your parents work the fields, you’re probably going to work the fields. But for the middle class – you know, there’s this really malleable ability to move around and across all these different roles. You do a job, and in that job you try and extend a little bit into something else, and then you use that extension as a point of leverage up into the next thing. You’re able to make these very strategic, calculated moves to advance your career – but it’s your responsibility. It’s not guaranteed. “The character of their employment which places responsibility for success or failure almost entirely upon their own shoulders is fundamental.” And, Niebuhr suggests, that employment model goes on to impact how the middle class think about religion:

“The men of the middle class think in terms of persons more than forces, and in terms of personal merit and demerit more than of fortune and fate. Hence the religion of these groups is likely to be rather intensely personal in character. The problem of personal salvation is far more urgent for them than is the problem of social redemption.”

If you’re living in a culture where you rise and fall largely by your own hand, maybe that affects how you think about religion. If your focus is on personal responsibility and individual achievement, it makes sense that you would conceptualise salvation in the same way. The logic of our economic system laps over into other domains. The middle class take a middle class approach to religion.

Another feature that Niebuhr identifies is the “activist attitude towards life which prevails in the middle class.” This is less about political activism, per se, and more about a sort of engaged, proactive get-getter attitude. “Life is not regarded as a time of enjoyment and contemplation but as the sphere of labour. Business is the very essence of existence and industry the method of all attainment.” We’ve seen this idea raised pretty routinely in relation to, for example, the fitness industry, where our obsession with optimising our bodies has been read as an expression of our fixation on labour and industry. In that article, author Jürgen Martschukat argues that “fitness produces privilege, because it is considered as an expression of our ability to have control over our life, to act autonomously, to achieve things, and to succeed in this market-driven society and culture that we live in.” It’s not that it’s bad to do exercise – it’s more that fitness seems to have taken on this extra life as an expression of money and power. When people aren’t at work, they’re working on their bodies, demonstrating their agency and their commitment – their need – to perform and achieve. Middle class religion is similarly shaped by its underlying economic drivers. “The values of religion are regarded less as a divine, free gift than as the end of striving; the method of religion is held to be the method of constant activity; the conception of God is the conception of dynamic will; the content of the faith is a task rather than a promise.” It’s a devastating appraisal. It captures so clearly the heart of a lot of modern Christianity – and I think pressure that we all put on ourselves to be, in some sense, good enough – to live up to certain expectations. When we wrap God around labour, rest feels like sin. Niebuhr saw it a hundred years ago. It’s still true of the church today.


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