A New Reli­gious Amer­ica — How a “Chris­t­ian Coun­try” Has Become the World’s Most Reli­giously Diverse Nation

A New Reli­gious Amer­ica — How a “Chris­t­ian Coun­try” Has Become the World’s Most Reli­giously Diverse Nation by Diana L. Eck - Under­stand­ing America’s reli­gious land­scape is the most impor­tant chal­lenge fac­ing us today…the change since the 1960’s has been dra­matic and Mus­lims now out­num­ber Epis­co­palians, Jews or Pres­by­te­ri­ans.…The Plu­ral­ism Project Eck directs at Har­vard Uni­ver­sity is inves­ti­gat­ing reli­gion in Amer­ica, what the changes mean and “the chal­lenge of cre­at­ing a cohe­sive soci­ety out of all this diver­sity.” 
In the United States, the cli­mate of tol­er­ance and the engage­ment of plu­ral­ism emerge not from an author­i­tar­ian cen­tral regime, but from a demo­c­ra­tic exper­i­ment as an immi­grant nation, a nation in which, at our best, we are moti­vated by ideals and prin­ci­ples” says Eck.
The con­se­quences for com­mu­nity life and pub­lic pol­icy are enor­mous. (this is the full text)

Religion and the Constitution: The Triumph of Practical Politics

by Martin E. Marty, Religion-Online.org,The Christian Century March 23-30, l994

Excerpt

“It is one of the striking facts of American history that the American Revolution was led by men who were not very religious,” wrote Gordon Wood in New York History. “At the best the Founding Fathers only passively believed in organized Christianity and at worst they scorned and ridiculed it.” … assess the religious and metaphysical foundations and contentions of their thought. God comes up often, but almost never in biblical terms; “God,” we remember, was generic for deists and theists, philosophers and believers alike…… While practical politics was the preoccupation of these debaters, they were debating what was deepest in the people’s minds and hearts. … that language does not advance the case for seeing America as a Christian country. .

The founders were aware of what James Madison called “various and irreconcilable . : . doctrines of Religion” and they were occasionally alert to world religions…

One of the most serious issues in constitutional discourse was the virtue of the people, since constitutional law would be effective only if citizens respected it…

…  the founders’ practical politics displaced and left little room for sustained discussion of the metaphysical, metaethical and theological backdrop to constitutionalism. The debates occurred at a time when there was enough Enlightenment talk about “Nature’s God” to compromise evangelical talk about the God of the Bible in the affairs of the United States. When one contrasts outcomes in the United States with those in Europe, one is tempted .

The evangelicalization of American culture, then, did not derive from the constitutional period but from the times that followed, times of revivalism and immigration…The language of the constitutional debates was, like that of the Almighty, in Madison’s view, “rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.”…

Full text

“It is one of the striking facts of American history that the American Revolution was led by men who were not very religious,” wrote Gordon Wood in New York History. “At the best the Founding Fathers only passively believed in organized Christianity and at worst they scorned and ridiculed it.” When asked why the Constitution did not mention God, Alexander Hamilton is said to have answered, “We forgot.”

As a major interpreter of our country’s founding, Wood reflects the influence of his teacher Bernard Bailyn, who in two important new volumes provides the best general access to the period in which the Founding Fathers — yes, they were all men — debated their Constitution of 1787 and sold themselves, each other and the public on its ratification. This generous sampling of the argument helps contemporary readers assess the religious and metaphysical foundations and contentions of their thought.

Northwestern University law professor Stephen Presser has said that “at first blush, it would appear that none but the truly weird would find these two new volumes … compulsive late-night page-turners.” But I joined him in the company of the weird by marking all the references that could be construed as religious. I began at the outer limits with what I call the “sacral penumbra” of nondescript and rather noncommittal incidental references. (These do not include the more frequent and clear references in the sustained arguments discussed later in this essay.) My marker found three favorites: at least 30 “Heavens,” as in “merciful Heaven,” and 15 or 20 “blessings of heaven”; there were 15 usually casual “sacreds,” as in “sacred liberties.” God comes up often, but almost never in biblical terms; “God,” we remember, was generic for deists and theists, philosophers and believers alike. In one instance in this collection, one John Smilie quotes the Declaration of Independence on the Creator. Beyond that, in these two lengthy volumes there are about 20 references to God, while the Almighty and the Creator make single cameo appearances. We read at least seven times of Providence; the Supremes are here four times, as in Supreme Being and Supreme Ruler of the Universe; Lord, as in “O Lord!” or “the Year of Our Lord,” turns up six times, and there is a Sovereign Ruler of Events, one Grace, two Governors (of the World and the Universe),two Nature’s Gods, and, for good measure, one Goddess of Liberty. Whether the general absence of the biblical God is intentional or reflects the habits of the Enlightenment, it is significant.

On one occasion, vox populi is identified with vox dei, a questionable theological concept, to be sure. Once, people are called “the sole governours (under God),” and I spotted another “under God” in connection with George Washington. Writers also refer to “the immutable laws of God and ” reason,” and “the laws of nature and nature’s God.” The citation of the Bible as authority is extremely rare. Once Benjamin Rush deals abstractly with “reason and revelation,” and John Dickinson cites Holy Scriptures on perfect liberty and speaks of “the inspired Apostle Saint Paul.” The latter is one of the most charged references in the two volumes; Dickinson uses I Corinthians 12 on the body of Christ as an analogy for “the benefits of union” in the republic. As for human nature, only once do. I recall spotting the word “sin.” Calvin’s God was far back in the wings in this Enlightenment-era discourse.

For a people putatively schooled in scripture, these arguers use relatively few biblical allusions. I counted three references to Moses. In Noah Webster’s citation, Moses gets paired with Fohi and Confucius, Zamolxis and Odin and other “fabled demi-gods of antiquty” In another citation Moses joins Montesquieu as a representative genius. There are other casual allusions to the Bible, but they are slight and quickly dropped.

Terribly slim pickings, these. While practical politics was the preoccupation of these debaters, they were debating what was deepest in the people’s minds and hearts. Consequently, it seems strange that I found only one reference to Christology or Christian salvation: the “blood of the Redeemer.” “John Humble,” speaking for “the low born,” at one point makes fun of “the perfection of this evangelical constitution” and its claimed place “in the salvation of America,” but that language does not advance the case for seeing America as a Christian country. One would hardly know from these collected documents that Americans were churchgoers; I caught them at church in only one casual allusion. Denominations are rarely mentioned, though Quakers are visible, chiefly as pacifists. Pelatiah Webster of Philadelphia defends “Quakers, Mennonists, Moravians, and several other sects scrupulous against war” from charges that they are “enemies to liberty and the rights of mankind.

“The clergy are almost invisible; once there is a minister of the gospel; once, some are “reverend”; and clergy march in place in a Maryland ratification parade. Did I overlook more than the one reference I found to “pastor,” and the one to “theologian,” as in “the close reasoning of the theologian,” in lawyer Simeon Baldwin’s speech?

Are the American people chosen? James Winthrop thought so, but that is about it (1:764). Unless my snooping eye missed some references, Americans were Christians. only once in 2,387 pages — in Baldwin’s oration at New Haven on July 4, where hearers were asked “to discharge our duty to our God, our country and ourselves, like true patriots and benevolent Christians.” Historian David Ramsay wrote to South Carolinians to “consider the-people of all the thirteen states, as a band of brethren, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, inhabiting one undivided country, and designed by heaven to be one people,” but the religion is unspecified. As for devotion, there is a reference to one’s “prayer to God,” but we 20th-century folk hear more such talk in a single presidential inaugural address.

The established religion of England gets mentioned ten or 20 times, in every case negatively, though George Mason once neutrally quotes the Book of Common Prayer. The founders allude to creeds once or twice but do not quote them from church history; Athanasius appears once, and we read of heretics. There is little anti-Catholicism in these almost entirely non-Catholic writings. Remember, these folks are arguing for ratification and are not eager to make religious enemies.

The founders were aware of what James Madison called “various and irreconcilable . : . doctrines of Religion” (1:746), and they were occasionally alert to world religions. This was especially true of Noah Webster, who states that the Alcoran of the Muslims is not likely to become the American “rule of faith and practice.” There is an awareness of old Roman augury and priesthood, back when legislators “derived much of their power from the influence,of religion, or from that implicit belief which an ignorant and,superstitious people entertain of the gods, and their interposition in every transaction of life.” But in modern North America such behavior would be incredible and impossible (1:154-56).

One of the most serious issues in constitutional discourse was the virtue of the people, since constitutional law would be effective only if citizens respected it. Pelatiah Webster of Philadelphia was the most explicit concerning people’s response to the divine when he wrote about congressmen: Another mighty influence to the noblest principle of action will be the fear of God before their eyes; for while they sit in the place of God, to give law, justice, and right to the States, they must be monsters indeed if they do not regard his law and imitate his character.

James Madison, however, balances Webster in a letter to Thomas Jefferson about possible restraints of majorities who might persecute minorities: Religion. The inefficacy of this restraint on individuals is well known. The conduct of every popular Assembly, acting on oath, the strongest of religious ties, shews that individuals join without remorse in acts against which their consciences would revolt, if proposed to them separately in their closets. When indeed religion is kindled into enthusiasm, its force like that of other passions is increased by the sympathy of a multitude. But enthusiasm is only a temporary state of Religion, and whilst it lasts will hardly be seen with pleasure at the helm. Even in its coolest state, it has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it.

The most sustained religious discussion in these huge volumes has to do with the line in Article VI of the Constitution that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” Luther Martin, a fierce opponent of ratification, reported that the “no religious test” clause easily had passed at Philadelphia, but went on sarcastically:

However, there were some members so unfashionable as to think that a belief of the existence of a Deity, and of a state of future rewards and punishments would be some security for the good conduct of our rulers, and that in a Christian country it would be at least decent to hold out some distinction between the professors of Christianity and downright infidelity or paganism.

The most notable New England Baptist, Isaac Backus, opposed such a test, stating that “no man or men can impose any religious test, without invading the essential prerogatives of our Lord Jesus Christ.” William Williams, a Connecticut signer of the Declaration of Independence, wrote in the American Mercury that he wished the clause could have been omitted, and even would have liked to have voted for its reverse, “to require an explicit acknowledgment of the being of a God, his perfections and his providence,” and an italicized affirmation of God in the preamble to the Constitution. Williams says he knows that such a phrase would have produced hypocrites and have provided no security, but he wished it were there simply as a public testimony.

On the other hand, Oliver Ellsworth takes three pages to defend the Article VI clause as not being “unfavourable to religion.” It was designed “to exclude persecution” and to secure “the important right of religious liberty.” English law and practice show the evils that would threaten were the clause not here. “A test in favour of any one denomination of Christians would be to the last degree absurd in the United States.” Even a test-act that required officeholders to declare “their belief in the being of a God, and in the divine authority of the scriptures,” would not have satisfied, since it is easy to dissemble. “If we mean to have those appointed to public offices who are sincere friends to religion; we the people who appoint them, must take care to choose such characters; and not rely upon such cob-web barriers as test-laws are.

“Henry Abbott and James Iredell returned to the issue in a report from the North Carolina Convention. Abbott stated that some feared that without religious tests, “Pagans, Deists, and Mahometans might obtain offices among us,” and that legislators might some day “all be Pagans.” Without religious texts, would oaths of office be taken “by Jupiter, Juno, Minerva, Proserpine or Pluto”? Iredell responded, referring to the “dreadful mischiefs” and “utmost cruelties” that had occurred “under the colour of religious texts” throughout history. America had already chosen a more modest, reasonable and tolerant course. Iredell asks, “How is it possible to exclude any set of men, without taking away that principle of religious freedom which we ourselves so warmly contend for?” But he concludes, “It is never to be supposed that the people of America will trust their dearest rights to persons who have no religion at all, or a religion materially different from their own.” Let religion be permitted to take its own course; “the divine author of our religion never wished for its support by worldly authority.

After the “religious tests” debates, the most significant treatment of religion occurred in debates having to do with pluralism, “the multiplicity of sects,” republicanism and religious freedom. Most of the suspicious antifederalists were pushing for a Bill of Rights, while the federalists, feeling that rights had been assured in the unamended Constitution, opposed it.

In Virginia, where Patrick Henry favored what is now called nonpreferential support, a quasi-establishment, James Madison, his opponent, argued that a Bill of Rights “declaring that religion should be secure” was unnecessary. Because of the presence of what Madison called a “multiplicity of sects” Americans had freedom of religion, and that was “the best and only security for religious liberty in any society.

“Z,” replying to Benjamin Franklin in Boston, did argue that there had to be an express reservation of “inherent unalienable rights,” for example, “in case the government should have in their heads a predilection for any one sect in religion? … [and for] erecting a national system of religion?” (1:7). Tench Coxe in Philadelphia enumerated all the sects that had come to America for the sake of freedom of religion, and noted that they brought with them dispositions to other freedorns in matters of government. The anonymous “Federal Farmer” in letters to “The Republican” joined in: “It is true, we are not disposed to differ much, at present, about religion; but when we are making a constitution, it is to be hoped, for ages and millions yet unborn, why not establish the free exercise of religion, as a part of the national compact.”

The “multiplicity of sects” theme came to prominence in Madison’s Federalist Papers X and LI. These are more a celebration of religious diversity than of religion, since Madison seems nervous about religion’s power to tyrannize. Still arguing for a large federal republic, Madison returned to the theme in Federalist LI,.where wariness about religious power is checked by celebration of diversity:

In a free government, the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other, in the multiplicity of sects. The degree of security in both cases will depend on the number of interests and sects; and this may be presumed to depend on the extent of country and number of people comprehended under the same government.

In the event, the United States in 1789 added a Bill of Rights including the religion clause to the Constitution, and the nation became the large republic with many sects that Madison foresaw and wanted. The philosophy behind the religion clause derived from the Madisonian-Jeffersonian Virginian resolution, copied also by North Carolina:

20th. That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence, and therefore all men have an equal, natural and unalienable right to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience, and that no particular religious sect or society ought to be favored or established by law in preferrence [sic] to others.

I will not have discharged my self-chosen duties successfully without referring to two passages by notable founders that throw special if idiosyncratic light on religion. One is by the renowned Philadelphia physician and constitutionalist Benjamin Rush. In a 1787 speech at the Pennsylvania Convention reported on in the Pennsylvania Herald two days later, he awakened furies by arguing that ratification was divinely mandated. The other offbeat entry is Benjamin Franklin’s speech at the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, September 17, 1787, the document which opens Bailyn’s two-volume collection and frames some of what follows. He did not entirely approve of the Constitution, he said, and pleaded for modesty. The aged sage still had wit:

Most Men indeed as well as most Sects in Religion, think themselves in Possession of all Truth, and that wherever others differ from them it is so far Error. Steele, a Protestant, in a Dedication tells the Pope, that the- only difference between our two Churches in their Opinions of the Certainty of their Doctrine, is, the Romish Church is infallible, and the Church of England is never in the Wrong.

After antifederalist riots at Carlisle, Franklin returned to the scene with a satire against the rioters, comparing them to the ancient Jews who rejected a constitution handed down by God and “recorded in the most faithful of all Histories, the Holy Bible.” There followed four pages of reference to biblical history (Exodus and Numbers), after which Franklin concluded that he did not want to be thought of as arguing that the General Convention was similarly divinely inspired:

Yet I must own I have so much Faith in the general Government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous Importance to the Welfare of Millions now existing, and to exist in the Posterity of a great Nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenc’d, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent, and beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior Spirits live, and move, and have their Being.

One could never be too sure from Franklin’s language where he stood, .and the same is the case with other major figures like Jefferson or Madison. It was Madison who reflected most on ambiguity, obscurity, cornplexity, the equivocal, and the noncopiousness of language. He also cast the problem against a transcendent backdrop: ‘ “When the Almighty himself condescends to address mankind in their own language, his meaning, luminous as it must be, is rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” .

My reading of 2,387 pages of “cloudy medium” may have clouded things more. It’s clear, at any rate, that religious references in these primal republican political debates were rare and vague. In addition, almost no one found it easy to speak of a Christian republic or to offer a consistent theological rationale of constitutionalism. The few sustained debates about “religious tests” and “religious freedom” treated the potential for religious monopolies, hegemonies or majorities-and even religion itself-as a problem. Finally, the Madisonian devotion to pluralism won out over attempts to legislate metaphysical or theological solutions or to privilege particular traditions.

The two volumes confirm the idea that the founders’ practical politics displaced and left little room for sustained discussion of the metaphysical, metaethical and theological backdrop to constitutionalism. The debates occurred at a time when there was enough Enlightenment talk about “Nature’s God” to compromise evangelical talk about the God of the Bible in the affairs of the United States. When one contrasts outcomes in the United States with those in Europe, one is tempted to conclude that the “godless” Constitution and the reticent constitutionalists helped make possible a “godly” people.

The evangelicalization of American culture, then, did not derive from the constitutional period but from the times that followed, times of revivalism and immigration. It was not 1776 or 1787-89 but the period that followed which led Jon Butler to see Americans Awash in a Sea of Faith, Nathan Hatch to write of The Democratization of American Religion, me to write of the Protestant experience as an advocacy of a Righteous Empire , Robert Handy to describe A Christian America and Mark A. Noll, Nathan 0. Hatch and George M. Marsden to observe and criticize The Search for Christian America.

The language of the constitutional debates was, like that of the Almighty, in Madison’s view, “rendered dim and doubtful, by the cloudy medium through which it is communicated.” Bailyn’s triumph of editing and publishing The Debate on the Constitution communicates that aspect of language brightly and without doubt.

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=182

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict. This article appeared in The Christian Century March 23-30, l994, pp 316-327. Copyrighted by TheChristian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscriptions can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This text was prepared for Religion Online by John C. Purdy.

The Charter for Compassion

The Charter for Compassion

The Charter for Compassion is Karen Armstrong’s effort to promote the principles of the Golden Rule across the religious and global spectrum. The group effort to build an interfaith ‘charter of compassion’ is guided by the Council of Sages, a multi-faith, multi-national group of religious thinkers and leaders. The council will guide the writing of the final charter, but the process is open to submissions from anyone, anywhere who has an interest in the founding guidelines laid out below:

The Charter does NOT assume:

  • all religions are the same
  • compassion is the only thing that matters in religion
  • religious people have a monopoly on compassion

The Charter DOES affirm that:

  • compassion is celebrated in all major religious, spiritual and ethical traditions
  • the Golden Rule is our prime duty and cannot be limited to our own political, religious or ethnic group
  • therefore, in our divided world, compassion can build common ground

Last year [2008] Karen Armstrong received the $100,000 TED prize, presented at this international conference of experts in the fields of technology, entertainment and design for her efforts on behalf of the Charter for Compassion. You can find out more about the Council of Sages and offer your own thoughts at the Charter for Compassion website.

About Karen Armstrong

Karen Armstrong is a prominent scholar of religion and society. Armstrong is a former Roman Catholic nun who left a British convent to pursue a degree in modern literature at Oxford. In 1982 she wrote a book about her seven years in the convent, Through The Narrow Gate, that angered and challenged Catholics worldwide; her recent book The Spiral Staircase discusses her subsequent spiritual awakening after leaving the convent, when she began to develop her iconoclastic take on the great monotheistic religions.

Religious Diversity in America

by Randall Balmer, Professor of American Religious History, Barnard College, Columbia University ©National Humanities Center, nationalhumanitiescenter.org

http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/reldiv.htm

Ever since the first days of European settlement—and even before that with the wide variety of Native cultures—diversity has been one of the distinguishing features of religious life in North America. Sometimes the juxtaposition of religious groups created conflict, as when Spanish settlers sought to impose Roman Catholicism on the Pueblos in the Southwest, leading to the Pueblo uprising of 1680, seventy years after the founding of Santa Fe as the first European capital city in North America. At other times, religious groups have accommodated to one another, as in the Middle Colonies, where rampant ethnic and religious diversity forced various groups to find some way to coexist.

New Netherlandprovides a particularly graphic example. In 1524 Giovanni da Verrazano, an Italian navigator in the service of France, discovered the inlet to what is now New York harbor through the Narrows that now bears his name. Nearly a century later, Henry Hudson, an Englishman under contract to the Dutch West India Company, nosed the Half Moon through the same Narrows and up the River later named in his honor. Hudson failed in his search for a northwest passage to Asia, but he opened the way for immigration. The first group of settlers to disembark at Manhattan were Walloons, French-speaking Belgians, followed soon thereafter by a modest influx of Dutch, Germans, and French. Early reports filtering back to Amsterdam from New Netherland told of Huguenots, Mennonites, Brownists, Quakers, Presbyterians, Roman Catholics, even, according to a contemporary, “many atheists and various other servants of Baal.”1 English Puritans settled toward the eastern end of Long Island. Jews, seeking asylum, arrived in New Amsterdam from Recifé (on the Northeast coast of Brazil) in 1654, following the Portuguese takeover of the Dutch colony there. The English Conquest of New Netherland a decade later further added to the diversity of the colony renamed in honor of the Duke of York, and English attempts to tame some of the religious and ethnic diversity of their new colony met with considerable resistance.

In contrast with most of New England, where the Puritans sought to impose religious uniformity, other colonies in the Middle Atlantic were also characterized by pluralism. Quakers and Scots-Irish Presbyterians, among many others, inhabited what is now New Jersey. Further south, the Swedes, flush from their crucial engagement in the Thirty Years War, sought to establish a beachhead in the New World with settlements along the Delaware River, settlements that yielded to Dutch rule in 1665 and then to the English nine years later. Maryland, named for the wife of England’s Charles I (not for the Blessed Virgin, as many believe), was founded by Lord Calvert as a refuge for English Catholics, but he recognized even from the beginning that Catholic settlers would have to accommodate believers from other traditions in order to ensure toleration for themselves. William Penn, an English Quaker, founded his “Holy Experiment” in 1680, a place of religious toleration that attracted Lutherans and Quakers, along with smaller groups such as Moravians, Mennonites, Amish, and Schwenckfelders.

 

Religious Diversity and the New Nation

The religious and ethnic pluralism in the Middle Atlantic persisted throughout the colonial period, and when it came time for the framers of the Constitution to configure the relationship between church and state for the new nation, they looked both to Roger Williams’s notion of a “wall of separation” as well as to the religious diversity in New York and elsewhere. Williams, a Puritan minister who arrived in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1631, quickly ran afoul of the Puritan ministers because he recognized the dangers to the faith of too close an association between religion and the state. He wanted to protect the “garden of the church” from the “wilderness of the world” by means of a “wall of separation.” The Puritans of Massachusetts Bay had no patience with such ideas; they expelled Williams from the colony, whereupon he migrated south to organize what became Rhode Island as a haven for liberty of conscience and toleration of religious diversity. The notion of disestablishment, the absence of a state religion, was utterly unprecedented in England and Europe, but New York had been functioning for decades with de facto disestablishment, proving that religious pluralism posed no threat to the secular order and that government could function without the backing of a particular religion.

The First Amendment’s guarantee of “free exercise” of religion together with its proscription against a state church set up a kind of free market of religious life in theUnited States. The absence of an established religion means that all religious groups are free to compete in this marketplace, and (to extend the economic metaphor) American history is littered with examples of religious entrepreneurs who have competed for a market share. This system (in theory, at least) disadvantages no one, so all religious groups, regardless of their historical or ethnic origins or their theological inclinations, are free to compete in that marketplace.

 

The Crucible of Pluralism

Americans, however, have not always welcomed religious newcomers with open arms. The immigration of the Irish, following the Potato Famines in the Old World, met with resistance from American Protestants, who wanted to retain their hegemony. Germans and Italians also faced hostilities in the nineteenth century, in part because of the newcomers’ faith but also because Catholic immigrants did not share Protestant scruples about temperance. Opposition to “Rum and Romanism” became commonplace.

Religious diversity not only had an ethnic valence, it was racial as well. Many Africans, who were brought forcibly to the New Worldas slaves, adopted the Christianity (so-called) of their captors. But others sought, against formidable odds, to retain vestiges of their ancestral religions; more often than not, those expressions manifested themselves in enthusiastic worship. African-Americans also sought independence from white churches, finding at least a measure or institutional autonomy in such organizations as the African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African Episcopal Methodist Zion Church, and, later, in the Moorish Science Temple of America and the Nation of Islam. (See also: African American Religion, Pt. I: To the Civil War)

Asians began to arrive late in the nineteenth century, many to the West Coast to help with the construction of the transcontinental railroad. The numbers of immigrants prompted the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, and other Asians also met with resistance. The notorious case of Bhagat Singh Thind, a Sikh whose application for citizenship in 1923 was denied because he was not considered “white,” eventually created pressure to redress that injustice; President Harry Truman signed the Luce-Cellar Act in 1946, which essentially reversed the Thind decision, although it retained quotas on immigrations fromIndia.

 

Living Up to American Ideals

The movement for civil rights in the 1950s and 1960s paved the way for a greater acceptance of religious diversity, not only for African-Americans but for other Americans as well. Jews, who had their own struggles for acceptance following their immigration to the United States in the nineteenth century (see also: The American Jewish Experience in the Twentieth Century: Antisemitism and Assimilation), joined the civil rights movement, and Native Americans also began to assert their religious and ancestral identities, as with the occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay and Wounded Knee, South Dakota, site of one most brutal massacres of Sioux Indians at the hands of the United States Cavalry in 1890.

When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Hart-Cellar Immigration Act in July 1965, immigration quotas finally were removed. This opened the way for a new wave of immigrants, many from South Asia and Southeast Asia. Once again, Americans were confronted with religious diversity, as Islamic mosques, Shintō temples, Sikh Gurdwārās, Buddhist stupas, and Hindu temples literally transformed the religious landscape of the United States. As before, the newcomers met resistance. But Americans tend, sooner or later, to rise to their better selves and make good the promises in our charter documents that everyone is created equal and enjoys “free exercise” of religion—or, if they prefer, no religion at all.

 

Guiding Student Discussion

American history generally—and American religious history in particular—tends to be presented through the lens of New England, especially in the colonial era. The story of the Pilgrims and the first Thanksgiving is imprinted on our consciousness, and that generally gives way to the Puritans—John Winthrop, the “city upon a hill,” Anne Hutchinson, Roger Williams, and theSalem witch trials.

When talking about religious diversity, however, it’s much more useful to divert our attention to the Middle Colonies, present-dayNew York,New Jersey,Pennsylvania,Delaware, andMaryland. Here you find a rich pastiche of religious groups, everything from Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Quakers to Dutch Reformed, Swedish Lutherans, Baptists, Huguenots, and various German groups. The story of how these groups learned to live together provides a rich contrast toNew England, where the Puritans sought—unsuccessfully—to impose religious uniformity.

This translates, in turn, to the formation of the new nation. The founders adapted the ideas of Roger Williams, a Puritan dissident and founder of the Baptist tradition in America, along with the experience of religious diversity in the Middle Colonies to provide for freedom of religious expression and no state church, as encoded in the First Amendment to the Constitution. The First Amendment itself, much debated throughout American history and especially in recent years, is worthy of examination and discussion, emphasizing that this notion of a government that was not buttressed by a state religion was utterly unprecedented in the eighteenth century. The First Amendment provided, in effect, a free marketplace of religion unimpeded by the state, thereby allowing a rich variety of religious groups to flourish.

One suggestion would be to study both New Englandand the Middle Colonies and then ask students which region more nearly anticipated the contours of American society. Another exercise would be to read the Flushing Remonstrance of 1657, when the citizens of Flushing, New Netherland (nowNew York), protested against the attempts of Pieter Stuyvesant, director-general of the West India Company and governor of the colony, to prohibit Quaker worship. The Flushing Remonstrance is often cited as the first expression of religious freedom inAmerica, and it is notable that none of the thirty-one signatories was himself a Quaker.

The story of religious diversity in the nineteenth century is tied inextricably to immigration. The arrival of non-Protestant immigrants, especially Roman Catholics and Jews, threatened Protestant hegemony; many Protestants resisted. A good topic for discussion here might be what role the cities played in bringing about religious accommodation. With the massive urbanization of American society late in the nineteenth century, various religious and ethnic groups—Jews from Germany and Eastern Europe, Roman Catholics from Ireland and Italy—were thrown together into the cauldron of urban life. Despite inevitable differences and conflict, these groups eventually learned to coexist in the cities.

The twentieth century saw the spectrum of religious diversity expand even further, from Protestants, Catholics, and Jews to a wide range of Asian religions: Hinduism, Buddhism, Shintō, Sikhism, Jainism, and many others. At the same time, various indigenous religious gained in popularity: Mormonism, Christian Science, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Nation of Islam, to name only a few. The Hart-Cellar Immigration Act of 1965, coming—significantly—on the heels of the civil rights movement, opened the doors of the United States to new waves of settlement and thereby eliminated the quotas of the Johnson Act of 1924. Both pieces of legislation merit study. And it is worth speculating about whether President Johnson or any of those associated with the passage of the 1965 bill anticipated how thoroughly that legislation would change the religious complexion (quite literally!) of the United States.

Finally, what about those who choose not to embrace religion in any form? The First Amendment provides for the “free exercise” of religion, but does it also protect “no exercise” of religion? Clearly, it does, but how did we as a nation come to this conclusion? How have religious atheists and agnostics been treated throughout American history? What does it mean that many of the founders, including Thomas Jefferson, were Deists? What do we make of the fact that Jefferson once opined that Unitarianism would eventually become the dominant religion of an enlightened nation? Does the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance and “In God We Trust” emblazoned on our currency—both added in the 1950s, during the Cold War—violate the rights of those who choose not to believe in God or a Supreme Being?

 

Scholars Debate

From Perry Miller’s “rediscovery” of the Puritans in the 1920s until the 1980s, Puritanism dominated the historiography of colonial America. By the early 1980s, however, about the time that Edmund S. Morgan declared that “we now know more about the Puritans than any sane person should care to know,” historians began to look at religious life in other colonies. Several examples in this genre include Jon Butler, The Huguenots in America: A Refugee People in New World Society; Catharine Randall, From a Far Country: Huguenots and Camisards in the New World; Ned C. Landsman, Scotland and Its First American Colony, 1683-1675; A. G. Roeber, Palatines, Liberty, and Property: German Lutherans in Colonial British America; and Randall Balmer, A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies. All of these books address the challenges of religious pluralism, the conflicts associated with such diversity, and, generally, the resolution of those conflicts.

Several books have been written about Roger Williams: Perry Miller, Roger Williams: His Contribution to the American Tradition; Edmund S. Morgan, Roger Williams: The Church and the State; and Edwin S. Gaustad, Liberty of Conscience: Roger Williams in America. Gaustad has also written a useful book about Thomas Jefferson, who contributed greatly to the configuration of church and state that allowed religious diversity to flourish: Sworn on the Altar of God: A Religious Biography of Thomas Jefferson.

Religious diversity in the nineteenth century took many forms, and it met with spirited opposition from Nativists, those who opposed new immigrants. Ray Allen Billington examines this opposition in Protestant Crusade, 1800-1860: A Study of the Origins of American Nativism. A number of case studies demonstrate how religious diversity played out, especially in American cities. See Jay S. Dolan, The Immigrant Church: New York’s Irish and German Catholics, 1815-1865 as well as his In Search of an American Catholicism: A History of Religion and Culture in Tension. Robert Anthony Orsi’s The Madonna of 115th Street: Faith and Community in Italian Harlem deftly traces the congeries of religious and ethnic diversity both within and beyond a single parish in New York City. John T. McGreevy examines intra-Catholic tensions in Parish Boundaries: The Catholic Encounter with Race in the Twentieth-Century Urban North.

No scholar has more thoroughly examined the history of Jews in Americathan Jonathan Sarna. See, in particular, American Judaism: A History and The American Jewish Experience. In addition to tracing the persistent dilemma of Jewish assimilation or particularity, Sarna demonstrates as well the internal diversity within Judaism.

Internal diversity also marks other religious movements too often seen, by outsiders, as homogeneous. One example is evangelicalism, America’s “folk religion.” My own book, Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, seeks to portray American evangelicalism as anything but monolithic, with its rich diversity of fundamentalism, pentecostalism, the holiness and charismatic movements, the sanctified tradition, and many others.

African-Americans have faced their own peculiar struggles in expressing their religious life. The best account of the days of slavery is Albert J. Raboteau’s Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South. The quest for black religious autonomy is recounted in Segregated Sabbaths: Richard Allen and the Rise of Independent Black Churches, 1760-1840, by Carol V. R. George. Following the Great Migration to northern cities at the turn the twentieth century, African-Americans began increasingly to develop their own institutional religious life, especially in the cities. Several colorful figures appeared including Daddy Grace, the Noble Drew Ali, Marcus Garvey, Father Divine, and Elijah Muhammad—all of whom sought space for religious expression. Several biographies are useful: Colin Grant, Negro with a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Marcus Garvey; Jill Watts, God, Harlem U.S.A.: The Father Divine Story; Marie Dallem, Daddy Grace: A Celebrity Preacher and His House of Prayer. Though considerably dated, Arthur Huff Fauset’s Black Gods of the Metropolis: Negro Religious Cults of the Urban North, an early sociological study of new black religions, provides a snapshot of extraordinary religious diversity within the African-American urban context.

The Nation of Islam remains one of most striking examples of religious diversity. The Autobiography of Malcolm X is indispensible, but other studies of the movement and its context are also useful: Richard Brent Turner, Islam in the African-American Experience and Edward E. Curtis IV, Black Muslim Religion in the Nation of Islam, 1960-1975.

As in the nineteenth century, religious diversity in the twentieth century was inextricably tied to immigration. In Protestant Missionaries, Asian Immigrants, and Ideologies of Race in America, 1850-1924, Jennifer Snow finds that missionaries often protested against the various attempts to exclude Asians from coming to the United States. In 1965, a decade after Will Herberg had articulated three ways to be American in Protestant-Catholic-Jew, changes to the immigration laws finally ended decades of exclusion and opened doors to new forms of religious diversity. The Pluralism Project at Harvard University provides a range of resources for understanding this new diversity, including a sophisticated website. The director of the project, Diana L. Eck, has also written A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation.

Finally, several scholars have sought to understand all of American religious history through the lens of pluralism. See, for example, Catherine L. Albanese, America: Religions and Religion and another survey of religion in America, Religion in American Life: A Short History, by Jon Butler, Grant Wacker, and Randall Balmer. This topic also forms the basis of William R. Hutchison’s Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal.

 

Endnotes

1 J. Franklin Jameson, ed., Narratives of New Netherland, 1609-1664 (New York, 1909), 123-125.

 

Randall Balmer is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University and a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School. He has taught at Columbia since earning the Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985 and has been a visiting professor at Princeton, Rutgers, Yale, Drew, and Northwestern universities and at Union Theological Seminary, where he is also an adjunct professor of church history. He has published a dozen books, including A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies, which won several awards, and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, now in its fourth edition, which was made into a three-part documentary for PBS. His most recent books are Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America and God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

Address comments or questions to Professor Balmer through TeacherServe “Comments and Questions.”

To cite this essay:
Balmer, Randall. “Religious Diversity inAmerica.” DiviningAmerica, TeacherServe©.NationalHumanitiesCenter. DATE YOU ACCESSED ESSAY. <http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/reldiv.htm> http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/twenty/tkeyinfo/reldiv.htm

Randall Balmer is professor of American religious history at Barnard College, Columbia University and a visiting professor at Yale Divinity School. He has taught at Columbia since earning the Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1985 and has been a visiting professor at Princeton, Rutgers, Yale, Drew, and Northwestern universities and at Union Theological Seminary, where he is also an adjunct professor of church history. He has published a dozen books, including A Perfect Babel of Confusion: Dutch Religion and English Culture in the Middle Colonies, which won several awards, and Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory: A Journey into the Evangelical Subculture in America, now in its fourth edition, which was made into a three-part documentary for PBS. His most recent books are Thy Kingdom Come: How the Religious Right Distorts the Faith and Threatens America and God in the White House: A History: How Faith Shaped the Presidency from John F. Kennedy to George W. Bush.

Religion Trends

Chris Hedges on Christian Heretics, Truthdig.com, Nov 2, 2013… what I’m willing to do, which the mainstream church is not, is to denounce the Christian right as Christian heretics…what they have done is acculturate the worst aspects of American imperialism, capitalism, chauvinism, and violence and bigotry into the Christian religion… I think the great failure of the liberal tradition that I come out of is they were too frightened and too timid to stand up. I don’t know why they spent all the years in seminary if they didn’t realize that when they walked out the door they were going to have to fight for it. And they didn’t fight for it.

The Distortion And Decline Of Christianity by Robert De Filippis TheBig Slice.org, February 27, 2013 …organized religion is on the wane; particularly with young people.  I want to explore why this is happening…true Christians who remain silent…allowing Christianity to be politicized, commercialized, and generally maligned to conform to another agenda…The silent majority is allowing the vocal minority to distort Christianity.  Silence can be interpreted as agreement… two millennium of politically-based human revisionism has caused a pernicious Christian neurosis that is now coming into full bloom in some segments of society.  Our politicians have been infiltrated by this neurosis – as if they needed any help to be more neurotic.  And now we have a twisted knot of revisionist Christian propaganda inserted into our public discourse. Christianity in America is getting a reputation for being filled with hate mongers… But the overwhelming majority are good people – good, but silent…Take a lesson from history.  The Enlightenment era of the 18th century brought with it a new appreciation for human reasoning and a diminution or our dependence on “the official truth” in our holy texts.  I think it’s time we start reasoning again…  Does [rhetoric] truly reflect Christ’s teachings? Or is it from carefully selected Biblical excerpts, taken out of context, to justify a hate-filled and neurotic attack on another human being? One is true Christianity. The other is a reflection of a deeper character flaw in the perpetrator. Christianity can be good for good people and bad for bad people, independent of, in Thomas Jefferson’s words about Christ’s teachings, “The most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.”

Why are so many Christians un-Christian?

A New Religious America – How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation by Diana L. Eck - Understanding America’s religious landscape is the most important challenge facing us today…the change since the 1960′s has been dramatic and Muslims now outnumber Episcopalians, Jews or Presbyterians….The Pluralism Project Eck directs at Harvard University is investigating religion in America, what the changes mean and “the challenge of creating a cohesive society out of all this diversity.” 
In the United States, the climate of tolerance and the engagement of pluralism emerge not from an authoritarian central regime, but from a democratic experiment as an immigrant nation, a nation in which, at our best, we are motivated by ideals and principles” says Eck.
The consequences for community life and public policy are enormous. (this is the full text)

Another Word on “God and the Twenty-First Century”by Michael Benedikt, Tikkun.org, March 5, 2011 – It is no longer necessary to invoke the name of God to explain or promote compassionate action. Today we understand we have evolved that capacity…what are commandments? Ways of bringing goodness to life through actions, through deeds… These are the words of three champions of monotheism [Judaism, Christianity, Islam]…But what should followers of these theist traditions think of the good practiced by nonbelievers — people who would say it’s quite unnecessary, and even counterproductive, to bring “God” into ordinary morality, who would offer that morality can and should be understood from an entirely scientific, evolutionary, and historical point of view thus: the capacity for empathy, fairness, and altruism is wired into human beings and even other higher mammals from birth, thanks to millions of generations of reproduction-with-variation under the constraints of natural selection. Similarly, the laws of civility — from the Eightfold Way and the Ten Commandments to the Magna Carta, the Geneva Convention, and the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights — are the culturally transmitted legacy of thousands of years of human social evolution overlaid upon older, natural reproductive-selective processes. Whereas laws of civility may once have needed the rhetorical force of God-talk to establish themselves, today they can be embraced rationally in the service of peace and prosperity.

New Satire Campaign Launches War Against Irrational Fear Wednesday, 27 November 2013 10:08 By Candice Bernd, Truthout   Americans are 9,000 times more likely to die from the influenza or pneumonia than a terrorist attack – and that fact alone is a weapon in a new “War Against Irrational Fear,” which is waging war across new fronts such as lighting strikes, dogs, football, bathtubs and the flu – all of which cause more American deaths annually than domestic terrorism. The new satirical campaign was created by Incitement Design, a design firm for progressive causes…uses statistics to show the truth behind the “war on terror,” using social media, videos and graphics backed up with fact-based research to reveal that America’s obsession with domestic terrorism is a costly and harmful distraction… New York Times survey of expert estimates put the total cost of anti-terrorism initiatives at more than $3 trillion since 9/11. [Professor John Mueller authored a report widely cited in the campaign] Mueller’s research shows the United States currently spends more than $400 million annually on domestic terrorism prevention per victim. But the US spends only $9,000 for cancer prevention research per victim. “What we want to do is make it so that people feel comfortable and feel like the price they’re going to pay politically for stating this obvious truth is not incredibly high,” Arnow [Robert Arnow, creative director at Incitement Design] told Truthout. “Our federal government portrays terrorists as wily supervillians, while the research shows they are small in number [and] generally incompetent and that 9/11 was a historical anomaly.” http://truth-out.org/news/item/20272-new-satire-campaign-launches-war-against-irrational-fear

 

 

Pope Francis ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ Calls For Renewal Of Roman Catholic Church, Attacks ‘Idolatry Of Money’ By Naomi O’Leary,  Reuters Posted on HuffingtonPost.com: 11/26/2013-Pope Francis called for renewal of the Roman Catholic Church and attacked unfettered capitalism as “a new tyranny”, urging global leaders to fight poverty and growing inequality in the first major work he has authored alone as pontiff…In it, Francis went further than previous comments criticizing the global economic system, attacking the “idolatry of money” and beseeching politicians to guarantee all citizens “dignified work, education and healthcare”. He also called on rich people to share their wealth. “Just as the commandment ‘Thou shalt not kill’ sets a clear limit in order to safeguard the value of human life, today we also have to say ‘thou shalt not’ to an economy of exclusion and inequality. Such an economy kills,” Francis wrote in the document issued on Tuesday…Denying this was simple populism, he called for action “beyond a simple welfare mentality” and added: “I beg the Lord to grant us more politicians who are genuinely disturbed by the state of society, the people, the lives of the poor.”…Stressing cooperation among religionsHe praised cooperation with Jews and Muslims and urged Islamic countries to guarantee their Christian minorities the same religious freedom as Muslims enjoy in the West.

Pope Francis called right-wing Christian fundamentalism a sickness. Stephen D. Foster Jr. October 21, 2013

 

 

The Corporate Bully Whose Front Groups, Willful Distortions and Hate-Mongering Has Poisoned U.S. Politics: Meet Richard Berman BySteven Rosenfeld, AlterNet, November 24, 2013 

5 Biblical Concepts Fundamentalists Just Don’t Understand

Did the Dalai Lama Just Call for an End to Religion?

The Bible Hates Homosexuality. So What?

Religious Diversity in America

Why Young People Are Fleeing Conservative Evangelicalism By Eleanor J. Bader, RH Reality Check, February 9, 2012

Holy Book Learning — Americans are shockingly illiterate when it comes to religions — including their own by Christoper Shea

Good Without God: Why “Non-Religious” Is the Fastest-Growing Preference in America By Terrence McNally, AlterNet.org, May 10, 2011

Goodbye Religion? How Godlessness Is Increasing With Each New Generation by Adam Lee, AlterNet, August 10, 2011

5 Signs That America Is Moving Away from Religion, alternet.org, September 28, 2011

Obama And the Rise of Secular Spirituality by Deepak Chopra and Dave Stewart, Belief.net, January 18, 2009 - …Barack Obama has …become a symbol of the rise of secular spirituality in this country, a liberated set of values that exists largely outside organized religion…Obama’s worldview is more congruent with alternative theology than it is with churchgoers…millions of Americans who consider themselves spiritual have longed for peace, unity, nonviolence, and freedom that isn’t imposed by the force of arms…Religion was hijacked for political gain by the right wing beginning as far back as the Nixon era, yet there is a much stronger current of secular spirituality running through our history. The Founding Fathers were mostly Deists, rational Christians emerging from the Age of Enlightenment…They were tolerant believers in a benign God who transcended narrow denominations. They considered the rights of man to be the basis of enlightened belief, and when freedom was labeled an inalienable right, they meant that is was God-given, just as all men being created equal was God-given. …secular spirituality…now includes the following principles…– A spiritual duty to be benign stewards of the Earth and to preserve the ecology.– A responsibility to revere Nature and to be humble before it.– A duty to further peace among nations.– A pledge of nonviolence that will lead finally to total nuclear disarmament in our lifetime.– A refusal to useAmerica’s super power for militaristic ends. — A sense of compassion for the poor and wretched beset by pandemic disease, lack of political influence, and denial of basic human rights….Nothing about secular spirituality is radical. Most of its principles are articles of belief for millions of average Americans who have largely been shut out of politics for eight years….But secular spirituality isn’t limited to the left or the progressive movement in general. It is a national phenomenon, one that will swell steadily in the coming years, particularly among the young. Born after the divisive culture wars that gave the right wing its main chance, the younger generations yearn for new values….Nothing less than spiritual renewal is needed across the board, and there is no one of equal stature to lead it.

Why fundamentalism will fail by Harvey Cox,  BostonGlobe.com, November 8, 2009

Obama Says Faith Shouldn’t Be Used to Divide, President Barack Obama at National Prayer Breakfast, February 5, 2009

New Theists: Knowers, Not Believers by Rev. Michael Dowd

Religious tolerance, then and now by Dana Milbank, Washington Post, August 17, 2010

The Pluralism Problem by Brendan Sweetman, PBS, ONE NATION: RELIGION & POLITICS, January 28, 2010

The Distortion And Decline Of Christianity by Robert De Filippis TheBig Slice.org, February 27, 2013
The Corporate Bully Whose Front Groups, Willful Distortions and Hate-Mongering Has Poisoned U.S. Politics: Meet Richard Berman