BY KELLY BAKER
Sean McCloud's Divine Hierarchies: Class in American Religion and Religious Studies (UNC Press) explores the intersection of religion and the oft-ignored class in American Religious History and in religious studies as a whole. McCloud, the author of Making the Religious Fringe: Exotics, Subversives and Journalists, 1955-1993, draws upon history, ethnography, and sociology, among other fields, to make his case that scholars who work on religion in America need to take class seriously as a dynamic concept that signifies more than socioeconomic status. I began this book on a plane from San Diego to Albuquerque, and I was hooked. McCloud provides a heady dose of theory to present his nuanced definition of class. Through a variety of case studies, including eugenics (did I mention that I like this book?), McCloud provocatively inserts the issue of class into religious studies to complicate previous arguments that provide all too common representations of class within religious movements (for example, ecstatic religious movements draw their membership from the lower classes and the impoverished, which the author shows to not necessarily be the case). This fresh take on the necessity of incorporating class into our historical or ethnographic work is a worthwhile read. As I read, I could not help but analyze how my own work on whiteness and religion becomes a more complicated tangle if I have to take account for the understanding of class by my historical actors. This provocative book might prove useful to those of us, myself very much included, who perhaps pay to little attention to class.
Here's the blurb for UNC Press:
Placing the neglected issue of class back into the study and understanding of religion, Sean McCloud reconsiders the meaning of class in today's world. More than a status grounded in material conditions, says McCloud, class is also an identity rhetorically and symbolically made and unmade through representations. It entails relationships, identifications, boundaries, meanings, power, and our most ingrained habits of mind and body. He demonstrates that employing class as an analytical tool that cuts across variables such as creed, race, ethnicity, and gender can illuminate American religious life in unprecedented ways.
Through social theory, historical analysis, and ethnography, McCloud makes an interdisciplinary argument for reinserting class into the study of religion. First, he offers a new three-part conception of class for use in studying religion. He then presents a focused cultural history of religious studies by examining how social class surfaced in twentieth-century theories of religious affiliation. He concludes with historical and ethnographic case studies of religion and class. Divine Hierarchies makes a convincing case for the past and present importance of class in American religious thought, practice, and scholarship.