Why Class Matters in Religious Studies and Theology
Part of the New Approaches to Religion and Power book series (NARP)


While notions of gender, ethnicity, and race have become widely accepted and are put to use in religious and theological studies, this is not the case with the notion of class. Despite the fact that race, gender, and class are often mentioned together, there is very little sustained reflection on class. Reflections on race and gender in religious and theological studies, while addressing issues of power, rarely include reflections on class. In the rare cases when class is addressed, especially in the United States, it is connected to notions of poverty, social stratification, or income differentials, which are insufficient at best and misleading at worst.


Income Inequality Middle Class Class Analysis Class Struggle Class Matter 
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  1. 2.
    Sean McCloud and William A. Mirola, “Introduction,” in Religion and Class in America: Culture, History, and Politics (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 2, propose studying class in terms of an approach that focuses on “analyzing religion as it is lived by individuals in a concrete time.”Google Scholar
  2. Earlier, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr, in The Social Sources of Denominationalism (New York: Henry Holt, 1929), looked at a slightly broader topic but still did not put forth grand theories about class or religion in general.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    Pierre Bourdieu, The Social Structures of the Economy, trans. Chris Turner (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005), 194–195. That material conditions and cultural representations work together in shaping class is at the heart of what little current work there is in religion and class.Google Scholar
  4. See, in particular, Sean McCloud, Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religions Studies (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007), and McCloud and Mirola, eds., Religion and Class in America.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Bourdieu, The Social Structures of the Economy, 194; Bourdieu also notes that when individuals perceive each other in terms of their status, they misperceive the economic and cultural capital that undergirds this status. See Elliot B. Weininger, “Foundations of Pierre Bourdieu’s Class Analysis,” in Erik Olin Wright, ed., Approaches to Class Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 101. For an account of a neo-Weberian approach, see Richard Breen, “Foundations of a Neo-Weberian Class Analysis,” in Wright, ed., Approaches to Class Analysis, 31–50.Google Scholar
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    Michael Zweig, The Working Class Majority: America’s Best Kept Secret, second edition (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2012), 74.Google Scholar
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    Alejandro Portes, Economic Sociology: A Systematic Inquiry (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010), 79: “Classes are defined by differential access to power within a given social system.”Google Scholar
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    Ellen Meiksins Wood, Empire of Capital (London: Verso 2003), 10. Wood emphasizes the hiddenness of power in capitalist societies: “In capitalist societies, it is even possible to have universal suffrage without fundamentally endangering capitalist economic power, because this power does not require a monopoly on political rights.”Google Scholar
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    The concept of stratification has often gotten its authorization from the work of Max Weber, who analyzed class in terms of status, which includes income, wealth, occupation, and education. Yet, as Kevin J. Christiano, William H. Swatos, Jr., and Peter Kivisto, Sociology of Religion: Contemporary Developments, second edition (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008), 133, point out, Weber might be understood as complementing and enriching Karl Marx’s tradition at this point, rather than as opposing it. Unfortunately, the concept of stratification has often been used in this latter way. While, for the most part, the lower classes are studied in terms of stratification, there are few analyses of the wealthy.Google Scholar
  10. See, for instance, the journalistic account of Robert Frank, Richistan: A Journey through the American Wealth Boom and the Lives of the New Rich (New York: Three Rivers Press, 2007). Frank’s description of the dynamics of the upper class concludes that we are witnessing “a parallel country of the rich” (3). While Frank (5) is right that “of all the classes, the wealthy are the most noticed and the least studied” (quoting John Kenneth Galbraith), he fails to examine the relationship of the classes. This leads him to the unrealistic expectation that “Richistanis will have even more wealth and power to fix society’s most pressing problems” (249).Google Scholar
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    Both Adam Smith and David Ricardo distinguished three classes, based on their source of income through wages, profits, or rent of land; Ricardo added that the interests of these classes were not merely contradictory but irreconcilable. See Chris Lorenz, “Representations of Identity: Ethnicity, Race, Class, Gender and Religion: An Introduction to Conceptual History,” in Stefan Berger and Chris Lorenz, eds., The Contested Nation: Ethnicity, Class, Religion, and Gender in National Histories (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 47–48.Google Scholar
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    Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Multitude: War and Democracy in the Age of Empire (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), 104, state that “class is determined by class struggle.” Consequently, they conclude: “An investigation of economic class, then, should not begin with a mere catalog of empirical differences but rather with the lines of collective resistance to power.”Google Scholar
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    Barth notes the difference between simple forms of competition and the conflict that is built into the labor contracts of capitalism: He observes “das soziale Unrecht in seiner im Unterschied zur einfachen Konkurrenz weniger greifbaren, weil ja eben scheinbar auf Koordination begründeten, in freien Verträgen auf Gegenseitigkeit scheinbar sehr rechtmäßigen Gestalt, das aber gerade in seiner gewissen Scheinheiligkeit nur um so drückender und aufreizender ist, den Arbeitsfrieden nur im so gründlicher unmöglich machen muss.” Karl Barth, Kirchliche Dogmatik, vol. 3, part 4 (Zollikon: Evangelischer Verlag, 1957), 620.Google Scholar
  14. 22.
    In religious studies, the universal notion of religion has been called into question from many directions. An important critique shows how the notion of religion has shaped up as a category of Western thought. See Tomoko Masuzawa, The Invention of World Religions: Or, How European Universalism Was Preserved in the Language of Pluralism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. 23.
    Representatives of the New Working Class Studies have pointed out, for instance, that since we spend the largest block of our waking hours at work, we need to study in depth how work shapes our lives as a whole. See, for instance, the essays in John Russo and Sherry Lee Linkon, eds., New Working Class Studies (Ithaca: ILR Press, 2005).Google Scholar
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    See Kevin Watkins and others, Fighting Climate Change: Human Solidarity in a Divided World, United Nations Human Development Report 2007/2008 (New York: United Nations Development Programme, 2007), 281,, accessed July 16, 2012.Google Scholar
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    Journalists Janny Scott and David Leonhardt, “Shadowy Lines That Still Divide,” in Correspondents of the New York Times, Class Matters (New York: Times Books, 2005), 1–26, give some of the numbers. They report, in 2005, that more people believe in the American dream than ever before, although studies show that social mobility is less and less an option. They quote economist David I. Levine: “Being born in the elite in the U.S. gives you a constellation of privileges that very few people in the world have ever experienced,” while “bing born poor in the U.S. gives you disadvantages unlike anything in Western Europe and Japan and Canada” (14).Google Scholar
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    See Kevin Minister, Religion, Economics, and Aesthetics: On the Production of Beauty in Economics and Religion, unpublished PhD dissertation, Southern Methodist University, April 2012, 72.Google Scholar
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    Pablo Vila, Border Identifications: Narratives of Religion, Gender, and Class on the U.S.-Mexico Border (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2005), 170. Vila notes how strong the American Dream is even in Mexico, where people experience the dark side of American capitalism more severely (179). This dream is further reinforced by returning migrants, who return with cars and other trappings of success, thus raising their own class status, but refuse to report on the problems (192). Vila notes, however, that lower class Anglos on the US side of the border are able to see the class issues (205–228).Google Scholar
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    In Joerg Rieger, No Rising Tide: Theology, Economics, and the Future (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009), I talk about the “logic of downturn.”Google Scholar
  21. 37.
    See the account by Thomas Frank, Pity the Billionaire: The Hard-Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right (New York: Henry Holt, 2012). Frank points out the peculiarity of this situation, as those responsible for the economic crisis, like financial agencies and subprime lenders, are protected just as any critique of inequality is aggressively attacked (2). Frank describes this as a conservative “idealism,” which is “so powerful that it clouds its partisans’ perceptions of reality.”Google Scholar
  22. 41.
    Ellen Meiksins Wood, The Retreat from Class: A New “True” Socialism, revised edition (London: Verso, 1998), 17, analyzes the consequences of a lack of class analysis on the left: “In the end, we are left with little more than the shop-worn vision of the ‘counterculture,’ bearing witness against the ‘system’ in an enclave of the capitalist wilderness.” Not only is this approach quite vague; it fails to note significant movements of resistance. As Wood notes, “the critical question concerns the source and agency of revolutionary change” (21).Google Scholar
  23. 46.
    See the work of Interfaith Worker Justice (IWJ; and Kim Bobo, Wage Theft in America: Why Millions of Working Americans Are Not Getting Paid—And What We Can Do About It (New York: New Press, 2009). Bobo is Executive Director of IWJ.Google Scholar
  24. 49.
    See Joerg Rieger and Kwok Pui-Lan, Occupy Religion: Theology of the Multitude, Religion in the Modern World (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 2012).Google Scholar

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© Joerg Rieger 2013

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