The “Sacred Project” of American Society

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Christian Smith’s recent book, The Sacred Project of American Sociology, is one of those incisive works destined either to be deeply controversial or to be conveniently ignored. In this book, a discussion of the nature of sociology in America, Smith argues persuasively that not only is sociology failing to fulfill its role as a social science (with all the objectivity that such a term implies), but also that sociology is “in fact animated by sacred impulses, driven by sacred commitments, and serves a sacred project.” (x) And it is in the process of “naming, describing, and considering the ramifications” of this sacred project that Smith uncovers further implications—for both the discipline and far beyond it—that are well worth considering.

In The Sacred Project of American Sociology, Smith in turn describes what a sacred project is, the content of American sociology’s particular version of it, the evidence for the existence of that project. Here is Smith’s extensive definition of what that project is:

American sociology as a collective enterprise is at heart committed to the visionary project of realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experimental, material, and bodily pleasures. (8)

This visionary project, as Smith calls it, is a “secular salvation story” (20) that constrains the possibilities of sociological research by limiting, through means both subtle and overt, what should and should not be researched and what can and cannot be said. Smith does not reject this project, exactly—in fact he claims sympathy with large portions of it. But he believes that the discipline is largely blind to the existence of its own project. As a result of this blindness, Smith fears, is that “most of American sociology has becoming [sic] disciplinarily isolated and parochial, sectarian, internally fragmented, boringly homogenous, reticently conflict-averse, philosophically ignorant, and intellectually torpid. Sociology lacks the kinds of sustained, fruitful, and intellectually meaningful clashes, struggles, and clarifications needed for a discipline such as itself to generate important scholarship and education.” (144)

Sociologists who buy into the sacred project will reject this evaluation, but it is not the place of those holding the reigns of ideologically hegemonic power to deny the existence of that power. As a graduate student in sociology and an evangelical, I have run into a number of situations similar to those that Smith presents as evidence in his book of the unconscious power of the sacred project. Department events where off-handed, derogatory remark about an out-group gets wide laughter are common (Smith offers the Tea Party as an example, but Evangelicals are just as often the occasion for mockery). These moments conjure memories of those awkward scenes in old movies where racial epithets are gently tossed to and fro amidst a general indifference to their impropriety. And no one seems to notice or (like me) doesn’t dare say anything—because we understand what the ruling ideology is.

But Smith’s point is not merely to expose; he wants the discipline to become the best version if itself. He concludes that, “In my view, social science’s greatest contribution to the societies that sustain it with resources is simply reporting back to those societies what really is going on in and among them, why and how so, and with what apparent consequences.” (185) His fear is that sociology’s blindness to its own sacred project cripples the discipline’s ability to perform this task by conflating the “is” with a predetermined “ought-to-be.” If sociologists acknowledged the underlying commitments of their discipline and dealt with them honestly, they would do a better job promoting meaningful research, exchange, and debate.

One way the failure to acknowledge that project impedes research is by excluding or alienating important communities from the work sociologists do. A Christian sociologist can often only avoid being a persona non grata only by downplaying his or religious commitments, while the gap academic between disciplines like sociology and conservative communities widens. Professors have occasionally asked me why “they” (here, Evangelicals) don’t listen to sociological findings. The answer is easy. Attentive listeners know when they aren’t equal partners in a dialogue. Or, to use Smith’s terms, unlike the sociologists themselves, the excluded groups are certainly not ignorant of sociology’s sacred project. They know they are outside the boundaries of sociology’s pre-commitments. Because the discipline is antagonistic to the creeds and concerns of excluded groups, members of those groups will feel that even rigorously supported sociological findings can be dismissed. This situation will never improve so long as sociologists deny their own underlying interests.

But they aren’t the only ones who need to have their blindness taken away. The sacred project that Smith identifies is the emerging sacred project of American society as a whole. “Realizing the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous, self-directing, individual agents (who should be) out to live their lives as they personally so desire, by constructing their own favored identities, entering and exiting relationships as they choose, and equally enjoying the gratification of experimental, material, and bodily pleasures” will sound familiar to many people who have never taken a sociology course. A pressing question for the Christian is how to exercise his or her vocation in a society dominated by this sacred project.

Cole Carnesecca

Cole Carnesecca is a Ph.D. candidate in Sociology at the University of Notre Dame.