Social Dynamics and the Transformations of Religious Texts

Butterfly cocoons in different stages of maturation.

Photo by Suzanne D. Williams on Unsplash

by Cole Segura, who is pursuing an Honors degree Computer Science, with minors in Religious Studies, and, Social Innovation and Leadership.

I started thinking about religion as a political and social instrument this fall. My course with Prof. Simmons, Honors Introduction to Religious Studies, didn’t specifically focus on this theme. The more I thought about it, the more I found this perspective particularly interesting. In fact, I chose to explore it further in my essay for Prof. Simmons’ course.

Religious traditions are far from unchanging across time. They are subject to the forces of time and cultural change. The idea that religion changes over time is one that stood out to me in a Religion for Breakfast video we were assigned:

I started thinking about how the world’s most widely practiced religious systems have evolved over millennia. These constant changes are partly owed to religious practices spreading around the world, and partly to interpretive liberties taken by those wielding power. I am interested in the deliberate changes in religious doctrine and practice introduced by political or clerical authorities for self-serving ends.

For example, consider the King James Version of the Bible, commissioned by King James I in 1604 as a strategic move to counter the rising Puritan movement. Aimed at establishing a standardized Bible for all English churches, the King James Version emphasized the “divine right of kings” to reinforce the authority of the monarchy and delegitimize any religious factions that questioned the king’s ultimate authority. By creating a ‘unified’ religious text, King James I not only aimed to unify religious practices across England but also sought to quell political unrest. The Puritans, known for their criticism of the Church of England’s practices and the monarchy’s role in religion, were seen as a divisive force. By imposing a standardized, state-sanctioned Bible, King James could mitigate this dissidence and maintain social hierarchies, effectively simplifying state control over religious institutions and practices.

Similarly, the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD wasn’t just a theological gathering. Organized under the rule of Emperor Constantine, it aimed to standardize Christian doctrine in a way that would unify the Roman Empire and align religious authority with imperial rule. Those who did not agree with the Nicene Creed were excommunicated, thus ensuring that only a version of Christianity favorable to the Empire’s political stability would survive. The Council’s decisions received state endorsement, making the Roman state a significant player in religious matters, and vice versa. This blurred the boundaries between religious and political authority, making the Council a tool for social and political cohesion. Those who believed that Jesus was a created being and not equal to God the Father in essence were labeled heretics leading to their excommunication and sometimes exile, which suppressed alternate theological views and consolidated religious thought around the Nicene Creed.

In more recent years, particularly in the American context, immediate associations often include conservative political ideology, opposition to abortion, and traditionalist moral codes. This form of politicized evangelicalism has diverged from Jesus’ teachings, essentially remolding the faith to accommodate a particular socio-political agenda. The norms regarding ‘acceptable’ Christian belief and behavior are regulated by a conservative interpretation of scripture and doctrine. These norms manifest in policies and actions that affect both individual and societal well-being, from opposition to reproductive rights to the denial of LGBTQ+ freedoms.

I began thinking about this in the context of a piece by Dr. Leslie Smith, “The Most Disgusting Picture Ever,” that discusses the constant changes in social views about body hair. Broader social norms reflect the social structures that guide our lives. Those who question these norms are sometimes ostracized. They are questioning the norms that pertain to a community which they want to be a part of and be accepted in. This, much like the blog’s illustration of the boundaries of ‘natural,’ creates an environment where only certain forms of ‘faithfulness’ or ‘morality’ are deemed acceptable.

In the attempt to analyze religious traditions over time, a variety of moves and motives have re-sculpted religious norms and doctrines. From the strategic decisions behind the King James Bible to the calculated outcomes of the Council of Nicaea, it’s evident that religion isn’t just a belief system but also a political and social instrument. Just as societal rules inform our benchmarks for beauty or appropriateness—our views on body hair, for instance—so too do they sculpt our judgments on what’s ‘acceptable’ or ‘heretical’ in the landscape of religious thought and ritual. Those who stray from these ‘acceptable’ beliefs often find themselves marginalized, just as those who defy societal norms are subjected to scrutiny. As we pull back these layers, we gain insights into not just the continuous evolution of religious practices but also the frameworks that construct and perpetuate them.