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.
As I argue in my introduction, Talal Asad makes a similar argument about tradition, and in many ways Asad’s fusion of MacIntyre and Foucualt is a better fit for what I’m doing here (and elsewhere) than is Bourdieu’s concept of field and habitus.↩
“Translations Were Quite Important”:
Gender, Bible Production, and the Reconstitution of Boundaries and External Authorities
In what is arguably the central thesis of his book, Dr. Guhin explains that “boundaries and external authorities . . . have a mutually constitutive relationship” (15). Put simply: “The external authorities help to legitimize boundaries, just as the boundaries help to demarcate the external authorities” (15). This is absolutely true, and the rich examples Dr. Guhin provides are compelling.
But in this brief essay I want to extend Dr. Guhin’s argument by focusing on an empirical case the author only mentions in passing, namely, the curious importance of certain Bible translations to the teachers at Good Tree. What Dr. Guhin correctly identifies as a concern over “modern” translations that were “too liberal” was in fact a concern about preserving patriarchal gender roles—a central boundary to this school and conservative evangelicals more broadly.
Knowing something about that particular controversy reveals that “the Bible” is not just an external authority that helps communities police gender boundaries, but the boundaries themselves shape that external authority both in the ways Bible translations are produced and how they are promoted by specific communities. Thus we’re able to see more clearly the “mutually constitutive relationship” between boundaries and external authorities Dr. Guhin describes.
Gender Boundaries and (Only Certain) External Authorities
Almost more than any other symbolic boundary, beliefs about gender are central to these communities. Dr. Guhin explains, “Women’s lives and actions were the boundaries of communities. Communities know they are different based on what their women do” (62). He also shows how “the Bible” was an important external authority for his evangelical schools because it enables those who want to inculcate an appreciation for patriarchy among the students to do so without claiming it’s what they want. Rather, it’s just what “the Bible” says.
But the kind of Bible obviously matters among his evangelical participants. Dr. Guhin makes passing references to this, explaining, “Translations were quite important at the Christian schools as certain more ‘modern’ translations were considered far too liberal. The Evangelicals in the schools I studied tended to use two common translations of the Bible, the New King James Version and the New International Version” (117–18). But it was not just any old New International Version, Dr. Guhin later points out. In discussing the practice of Scripture memory, he recalls students “are also asked to memorize from one of two translations: either the New King James Version or the New International Version, though the latter must be from its 1984 version and not the more ‘liberal’ later version” (128).
Thus in two places, Guhin identifies that “modern” translations are “far too liberal,” and specifically the newer edition of the New International Version. But what exactly made this updated translation “far too liberal” for the students to use? The answer is its violation of the deeply held gender boundary.
Evangelical Gender Wars in Bible Translations
Other than the venerable King James Version (KJV) which is still the best-selling Bible today, the 1984 New International Version (NIV) has dominated the evangelical Bible market for decades. Average evangelicals in the pews loved the NIV because it maintained a balance between readability (as opposed to the antiquated vocabulary and Shakespearean English of the KJV) and translation accuracy.
Historically, part of this “accuracy” was the tradition of English Bibles translating gendered words even when addressing mixed audiences (e.g., adelphoi as “brothers”) or generic masculine third-person pronouns (e.g., “He does not come into judgment . . .”) or generic references to men (e.g., “Man shall not live on bread alone . . .”) literally to preserve the masculine gender construction. Though other Bibles that evangelicals had already rejected as “too liberal” began adopting more inclusive language in their translations in the 1980s, the NIV had always maintained its traditional gendered language.
In the late 1990s, a firestorm erupted as complementarian evangelicals discovered the NIV was planning on updating its translation to adopt more “gender neutral” language in its text. Leaders in these circles decried the move as capitulating to the “feminist agenda” and “political correctness.” I’ve recounted this controversy more fully elsewhere (see Perry 2020; Perry and Grubbs 2020), but what transpired after was essentially ten years of negative attacks from influential complementarian evangelicals against an updated version of the NIV called Today’s New International Version or TNIV (New Testament published in 2002; full Bible published in 2005). The outcry against the more inclusive TNIV was so great, in fact, that evangelicals largely rejected it and it became a complete sales failure. It was thus discontinued in 2011 when the publisher simply released an updated NIV under the old name.
Another consequence of the NIV controversy was the commissioning of two new Bible translations that would be marketed to evangelicals, both of them committed to translating gendered language as literally as possible. The English Standard Version (ESV) would be published by reformed evangelicals through Crossway. And the Holman Christian Standard Bible (HCSB) would be published by LifeWay, the curriculum arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. Explaining the importance of the HCSB, Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary stressed that the emergence of the gender-inclusive TNIV has “convinced me that in the end this is an important thing for Southern Baptists to do—if for no other reason than that we will have a major translation we can control” (emphasis added).
Mohler gives away the ballgame there. The “liberalism” of the updated NIV that evangelicals were combatting was specifically egalitarianism. The solution was (1) to stigmatize the TNIV so severely that no evangelicals considered it a viable option and (2) produce and promote alternative translations that evangelicals fearful of creeping liberalism and feminism would read instead. The point isn’t just so they could have a translation they could control, but to maintain control over the boundaries of “who we are” as evangelicals—namely, gender traditionalists.
Gender and Bible Practice in Evangelical Schools
When Guhin was doing his ethnographic fieldwork at Good Tree and Apostles in 2011 and 2012, these Bible translation controversies had already transpired. The 1984 NIV (along with a modest update to the KJV in the New King James Version) was acceptable as conservative and reliable, while the more modern version of the NIV was rejected as “far too liberal.”
Guhin astutely points out that the Bible is a critical external authority for policing and reproducing the boundaries of gender, both through the practices of formal teaching (e.g., the Bible teachers connecting biblical texts to gendered interpretations) and reading/memorization. But we ignore several critical insights by assuming “the Bible” is essentially uniform on issues of gender. The teachers at the evangelical schools, in fact, know that this is not the case. That is why they demanded students ignore the updated NIV and use the 1984 edition instead.
What are some differences? And why might they matter?
Guhin points out that students internalize the teaching that wives are to submit to their husbands (74). This comes from Ephesians 5:22, but there are significant word differences between the 1984 and 2011 NIV. I highlight these in table 1 below.
Table 1: Ephesians 5:21-23 in the 1984 and 2011 NIV
|Ephesians 5:21–23 (1984 NIV)||Ephesians 5:21–23 (2011 NIV)|
|21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
Wives and Husbands
22 Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.
|Instructions for Christian Households
21 Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.
22 Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. 23 For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior.
The 1984 NIV starts the passage under the heading “Wives and Husbands” with v. 22, which says, “Wives, submit to your husbands.” Reading in this version one would get the impression that “the Bible says” the marriage relationship is to be characterized by wives submitting.
But notice where the 2011 NIV now puts the heading “Instructions for Christian Households.” It has included v. 21, “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.” The interpretive conclusion readers are more likely to draw from the 2011 NIV is that Christian households are to be characterized by mutual submission. This flies in the face of traditional complementarian teaching in which only wives submit; husbands love and lead.
Here’s another example. In Guhin’s conversation with a female student, she references the story of Eve not doing what she was told to illustrate the sin of female insubordination (62). There’s actually a subtle difference between the 1984 and 2011 NIV in reference to Eve and women sitting in authority over men (see table 2). I’ve underlined the key differences.
Notice in the 1984 translation, the subordination of women is much more absolute. Paul does not permit a woman to “have authority” over a man, and she must be “silent.” But the 2011 version is changed slightly. Paul says a woman shouldn’t “assume authority” over a man, which could be interpreted to mean that she’s not supposed to undercut the authority of male teachers or her husband in public. The problem Paul is trying to address, in other words, isn’t women having authority per se, but perhaps a specific problem in that church of women interrupting or overpowering men.
Moreover, in the 2011 version, women are not to be “silent” as if they couldn’t speak at all. But they are to be quiet. This perhaps refers the reader back to v. 11 where Paul instructs them to learn in quietness.
Table 2: 1 Timothy 2:11–13 in the 1984 and 2011 NIV
|1 Timothy 2:11–13 (1984 NIV)||1 Timothy 2:11–13 (2011 NIV)|
|11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.||11 A woman should learn in quietness and full submission. 12 I do not permit a woman to teach or to assume authority over a man; she must be quiet. 13 For Adam was formed first, then Eve.|
My point isn’t to say either construction in Ephesians 5 or 1 Timothy 2 are “better” or “worse” by the standards of feminists today. Rather I mean to point out there would be clear reasons why teachers interested inculcating students with an appreciation for patriarchal gender roles would prefer the 1984 NIV over the “far too liberal” updated NIV.
Knowing this background helps us understand precisely what the teachers at Good Tree and Apostles are objecting to and why they mandate students use one version for Scripture memory and reading over another.
Through countless examples, Dr. Guhin elaborates how boundaries and external authorities mutually constitute one another. But one clear example where this takes place is in the production of Bibles, in which a community identity as “complementarian” or “egalitarian” literally guides the translation decisions of committees resulting in quite different Bibles. Gender boundaries then guide the selection and promotion of such Bibles by evangelical communities, resulting in some Christian leaders (e.g., like Bible teachers in Dr. Guhin’s schools) prohibiting the use of certain objectionable Bibles (i.e., the ones that violate the cherished gender boundary) and promoting others that more suit the communities’ needs to reinforce its own cultural identity.
Thus boundaries (gender) constitute external authorities (Bibles) which reconstitute boundaries (gender).
Perry, Samuel L. “The Bible as a Product of Cultural Power: The Case of Gender Ideology in the English Standard Version.” Sociology of Religion 81.1 (2020): 68–92.
Perry, Samuel L., and Joshua B. Grubbs. “Formal or Functional? Traditional or Inclusive? Bible Translations as Markers of Religious Subcultures.” Sociology of Religion 81.3 (2020): 319–42.
Looking between Categories at Four Religious High Schools
I will not summarize Jeffrey Guhin’s excellent and fascinating ethnographic study of two evangelical and two Sunni Muslim high schools. My own expertise is in the sociology of religion—Christianity in the United States in particular—and even more narrowly on the interaction of religion and science. I will focus upon these areas of specialization and know very little about Islam. Reading Guhin’s book led to me wanting to see more, so I will tongue in cheek propose that Guhin conduct another stint of ethnography to dig even more deeply into the questions that his work evoked for me.
One generalization is that the power of Guhin’s study is because it is ethnographic (also called participant observation). Due to methodological limitations, much of social science is required to use bold categorical distinctions. For example, in a survey a respondent might get classified as having individualist or collectivist beliefs. More importantly, most methods allow only a snapshot in time, but with ethnography you do not look at static states, but at process. Ethnography is therefore able to see the messy reality between the categories where people are actually a mix of two, or one is used to mobilize another, or the categories run in sequence—pick your metaphor. When the reader encounters Guhin’s book they should start with the categories they know and then look for Guhin to complicate them in interesting ways.
God Is Not an External Authority?
I start with one of these sets of categories about which I wanted more detail. I want to play with something that really struck me halfway through, which is that Guhin has chapters titled “scripture,” “prayer” and “science” as external authorities. External authorities act—they do certain things. It is kind of surprising that there is not a chapter titled “God as External Authority,” and I am curious to hear why. After all, all of the substantive definitions of religion (in contrast to the functional ones) posit supernatural entities that act in the world.
One reason why the ethnography does not talk about God as an external authority may be, as suggested at various points in the discussion of the other authorities (e.g., 159), that God is behind at least prayer and scripture, and that there does not need to be a chapter on God as authority because Guhin is focusing on the more proximate authority. Is God the external authority, mobilized by prayer? Prayer, at least, “has an independent power all its own” (159). This would reflect the relationship between categories I write of above.
Or, is it taken for granted that they think God acts and it is just ethnographically surprising that scripture and prayer have agency? In this version, the students all think God acts in the world, but that is an uninteresting background condition of the field site, like saying that the desktops in the school are all white. Or, since this is an ethnography of the practices of teachers and students, maybe God is not seen as an external authority because we only see these human practices, which do not include God acting independently of these teachers and students in the world.
To return to relationships between categories I do wonder if God’s authority is mediated through the other external authorities Guhin identifies. If so, this is more consequential to other studies in the sociology of religion. To overstate the point, this would be the domestication of God, where God acts if prodded by us humans. As I will further ask below, is this the further decline of the transcendent?
The Bible in Conservative Protestantism
I want to highlight another tidbit of his ethnographic report and encourage Guhin or others to take up the deeper issue to which it points. This is also one of those “combining two categories” contributions of ethnography. At least my sense is that there are two impulses within Christianity—between the transcendent and the immanent. In conservative Protestantism, the transcendent is represented by the Bible and the immanent by prayer.
That is, one of the boundary objects in conservative Protestantism is that the word of God is fixed in place by God and does not change, and thus the Bible is timeless and wholly transcendent. (The changing Bible was the idea of their original “other” conservative Protestants drew boundaries against in the late nineteenth century—the modernist or mainline Protestants.)
Therefore, while you can use your God-given brain to see what it is telling you, what it is telling you is not from you, but revealing the everlasting truth that has always been there. Prayer in contemporary conservative Protestantism, and seemingly by the students Guhin observed, is not about worship or adoration of a transcendent God, but rather where an immanent God listens to your prayers and cares about what is happening to you. I think of this type of prayer as the bookend to the transcendent God of the biblical word.
But Guhin, in a tantalizingly short section, shows both groups of students, and particularly the evangelicals, saying that scripture interacts with prayer—“prayer is you talking to God, and scripture is God talking back” (168). For the students, scripture constrains your prayer requests to biblically legitimate asks. More importantly, reading scripture gives you a particular emotional response to a prayer which is God telling you what to do. The answer to your prayer can be found in your reaction to scripture.
I find that very interesting. I wonder whether this is another example of the growing immanence of evangelicalism. Much has been written about a change in evangelicalism from a group that worshipped a transcendent God to one that now wants God to solve their personal problems. In extreme form, this version of God, found among the young, is what Chris Smith has called “moralistic therapeutic deism” (Smith and Denton 2005). If this is right, then God is so fixated on answering your prayers that the one seemingly nonhuman transcendent voice of God (the Bible) is actually in service of communicating prayers with humans in need. I would like to hear more about how the Bible and prayer interact.
Individualism and Collectivism
The ethnographic gaze on the space between the categories also got me thinking about the combination of individualism and collectivism, in this case with biblical interpretation. Of course, this tension goes back to the Reformation, with the question whether each individual was really interpreting scripture apart from the collective.
It is interesting to see Guhin’s students struggling with this tension. On p. 138 we see the students going to other sources to help interpret the Bible, but simultaneously claiming that “revelation came through individual experience.” I would be interested in seeing more on this topic. Put more broadly, this exact experience is the crucible of the admixture of individual and society that has been such a tension within Protestantism.
This is an important question not only for Protestant hermeneutics but because, as many have argued, the high level of individualism within conservative Protestantism more generally has hampered the ability to see society. For example, studies have shown that evangelicals see racism as a problem of individuals, not society (Smith and Emerson 2000). If an ethnographer could show how the individual believer is not as individual an interpreter as the narrative of conservative Protestantism suggests, perhaps conservative Protestantism could have an easier time seeing the collective. I would argue that the challenges of American society such as systemic racism, climate change, economic inequality, and much more are social, collective problems and not individual problems.
So, I would love to see how it is that conservative Protestantism maintains the idea that everyone is an individual in their biblical analysis when in actuality they are not. Could learning how the individual is invented in this most central of Protestant tasks show us something similar for other times when conservative Protestants are convinced that everyone is just an individual and not a part of social structure?
Religion and Science
Guhin’s ethnography is also an important contribution to the literature on religion and science. At the most top-level it confirms what people who largely rely on surveys and in-depth interviews have claimed, such as that Muslims are primarily concerned about Darwinism as a boundary drawing mechanism with secular society (Hameed 2015). What I have been more concerned about is the claim that the epistemology of science for conservative Protestants is descended from nineteenth-century Baconian science and Scottish Common Sense Realism. In short, this idea is that science is the use of your God-given senses and rationality, that anyone can do, and for which you most emphatically do not need theories and other abstractions. Thus, as it says in the influential fundamentalist biology textbook Of Pandas and People, legitimate science is “inductive” and concerned with how the present world operates. The “historical sciences” are not observable—and the origins of humans falls into that abstract theoretical category. The origin of humanity, of the universe, and so on, is not observable and is thus a religious question (Evans 2018: 131ff.). Microevolution of viruses can be observed and is thus legitimate science. I think Guhin has the first ethnographic data that shows this is true.
I want to finish by elevating one of Guhin’s contributions as heading toward the future debate in religion and science. When sociologists reengaged with the study of the relationship between religion and science about fifteen years ago (Evans and Evans 2008), the debunking focused on the claim of scientists, also dominant in the public sphere, that religion and science were in conflict because they are distinct ways of knowing the natural world. The stereotypical claim was that to know how old the earth is, scientists would supposedly use their radio-carbon dating tools and religious people would read their holy texts. The sociological literature quickly showed that for the vast majority of scientific claims, religious and scientific ways of knowing the natural world are the same. The pendulum then swung far toward the other category with the claim that any conflict was not about facts about nature but about morality. I later summarized these points in a book titled Morals Not Knowledge (Evans 2018), which reflects the extreme opposite of the traditional claim.
But, as critics pointed out, my book should have been called “Morals and Knowledge” (Crick 2019). The actual relationship between religion and science is not morals or knowledge, but their combination. Crick, using the pragmatist tradition that Guhin also utilizes, points out that knowledge (facts) will shape a moral conclusion or the reverse: a priori morals will shape what are thought to be true knowledge (facts). More specifically, morality determines how we organize our knowledge into clusters upon which we act (Crick 2019). Again the action is between the categories.
How facts and morals mix is, in my mind, the future question in the sociology of religion and science. But this mix will be very difficult to empirically observe with a survey or even with in-depth interviews. The analyst needs motion, not a snapshot, and Guhin hints at combinations of morals and knowledge with this ethnography.
We see that one combination used by the students is approving of science as a method but not approving of the morally blinkered scientists (173). Another is that the students are motivated to challenge certain fact claims (evolution) due to concerns about morality (182). Guhin observes a relationship long seen by historians of science and religion: if you support Darwinism you reject the Bible, which will in turn lead to rank immorality (194).
But, the most prominent contribution of the ethnography in this area is thinking of these groups as drawing boundaries. It is clear that being opposed to evolution is a belief of the two religious groups. Is it so because they have a different means of assessing facts of the world? Not really. The groups focus on this one scientific fact claim in service of the grand moral project of drawing moral boundaries with the secular world. This is a version of the fact claim in service of moral agenda mechanism, but screams out for additional ethnography, for which I am volunteering Guhin. I want to know why this particular factlet about the natural world serves this function. Is it because it is seen as the heart of the other side? I have speculated that this fact claim is emphasized because it draws a large moral distinction with the other. Is that true? Guhin’s work offers the first steps down this new direction. It is through close ethnographic work that these questions can be answered.
Ammerman, Nancy. Bible Believers: Fundamentalists in the Modern World. 1st paperback ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1987.
Crick, Nathan. “Morality through Inquiry, Motive through Rhetoric: The Politics of Science and Religion in the Epoch of the Anthropocene.” Zygon 54.3 (2019):648–64. doi: 10.1111/zygo.12539.
Evans, John H. Morals Not Knowledge. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2018.
Evans, John H., and Michael S. Evans. “Religion and Science: Beyond the Epistemological Conflict Narrative.” Annual Review of Sociology 34 (2008):87–105.
Hameed, Salman. “Making Sense of Islamic Creationism in Europe.” Public Understanding of Science 24.4 (2015): 388–99. doi: 10.1177/0963662514555055.
Smith, Christian, and Melina Lundquist Denton. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. Updated ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.
Smith, Christian, and Michael O. Emerson. Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000.
Making Sense of the Unequal Distribution of Religious Freedom and its Consequences through Jeff Guhin’s Agents of God
Nowadays there is no shortage of news media and public discourse about the dangerous depths of “political polarization” and “the culture wars” in the United States, exacerbated by the social disaster of the pandemic and evidenced in the January 6 insurrection at the Capital by right-wing extremists.1 University of Southern California Correspondingly, there is abundant scholarly work that thinks about where the roots of societal atomization lie and their consequences for democracy. In many scholarly accounts, Christian evangelicals emerge as fixed cases, entrenched in deep commitments to God and his authority that transcend the nation and its democratic projects. It was through this lens that I was so struck by Jeff Guhin’s brilliant book, Agents of God: Boundaries and Authority in Muslim and Christian Schools, as a study that offers deep insights not only into how religion matters in religious schools but also how it matters for political culture.
Drawing on a multi-sited ethnography of four conservative religious high schools—two Christian and two Muslim—Guhin shows that the way schools practice boundaries between “us” and “them” shapes students’ identities as members of a religious community and more importantly, their behaviors, which in turn reify those boundaries between, for example, “us” as evangelical Christians and “them” as “American society. These repeated, habituated practices make these boundaries “real” and consequential for how students make decisions, interact with one another, and imagine their futures. Critically, in Guhin’s account, it is not just “God” that empowers these practices, it is the “agents of God,” the external authorities imbued with power—scripture, prayer, and science—that are continually enacted to legitimize these boundaries. Guhin describes how habituated practices give the “agents of God” a sense of power, as if they are “doing” things on their own. Yet by showing how these practices are shaped in relationship to boundaries—whether of school, of religion, of culture, of nation—the larger system of power that circumscribes these boundaries outside in turn shapes what practices are habituated inside the schools.
Where the word boundary typically implies a sort of demarcation that limits thought or action, what Guhin shows is that boundaries between “us” and “them” are both enabling and constraining. While they may limit students to particular conceptions of who they are, what they can do, how they ought to think, these boundaries also enable students to organize their moral commitments and lives in meaningful ways. They offer students a sense of community as “sacred canopies” (203) yielding safety from “outside” influence. Yet Guhin also shows that boundaries are not simply given. Rather, there are “sites of boundary contestation,” whether gender, politics, or religion, that render boundaries a continual negotiation both between those “within” the group and those on the “outside,” meaning the way society ascribes the group with particular meanings and identities.
I summarize these arguments to suggest that, by offering a comparative perspective on two differently-positioned groups in the popular imagination—Christians and Muslims—Agents of God helps us think about how the alternatively enabling or constraining nature of boundaries—the sites of boundary contestation—matter beyond schools and into the civic sphere. Specifically, I want to pick up on Guhin’s observations of the different ways boundaries mattered for Christians and Muslims. Understanding how systems of power—the sociohistorically-embedded institutional and cultural structures that constitute society2—shape these boundaries externally is essential for making sense of how these groups are negotiating and practicing them internally. So how might these different configurations of “how they see us” and “how we see them” matter for religion in the public sphere, specifically how we understand political and cultural debates over religious freedom?
First, it helps to think about whether and how external conceptions of “how they see us” matters for Christian and Muslim students in their everyday lives and what these differences tell us, distinctions Guhin theorizes through “essence” or accident.” As Guhin argues, the extent to which these boundaries are enabling or constraining really matters for the types of practices schools institutionalize and students take up, in the ways they imagine their place in society. He writes:
Sometimes they felt boundaries were more their own work, and sometimes they felt boundaries were forced up on them. They often disagreed with how they were distinguished from the rest of the world, believing people got something essentially wrong about them. But they also felt—sometimes in agreement with mainstream America and sometimes not—that there was something essentially different about the rest of the country. (37)
In Muslim schools, perceptions of exclusion were shaped through experiences of societal Islamophobia, which rendered Muslims as homogenized threats in the popular imagination. Meanwhile, in Christian schools, perceptions of victimhood were shaped through the conception that America had “lost its way,” lost its Christian character, that Christians “nowadays” were unjustly persecuted. As a Bible teacher ominously warns his students, “If you’re a Christian, the world is against you, like literally the world is against you!” (52). Another Bible teacher rues that “people [in the United States] will eventually be punished—even killed—simply for being Christian” (54). Where Christian students imagined the ideal future as a return to the Christian past, a reality they understood as essentially American, Muslim students imagined the ideal future as a reality that had not yet been realized—the inclusion of Muslims in the popular imagination as “also American.”
These differences in how Christian and Muslim schools contend with and contest boundaries are not just descriptive, they are also infused with power. After all, the Islamophobia that Muslim students grapple with is not just about “how society sees us.” It is also in how these Muslim students and their communities are categorized and treated by legal, political, and cultural structures, whether through surveillance, policing, media representations, or politically sanctioned discrimination (35). As Guhin describes, during his fieldwork, the Associated Press uncovered widespread surveillance of Muslim communities by the NYPD and FBI. In these reports, traditional religious practices like performing salah, praying five times a day, was flagged as “extremist” activity deserving of suspicion. As one teacher noted with frustration, the pressure Muslims felt to “prove” they were practicing “moderate Islam,” that they were patriotic Americans first, limited their capacity to embody Islam freely.
In this sense, the Christian communities’ perceived persecution through, for example, restrictions on prayer in public schools is not—in practice or consequence—equivalent to repeated racial profiling by agents of the state for simply practicing one’s religion. Put more simply, being positioned as an outsider fighting against one’s own societal exclusion as Muslims do to be seen as “American” is a different type of boundary work than being positioned as an insider fighting for the exclusion of “others,” as evangelicals do to preserve the “purity” of Christian America. Strikingly, the conservative Christian communities described here do not only see “secular” America as a threat to this purity, they also see nonwhite “outsiders” like Muslims as a threat to Christian America.
So, as Guhin shows, the boundaries for Muslim students are not only “symbolic,” they are also “social” and bound in material structures,3 which constrains Muslim students in ways that powerfully shape their internal negotiations of boundaries between “us” and “them” andtheir freedom of religious practice. As a result, for the Muslim students and their teachers, religious boundary work is practiced in direct relationship to the constraining nature of societal boundaries that demarcate “who Muslims are.” Guhin provides rich descriptions of these moments. He describes how
women who wore the hijab told me they often felt profiled and stereotyped before they ever talked to anyone. . . . Sister Jannat Shahid, a science teacher at Al Haqq, she told me, “I walk in the room as a hijabi. . . . I have to prove that I’m not a terrorist. . . . So as a Muslim it’s trying to prove that I’m an American. I feel that in today’s society, it’s hard to be an American Muslim and feel that they [non-Muslim Americans] look at you as a member of society.” (48)
Similarly, Muslim men in Guhin’s study described being characterized as “terrorists” based on their brown skin and facial hair, as one student named Radi described, “I’m a brown person . . . so for the media most terrorists are brown. I’ve got somewhat of a beard and most likely, if someone sees me, they’ll probably—they’ll know I’m a Muslim. They can easily just categorize me as a terrorist” (48). Religious practices that, for these Muslim students and teachers, constitute being a “good Muslim,” being “at home” in Islam (150)—whether mode of dress, style of facial hair, even behaviors like gender intermixing or shaking hands—become constrained against external boundaries of “who Muslims are” and “what Islam is.” Religious freedom, in this case, is contradicted by racialized boundaries around “true Americans,” a paradox Guhin describes through the complex intersecting boundaries of nation and culture. In the case of the United States, a national context founded on racial capitalism,4 these boundaries are constituted by racial meanings. Though Guhin’s cases show schools with diverse student bodies, he points out that the racial ideology in the Christian schools consistently unfolds through the dominance of whiteness. Meanwhile, though the Muslim students more often find themselves grappling with the limits of whiteness, it is worth pointing out that anti-Blackness often emerges as South Asian and Middle Eastern Muslim students distinguish themselves from “other” marginalized Americans, despite almost 30 percent of American Muslims being Black Americans. For Muslim students, the boundary work of demonstrating “American” (“like white”) identity means they must continually “prove” their religious practice is not “extremist” or anti-American, Muslim women must “prove” they are not oppressed by Islam, this boundary work is continually performed against the rigid constraints of “how they see us.”
In contrast, Christian students and their teachers see the country as essentially theirs, so the perception of victimhood and persecution is decoupled from material constraints. Here, the perception of threat by nonwhite, non-Christian “others” generates a tightening, a doubling down of conceptual boundaries between “us” and “them.” Religious practice works in service of maintaining that exclusion and generating power in that exclusion. Guhin describes how these Christians perceive themselves on the frontlines of the culture wars, drawing on the agents of God to batten down the hatches among students, to go to battle. This is all to say that the way boundaries are arranged by systems of power—about who this religious group is in relationship to “the nation”—shapes the way they are enabled or constrained in religious practice.
Ultimately, Agents of God helps us better understand both how religious freedom is differentially experienced among different conservative religious groups, and—more consequentially—how religious freedom is unequally distributed among them. While “both sides”—Christians and Muslims alike—may perceive their religious freedom to be violated through America’s growing secularism, Guhin shows that these perceptions emerge out of incongruent social positions—one positioned within the cultural and racial boundaries of the nation, seeking to contract the boundaries more and more to maintain Christian purity—another positioned outside, sacrificing religious practices in exchange for the provisional expansion of boundaries, to include them in the promise of the multicultural civic project so long as they “comply” with the system of power. It is through this lens that we can make better sense of the divergent meanings of religious freedom in the civic sphere, namely, how power is legitimized, habituated, and vigilantly guarded through the agents of God. As many evangelical Christian groups are celebrating the Supreme Court’s recent decision to uphold the anti-abortion Heartbeat Act in Texas, a perceived preservation of their religious freedom, the reproductive rights opposition is mobilizing swiftly. Their argument? That the Heartbeat Act is a violation of religious freedom. As the ACLU attorney David Donatti explained of the lawsuit challenging the act, “SB 8 could very well violate our First Amendment rights, because if it is restricting . . . the ability of clergy or religious individuals—a congregation—to provide that kind of counseling, which is fundamental to their faith, then that violates their religious freedom.”5
Direct correspondence to Hajar Yazdiha, Department of Sociology, University of Southern California, email@example.com.↩
Elizabeth A. Armstrong and Mary Bernstein, “Culture, Power, and Institutions: A Multi-Institutional Politics Approach to Social Movements*,” Sociological Theory 26.1 (March 1, 2008): 74–99, https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-9558.2008.00319.x; Patricia Hill Collins, “The Difference That Power Makes: Intersectionality and Participatory Democracy,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Intersectionality in Public Policy, ed. Olena Hankivsky and Julia S. Jordan-Zachery, Politics of Intersectionality (Cham, Switzerland: Springer, 2019), 167–92, https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-98473-5_7.↩
Michèle Lamont and Virág Molnár, “The Study of Boundaries in the Social Sciences,” Annual Review of Sociology 28 (2002): 167–95; Michèle Lamont and Marcel Fournier, Cultivating Differences: Symbolic Boundaries and the Making of Inequality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992).↩
David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (Verso, 1999); Cedric J. Robinson, Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (Zed, 1983).↩
Jack Jenkins, “Some Faith Groups Laud Texas Abortion Ban, Others Cite Religious Freedom Concerns,” Religion News Service, September 2, 2021, https://religionnews.com/2021/09/02/as-some-religious-groups-laud-texas-abortion-ban-others-cite-religious-freedom-concerns/.↩
9.8.22 | Freeden Blume Oeur
Whither Public Education?
A Comment on Jeffrey Guhin’s Agents of God
Before I got my hands on a copy of Agents of God, I had a chance to read something else by Guhin: a chapter that appeared in a recently published edited volume on sociological theory. I found the chapter quite intriguing, and I had it in mind as I read Guhin’s new book. In the chapter, titled “Why Study Schools?,” Guhin makes the convincing case that research in the sociology of education has been guided by a stratification mandate, or a concern for how schools are engines of inequality and reflect and reproduce power dynamics outside of schools. A path less taken, according to Guhin, has been the study of schools as sites of moral education. This is a path that animates the writings of Emile Durkheim, W. E. B. Du Bois, and others. This view of education considers how schools have goods internal to them: in other words, as having a kind of value on their own terms, and not an instrumental value where, for example, schools exist mainly for students to accrue capital and credentials.
With this perspective in mind, one of the better ways of approaching Guhin’s exciting book is to consider the importance of moral boundaries at religious schools, which were Guhin’s fieldsites. Like in the chapter I just mentioned, Guhin makes it a point to say that the schools take part in symbolic boundary work: the kind that creates conceptual and moral distinctions. As Guhin’s astute observations revealed, these schools—two Christian and two Muslim—despite being different, defended the idea of the freedom of religion, one often rooted in conservative and orthodox principles. They also found common threats in the internet and in public schools. The persistent, perceived danger of these spaces—which constitute what Sarah Diefendorf has called “the imagined secular”—could be rationalized by deferring to what Guhin calls “external authorities,” or the semi-autonomous sources of authority including scripture, prayer, and most paradoxically but compellingly, science. An excellent study, I think, names something important that you know about but have taken for granted and helps you to see it an entirely new way. The idea of “external authorities” does that for me. Reflections on authority have a long history within sociology, anchored by Weber’s foundational writings on the topic. Guhin’s concept manages to add nuance to this literature without being beholden to a Weberian tradition.
I approached this book with a mix of professional and personal interests. In graduate school, I started training to be a sociologist of education and gender just as I decided to become a Christian (though I can’t say I resemble much of one today!). I find myself wanting to share this book with others who study these fields and also with religious folks I know who are suspicious of public schools and wonder if Catholic schools are a better alternative for their children. The study of Christian (mainly Catholic) schools is familiar to the sociology of education. I am reminded of the influential text Catholic Schools and the Common Good (1993), by Anthony Bryk, Valerie Lee, and Peter Holland. While that book and Guhin’s share certain themes, they diverge in important ways. Bryk and colleagues advanced the idea that Catholic schools support forms of democratic education which promote the larger good; Agents of God, meanwhile, reveals that the idea of a common good is itself fraught and contentious, and that religious schools operate in a deeply polarized political environment where persistent boundary work greatly restricts the idea of the “common.” The study of Muslim schools has a much shorter history in the sociology of education. And so the comparative angle of Agents of God, with data drawn from four schools, allows Guhin to draw out intra-religious distinctions as well as how these schools together differentiate themselves from nonreligious spheres marked by their many clear and present dangers and temptations. Since the book is so conceptually rich, it would be easy to miss the book’s methodological sophistication, and I’d be curious to hear more from Guhin about the ups and downs of doing a complex comparative study of schools.
Agents of God makes several major contributions. First, I think that in a time of lean and theory-lite ethnographies, Guhin’s book embraces theory and invites readers to learn about and love theory just as much as the author clearly does. It’s a very teachable book for this reason, and Guhin has a special talent for connecting conceptual dots that will teach readers many things even if they aren’t especially interested in schools, religion, or culture. In her recent book, Dear Science and Other Stories (2020), Katherine McKittrick asks us to consider endnotes and footnotes as sites of labor and love and dreaming, when it’s more common to toss these aside as secondary and distracting. Some of the best stuff in the book are contained in Guhin’s endnotes, and any graduate student studying religion, schools, or culture for their exams would be wise to seek counsel in the book’s final pages.
This leads to a second major contribution. The book is steeped in details concerning religion—from interpretations of scripture, to what it means exactly that people think that the Bible is actually God’s divine word—without ever feeling insular or off-putting. This is because Guhin accomplishes the goal of, in his words, “using religious sites to answer cultural questions.” This achievement is more than a simple matter of what a few unique schools can tell us about moral issues and questions that affect all of us. The book also showed me that cultural questions matter in a way for subfields like education, race, and gender which have historically at times had an awkward or uncomfortable relationship with the topic of culture. To put it differently, Agents of God helped me to see that some of the more important questions I’ve been asking in my own scholarship have been fundamentally cultural ones. I am grateful to Guhin for this basic but important insight.
I was disheartened to read about how public schools continue to be a punching bag for so many. But not surprised. I’ve found many of the same patterns in my own research, and you don’t have to search far to find studies showing that parents, students, stakeholders, and others deride public schools as immoral, pits of failure; and then seek out any number of alternative schooling options, from charter schools to religious schools. Guhin’s concluding chapter is titled “It’s Dangerous Out There,” and I felt that it was here that the symbolic and moral boundaries that Guhin speaks of most interfaces with social boundaries, or those distinctions that reveal material inequalities. Christian and Muslim schools, and people across the political spectrum, all repudiate public schools for being unsafe and lacking compassion. As these people retreat from public schools and find alternative options to work or to send their own children, the perceived dangerous thing “out there”—public schools—grows weaker and less legitimate, with very real consequences for what the schools can and can’t do to help young people. Guhin’s own language allowed me to see that this anti-public-school narrative is a kind of external authority, as it were, we’ve collectively created as a society, a self-fulfilling narrative where sacred spaces build walls between them and the profane space of public schools. As Guhin ends his book by saying, the idea of an external authority isn’t “uniquely religious,” and I think he’s correct. I’m eager to see how other researchers use and build on the idea of external authorities. Within a volatile political climate bracketed by identity politics and culture wars, education is emerging as a top priority for Republican legislators. Through the use of old strategies like book banning and dark money, progressives see the culmination of a years-long GOP effort to dissolve public education entirely. It is more important than ever to understand how authority works in the lives of American schoolchildren.
I have a few questions for Guhin. I am curious about these Evangelical schools in the wake of Trump’s presidency. I wondered how the graduates of the two schools voted if they chose to vote. Much has now been made about Evangelicals as an influential voting bloc for the Republican party, but I want to know more about the kinds of political conversations taking place inside these classrooms. How might, for example, the power of external authorities help to guide thinking on contemporary targets of conservative disdain, from transgender identity to critical race theory? Guhin’s research on schools will only become more important given that education has recently catapulted to the top of issues that matter for voters, motivated by the backlash to the perception that critical race theory is being taught in schools. As a product of Virginia public schools, I watched with great interest and dismay as education and critical race theory emerged as priority items in the recent governor’s race won by the Republican Glenn Youngkin. The new Virginia governor owns a foundation with properties across the state that are home to Evangelical congregations and retreats. With Guhin’s insights in mind, I was able to track how he and his supporters have turned to external authorities—in particular, the Bible and certain strands of science—to defend a particular view of traditional, conservative education.
And speaking of science, I would also love to hear more from Guhin about the role of science as an external authority today. While this fascinating chapter tells us much about how religious communities engage certain strands of science—creationism and evolution, biology and biochemistry, the lab sciences—I am curious what these schools thought about the social sciences and history, and the critical conversations that happened or were muted. We hear less about these subjects in Agents of God, but they would seem to matter in other sections of the book; for example, in chapter 3, where the schools held a tenuous relationship with feminism, believing that girls should have the same academic opportunities as their male peers but also expected those young women to be the main care providers for their families one day.
9.8.22 | Jeff Guhin
Response to Freeden Blume Ouer
I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to respond to these essays. Thank you especially to the respondents themselves for their wise, kind, and insightful critiques and comments, and thanks even more to Hajar Yazdiha for organizing this panel and Sean Larsen and the rest of the Syndicate community for providing the opportunity.
I am grateful for Blume Oeur’s generous and wise comments, especially his connection of this book to my writing that is more explicitly about schools. There’s a tendency in the sociology of education to focus almost exclusively on the ways that schools reproduce or remedy stratification and inequality. That’s important work, of course, but I argueelsewhere—and in my current book project—that the study of schools is more than a subspecies of the study of stratification. I am grateful to so many of the kind words in this response, especially the recognition of my love of theory, my insistence on the importance of the study of culture, and my ongoing commitment that religious sites have things to teach us that don’t necessarily have anything to do with religion.
Blume Ouer asked a series of great questions that I’ll do my best to answer. First, he asked about how Evangelicals at the schools I studied voted and especially about their commitment to Trump. This is something I’ve thought a lot about too. I don’t know as much about Apostles but I get the sense, from talking to people at Good Tree, that the school is pretty divided between people who voted from Trump while holding their nose and people who voted for Trump with a deep enthusiasm, which is pretty true of white Evangelicalism in general, and not just white Evangelicals either. My sense is that, unlike mainstream white Evangelicalism, which is much more in the boat for Trump, there is at least some division in the schools, but that might simply be the combined wishful thinking of the respondents I still keep up with and myself.
Blume Oeur also asked about science, expanding beyond what I looked at in the book. It’s a great question, and something that others have been looking at even if I haven’t, even if much of the work has centered Christian Nationalismrather than Evangelicalism (or white Evangelicalism) per se. Certainly, some of the suspicions I heard whispered at Apostles resemble the Q-Anon conspiracies now related to COVID vaccines. Yet Blume Oeur’s question was more specifically about history and social science, and that’s something that I wish I could have gotten into more in the book and that I think other scholars could get at as well. I don’t have the sense that “history” or especially “social science” work as external authorities in quite the way that science does. Yet people do talk about how “History” shows something, so it’s a great question.
As I think on it, there was a sense of a “real history” hidden from view, something that wasn’t simply a matter of different interpretation but actually a cynical and cruel obfuscation. For the Muslim schools, this was a matter of Islam’s historical commitment to science, peace, and the “greater jihad” of self-mastery. While most of these criticisms were of how Islam is treated in the media, there was also a regular sense that “our history” is not being taught and so we have to teach it ourselves. The same was true for the American Evangelicals, though less regarding religious history and more regarding American history. I did have a brief conversation with the history teacher at Good Tree, and he made clear to me that they used Christian textbooks that could better center the role of Christianity in the nation’s founding. Now whether or the United States really was founded as a Christian nation is a complicated question, but even if it was, it wasn’t necessarily the same kind of Christianity that modern American Evangelicals might think of as their own. Yet there was sometimes reference to this “history” as itself a kind of external authority, with History showing that the secularists are wrong. In that sense, History worked a bit like the way Science worked at these schools, framed not as the working out of various historians or scientists, but as a statue already fully formed in the stone, simply waiting to be revealed by people of good will. In that way, discussions of history could parallel discussions of science, a word which moved readily and often unwittingly between meaning “the physical laws of the universe” and “the descriptions of the physical laws of the universe.”
Finally, Blume Oeur asked about the ups and downs of doing a complex comparative study of schools. It was a lot of ups and downs! I was kicked out of Al Amal, which was probably the most stressful experience I’ve ever had doing ethnography. And there’s much more I could say about the comparative process, some of which I talk about in the methods appendix. But what I’d like to focus on here is how the comparative process provides all sorts of helpful angles for what, specifically, I should compare.
In some ways of thinking about comparative ethnography, you wait to compare until you know what you’re comparing. For example, you would start in one field site and it’s only after a few months that you realize, hey, wait, what I’m really interested in is X and I’ll go see if X works the same way at another site and why. But doing a comparative project on day one, as I did, allowed me to see things as interesting I might not have realized were interesting. I would usually go to one school on Monday and Thursday and another school on Tuesday and Friday. And in doing that, I noticed, for example, that Muslims didn’t believe in evolution but just didn’t seem to care that much about, and that Evangelicals were explicitly committed to thinking of prayer as obvious, natural, and easy in a way that Muslims were very comfortable admitting it was difficult. Those aren’t necessarily things I would have thought to compare if I had just started at one school.