July/August 2012 Issue • Volume 40 • Issue 6

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ASA Forum for Public Discussion and Debate

On Diversity in Religious Studies

I was extremely disappointed by the response (April 2012) to Christian Smith’s March Footnotes ASA Forum piece. The response missed the point of the original letter. Smith called attention to the disrespect of some sociologists toward the general topic of sociology of religion. His appeal was to take religion more seriously and to respect the professionalism and views of researchers working in the field of sociology of religion.

asa forum

As Editor of the Christian Sociologist Newsletter, I have personally received many letters from sociology students relating how they were belittled in class or forced to listen to a harangue by a professor on why he personally abhors religion. They ask, “How can professors can get away with venting their hatred when, if they spoke similarly about Gay Rights, they would be ostracized?” Frankly, I have no response.

It is unfortunate that members of our organization feel no compunction in proclaiming their belief in the irrelevance of religion in our society when religion, an aspect of our culture, is a major component of society. As our respondent admitted, religion, through Dr. King and others, has spearheaded the Civil Rights Movement and to this day African American churches remain vigilant that the momentum toward equality continues. Religious organizations arguably do more for the homeless than any other institution in America. And we know that the 2012 elections will be greatly influenced by religious belief. In fact, once knowing a voter’s belief system, whether Evangelical, Agnostic, Catholic, Black Protestant, Buddhist etc.. one could fairly accurately predict his/her views on the major issues and candidates. And some claim that religion is no longer relevant! Over 300 members of the ASA Section on the Sociology of Religion and the more than 500 subscribers, mostly ASA members, of the Christian Sociology Newsletter feel religion is very relevant in our modern world. I have been proud that sociologists have long been noted as champions of diversity. Our by-laws esteem diversity. Let’s keep it that way.

Paul Serwinek, Editor of Christian Sociologist Newsletter

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Response to “In Favor of Relevance”

I must thank Ryan Cragun for providing us an excellent illustration of exactly the kind of ignorance of which I wrote in my March 2012 issue of Footnotes. His assertion (April 2012 Footnotes) that religion matters little in social life and, when so, mostly in pernicious ways, is stunningly oblivious to the findings of decades of the best research that tells us otherwise. I can only interpret it as wishful thinking on his part. Cragun claims that religion has very little effect on health, for instance. But research shows that highly religious Americans live seven years longer than non-religious Americans, an effect on mortality equivalent to not smoking a pack of cigarettes per day (Robert Hummer, et al. 1999, “Religious Involvement and U.S. Mortality,” Demography). Such associations and the causal mechanisms that produce them have been demonstrated and well worked out for decades now, not merely in health but many other fields as well. Perhaps Cragun is not reading the research. Then again when religious effects are not found in studies, it is often because religion is poorly measured or analyzed by scholars who do not understand it adequately. In view of the mass of published evidence against Cragun’s view, one can only imagine that he simply does not want religion to matter. He is entitled to that view personally, but not as a sociologist. We are bound to deal with empirical reality, whatever it is, like it or not. As to Cragun’s view that religion is dying, I suggest he get out of his office and do some world traveling to open his eyes. And as to his insinuation that my own scholarship has a pro-religion bias, if anything, the public record stands that most everything I have published is in fact quite critical of religion in various ways. In short, Cragun is staking out a position that made sense in the 1950s but is out of touch with empirical reality today, and in that sense simply provides more evidence for my original point.

Christian Smith, University of Notre Dame

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Blazing Trails in Sociology

There is no way to express the pleasure I felt in reading Craig Schaar’s Emerita Profile on Essie Rutledge in the April 2012 Footnotes. As one who came after Essie yet before the larger number of African American women in sociology, I am deeply indebted to the large footsteps she left. I came into the discipline as a graduate student just as Essie and others were forming the Black Caucus in Sociology. When I went to Atlanta University to direct research for the School of Social Work (the first such school for African Americans in the United States and a legacy graduate Historically Black University), I met another Black female sociologist—Anna Grant.

Anna was on faculty at Morehouse College, also a signature HBCU, and she shared her “trail-blazing” story with me. It follows Essie’s experiences. Anna was from Florida but the state paid her graduate tuition rather than admit her to a graduate program in that state. Anna instead completed her graduate work in the state of Washington.

We often talk about the problems and negative effects of segregated education, and I am not advocating any further return to that situation. However, my inspiration to complete the PhD did not come from the number and variety of faculty professors and advisors at the University of California-Berkeley. It was listening to Anna, meeting Essie. and  others of the Black Caucus in Sociology, and following the footsteps of sociologist Joyce Ladner at the Institute of the Black World in Atlanta, GA.

As a master’s student I completed a major research paper on Black women and higher education, “To Define Black Womanhood,” yet there remained a myriad reasons to stop my education at the MA level, not the least was a Berkeley professor telling me “you people don’t have a culture, you just have learned to adjust.” I was ready to quit. The two previous cohorts each had an African American woman and they left after the master’s. It was too difficult, but seeing and listening to Essie, Joyce, Anna, and the other sociologists of the Caucus, and hearing their stories of completing the degree, I could not quit.

Today’s graduate students may believe our current society to be a post-racial environment and have little if any knowledge about the people who blazed a trail’ for them to follow. They also may find HBCU campuses and faculty not worthy of their career attention. But, I owe my entire being as a sociologist to those campuses and to women trail blazers like Essie Rutledge and hope that ASA and our discipline doesn’t become so big, so multicultural, so professional, or so all of the other categories that suggest inclusiveness that we omit re-telling the historical stories that brought us to the place we are.

Thank you Essie, Anna, Joyce, and all the others!

Jualynne E. Dodson, Michigan State University

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The analytical challenge

Some of us work to enrich sociology for its own sake, a perfectly honorable pursuit. Others—so one day an even stronger sociology will be available to tackle challenges that plague our society and that of others. And some—to try to understand the social world around us and to now serve those who seek to better it. These lines are for the third group, which I wish would be even larger and have more opportunities to voice its findings.

We face a major sociological puzzle. We see around us a society in which banks are bailed out but not homeowners, millions of whom have lost their life savings and been kicked into the street. We see executives paid billions in bonuses using tax payers’ monies—and those long unemployed loose their meager benefits. We see pharmaceutical companies that fake data to continue sell harmful medications, corrupt politicians, biased courts, and so on.

One would expect—at least I did—a major protest led by the left to remake the regime. Instead we witness a major shift to the right. (Occupy is so nebbish it barely counts). We need sociology to understand this odd move and whether it can be redirected.

Some of my colleagues will assume that know the answer. It is false consciousness they declare. First, this needs to be documented rather than pronounced. (In effect, three political scientists who tried to do so found that about 75% of Americans vote what they called “correctly,” in line with their interests and values. Second we need to understand what sustains false consciousness in the face of such overwhelming evidence. We are quick to point the finger at the media, as Norman Ornstein and Thomas Mann do in It’s Worse Than It Looks. However, in this age, the media, including the social media, are not all playing the same tune. And the question stands, why do more Americans listen to Fox than to MSNBC, to Rush Limbaugh than to NPR? And what can be done for our fellow citizens to hear whatever the true voices of reform are?

Maybe we should start modestly. The ASA open a moderated web page in which all those who seek to speak to these issues will have their say, as long as it is based on sociological data and analysis.  Or –a workshop. Or???  I am penning these lines because I sure do not see the answer, and I have not been so despondent since the end of the war in Vietnam. I hope to learn from my colleagues: what must be done? What can be done?

Amitai Etzioni served as the President of the American Sociological Association from 1994-1995.


  1. Richard R. Lau, David J. Andersen, David P. Redlawsk, “An Exploration of Correct Voting in Recent U.S. Presidential Elections,” American Journal of Political Science, 52.2 (April 2008): 395-411.

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