Escaping the Procrustean Bed
A Critical Analysis of the Study of Religious
Patricia M. Y. Chang
In reviewing the literature that has emerged around the study of American religious institutions over the past seventy years one is reminded of the story of Procrustes, the infamous robber of Attica who is said to have made his victims fit his bed by stretching them if they were too short, or cutting their legs if they were too long. Similarly, religious scholars have sought to fit institutional manifestations of American religion into theoretical beds that were poorly fitted to their inherent qualities and characteristics.
This chapter offers a critical review of the literature examining religious organizations in America. Beginning with Max Weber's (1925/1978) studies of church bureaucracy and ending with more recent excursions into neoinstitutional theory, it highlights some of the ways that our adoption of various theoretical lenses has obscured the view of the forest by continually pointing toward particularly interesting trees. In an attempt to get the forest in view again, it then points to the kinds of variation that often have been neglected, and suggests a refocusing on the social processes that give the religious landscape its contour.
In this sense, the chapter is a call for new approaches to the study of religious institutions. I seek to encourage perspectives that examine religion from a supraorganizational level of analysis, focusing on the cultural processes that shape American society and its religious institutions, and the boundary setting processes that define identity and meaning. Conversely, while reviewing these perspectives, I also make the case that what is unique about the religious sector is that organizational actors have strong identities that affect what these organizations absorb or reject in their institutional environments. Unlike some organizational theories that assume that organizational actors automatically conform to the cultural norms of their environments, this chapter argues that the strong cultural traditions of religious organizations cause them to exercise a high degree of agency, causing them to interact selectively with their environment.
Before beginning however, certain caveats are in order. Given the growing diversity of religion in America, it is important to state at the outset the limits of the observations put forward in these pages. This chapter limits its arguments to the American religious sector in the belief that the legal parameters established by the religion clause