Christian Smith, The Sacred Project of American Sociology. New York: Oxford University Press, 2014.
The Left’s seizure of the academy has been manifest for some time. Christian Smith’s The Sacred Project is a case study of this phenomenon in a discipline where the Left’s grip is near total, analyzed from the perspective of his specialty — the sociology of religion.
Smith, a professor at the University of Notre Dame, believes academic sociology had an auspicious beginning as a scientific, secular, and naturalistic enterprise. Over time, however, it lost much of its scholarly objectivity. Today, “American sociology is, rightly understood, actually a profoundly sacred project” (X). The author uses the term sacred in the Durkheimian sense of something holy, revered, and beyond question.
To my mind the sacred project that Smith describes in Chapter 1 bears a striking similarity to the cultural Marxist or Social Justice ideologies, though he does not use those terms. This sacred project (thenceforth, the Project) is a spiritual quest, a secular religion that seeks to end human inequality, human hierarchies, and constraints on humans by other humans, and even by nature. Such utopian and unobtainable goals have in the past, and will in the future, lead to frustration and fanaticism.
Political ideologies can, at times, be nebulous concepts, and some dislike using the Left-Right axis. But that model is useful here for contrast. The authentic Right believes that it is noble to be bound by duty and loyalty to one’s family, community, and ethny. Rather than equality they celebrate excellence — strength, beauty, and intelligence. Inequality and hierarchy are intrinsic to the human condition, and constraint upon individuals and groups is often a positive necessity. And while the Right, if in power, would seek to end injustice, exploitation, and poverty these efforts would not be global, but focused on their own ethnic communities.
In contrast, The Project is ultimately self-centered individualism. It seeks “the emancipation, equality, and moral affirmation of all human beings as autonomous self-directing individual agents . . . [who should] live their lives as they personally so desire by constructing their own favored identities, entering and existing relationships as them choose . . .” (7-8). Though he concedes that “the Marxist tradition” adds a “revolutionary and socially utopian edge,” and “a therapeutic outlook . . . received from the Freudian tradition,” has influenced it, Smith believes the Project is, at its core, simply Western individualism within the larger Enlightenment tradition (9). This is certainly one perspective, the Project as liberalism taken to its illogical extreme. I disagree with this assessment, and the author returns to the Project’s origins in Chapter four, so more on this later.
The author is certainly not on the dissident Right, and though he does seem to hold some traditional social views he claims he is not even a conservative. I would perhaps place him as a Christian centrist on the ideological spectrum. While highly critical of the Project, he has mixed feelings about its goals. He probably faults their means more than their ends. The Project’s current agenda is simply a bridge too far. But worse, it has hijacked sociology, “the queen of the social sciences,” to serve as its vehicle, compromising the discipline’s scientific impartiality and scholarly integrity in the process.
Smith characterizes the Project as “transformational,” “radical,” even “revolutionary,” not remedial or reformist. This seems to contradict his above assertion that it is rooted in an earlier tradition. The Project is elitist because, “in the end most ordinary people cannot be trusted (because they do not ‘get it’)” (13).
One of a Project’s goals is the redefinition of the family. Half measures, such as civil unions for homosexual couples, are unacceptable. Only same-sex marriage can “ensure the kind of social and moral approval, validation, appreciation, and approbation that people are believed to need to feel good about themselves” (14). The Project believes that inherited and ascribed identities such as race and sex can be reconstructed if so desired. Thus Rachel Dolezal can become a Black activist, and Elizabeth Warren a Cherokee princess – well, at least for a while. This one remains an aspirational goal.
How hegemonic is the Project within academic sociology? Smith estimates between 30 to 40 percent of sociologists are hardcore true believers. Another 50 to 60 percent are adherents, but less zealous. That leaves, at most, 20 percent who might not be on board, but go along to get along.
In Chapter two, by far the longest chapter, Smith presents his evidence of the Project’s takeover of sociology. He starts by examining the titles displayed at the book exhibit during a recent American Sociology Association (ASA) annual conference. These included: The Price of Paradise: The Cost of Inequality and a Vision for a More Equitable America; Breaking Women: Gender, Race and the New Politics of Imprisonment; The Hip-Hop Generation Fights Back: Youth Activism and Post-Civil Rights Politics; and Punished: Policing the Lives of Black and Latino Boys (32). Many of the books explicitly supported the Project; none explicitly opposed it.
Next the author looks at the books reviewed in a recent issue of Contemporary Sociology, an official periodical of the ASA. Only a limited number of books are selected for review, so the ASA considers these works particularly important. The titles included: Equality with a Vengeance: Men’s Rights Groups, Battered Women, and the Antifeminist Backlash; and Creating a New Racial Oder: How Immigration, Multiracialism, Genomics, and the Young Can Remake Race in America (38).
The Project’s reach extends to journal articles as well as books and book reviews. Smith notes that while journal articles may appear to be “more scientific” than the sociological monographs mentioned above, many of these articles also have a bias. The author looks at some recent pieces from the American Sociology Review (ASR). Like Contemporary Sociology, ASR is an official publication of the ASA, and “is commonly regarded as American sociology’s best journal” (47). One area of research is an effort to discredit work, such as by Robert Putman, that points to a “loss of social capital,” and increasing social isolation in America. This is often done by claiming research errors, sloppy data collection, etc. Another area for damage control focuses on worries about “the breakdown of stable nuclear families” and “the loss of a shared cultural language of community and responsibility” (48). Because such concerns are associated with conservatives, and because the Project “is implicated in the sociocultural changes that can be criticized for being socially destructive” it needs to be shown that “all of the sociocultural changes since the 1960s, that critics have associated with the decline of social capital, connectivity, and community are not, in fact, really problems at all” (49).
Next, Smith notes that the Project involves not just “scholarship,” but also activism. “The ASA has organized a number of ‘activist’ conference programs for its national meetings” to promote social change and inclusion while fighting oppression and inequality (60). “[T]he ASA is explicit that American sociology is not only about conducting and sharing scientific scholarship, but also promoting social-change activism” (62).
Another category of evidence is sociology textbooks. Introduction to Sociology courses are often part of a required core curriculum for undergrad college students. So each semester thousands of impressionable 18- to 21-year-olds take these courses. I can remember little about my “Intro to Soc” taken many years ago, but today these courses sound akin to cultural Marxist indoctrination classes. According to Smith the typical undergraduate sociology course: “disabuses [students of] their common-sense view of freedom and responsibility . . . ‘empowers’ students to set out with others to change society . . . and causes students to doubt the value of their own cultural ways of life, thus paving the way for a tolerant multiculturalism” (73). The chapter on “Sex and Sexuality” in one widely used textbook includes topics such as “homophobia, queer theory, hooking up (which has advantages and disadvantages)” as well as extramarital sex (i.e., adultery) (84).
Leaving textbooks, Smith has a section of evidence he terms “revealing anecdotes.” Here he writes that tenure can depend on a candidate having the “correct perspective” on social and political issues. It should be mentioned that obtaining tenure is usually the last hurdle in achieving a full-time academic position. First a student must be admitted to a doctoral program, complete a dissertation under the direction of a tenured faculty member, and be hired for a tenure-track position. Each of these steps acts as a filter preventing dissident academics from moving forward. It is a closed system with little or no outside accountability. And over the years this has led to Leftist hegemony in the liberal arts and social sciences.
One result of this groupthink is falsified research that takes years to uncover and decades to refute. An egregious example is Lenore Weitzman’s study on the economic consequences of divorce. Weitzman, a radical Jewish feminist, published a study that reported a 73 percent decline in women’s standard of living after a divorce while men’s standard of living increased by 42 percent. “Her study won the ASA 1986 Book Award for ‘Distinguish Contribution to Scholarship.’ It was reviewed in at least 22 social science journals and 11 law reviews. Weitzman’s findings were cited in more than 170 newspapers and magazine articles, 348 social science articles, 250 law review articles, 24 state court cases, and one US Supreme Court decision” (100).
At least one sociologist, Richard Peterson, remained highly skeptical of Weitzman’s findings and wanted to review her data which she refused to make available. After nearly 10 years of stonewalling “the National Science Foundation, which had funded Weitzman’s research, finally threatened to list her as ineligible for future research funding if she did not release her dataset to Peterson – so she did” (98). What Peterson found was a mess of ‘inaccuracies,” “inconsistencies,” and a large amount of missing data. He replicated the study as best he could and found only a 27 percent decrease in standard of living for women and only a 10 percent increase for men. Meanwhile, another larger, better designed study found that both women and men suffered economic decline after a divorce.
Smith points out that this research on divorce was not merely an academic debate. It had real-world consequences. Weitzman’s findings were used by courts and legislatures to rewrite divorce laws, and men suffered real financial losses as a result. “In the end, the admitted huge errors in her research – which helped shape major legal and cultural changes on divorce, including some that profoundly affected divorced men – have not hurt Weitzman’s career. She is currently the Clarence J. Robinson Professor of Sociology and Law at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia” (101). And here the final kicker, nearly twenty years after they were discredited, “Weitzman’s erroneous findings continue to be cited today in the best-selling Introduction to Sociology textbook on the market” (104).
The Weitzman scandal is a stark example of confirmation bias, and the double standard used to evaluate social science research. Often if the research reaches correct conclusions—i.e., if it supports the Project’s agenda, such as Weitzman’s startling report regarding divorce, it is accepted at face value. On the other hand, if research findings are at variance with the Project there are inevitably serious flaws in the study’s design and analysis. No amount of evidence is efficient to establish a conclusion. Such scholarship can be dismissed (in that favorite Leftist term) as pseudo-science. This laudatory praise versus over-the-top criticism is an effective method for guiding future research.
In Chapter Three Smith shows how closely the practices of academic sociologists resemble those of a priesthood of the spiritual enlightened. First, there is the requirement of “a long apprenticeship of demanding training in graduate school to learn the right ways of seeing the ultimate truth about reality [and to] learn to transcend ordinary understanding of lay men and women” (115). Once one has obtained priesthood there is the need to “recruit new convert neophytes to the sacred project from among the most promising young students, identifying those who are truly called” (116). Finally, the chosen must be “alert and ever vigilant against false sheep, heretics, and traitors within the fold who threaten to betray the project.” (118).
 Taken from the French Jewish sociologist Emile Durkheim, The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (1912).
 I agree with the dissident Canadian scholar Ricardo Duchesne that we should not blame the Enlightenment for cultural Marxism. See: Gregoire Canlorbe, “A Conservation with Ricardo Duchesne,” The Occidental Quarterly, 19 no. 2 (Summer 2019) 32-35.
 In a footnote on page nine Smith approvingly quotes Gordon Marshall: “Sociology is sometimes seen (at least by sociologists) as a queen of the social sciences, bring together and extending the knowledge and insights of all the (conceptually more restricted) adjacent disciplines.”
 Lenore Weitzman, The Divorce Revolution: The Unexpected Social and Economic Consequences for Women and Children in America (New York: The Free Press, 1985).