The cultural capital of American evangelicalism

Robert Wuthnow

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter

2 Scopus citations


THE FOCUS of this chapter is evangelical Protestantism as religion, which I consider through the lens of cultural capital. This is not the language that evangelical Protestants themselves would use. Nor is it a concept that lends itself readily to the study of evangelical Protestantism without some clarification. Among sociologists of culture, whose view of culture has necessarily been broadened enough to include all kinds of beliefs and values, the concept of cultural capital has been a convenient way of focusing on the high-status culture that still matters most to academics. In operational terms, cultural capital means graduating from college, gaining an advanced degree, reading books, going to art galleries and the opera, and having fine taste in consumption of art and music. Cultural capital, then, is simply haute couture. It consists of skills, talents, and experiences that get people into the higher echelons of society-into the right universities, professions, and clubs. There is little room for ordinary people in the study of cultural capital except insofar as they mimic elite culture in such small ways as buying books for their children or enrolling them in ballet classes. Among secular scholars, evangelical Protestants are more likely to be considered the benighted heirs of snake handlers and faith healers. The reason for focusing here on cultural capital is precisely that it is odd for academics to think that evangelical Protestants even have any. To move in the direction of making this a credible argument, we need to remember two important qualifications that have been made to the concept of cultural capital in recent years. The first is that Pierre Bourdieu's rarified emphasis on aesthetic taste has had to be broadened even in studying elites (1984). As Michele Lamont's work has shown, money and especially morality are important markers of status as well as taste (1992). The other is that cultural capital is context specific. Especially in pluralistic societies like the United States, people living in different racial, ethnic, and regional subcultures have their own forms of cultural capital and their own standards of performance in relation to these status rankings. Black workers who pride themselves on being more honest than their white counterparts (Lamont 2000), and Latino immigrants with loyalties to la raza, are examples. Evangelical Protestants have cultural capital as well that serve as symbols of status within their own subculture. In addition, and an important part of my argument, evangelical Protestants' cultural capital includes characteristics that help them pursue-and, indeed, attain-their aims in the wider society. In this respect, cultural capital is less about status and more about identity. Evangelical culture currently gives evangelicals a unifying identity, engages them in common practices, helps them attract resources, and mobilizes them to be involved in the wider society. The cultural capital of evangelical Protestants, though, is not only about identity. They have found ways of being who they are-of being faithful members of their churches and adhering to what they regard as authentic Christian beliefs-and to get along without much difficulty in the same largely secular society as everyone else. They do this by subtly adapting their distinctive beliefs to the pluralistic context in which they live, both to make these beliefs more attractive to potential recruits and to make them less offensive to adherents of other religions or of no religion. Believing in Jesus as a divine savior, having had a born-again experience, and regarding the Bible as the literal word of God are thus not nearly as strange in the real world as academics sometimes imagine them to be. At the same time, there is a pecking order among evangelical Protestants, just as there is among bearers of other kinds of cultural capital. Knowing the Bible well and being active in one's church, for example, are ways of earning prestige among fellow evangelical Protestants. And that prestige has been shown to translate into greater self-confidence and, in some instances, greater capacity to do well academically and professionally (Mooney 2005; Lindsay 2007). Money, power, and organizational resources are impressive elements in contemporary evangelical Protestantism (see, for example, Lindsay 2007; Wuthnow and Lindsay 2006). However, evangelical Protestantism cannot be understood by looking only at organizations and money. This approach misses the cultural elements that propel the success of evangelical Protestantism in American society. The cultural capital of evangelical Protestantism lies in its teachings and practices, its worship, and its spiritual experiences-in short, in what makes it religion. Each aspect of evangelical Protestantism has adapted to American culture in ways that retain evangelicalism's distinct identity and yet permit its adherents to engage actively in nearly all realms of cultural life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationEvangelicals and Democracy in America
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages17
ISBN (Print)9780871540119
StatePublished - 2011

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Social Sciences


Dive into the research topics of 'The cultural capital of American evangelicalism'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this