Science in Christian Perspective





From: JASA 17 (March 1965): 28-29.


The social conscience of the church has often been aroused to speak out in opposition to the ills of society. Though its voice has usually been clear and often strident, its hand has not always been effective or compelling in its actions. While the church continues to be stirred, perhaps its day of accomplishment in such questions is drawing to a close.

As one of the institutions of society, the church must work, eventually, through its constituent members. It may form policy concerning social problems and it may summon agencies to fulfill programs, but in the final analysis, it is the layman who is depended upon for support in his daily actions. It is at "the grass roots" level where all such programs gain the nourishment for increased strength and vitality. The question is whether the church can gain adequate support from its congregations to turn policy into effective, if not efficient action.

There is much in the literature of social science to suggest that the church, in attempting to have the layman execute its programs, is indulging in a futile experiment in the area of racial integration. A study of a small New York town reports that the policy of ecumenicalism initiated by the National Council de nominations is not supported by the local congregations. In fact, there is often sabotage of such values for the purpose of preserving local congregational differences.1 An anthropologist notes that the early administrators in Africa had commendable plans which were based upon the understanding of and respect for the natives, but that the meeting of immediate needs prevented the fulfillment of these high ideals.2 A sociologist, in his celebration of Marx, suggests that revisionism among Marxists is the result of the inability to apply the philosophical principles of Marxism to the problems of the concrete society.3 The main thesis of a classic in political science affirms that once liberal and reform elements obtain power in office, the need to maintain a bureaucratic structure causes them to become conservative and oligarchic, thus preventing the accomplishment of their original goals.4 Similarly, a study of a Canadian cooperative movement showed that when a new reform government attempted to put its program into action, an entrenched Civil Service sabotaged the plans and prevented any significant reforms from taking place.5 In each case, the drafting of resolutions and the projection of goals were easily accomplished. Nevertheless, they were not fulfilled because of the inability and reluctance of those who were finally responsible for their performance. It is with a knowledge of such failures that the church must reassess its attempts at racial integration.

Before one can obtain a clear perception of the situation, however, it is necessary to ask the currently unpopular question of whether the church has been effective in the integration movement.6 A Harvard sociologist has aggressively raised the issue and concluded that the church has not only failed in its efforts, but also that it has little chance for success under present circumstances.7 The question was particularly difficult for Pettigrew to ask since, in providing the answer, it was necessary for him to raise a finger of condemnation at his own Episcopal church. The evidence is damaging and illuminating: an Episcopal school in Georgia refuses, on racial grounds, to accept the son of Martin Luther King; an Episcopal academy in Little Rock accepted only white Episcopalians when the public schools were closed; an Episcopalian rector in Deerfield took a vacillating stand while initiating the turbulent events surrounding the now well-known efforts at integrated housing in that community. Apparently a denomination which has been most influential in its pronouncements is unable to keep its own house in order.

It is not the Episcopalians alone, however, who live in that house. The conditions preventing effectiveness are generalized and can be found on any denominational level. Pettigrew cites four major reasons for the church's failure. In attempting to resolve the institutional dilemma between organizational and idealistic goals, preference has been given to such immediate and concrete needs as members and money. The freedom and individualism, sanctioned and nourished by the church, has been fed back into efforts to create a local congregation in the image of its members, i.e. white, middle-class, suburbanites. In advocating moderation as representative of the conciliatory and mediating role of the church, a position of relativism has been cultivated resulting in ineffectiveness. Since attitudes and behavior are not always in agreement, the church, in trying to change the thinking of its congregations on the question of integration, has not always been successful in changing their behavior. The need then is to reverse the pattern and advocate direct action which will slowly erode discriminatory and prejudiced attitudes.

What Pettigrew has to say is inportant but not necessarily because of the militant posture which he assumes. The data he summons reveals a new area in which the basic social principle of the inability to convert policy into an effective program may be found. Hopefully, the elucidation of more precise social forces may be possible by a comparison of the causal factors apparent in each separate case. It is clear that Pettigrew did not have as his main goal the following of this scientific principle.

Nevertheless, the sincerity and commitment of church integrationists notwithstanding, one could seriously question whether they could be any more successful than the Marxist or the supporter of ecumenicalism. Although Pettigrew is correct in not accepting the simplistic and naive view that it is only necessary to remove apathy, it should not be readily assumed that the pattern is reversible as Pettigrew states. Certainly a greater degree of sophistication of knowledge is needed before such results are possible.

Of course, Pettigrew is committed to such a view because it is apparent to him that the involvement of the church in such social action is one of its proper functions. It could be suggested here that, given such responsibilities, the church will always revert to those bureaucratic tendencies which motivate it to resolve dilemmas in favor of "members and money."8 The needs of the individual, however, are different. It is, perhaps, on this level of the church's constituent members that attempts at integration become most viable.


1. Vidich, Arthur and Bensman, Joseph, Small Town in Mass Society, Doubleday Anchor, 1960

2. Turnbull, Colin M., The Lonely African, Doubleday Anchor, 1963

3. Mills, C. Wright, The Marxists, Dell Books, 1962
4. Michels, Robert, Political Parties, Dover Publications, 190

5. Lipset, Seymour M., Agrarian Socialism, University of California Press, 1950

6. It should be noted here that such a statement does not raise the question for the individual Christian.

7. The major references here will be based on Thomas Petitgrew "Wherein the Church Has Failed in Race," Religious Education, Jan .-Feb. 1964, Vol. LIX. See also E. Campbell and T. Pettigrew, Christians in Racial Crisis: A Study of the Little Rock Ministry, Public Affairs Press, 1959 and E. Campbell and T. Pettigrew, "Racial Crisis and Moral Dilemma: A role Analysts of Little Rock Ministers", American Journal of Sociology, 1959, Vol. 64.

8. This "iron law of oligarchy", to which Michels refers in his Political Parties, would seem to hold today, even In rellgious organizations as has been shown in other studies.