The annual theme for the 2017-2018 seminar series of the Committee for the Study of Religion concerns one of the most enduring topics in the social sciences: the relationships among religion, social class, and social order more generally. These relationships have been of central concern throughout history and have preoccupied scholars and social scientists, resulting in such influential modern classics as Marx’s “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right,” Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, and Durkheim’s Elementary Forms of the Religious Life or more recently Peter Paris’ Religion and Poverty and Jared Rubin’s Rulers, Religion, and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not.
These contributions probed the nature and extent of religiosity among different social classes and the consequences for social order of religious belief and observance more broadly. The question of the possible obfuscating character of religion in regard to economic interests persists; at the same time, religious belief continues to provide a foundation for many people’s engagement with regard to remaking social order, particularly in the economic realm. This becomes evident in historical cases where popular religion has offered a challenge and a radical alternative to the existing social and economic order, or movements such as messsianism threatened to overturn it altogether. Steven Sharot’s assertion that economic decline accompanied Jewish messianism and more recently, the Catholic leader, Pope Francis, in his conscious identification with the powerless, has articulated a critical perspective on economic life that is notably out of step with a “neo-liberal” stance; but the connection between religion and the socially disenfranchised can swing the other way as well, in populist authoritarianism based in part on religious claims.