author meets critics: nancy davis and rob robinson on religious movements in the west

A 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  blog to try something new – author meets critic on the Internet. Usually, if you aren’t at a conference, you’ll probably miss your chance to speak to authors of new research. The internet solves the problem.

The format is simple. Use the comments (or email) to ask Nancy and Rob any question you have about the book or its themes (religious movements, social protest, civil society, Christianity/Judaism/Islam). In a few days, the authors will respond to your comments and questions. You can also peruse the book’s Facebook site. Consider this an opportunity to ask two leading sociologists about a very important issue.

I’ll start: In the book, Davis and Robinson present their analysis as a major alternative to current social movement theory, which focuses on challenger-incumbent disputes within social fields. What is the major variable in the alternative? “Grassroots cooptation?”

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Written by fabiorojas

July 9, 2012 at 12:01 am

2 Responses

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  1. Glad to see this new approach to author meets critics. I haven’t read the book, but I would be very curious to hear more about what the authors think are the consequences of these religious movements’ creation of alternative welfare states. What sorts of challenges do they actually pose to states, if any, especially in the era of neoliberal governance (when the state is becoming less involved in the provision of social services)? What kinds of broader social changes are they driving?



    July 10, 2012 at 12:29 am

  2. Thank you, Fabio, for pioneering this novel “author meets critics” format. Before we answer your question and bedhaya’s, we’ll give a brief overview of the book, since many of your readers won’t be familiar with it. Readers may also want to go to the book’s Facebook page ( for further details. In Claiming Society for God, we focus on four prominent religiously orthodox (what some would call “fundamentalist”) movements in the Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam in four different countries: Egypt, Israel, Italy, and the U.S. The four movements are the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Sephardi Torah Guardians or Shas in Israel, Comunione e Liberazione in Italy, and the Salvation Army in the U.S. We argue that these movements, like many (but by no means all) religiously orthodox movements, are “communitarian” in their theologies, in that they emphasize the community’s responsibility for “watching over” its members. This gives them an authoritarian or “strict” side on cultural matters, in which the community must enforce what it sees as divinely-mandated standards on sexuality, gender, reproduction, and family life, which in practice has often meant forbidding abortion, homosexuality, sex outside marriage, etc., making divorce difficult or impossible to obtain, and mandating specific and different roles for men and women, husbands and wives. But we argue that communitarianism also gives such movements a “caring” side on economic matters, whereby it is the community’s or state’s responsibility to share with or provide for those in need, reduce the gap between rich and poor, and intervene in the economy so that community needs are met. Much of the literature on orthodox movements focuses on their strict side but ignores their caring side or dismisses this as mere charity. Unrecognized is the fact that the institutional outreach that stems from this caring side—building clinics and hospitals, establishing factories that provide jobs and pay higher-than-prevailing wages, initiating literacy campaigns, offering hospices for the dying, providing aid to the needy, building affordable housing, etc.—is spread throughout the country and linked with schools, worship centers, and businesses into a dense network with the aim of permeating civil society with the movement’s own brand of faith.

    We show in our book that the strategy-in-common of these four orthodox movements is not terrorism or armed struggle, as some post-911 observers would see it, but a patient, beneath-the-radar effort to penetrate civil society that we call “bypassing the state.” One institution at a time, these movements have built massive, grassroots networks of largely autonomous, religion-based social service agencies, medical facilities, clubs, schools, charitable organizations, worship centers, and businesses. Another element of this strategy that we identify is “burrowing into” existing institutions, e.g., by winning elections for the leadership of professional associations and student unions, permeating the airwaves, establishing footholds in secular neighborhoods, etc. Side-stepping the state, rather than directly confronting it, allows these movements to accomplish their multi-pronged agendas across the nation, address local needs not being met by the state, empower followers as they work toward the movements’ goals, and for some movements, establish a base of popular support from which to push their agendas in the arena of party politics.

    To answer Fabio’s question, the “variable” in our analysis is the degree of the movement’s penetration of civil society (essentially Fabio’s “grassroots cooptation”). Ours is a qualitative study and measuring this precisely is beyond the scope of the book. We also can’t say exactly what percent of penetration of civil society is necessary to begin having an effect. To take the case of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, by the movement’s own estimates, it controlled 20% of the country’s 5,000 NGOs in 2006. The Brotherhood’s network of social services, which had been built over 80+ years, was widely seen as a tacit indictment of the state’s ability to meet citizen needs. When the Mubarak regime was overthrown by a movement of mostly secularists and liberals (but with the help of many young Brothers—see pp. 56-57 in the book), the Brotherhood was in a very strong position to win in free elections, having become a virtual “state within a state” under Mubarak, meeting needs not addressed by the state, and having an active grassroots organization in most corners of society. It was no surprise to us that the Brotherhood won 47.2% of the seats in parliament (now dissolved by the Mubarak-appointed supreme court) or that their presidential candidate, Mohamed Morsi, just won the presidency of Egypt.

    Shas in Israel is an ultra-Orthodox movement of Mizrahi Jews of North African and Middle Eastern origins. Shas uses its vast institutional network to garner the votes of non-ultra-Orthodox Mizrahi supporters in Israel in the hope of eventually establishing halachic (religious) law as the sole basis of the legal system (much as the Brotherhood seeks to establish shari’a [Islamic law] in Egypt). The other two movements we chronicle in our book are currently less involved in the formal political arena. Comunione e Liberazione (CL) in Italy has established a network of over 1,100 faith-infused social service, cultural, and educational institutions linked with some 35,000 CL-affiliated businesses. Unlike Shas or the Muslim Brotherhood, CL distrusts a powerful state; it idealizes the weak state/strong church model of medieval Europe. CL’s aim is to establish what some call a “parallel Christian society” in Italy that will meet economic and spiritual needs and thus make an extensive welfare state unnecessary. The Salvation Army, which is the largest (by assets) charitable organization—faith-based or secular—in the U.S., sees itself as complementing the modest efforts of the U.S. welfare state in an effort to hasten the Second Coming of Christ by establishing Christian institutions on earth. Bypassing the state or penetrating civil society thus doesn’t necessarily have state takeover as its aim; it can be an end in itself.

    While our book focuses on religiously orthodox movements, we note that secular movements have used the strategy of bypassing the state as well. As thomas, the author of an earlier comment on this site mentioned, the Black Panther party in the U.S. of the 1960s is the perfect example of this. On p. 149, we discuss how the Panthers used this strategy, along with militant, confrontational tactics. The Panthers set up “survival programs” centered on local branches in inner cities, offering free breakfasts for children; employment services; medical clinics; distribution of free clothing, shoes, and food; cooperative housing programs; security services for the elderly; pest control services; police-alert patrols; ambulance services; and alternative “liberation schools.” The Black Panther Party used the discourse of a state within a state when it organized itself into ministries (finance, culture, health, and so on). Panther programs embodied the movement’s frame of black self-determination, modeled community control, and empowered African Americans on the local level, much as the four movements we discuss in our book empowered their followers.

    Field theory tends to focus on direct confrontation between challengers and incumbents. We agree that such direct contention is the case for many movements, but argue that some highly successful movements have used the less direct and less confrontational strategy of bypassing the state, in some cases together with engaging in the formal political arena and in other cases as an end in itself.

    To answer bedhava’s question, while we don’t have figures on this, all four of the countries where the movements we consider are located—Egypt, Israel, Italy, and the U.S.—probably have less extensive welfare states than they did in the past, although these states currently have quite a range in the extent of their social service provision. For at least two of the movements that we consider—the Muslim Brotherhood and Shas—their welfare networks were/are widely seen by the community to which they were addressed as putting the state’s services to shame—thus undermining the legitimacy of the state. This was especially true of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, as we mentioned in response to Fabio’s question.

    Shas’ welfare network is interesting because it is partly funded by the state. Shas entered party politics from the start (1983) and its lynchpin position in most coalition governments since then (it is the leading religious party in Israel) has given it the leverage to win funding and autonomy for its own religious schools and welfare institutions, as well as control of key government ministries that distribute social welfare funds. Even though its institutions are partly government funded (they are also funded by members of the ultra-Orthodox community and rely on much volunteer labor from within the community), many Israeli social scientists say that the ultra-Orthodox view the services provided by Shas as a tacit indictment of the “vacuum” in Israel’s welfare state. In other words, Shas—and not the Israeli state or taxpayers—is receiving the credit for these services. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, Shas is often referred to by social scientists in Israel as a “state within a state” or “surrogate state” that meets needs unmet by the state.

    While these two cases might lead one to think that a relative weak welfare state is a necessary precondition for bypassing the state by setting up an alternative network of services, the case of Comunione e Liberazione in Italy proves otherwise. CL established its network in a state where the OECD estimated in 2007 (the most recent year for which we could get figures) that social spending is 24.9 percent of the nation’s GDP, vs. 15.5 percent in Israel and 16.2 percent in the U.S. (we couldn’t get figures for Egypt). CL, since its founding in Italy in 1954, has taken communism and socialism as foils. Its aim, as we mentioned in our answer to Fabio’s question, is to obviate the need for an extensive welfare state by setting up its own religion-based institutions to meet economic and spiritual needs. While the Brotherhood, Shas, and the Salvation Army have economic agendas that refer to social or economic justice, CL sees its economic outreach as charity. CL is also the most tied to private businesses and corporations in delivering its services (e.g., it has a national food bank foundation that distributes excess food production of CL-affiliated businesses and farms to the hungry). CL founder Monsignor Luigi Giussani said that the aim of the movement was not to supplant the state but to prefigure in a countercultural way a future Christian society: a “true company of Jesus.”

    The Salvation Army, an Evangelical Protestant movement which has been in the U.S. since 1880, originally bypassed the state by providing welfare services that weren’t offered by the state, but now bypasses the state in the sense of complementing the modest efforts of the U.S. welfare state with its services, 14% of the funding for which now comes from the government. We show in Claiming Society for God that because many Americans have minimal expectations of the state in meeting the economic needs of citizens—preferring that such needs be met by private charity—the Salvation Army’s services have rarely been seen as putting the government to shame, as such services have been seen in Egypt and Israel. In the book, we contrast popular reactions to the Muslim Brotherhood’s stepping in before the Egyptian government to help victims of the 1992 earthquake in Cairo with reactions of Americans to the Salvation Army’s widely praised response to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The Brotherhood’s emergency response was viewed by many Egyptians as undermining the legitimacy of the Mubarak government. Although there was much criticism of the U.S. government’s delayed and ineffectual response to Katrina, this did not lead most Americans to press for a larger role of government in the handling of disasters or in ameliorating the poverty that was revealed by the hurricane. Thus, whether the welfare networks established by these movements have an effect on the legitimacy of the state or push the state toward greater or less social spending depends on many historical, country-specific factors.



    July 11, 2012 at 11:14 am

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