H. Richard Niebuhr is altogether too much the sociologist. He displays the habit of peering past theological debates to the “roots” of conflict and division in the church, roots that always turn out to be fundamentally social roots. As Milbank stressed, this sort of sociology turns “society” into an explanatory mechanism or power: Social causes can explain religious, political, cultural, psychological, or other effects. But to make such a case, we need to be able to isolate “society” from other factors, and this we can never do. Religion, politics, culture, and a host of other factors are always already there, constitutive of society rather than an effect of it.
We cannot reduce social realities to “social” causes; what we can do is narrate. Sociology must be resolved into history. And history is always theologically invested.
So, Niebuhr is too much sociologist, but he is also a keen historian, and that means that his Social Sources of Denominationalism remains the scintillating classic that it was when first published in 1929.
One can get the flavor of the scintillation from many passages, like this one: “The evils of denominationalism do not lie . . . in this differentiation of churches and sects. . . . The evil of denominationalism lies in the conditions which makes the rise of sects desirable and necessary: in the failure of the churches to transcend the social conditions which fashion them into caste-organizations, to sublimate their loyalties to standards and institutions only remotely relevant if not contrary to the Christian ideal, to resist the temptation of making their own self-preservation and extension the primary object of their endeavour” (21).
Niebuhr elaborates on several of the ways in which worldly social patterns and values have marked the American church. Churches are divided between rich and poor, along national lines, between East and West and North and South, between immigrant and native, along the color line. In each case, he insists, divisions that have nothing to do with Christianity have shaped the church its their own image.
His description of Protestantism's loss of the “disinherited” is sobering. Peasants in German, he says, took the Lutheran movement as “an appeal not to Pauline theology alone but to the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount as well” (34). It wasn't long before it became clear that political Protestantism operated on a “dual standard which bade rulers in accordance with the code of Old Testament precepts of strict reward and punishment while it required subjects to obey their political and economic masters in the spirit of a Christian and self-sacrificing meekness” (35). The Sermon on the Mount did apply, but only to the ruled not to the rulers. Niebuhr claims that the dualism of Protestant social theology was worse than the Catholic, “for the dualism of Catholic social ethics had been in favor of a spiritual, not primarily a political and economic, aristocracy” (36). Protestantism “became an established church, predominantly an aristocratic and middle-class party of vested interests and privilege” (37).
Meanwhile, the Pietist wing of Protestantism, which had a fair bid to become the “church of the disinherited,” instead “substituted for the concept of the kingdom the symbol of heaven; they had been concerned with the redemption of men from the hell beyond the grave alone and had held out little promise of salvation from the various mundane hells in which the poor suffer for other sins besides their own.” Pietists became part of the establishment, and by the time industrialization and urbanization forced social questions to the forefront, the church had a gospel with nothing to say: “the absence of this social element from the preaching of the gospel was fatal to the religion of the disinherited” (74). And so churches remained divided along class lines.
One doesn't need to accept every detail of Niebuhr's analysis to feel its considerable, sobering force.