Religious diversity & its discontents

CONGREGATIONAL CHURCHOver at ScienceBlogs I’ve put a comment up about tensions in New York City between a mosque & an establishment across the street which serves alcohol. The issues around public displays of religion, and the norms which are enforced around religious establishments, are both complex and cross-culturally general. In India riots have often occurred when a group of Muslims or Hindus march by an establishment of the other community in the course of a religious procession. Similar issues occurred in Europe during the Reformation when religious diversity was extant in many areas. Catholic festivals and parades relating to saints and relics were ripe targets for zealous Protestants to engage in disruption & violence. Apparently the same sort of clashes are now occurring in Latin America as sizable evangelical Protestant minorities challenge the Catholic domination of public space.

The relationship of Protestants and Catholics in the United States has often been fraught as well, not to mention strife between Protestant denominations themselves (in the latter case, one might read up on the oppression which Baptists and Methodists in New England complained of even into the 1800s at the hands of the Congregationalist establishment). John T. McGreevy’s Catholicism and American Freedom relates the sordid 19th century history of conflict between the majority and the minority, which often resulted in violence, as well as its 20th century ramifications. To a great extent the resolution was achieved once American Catholicism evolved into just another denomination in the American order, when American Catholic’s began to espouse beliefs and norms approaching those of Protestants (“traditionalist Catholics” resist this tendency, but they’re numerically marginal). Because Jews were so much less numerous the similar tensions never manifested. American Judaism before the emigration of Hasidic rabbis in the wake of the chaos in Europe in the mid-20th century, turned itself into another denomination, with the Reform Movement setting the tone. Unlike Catholics Jews simply did not have the numbers or political power to bargain for anything more. In fact, Reform Judaism in the 19th and early 20th century was more assimilated than it is today, having disavowed the concept of a Jewish nationality and recasting themselves explicitly as analogous to the Protestant groups which populated the American scene (see American Judaism). McGreevy describes how these Jews, Protestantized and often secular, formed an alliance after World War II with the post-Protestant WASP establishment and initiated the modern Culture Wars, with conservative Catholics, evangelical Protestants and Orthodox Jews arrayed on the other side.

These Culture Wars, which saw the emergence of the social Left and the Right as well understand them, were the culmination of a process which began during the Reformation, and built up steam during the Enlightenment. In short, the fracture of the seamless collaboration of the supernatural and the society (leading to in the case of the French Revolution and Marxist regimes the suppression of the supernatural in the society). Among the American founders it was James Madison and Thomas Jefferson who promoted a view which would have left the religious constitution of the society up to destiny, a view which wields the most influence today. Though the modern “high wall” of separation between church and state developed only over time, the American republic was still shocking to contemporaries because it disavowed adherence to any one religious confession. Certainly the British state of the time tolerated dissenters, but Anglicanism was the religion of the ruling class, of polite society. The head of the British state was the head of the Anglican Church (as remains the case today). Other nations, such as the Netherlands and parts of  Central & Europe had established a modus vivendi between sects, but these understandings were always on the terms of a dominant religious dispensation. Until the 19th century Roman Catholics in Amsterdam were forced to make due with houses of worship which were small and discreetly masked as residential homes. The Jewish presence in the Netherlands was contingent upon that population’s self-policing (ergo, the expulsion of Baruch Spinoza by the Jewish community was motivated in part by the need to disassociate the community from his heresies, which were alarming orthodox Christians).

Of course not every polity adhered exclusively to one sect. In much of East Asia pluralism was common and the elites patronized many religious orders and movements. But again, as in Europe there were particular preferences and biases of the elites. Buddhism may have been a vibrant folk religion in China, but the Confucian elites had little use for it. Rather, the sacral foundation of the Chinese Empire lay in a pre-Buddhist cosmogony which reputedly dated back to the Zhou dynasty. Even though the Chinese state was more tolerant of open variation in opinion and practice than the European Christian monarchies, it was not neutral. After the Chinese rites controversy Catholic missions to were banned. “Foreign religions” were suppressed in the 9th century (including, but not limited to, Islam, Christianity, Manichaeism and Buddhism). The pagan Roman Empire was similar to Imperial China. It was pluralist, but preferential, in its policies. Its elite united by a common canon and core values.

Though there was state support for particular churches during the colonial period, and this extended into the early 19th century in New England, it was very significant that the founders did not declare the United States a Christian nation. France before the Revolution was a Catholic nation, England an Anglican one, and the Ottoman state a Sunni Muslim entity. The Japanese state during the Tokugawa period took a Chinese line, enforcing registration with Buddhist temples by the population not because of any attachment to Buddhism, but to stamp out a religion which they wished to exclude from their domain, Catholic Christianity. There was a discussion about this peculiarity of the American republic at the time, with a minority of notables such as Patrick Henry arguing for the declaration of Christianity as the national faith (if not necessarily a Christianity). They lost that argument. Rather, the American state was explicitly neutral on matters of religion, as evident by the ban on religious tests for federal office. Implicitly and in practice this was not so, the emergence of the Roman Catholic school system was conditioned on the fact that the public school system had a sectarian Protestant aspect (e.g., the demand from teachers that Catholic children read Protestant Bibles).

But what was an Anglo-Protestant nation in fact, but not name, now faces the reality that its laws and cultural sensibility in regards to encouraging pluralism are being tested by radically increased levels religious diversity. The mainline churches which were culturally dominant until the 1950s are not even the majority among American Protestants, who themselves are only at bare majority. This may pose problems, as I agree with Winnifred Sullivan’s argument in The Impossibility of Religious Freedom that one of the ways in which the American religious injunction toward neutrality was made practicable was that religion qua religion was fundamentally shaped by a belief-centric (orthodoxy) Protestant model. Why did Roman Catholicism and Judaism not change that model? Because both of these religions in the United States were heavily “Protestantized.” The vast majority of American Jews do not adhere to the orthopraxy, a system of behaviors and actions, which defined Judaism for nearly 1,500 years. Rather, their Judaism is defined by an unadorned monotheism, a small set of rituals, holidays and taboos, and a “culture.” Similarly, American Catholics are very hard to differentiate from mainline Protestants in their beliefs & practices; the Americanist won over the long haul. In fact, they would no doubt be shocked at how Protestant American Catholics had become in their outlook. I do not believe it is a coincidence that the nation which pushed the envelope in teasing apart the traditional association between state and sect has also been the seedbed for the explosive growth of strains of Protestantism which ultimately reach back to the anti-statist Radical Reformation. One reason that the Anabaptists were driven out of most of Europe was that they rejected the central concept of a nominal universal church which was coterminous with the nation, officially if not substantively. This was a concept which went back to Constantine in the West, and which these Protestant extremists rejected as corrupting. In the United States this idea was naturally not considered subversive, as there was no official national sect which played that role as the mediator between the state and God (though again, the alarm at Catholic immigration immediately tells us that the ruling class conceived itself as culturally Protestant). To be sure, just as “magisterial” Protestantism was modified in the United States (Episcopalianism, Lutheranism), so most “radical” Protestant groups (Baptists) are not as extreme as the Amish in their renunciation of the mainstream. But the Radical Protestant idea that religious faith should be arrived at through conscious reflection and struggle, that it is a personal relationship which an individual enters into with God, has seeped deep into the presuppositions of the American populace. 20-30% of Americans change religions in their lifetimes, the American town is characterized by churches, not the church. This idea even affects religions though of as inimical to these individualist belief-centric planks such as Hinduism.

What does this have to do with “Secular Right”? It gets to why I am Right and not Left, and that is that I reject multiculturalism, whereby there some illusory equipoise between innumerable normative frameworks can be achieved. I believe that nation-states need a core common culture, a set of values, to bind them. Insofar as religious pluralism undermines that, it is problematic. There are many solutions to the problem of pluralism. One solution which was common in pre-modern Europe and the Islamic world was to separate out religious groups into their own worlds, with one group being culturally dominant and defining the parameters of operation and relation. Jews could live in a “Jewish world” in the ghetto, adhere strictly to their faith and practices within the confines of a bubble. Similarly, Christians and Jews in the Muslim world lived in their own world, under their own leaders. The major downside of this system is that it is hierarchical, and involves subjugation. Another model is the Chinese one, whereby some sects and practices are proscribed if they are viewed as subversive, but a multitude are tolerated among the masses while the elite remains characterized by a normative uniformity. This system though seems to flourish in top-down autocracies, where elite uniformity of purpose and outlook are all that is necessary for political functioning as they are the only true citizens in fact. Then there is the American model. What model is that? To be rhetorically extreme, I would name it pluralism-in-name-only. Rather, despite the specific instantiations of the religious idea, American confessionalism is united by its structural family resemblance. Catholics may have attempted pillarisation, but these attempts failed, and in failing produced Will Herberg’s trichotomy of “Protestant, Catholic, Jew”. The term “Judeo-Christian” is another fiction which nevertheless exhibits some fidelity to the reality that the Reform and Conservative movements within Judaism have engaged with and been transmuted by Protestant conceptions about the nature of religion. The values of most American Jews are not Judeo-Christian, they’re Protestant Christian. Or at least, the come from the Anglo culture where Protestantism was the religion. As for the fundamental Protestantism of American Catholicism, I’ll leave it to Father John McCloskey to attest to that.

Despite America’s official “hands-off” policy in regards to religion, in the 19th century to a great extent the Protestant elite won its kulturkampf with th Roman Catholic Church. The first Roman Catholic President of the United States was a cultural heir of the anti-Catholic Boston Brahmins (John F. Kennedy has been accused of being a secular humanist in his private beliefs by some religious conservatives, and even if the aspersion is not factual it goes to show that his specific commitment to the details of Catholicism are held to be suspect by many). And that is why I am “Right,” I think that that kulturkampf is always necessary, because it is necessary to have some common set of cultural values. Religion is a signifier of those values, if not necessarily the source of them. Adherence to a set of values at radical variance with the American Protestant consensus can, and does, occur. The Amish and Hasidic Jews of New York are cases, but these are rare exceptions. As an atheist I would have to admit that first & foremost Protestantism is the religion I am not, insofar as the honest truth is that I hold all supernatural claims with deep skepticism, but the values which are associated with American Protestantism, the values which are also associated with the American republic, are values which I find myself in rough agreement with. I do not in any ultimate sense believe that American Protestantism is more or less true than Orthodox Judaism, but a society where the majority religion, or at least the religious style, is predicated on Orthodox Judaism would not be the United States (in fact, it would be Israel, which though having a secular majority and elite recognizes only what we in the United States would term “Orthodox” as Judaism for all practical purposes). I am not worried by the trend of a non-Protestant majority if that majority is “not Protestant” in the way that American Roman Catholics and Reform Jews are “not Protestant.” That is because these two religious groups have inculcated the essence of American Protestantism (and revealingly in the process invited accusations of heresy from their co-religionists abroad). Similarly, other religious traditions can prosper as well, so long as they become Protestant in all but name.

What American can not tolerate, or at least will break the pluralist consensus, are strident orthopraxic religions which make demands on the society as a whole, and which are predicated on the whole society sharing the same specific religious outlook. So in regards to Hinduism, the specific forms and rites of Sanatana Dharma are simply far less transposable to the United States than those of Arya Samaj. It is no surprise that Arya Samaj has been termed by some “Protestant Hinduism,” and is extremely prominent in Hindu communities in Trinidad and Guyana. Similarly, Muslim adherence to religious law which presumes a Muslim milieu, a society which accepts the dominance of Muslim presuppositions, simply can not flourish in the United States without being disruptive to non-Muslims. The American boundaries in regards to appropriate usage of public space and private decorum are in sharp contrast to the values encapsulated by traditional Muslim cultures. It may be on the even of the Revolutionary War that Muslim women had greater property rights than women in the colonies, but that is not so today. American religious culture has acceded to, and some cases been a participant in, those broader changes. This does not mean that Hinduism or Islam can not be Americanized, in many ways I believe that Rabbinical Judaism resembles Islam the most of all religions, and yet in the United States other forms of Judaism are dominant. Similarly, a form of Islam which requires less marking off from the “kufar,” and implicit dominance of Muslim norms in the public space, can persist and flourish. Shared practices and values, broadly construed, is entirely compatible with starkly contradictory views on the nature of God, or the appropriate manner in which to worship God within religious establishments. As an atheist, I naturally think these views and behaviors are grounded in nothing real in any case. What is practically important are the material and social consequences of religious belief, and so long as those are not disruptive to the American polity than they should be accepted. Unlike many Leftists and libertarians I am not neutral in regards to the shape of religious belief. Nor do I celebrate the co-existence of religious traditions with radically different presuppositions of public reason and extremely strict requirements of practice upon the believer. This is not because I believe that Protestantism is any more true than Vodun, rather, an America where Vodun is dominant, and its norms framed our cultural discussion would not be the America I know. And just as I value my own identity as who I am at this moment, shaped by all my experiences over my life, I treasure the collective identity of the American republic, through all its travails and triumphs.

In sum:

1) Pluralism of religious belief can is possible, but only under particular conditions. I have made it clear which conditions I find preferable.

2) I believe that if everyone in Iran converted to Theravada Buddhism, or if everyone in Thailand converted to Shia Islam, these nations would suffer a rupture or discontinuity in identity. Iran and Thailand as we know it would cease to be. Similarly, I value America for what it has become, and would prefer that its culture be framed by de facto Protestantism.


Catholicism and American Freedom: A History
American Catholic: The Saints and Sinners Who Built America’s Most Powerful Church
Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America
The Reformation: A History
Divided by Faith: Religious Conflict and the Practice of Toleration in Early Modern Europe
A History of Christianity
American Judaism: A History
What Hath God Wrought: The Transformation of America, 1815-1848
The Great Upheaval — America and the Birth of the Modern World, 1788-1800
The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State
The Thirty Years’ War
The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200-1000
The Making of a Christian Aristocracy: Social and Religious Change in the Western Roman Empire
American Judaism: A History
The Essential Talmud
China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty
The Early Chinese Empires: Qin and Han
Emperor of China: Self-Portrait of K’ang-Hsi
A Modern History of Japan: From Tokugawa Times to the Present
Children of the Revolution: The French, 1799-1914
One True God: Historical Consequences of Monotheism

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