SOCIAL SCIENCE V. THEOLOGY
by Peter J. Leithart
Through the mid-19th century, American culture was dominated by a moral establishment that used the coercive authority of the state to enforce certain patterns of Christian morality. According to David Sehat (The Myth of American Religious Freedom), that establishment began to be challenged from within the universities, and “in the forefront of the new dissent were the social theorists who created a new form of knowledge built on social research and housed in universities” (185).
There was pushback from moral establishmentarians, and there were efforts to formulate a social science with liberalized Christian aspects to it. But the dissenters ultimately won:
“The new threat became most apparent as university reformers successfully pushed for an end to the teaching of moral philosophy as a capstone course in the 1870s. Their rejection of the moral philosophy capstone went hand-in-hand with the reorientation of the curriculum around the new disciplines as the German PhD became fashionable in the United States. American scholars who trained in Germany adapted their own graduate programs to the German model they observed firsthand” (187).
As a result, “by the end of the nineteenth century, many social scientists had agreed upon the future role of experts in guiding society in directions more rational, scientific, and secular. By claiming that Christianity had exhausted itself as a source of authority and that America needed a new body of knowledge to carry it into the future, sociologists built their discipline on a theory of secularization that they would effect” (197-8).
Social science replaced moral theology, and eventually worked its way into law. Sehat summarizes a Brandeis article on “The Right to Privacy” (published in 1890!), which argued that “political, social, and economic changes entail a recognition of new rights.” In advocating for a right to privacy that emerged from new social circumstances, “Brandeis gestured toward an emergent sociological jurisprudence” (203-4).
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