A Handbook of the Sociology of Religion

By Michele Dillon | Go to book overview

CHAPTER TWENTY-THREE
Mapping the Moral Order
Depicting the Terrain of Religious Conflict and Change
Fred Kniss

INTRODUCTION

The topic of religious conflict and change has been a major theme in the sociology of religion. It has also been one of the most hotly debated. Arguments over concepts like “secularization” or “culture wars” have often generated more heat than light. One of the persistent difficulties in the literature has been the slippery nature of the “stuff” of religious conflict. It is not easy to speak of things like ideas, symbols, or meanings with the same clarity and precision that one might use in analyzing demographic characteristics, for example. In Meaning and Moral Order, Robert Wuthnow (1987) offered several programmatic essays charting a way forward in the analysis of culture and religion. As he put it in his conclusion, questions about meaning and moral order “need not remain the domain of subjective analyses or of humanistic exhortations alone. They require careful consideration, including efforts particularly devoted to examining the structure of cultural forms, their relations to the moral order, and the role of social resources in producing and sustaining them” (1987: 348).

Scholars writing about cultural conflicts in the 1980s and 1990s, in an attempt to clarify “the structure of cultural forms, ” often described the moral order using spatial metaphors. Several authors, for example, engaged in debate about an alleged “great divide” between liberals and conservatives in the U.S. “religious landscape” (e.g., Roof and McKinney 1987; Wuthnow 1988; Olson and McKinney 1997). Most treatments of conflict and change in the moral order posited some sort of unidimensional bipolar distinction around which contesting groups gravitated.

The spatial metaphors seemed promising, but what seemed necessary to me was a more refined mapping of the moral order that would include at least two dimensions. This would allow the placement of competing cultural or religious ideas, paradigms, and systems in relation to each other, clarifying where analysts would be likely to find points of tension or cohesion, distinctions or similarities. Over the course of several projects, I developed a heuristic “map” of the moral order that seemed descriptive of the U.S. context at least, and might be applicable more broadly. Thus, much of the material that follows is a redaction or revision of previously published work (especially Kniss 1997a, 1997b, 1998). Later in the chapter I suggest some ways that this model might be useful for new directions in the sociology of religion.

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