In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Institutions, Infrastructures, and Religious Sociality: The Difference Denominations Make in Global Christianity
  • Courtney Handman and Minna Opas


Scholars working in the anthropology of Christianity have focused in large part on the subject in Protestantism, emphasizing the ways in which the modern subject is a Christian subject (Robbins 2004, 2007; Keane 2007; Meyer 1999; Elisha 2011; O’Neill 2010). This follows a wider trend in the renewed anthropological analyses of religion, morality, and ethics that have been oriented around religious subjectivities as the primary sites of investigation (e.g., Hirschkind 2006, Mahmood 2005, Laidlaw 2013, Lambek 2010). As productive as this line of questioning has been in conceptualizing Christian subjects, it has largely come at the expense of an emphasis on the social groups in and through which Christian practice takes place. Although relatedness has been understood to contribute to the rise of individuals’ faith (e.g., Bielo 2009, Coleman 2015, Elisha 2011, Luhrmann 2004), the significance of institutionalized structures of sociality [End Page 1001] has rarely been addressed. In this collection, we ask: what is lost when the institutions and infrastructures of Christian practice are elided? In addressing this question, we pay particular attention to the denominational form, doing so in the face of long-standing theological and ethnographic traditions that have resolutely denied the importance of this institution.

Philosopher Charles Taylor (2003) argued that denominations point to differences that do not matter (that is, “denominationalism” in the etymological sense of difference “in name only”). Theologian H. Richard Niebuhr (1929) argued that denominations are uncharitable reductions of Christian universalism so that in the cases where attention is paid to denominations it is usually to note that they sediment one kind of identity category or another: Presbyterians in the United States are in higher socio-economic classes and usually white; Pentecostals are from lower socio-economic classes and may be people of color; Lutherans are ethnically or historically connected to Germany or Scandinavia, etc. And it is in terms of such racial, national, or class-based identifications that Protestants are usually sheepish about their denominational forms. Within anthropology, there is a small scattering of pieces that focus specifically on denominations or denominational schisms (Errington and Gewertz 1995, Gershon 2006, Jebens 2006, Kipp Smith 1995, Wakefield 2001, Werbner 2011, Wishlade 1965, Wright 2009). These pieces, consciously or not, echo Niebuhr in the ways that they largely emphasize denominational conflicts as the seemingly religious nodes of political, economic, or otherwise secular concerns (but see Eriksen 2012, Handman 2015, Haynes 2015, Meyer 2010). In other words, these authors follow Protestant theology and Reformation critiques of Roman Catholicism in de-sacralizing the church (see also Weber 1958, Troelsch 1931). To focus on the institutionality of the church might simply be too material—too many churches and buildings and coffers, rather than spiritual objects of contemplation.

This recognition, but simultaneous dismissal, of denominations is reflected in Christian practices. In many places, and in many different ways, Protestants often seem to fight militantly for their denominations at the same time that they admit sheepishly that such denominational differences shouldn’t exist. Denominational conflict is something for which “we and our fathers are responsible,” as one Lutheran missionary in New Guinea put it, a sin passed down that can’t seem to be overcome. Godly universalism should be the norm, and anything that is a deviation from it is to that extent a deviation from Christianity. The non-social modern [End Page 1002] subject emerges in the wake of this refusal of the groups out of which Christian lives are formed and denominations do not need to be made central concerns.

At a methodological level, one would think that such a complex set of statements would draw a lot of attention. To adapt some old advice about what to pay attention to in the field: it’s one thing to have someone tell the anthropologist that a certain institution is important; it’s another thing for the anthropologist to notice something is important while one’s interlocutor insists it isn’t; but it would seem to be an ethnographic gold mine to note the ways in which someone is both deeply attentive to a phenomenon and deeply...