John Frum and Jesus

February 15th will be John Frum day, a high holiday in one of the South Pacific’s cargo cults. In this cargo cult, adherents wait for the return of a religious figure named John Frum, an American, who will bring prosperity and wealth to those who follow him. (It appears that his name comes from a service man saying he was “John, from (some state or city).”
My first reaction to reading about it was to feel sorry for the adherents… here they are waiting for a divine being to return in glory after having visited them in person, but, at least my perspective, their beliefs have no basis in objective reality, and, if so, they are rather misguided.
My second reaction was to notice the similarities between cargo cults and Christianity. (Not necessarily a prosperity gospel, though one could make that parallel too). I profess to follow someone who came to world in rather humble circumstances, has promised to return, and, in the meantime, we should follow him. This is no more far-fetched than the cargo cults. Furthermore, their faith is, presumably, as real to them as mine is to me.

Mr. Baltzell’s Neighborhood: The Rise of Word “Mainline” and the Decline of Mainline Denominations

By John Schmalzbauer, Missouri State University

Since last September, Sojourners has explored the meaning of “evangelical.” Such conversations have supplemented more academic analyses by political scientists and sociologists.

After spending so much time on evangelicalism, it’s only fair to ask about American Protestantism’s other major tradition, the Protestant mainline.

In the judgment of Martin Marty, the term “mainline was and is used mainly by enemies of the mainline.” Unlike evangelical, it is a relatively recent word. Often used to designate moderate-to-liberal Protestants, its history is shrouded in mystery.

Just where did the expression “mainline Protestant” originate? In a fascinating paper delivered at the 2008 American Society of Church History meetings, Elesha Coffman traced the genealogy of the mainline moniker. Her investigations led her to the main-line suburbs of Philadelphia, where the Pennsylvania Railroad connected wealthy elites to Philly’s urban core. This is the neighborhood explored by patrician sociologist E. Digby Baltzell in The Protestant Establishment and Philadelphia Gentlemen.

When Coffman delivered her paper, Google Culturomics was just a glimmer in the eyes of its Mountain View, California creators. Four years later, it is now possible to trace the use of term over the past couple centuries.  As this graph shows, [Read more...]

Whatever happened to military sociology?

There’s a graduate student I know who has a significant interest in what’s called military sociology. Never having studied it, I can’t comment a great deal on what its boundaries are. I just know that it’s not exactly a thriving sub-discipline within American sociology. That’s a little strange, given that we’ve fought two wars that have spanned the past decade and Iraq and Afghanistan are never out of the news. So far as I can tell, military sociology would be located within the ASA section on Peace, War, and Conflict—also not a large section (I suspect—I’m not sure).

Charles Moskos was considered the finest military sociologist of his era, although he’s probably only known broadly for coining the term (and the now-defunct doctrine of) DADT: don’t ask, don’t tell. Apparently he was a fan of restoring the draft, which he believed would fashion a sense of common purpose among diverse groups, as compulsory military service appears to do in Israel. I suspect it’s not been considered closely because it’s not been necessary, and because a very large standing army is too expensive to maintain. And if your odds of being drafted are relatively poor, the “shared sense of purpose” becomes shared rather narrowly, thus probably defeating the point.

A veteran himself, Moskos traveled to numerous areas of conflict for research purposes. I know there have been professional anthropologists who’ve been embedded, at different times, with the US Army in Afghanistan. But I’m not aware of any sociologists who’ve done the same. (Again, I could very well be wrong—it’s rather difficult to keep track of an entire discipline, especially one you’re not a member of.)  A 2009 New York Times article suggests the embedding business wasn’t too popular with the AAA, the American Anthropological Association. A report investigating the Pentagon’s Human Terrain System [Read more...]

Finding God Through Evolution

Did you know that two people independently arrived at the basic assumptions of evolution? Charles Darwin, of course, but also Alfred Russel Wallace. As told in one of my favorite books, The Discoverers by former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstein, Darwin started writing about his theory in the 1840s. But… being meticulous, Darwin spent over a decade preparing his work for publication, showing it to few others. During this time, Wallace figured out much the same ideas on his own. In 1858 he sent his essay on the topic to Darwin, which prompted Darwin to publish his work at the same time as Wallace.

Here’s an interesting aspect of the story regarding religion. While Darwin turned from religion in light of his views on of evolution, Wallace turned toward it. According to Boorstein (p.472), Walace “needed a God to explain what he saw in nature.”

To be clear, Wallace wasn’t a Christian (I don’t think so, anyway), but his need to posit a creator in view of nature is a nice counterbalance to Darwin’s need to posit no creator based on the same evidence. Wallace’s views illustrate that the possibility that the theory of evolution (as is much of science) is religiously-neutral. That is, it is neither inherently opposed to or in support of religious belief.

The Superbowl as an American Holiday

By Jeremy Rhodes

The most American of holidays is upon us once again. No, I’m not confusing February with July or November (though I could go for a good Honey-Baked Ham right now). I’m talking, of course, about the Super Bowl. This weekend, millions of Americans will gather around their enormous televisions and equally-enormous bowls of queso to watch the New York football Giants take on the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI (the one time each year when I have to remember how to read Roman numerals). Storylines abound. Will Tom Brady win his 4th ring, extending the Patriots’ reputation as a true sports dynasty? Will little brother Eli eclipse the greatness of his big brother Payton? Will New England enact brutal revenge on the Giants for their bitter loss to them back in Super Bowl XLII? As a sports fan, I’m interested in all of these storylines.

As a sociologist, my thoughts are elsewhere. I’m currently teaching an undergraduate course in the sociology of sports for the first time. It’s been a fun course to teach. Few cultural institutions can shed as much light on American values as the institution of sport. [Read more...]


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