book spotlight: claiming society for god by nancy j davis and rob robinson

It’s a real pleasure to see Claiming for Society for God in print. Authored by my Indiana colleagues and friends, Nancy Davis and Rob Robinson, Claiming makes a simple argument. Religious movements  can succeed not only by conquering states, but by bypassing the state as well. They attempt, with a great deal of success, to set up a parallel quasi-state. Using examples from various nations and religious traditions, Davis and Robinson explore the creation of a network of schools, clubs, hospitals, charities and other organizations.

The issue that ties radical Christians, Jews, and Muslims together is that they are anti-modernist. They all reject the individualism characterizing contemporary culture and its loose controls on family and sexuality. While religious reactionaries would love to take over the state and impose their codes of personal behavior, their most successful tactic has been to actually create an alternative source of authority. They do so by providing for the poorest in society. They create an alternate welfare state that ensures continued influence in national politics.

The book should be especially interesting to movement scholars because Davis and Robinson articulate a strong criticism of movement theory as it is often practiced. Much of movement theory revolves around the conflict between incumbents and challengers, such as McAdam and Fligstein’s recent field theory. The bypassing argument provides a real alternative. You don’t need to engage in such contentious politics if you can provide social welfare. The need for community and care creates a path to influence that just avoids conventional politics or the need for confrontation.


Adverts: From Black Power/Grad Skool Rulz

Written by fabiorojas

June 11, 2012 at 12:01 am

8 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. I assume the book deals with this objection but…

    Isn’t the thesis (at least as you summarize it here) radically ahistorical. It seems to argue that the state (and even the “welfare state”) was there to be “conquered” or “bypassed” before religions came along to try it. Could it not be argued that history tells the opposite story? On this view (which is the view of religious conservatives, I would think), the twentieth century is the history of the state’s conquest of the community. Schools and hospitals only relatively recently became presumptively state functions. It is only after the success of the “liberal” project that what churches are trying to do can be considered a push for “alternative” authorities. After all, religious people are not so much anti-modern as pro-tradition. It the state that sets itself up as an alternative authority, namely, an authority on how to live our lives.

    The way you frame it, Fabio, seems to presume what Norman Mailer called “the vast lie about the essential health of the State”. Those who are skeptical about the influence of the state on the community are not simply “reject[ing] the individualism characterizing contemporary culture and its loose controls on family and sexuality”. Rather, they see a whole series of forces, “an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality,” as Mailer puts it, as interfering with traditional mores and values, or what anarchists sometimes call “community standards”, that (they argue) had a largely more benign influence than Tocqueville’s, say, “tutelary power”: “It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd.”



    June 11, 2012 at 6:46 am

  2. I haven’t read the book, but I think Thomas’s critique is a strong one. Certainly, in the contemporary period “state bypassing” mobilization is one tactic, but not a new one. In fact, it may best be seen as religious organizations doing what they have always done in a time when the state is relatively receding from these roles (at least rhetorically).

    The rise of welfare state literature probably would have lots to say about this, as well. The classic Meyeran neo-institutional line about this is as secular rationales and discourses replaced religious ones, secular solutions to social welfare provided by the state follow posthaste.



    June 11, 2012 at 3:54 pm

  3. Thomas (and cwalken): I think you are over-reading things. Davis/Robinson do not make claims about which came first, states or religious movements. In fact, I think Nancy and Rob would agree that religious movements were essential state building actors. They are making a particularly contingent argument. In the present, which is relatively secular, radical religious movements would appear to be rather ineffective, but they are actually successful because they’ve adopted a bypassing strategy. It is not about radical religious movements in all time periods.



    June 11, 2012 at 4:55 pm

  4. Like I say, I’m sure the book deals with it. Still, the blurb talks about how the religious organizations are “infiltrating and subtly transforming civil society”. I think they would be right to object that they are part of larger tradition that is better described as constituting civil society. It’s only when civil society has been “conquered” or “bypassed” by the state (in the very different ways that their material–Italy, Egypt, Israel, USA–suggests), and the essential goodness of the state can be presumed, that a church school or hospital or thrift store can be construed as an “infiltration” of civil institutions.

    BTW, am I right in the thinking that the Black Panthers used a similar approach in 1960s?



    June 11, 2012 at 5:23 pm

  5. P.S. I should have said “…constituting and overtly maintaining civil society”. It’s only “under-the-radar” (again from the blurb) because its happening at street-level and not in the ideological stratosphere of the media. They’re not doing any of this in secret, after all.



    June 11, 2012 at 5:27 pm

  6. @Thomas: I think you are right that the book blurbs make it all sound devious, but the book itself is much more modest. It takes some important cases and draws our attention to building welfare as a movement tactic. You might also be interest in the ASR article, where D&R show that highly conservative religious folks of the major Abrahamic traditions tend to be redistributionists.

    Yes, this the same approach taken by the Black Panther Party. While most Black folk probably rejected the BPP’s Maoist ideology, there is still a huge amount of positive feeling because of the BPP’s schools and breakfast programs.



    June 11, 2012 at 6:15 pm

  7. I haven’t read the book yet, but the description on the IU press website is quite striking, as it describes the movements studied as fundamentalist (a term which is much debated by scholars of religion). However, this kind of social service work has a long history of being undertaken by religious groups of all stripes. Think of the Catholic Church in the U.S. and all the affiliated charities, hospitals, schools, universities, etc. Jewish and Protestant groups have also been involved in social service service work for over a century. Also, in recent years, with the rise of the neo-liberal state model, religious groups (i.e. FBOs) have been increasingly involved in social services in many parts of the world. So, I guess what I would take issue with here is the broad generalization that religious movements that supplant the state are anti-modern.



    June 11, 2012 at 6:57 pm

  8. […] few weeks ago, we discussed Claiming Society for God, Davis and Robinson’s new book on religious movements in the West. I’d like to use the  […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: