Jeffrey Guhin’s 2021 book, Agents of God, is an ethnographic comparison of four high schools in the New York City area: two Sunni Muslim and two Evangelical Christian. Signaled as core concepts in the subtitle, categories of “boundaries and authority” divide the book in half. After a compelling introduction that lays out the book’s methodological and theoretical core, the first three empirical chapters look at the boundaries that situate these communities while the next three chapters look at the “external authorities” these boundaries situate.
In the first half of the book, Guhin shows how politics, gender, sexuality, and the internet all differently bound off these communities from the secular world outside, even if, drawing on Christian Smith’s concept of “distinction with engagement,” those boundaries are neither total nor intended as such. Instead, Guhin describes how these boundaries are marked by ongoing debates between communities and secular outsiders and, more importantly, within the communities themselves. Pulling on the Aristotelian distinction between what is essential to a thing (the houseness of a house, for example) versus what is accidental to it (that house’s color, for example), Guhin shows how boundaries within these communities helped to maintain a communal identity rooted in difference from the secular world-at-large, even as community members debated with each other how much certain elements of those differences or even the differences themselves actually mattered.
In the next three chapters, Guhin develops an innovative theory of social institutions, generally avoiding the concept of institutions itself to focus instead on what he calls “external authorities,” by which he means those institutions experienced by community members as agents who can authorize, will, and command. In three separate chapters on, respectively, scripture, prayer, and science, Guhin shows how each of these institutions is experienced within the schools as an agent. “What the Bible commands,” for example, is not simply another way of saying what God commands through the Bible. Instead, Guhin argues that the phrase should be taken literally, looking at either scripture, prayer, or science as specific agents in both senses of the word: first, as beings with agency and, second, as individuals authorized to act on another’s behalf—an insights he develops from sociological theorist Isaac Reed’s work on “chains of power.”
This forum has received responses to Agents of God from six brilliant sociologists, each speaking to and building on a different element of Guhin’s argument. Freeden Blume Oeur, a sociologist of race and education, engages, among other things, Guhin’s methodological choices, his distinctive approach to the sociology of education, and how the schools might have responded to Trump. Carly Knight, a theorist and sociologist of economics, pulls from Durkheim to ask about both the breadth and specificity of external authorities as they might relate to other institutions. Besheer Mohamed, a quantitative methodologist and sociologist of religion and race, asks whether Guhin’s separation of scripture from God is either as empirically or theoretically tenable as he claims. Samuel Perry, a sociologist of race, sexuality, politics, and religion, engages with Guhin’s chapter on scripture, pointing out the importance of translations in a way that Guhin only partially engages in his book. John Evans, one of the foremost sociologists of science and religion, asks some fundamental questions about the relative roles of God, the individual, and the community in contemporary American religion. Then, engaging Guhin’s chapter on science, he suggests new directions for the sociology of science and religion. Finally, Hajar Yazdiha, a sociologist of migration, religion, and race (and this panel’s organizer) asks about Guhin’s work on boundaries, showing how the comparisons of Evangelicals and Muslims can reveal how all experiences of marginalization are not equal, despite white Evangelicals describing their own marginalization as the most intense in the United States.
Each of these respondents’ essays reveal the depth and breadth of Guhin’s book, as does his response, featuring a reply to each essay after an extended summary of Agents of God. We are grateful to all of the respondents for the time and careful attention that went into these essays and to Guhin for writing the book that occasioned them. Finally, we should express our gratitude to Sean Larsen and everyone involved at Syndicate Theology for hosting this conversation. We hope you enjoy these essays, and, if you have not already, we hope they bring you to purchase, borrow, or find some other way to read Agents of God and engage with its generative insights.
Introductory Remarks by Jeff Guhin
How I Got Here
I’m not sure if every dissertation is a form of self-disclosure, but mine certainly was. When I got to graduate school at age twenty-six, my life to that point had been defined by two institutions: religion and education. I had been in the Catholic world more or less continuously since before I can remember, including attending Catholic schools from first grade through college, then working briefly at a Catholic social service agency while living with Catholic sisters, briefly considering becoming a Jesuit priest, and then teaching English at a Catholic all-girls high school in downtown Brooklyn for three years. My published writing was almost all in Catholic periodicals. Except for that year as a caseworker, I had also been either in a school or working at a school nearly every year of my life.
I flirted with the idea of moving beyond religion and education, trying on some sociological subfields entirely separate from my past. The breakup didn’t last. My compromise was leaving Catholicism, or at least the study of it. I took Arabic classes and went to Syria two summers in a row (2008 and 2009) to get better at the spoken form. I threw myself into the study of Islam. And I got really interested in the intersection of religion and politics. I wanted to learn more about how politics works for Muslims and also for Christians, especially the Evangelical Christians I knew so little about. Evangelicalism seemed so different from my own Catholic experience, even as I knew I had much more in common with Evangelicals than I did with Muslims, at least doctrinally. Yet something about Sunni Islam felt much more natural to me than what I knew of Protestant Evangelicalism, and while I didn’t have the words to articulate it yet, this was my fist hunch that practices—and orthopraxy—would be a key part of my story.
So began a comparative ethnography of four high schools in the broader New York City area, two Sunni Muslim and two Evangelical Christian. The basis of my dissertation in sociology from Yale University, I spent a year and a half (2011–2012) in the four schools: two semesters at the Muslim and urban Al Amal, one semester each at the Christian and urban Apostles and the Muslim and suburban Al Haqq, and all three semesters at the Christian and suburban Good Tree. I conducted approximately fifty field visits at the Muslim and urban Al Amal, seventy field visits at the Christian and suburban Good Tree, and around twenty-five visits each to the Muslim and suburban Al Haqq and the Christian and urban Apostles. I conducted formal, tape-recorded interviews with three adults and four students at Al Amal, fifty-one students and fourteen adults at Good Tree, twenty-seven students and seven adults at Al Haqq, and twenty-six students and eleven adults at Apostles.
I started the dissertation expecting it would be about politics and religion. After the idea of an international comparison fell apart for various reasons, I decided to compare four schools in the New York City area, and I chose American Evangelical and American Muslims because both communities felt at once inside and outside of American politics. Yet the direction of that semi-separation was different, at least in the communities I studied. As I put it in the book:
These schools distinguished themselves from what they thought of as unholy and unwholesome, yet they had no desire for complete separation from America, a nation they thought of very much as their own. The difference is as much temporal as religious: conservative Christians believe they have lost an America that was once theirs, while Muslims (conservative or not) believe they could gain an America that holds promise if only it would cease its Islamophobia. (15)
While I was doing the fieldwork, I realized that politics was only part of the story. I became increasingly interested in science in the schools, especially creationism, the subject of my first publication from my dissertation. I also realized I couldn’t avoid studying gender and sexuality. And prayer and scripture both were vital at all four schools in ways both similar and fascinatingly different.
These interests, over many revisions, eventually became the chapters of the book Agents of God. After an introduction that lays out the book’s theoretical underpinnings, I divide the book into two halves: three chapters on boundaries (“Politics and Public Schools”; “Differently Differentiating Gender”; “Sex and the Internet”) and three chapters on what I’m calling external authorities (Scripture, Prayer, and Science). I close with a conclusion, a methodological appendix, and a whole lot of endnotes.
When I say boundaries, I’m referring to a huge literature in sociology, even if, in the interest of space, the book mostly engages with the concept of symbolic boundaries as articulated by Michèle Lamont and Virág Molnár with a bit of distinctive spice from Pierre Bourdieu. In these three chapters, I described how politics, public schools, gender, sexuality, and the internet gave these schools a sense of how they were distinct from the rest of America yet also deeply connected to it.
Along the way, I introduced two new theoretical concepts: the first was an emphasis on specifically where the boundary is worked out. In other words, we might disagree about gender. But how? In which contexts? What is our site of boundary contestation, which is my way of asking about the location of the fight. This emphasis on contestation is really important for me. I disagree pretty intensely with Pierre Bourdieu on all sorts of things, but I appreciate his insistence that the “field” in which we define ourselves need not be a Durkheimian kumbaya. We can, instead, define ourselves through our disagreements, provided our disagreements are about the same things.1
That focus on disagreements allowed me to describe my other theoretical contribution to the discussion of boundaries, going back to my sophomore sacraments class at Creighon Prep, Omaha’s Jesuit high school. In that class, I learned Aquinas’s distinction between substance and accident. (A substance is also called essence, which is the term I use.) Aquinas takes the distinction from Aristotle, who said, roughly, that the essence of a thing is its thingness. It’s the chairness of a chair for example. If something were to happen to that chair that made it no longer a chair, then it would lose its essence. If it was burned to ashes or broken up for firewood, it would no longer be a chair. Yet what if we just painted the chair a different color or if we removed its armrests? It would still be a chair, just a different one. Aristotle and Aquinas would say its accidents would change, but not its essence.
In the many years since scholasticism, philosophers have debated the degree to which people and things actually do have essential and accidental qualities. Yet as a social scientist, I can bracket these questions entirely, instead focusing on how people experience themselves and their communities as having both essences and accidents. And what I’m interested in, following similar work in psychology, is how those fights work out. I hope that the essence/accident distinction can be helpful for other sociologists too (though see Stephen Fuchs’s argument Against Essentialism).
In the chapters themselves, I use these concepts to show how politics, gender, and sexuality provided different kinds of disagreements at these schools. In the politics chapter, I developed the line of thinking I described above, showing how Christians felt they were losing America and Muslims felt they had not yet acquired it, at least not completely. I describe the problems of Islamophobia and racism in the schools, an issue I describe in more detail in an article about “Colorblind Islam.” Yet the most important argument in this chapter is that the schools were bulwarks, or so they described themselves, protecting their communities and especially their children from the perils of a world that did not know God. That fear was most pronounced as teachers and students distinguished their communities from public schools, regularly describing their communities as essentially caring and religious in ways that public schools simply could not be.
My next chapter is a study of gender differences in the four schools. I emphasize how the Evangelical schools were more stereotypically “orthodox” (focused on right belief) while the Muslim schools were more stereotypically “orthoprax” (focused on right action) in that the Muslim schools primarily policed their girls to wear certain clothing while the Evangelical schools policed their girls to believe certain things about feminism. In my interviews and interactions with kids at the schools, I noticed that the Muslim girls could believe wearing the hijab was feminist or they could reject feminism entirely. It didn’t really matter provided they wore the hijab. In contract, the girls at the Evangelical school were much more ideologically constrained, with feminism regarded as the real f-word. In so doing, I showed how even seemingly orthodox commitments like beliefs about women are necessarily embodied and practiced: someone has to say something with their mouth, think something with their brain, habituate those words and thoughts through repetition, etc. Orthodoxy, as I argue in my introduction, is simply a specific form of orthopraxy.
My third boundaries chapter is about sexuality and the internet. In the chapter, I describe how the schools understood the promise and perils of students getting online. Most of the concern about the internet was about sex: the ever-presence of porn, of course, but also the possibility that students will meet other and make plans their parents and teachers would not approve. The internet in this sense was a microcosm of all the world’s possibilities, both hopeful and horrifying. Parents and teachers worried that the internet—and through it the world—would undo the socialization they tried so hard to maintain. As I write at the end of the chapter, “the great fear these teachers had about the Internet was only partially that students would do something wrong; it was also that students would consider what the school thought essential as no longer important, that it was actually just accidental. And if the schools’ essences began to fade, they worried, then so might the schools’ authorities” (110).
Those authorities are what I talk about in the book’s final three sections. I show how community members at the schools I studied could shift the coercion inherent in any form of socialization onto institutions they understood as capable of making demands. I show how people at all four schools would describe Scripture, Prayer, or Science as doing, commanding, or insisting on certain actions from individuals in the schools, making it possible for teachers to say things like, “It’s not me that needs you to do this; it’s the Bible.” As a result, external authorities can solve a paradox at the heart of socialization, especially for school communities committed to their students freely choosing their religion: following the logic of external authorities, it is not the teachers or parents making these demands but prayer, science, or scripture that act as “agents” themselves. As I argue in the book,
Each of these terms—scripture, prayer, and science—is often described as the subject of its own sentence, as when people in the schools told me that prayer changes things, that science shows something, or that scripture gives us wisdom. Prayer, scripture, and science are external because they are not contained within any one individual or even any one organization, and also because that externality is to some degree the source of their authority, in the same way that a lever gains strength when its fulcrum is farther from the effort applied. (7)
I draw explicitly on theories of agency worked out by Julia Adams and Isaac Reed, though I expand their work to think about how institutions themselves become agents. On the institutional theory side, while previous theories ofinstitutions have hinted at institutions’ capacity to act as agents, I am the first to articulate this theory explicitly, and I hope the theory is exportable beyond studies of religion.
In the scripture chapter, I give some historical context to how the Evangelical communities came to understand the Bible and how the Muslim communities came to understand the Qur’an and the hadith. I then show how these scriptures work as both boundaries and constitutive practices: that is, how students and adults in these communities distinguish themselves from others by their relationship to scripture and also how they do certain things—especially reading, memorizing, and relating to the physical artifact—to make their connection to scripture an embodied element of their lives. Through this combination of boundaries and practices, the scriptures come to have legitimate agency in their lives, able to make commands and requests that are not simply reducible to God. Indeed, scriptures become “agents of God,” hence the book’s title.
The prayer chapter is similar to the scripture chapter, though I show how prayer often functions as a different kind of agent than does scripture: if scripture is something like a governor, an intermediary of authority, then prayer is something like a messenger, a means of going back and forth to a higher power that is not reducible to the relationship itself. In both of these chapters, I describe how the communities have different relationships to both scripture and prayer, with Muslims tending to emphasize prayer more as a constitutive practice and Evangelicals tending to emphasize scripture more (though both are important at all four schools). I have written elsewhere about both Evangelical prayer and Muslim prayer, and what I emphasize in this chapter aligns with these arguments: I’m interested in how prayer is both a mechanism and result of socialization, the way that praying requires certain virtues that it simultaneously engenders.
My last body chapter is about science, though it’s much less focused on creationism than I expected it to be. Instead, it’s about how these schools understand relate to science and the distinction they then make from secular scientists. Yet I was also fascinated by how much more removed “science” seemed to students as opposed to the immediate effectiveness of prayer or scripture. These authorities worked; science was all too often some answers you had to memorize for a quiz. All four schools I studied were creationists, yet for much of their science curriculum, that didn’t really matter. As I argue in the book, it was “ironically . . . in disagreeing with the scientific theory of evolution that science—or what they thought of as science—became most obviously an agent capable of action in the world” (173). The people I met in these communities were most concerned about the external authority of science when they were trying to disprove the atheist scientists.