Reflective Pluralism

Book cover
America and the Challenges of Religious Diversityby Robert Wuthnow

Princeton Univ. Press. 370p $29.95


Has the pluribus in the vaunted boast begun to submerge, even eradicate, the unum? America has become, Robert Wuthnow, the director of Princeton University’s Center for the Study of American Religion, argues in this new book, a more religiously diverse nation. Buddhist and Hindu temples and Moslem mosques vie for space on street corners previously anchoring Christian sites. Although 80 percent of Americans still identify themselves as Christians, the old tripartite division of the 1950’s made famous by Will Herberg’s culture-shaping tome, Protestant-Catholic-Jew, no longer well describes the religious map. Even in its own era, Herberg’s atlas gave short-shrift to the Orthodox (who outnumbered Jews demographically, yet did not merit cultural inclusion) and assumed a kind of congruence between Judaism and Christianity that ignores their enormous differences.

By the best estimates, there are some 1.3 million Hindus now living in the United States, around two million Muslims and anywhere from 2.5 million to four million Buddhists. Add to these Native American religions, New Age groupings and eclectic spiritual movements of Gnostics or witches, and the size and variety of religious diversity swell. How do we deal with this new diversity, especially since so many Americans (50 percent in Wuthnow’s sample) seem to think of their country as somehow a “Christian” nation, even if constitutionally it can never be such? We are a society of schizophrenics. In our public discourse we embrace religious liberty and casual tolerance. We claim respect for adherents of religious traditions different from our own. Yet we continue to speak, Wuthnow’s data show, as if our nation is (or should be) a Christian nation, founded on Christian principles and characterized by public references to them. We are still far from any kind of truly reflective pluralism. Religious diversity confronts us with both a cultural and a theological task.

The cultural challenges of this new diversity—Wuthnow’s respondents tell him—include premonitions that it presents new threats to democracy. Many Christians fear that outsider religions, stemming from nondemocratic lands, will not adhere to our received democratic traditions. High percentages (over a fifth to a fourth) label Muslims, Buddhists and Hindus as fanatical, violent, backward or strange. A large minority say they would not welcome these groups becoming a stronger presence in the United States. Too many (from 20 percent to 40 percent of the national sample) claim they favor making it harder for Muslims, Hindus or Buddhists to meet in the United States or want the government to monitor them closely. Some respondents fear that new questions about religious dress, buildings, customs, health standards and religious holidays will simply overwhelm our legal system. Conversely, many Buddhists, Muslims and Hindus wonder if the promised democracy and religious freedom will be denied to them. They claim in large numbers that they do not get the respect and understanding they desire. Some 76 percent of American Muslims report forms of discrimination at work.

A second cultural challenge is how to maintain equity, fairness and decency across an even larger religious swath. That said, most legal experts maintain that we already have in hand the necessary legal principles to adjudicate our increasing religious diversity. Finally, many conjure a frayed moral order in America as it becomes less Christian.

For their part, most American Christians have had at best, Wuthnow’s data show, minimal and superficial contacts with non-Christian Americans. The few congregations that offer courses on non-Christian religions or have interreligious contacts keep encounters superficial and largely ceremonial. Almost all members of the clergy are at a loss to advise spouses (even to the modest point of recommending something coherent to read) in the increasingly growing number of interreligious marriages. Couples in such marriages are forced to negotiate, by themselves, their own blended religious spiritualities. Instead of any truly coherent theological account of the non-Christian religions, American Christians tend to think of non-Christian religions as some kind of ethnic custom, let individuals make their own choices about interreligious contact and emphasize the exotic qualities of other religions. The preferred strategies of the Christians, Wuthnow’s survey data show, for dealing with non-Christian religions in their midst involve avoidance, some denial of the extent of the diversity or living in separate enclaves. They privilege practice over belief or, in a pregnant phrase, prefer “getting along” to truly “getting acquainted.” In the end, most Christians allow our civic cultural values (individualism, compromise, the separation of the public sphere from privatized religious practices) to adjudicate the new diversity. These strategies, however, run the long-term risk that Christianity itself will come to be seen, increasingly, as simply one cultural tradition among many.

Wuthnow contrasts three kinds of American Christians and their attitudes toward religious diversity: spiritual shoppers (roughly 31 percent of the national sample); inclusive Christians (23 percent of the public); exclusive Christians (34 percent of respondents). The categories derive from answers to a host of questions concerning the truth about God to be found in religions other than Christianity; the possibility of revelation in books other than the Bible; whether Christians believe pretty much the same as Buddhists, Moslems, Hindus, Jews; and the normative role of Jesus for salvation. It turns out that differing beliefs about these questions have close correlations with attitudes toward religious diversity as such, toward immigrants, toward the rights of non-Christian religious adherents and about what kind of society America is or should be (How Christian? How secular? How reflectively pluralistic?). None of the actual, if implicit, scripts about religious diversity in these three groups show much coherence, either as a cultural strategy or a theological stance. Each lacks a consistent theory and practice for religious diversity.

We are more diverse but not necessarily more pluralistic. Nor is mere tolerance the same as a reflective pluralism. Genuine pluralism entails how we think about diversity, how we respond to it and whether we embrace it, ignore it or merely cope with it. Religious and cultural pluralism is never easy to negotiate. Wuthnow contends that older strategies of dealing with religious diversity (in the end, all religions are basically the same; non-Christian religions are degenerate idol worship; conversion is the preferred route to reduce diversity; religion is simply a matter of individual preferences and taste; treat diversity only pragmatically and in secular interactions) will not do.

This is a supple, nuanced and thoughtful book, among Wuthnow’s best. Its greatest merit is to challenge us to greater reflectivity and mindfulness about the cultural and religious significance of genuine religious diversity.

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