Who Are We? Religious Pluralism as Our New Social Reality

Week of Monday, November 5, 2001

During our visit to Washington, DC this past summer, one of my favorite experiences was visiting the Library of Congress. There, among other treasures, you can view an original copy of our US Constitution. The first three words of our Constitution—“We the people” —beg a fascinating question today, the magnitude and complexity of which our founding fathers never could have imagined. Exactly what is the breadth and depth of religious diversity comprised by the 281 million Americans today who constitute “we the people?”

Beginning in 1991 with funding from the Lilly Endowment, Diana Eck, Professor of Comparative Religions and Indian Studies at Harvard, developed the Pluralism Project to try to answer this question. While the term “pluralism” is a slippery word used in widely divergent ways, the focus of Eck and her colleagues has been the narrow matter of our country's religious pluralism. Specifically, they have focused on three goals: to map America's changing religious demographics (especially among immigrant communities), to discover how these religious communities change in their new American context, and then to explore the ramifications of this new religious diversity for our country's civic life and interfaith dialogue. In her new book, A New Religious America; How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World's Most Religiously Diverse Nation (2001), Eck summarizes many of the findings of the Pluralism Project in a non-technical, highly anecdotal manner for a general readership.

In the age of real or imagined culture wars, the word “pluralism” bears numerous meanings and agendas (ethnic, cultural, racial, gender, etc.). For some people it harbors necessarily negative connotations, while for others it is the watchword of a wholly positive social agenda. Even within the narrow confines of specifically religious pluralism, it is helpful to distinguish three distinct but deeply related nuances of this contentious word. In my next three weekly essays I will address each perspective: the empirical, the civic or political, and the theological facets of pluralism.

First, we can confidently say that today America is a religiously “pluralist” society in an empirical sense of that word, that is, in the sense that there are citizens of many different religions who live in our country. Further, with an increase of both secularization (people who have little or no interest in religion) and people of non-Christian religions, we can say that from a historical and cultural perspective, the uniformly Christian influences brought to our country by our founding fathers are decreasing, while various non-Christian realities are dramatically increasing.This is a simple fact of our new social reality, neither positive nor negative in itself, although many people experience this new reality as not only shocking but deeply troubling.

But pluralism also raises the civic question of how a country of such radical religious diversity can live together in unity, peace, harmony, tranquility, and so on. How do we create a cohesive society out of such diversity? Clearly, the new social reality of radical religious diversity is at some level something that threatens to divide our country rather than bring it together. As Eck points out, the motto of our country adopted in 1782 and inscribed upon our currency, E Pluribus Unum (Out of Many, One), “is not an accomplished fact but an ideal that Americans must continue to claim.” So “pluralism” is a challenge for citizenship and community, of how we the people of diverse religious commitments will, in fact, form “a more perfect union.” Next week I will examine this question.

Beyond the empirical data of our changing social reality and the civic challenges of building a unified nation, pluralism also signals a theological challenge for faith: how does one adjudicate all the many, wildly divergent, sometimes conflicting and overlapping religious truth claims? Which religion is true, or truest? Are any religions simply false, or are they all equally legitimate paths up the divine mountain? This is a deeply theological question, especially for Christians whose Scriptures insist that, somehow, Jesus Christ alone is the way to salvation (John 14:6, Acts 4:12). This will be the theme of my essay in two weeks.

Just what can we say today about religion in America on a purely empirical basis? What does our religious pluralism look like? According to Eck and her colleagues, the religious landscape of our country has changed radically in the last thirty-five years. Here a bit of history is in order.

From about 1870–1900 some 25 million Europeans immigrated to America, bringing with them their customs, their languages and, of course, their religions. But beginning in 1920 and lasting until 1965, immigration to our country drastically fell, due in large part to two world wars, the Great Depression, and also to legislation. The Johnson-Reed Act (1924) placed strict quotas on immigration. Finally, on July 4, 1965 President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Immigration and Naturalization Act. In the next 25 years, by 1990 some 15 million more immigrants arrived, and in this new wave many of them were decidedly non-Christian: Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Sikhs, and Zorastrian. More than a third were Asian. Their arrival has signaled a new religious day for America.

Another way to think about our country's changing religious diversity is through the lens of an important book published in 1955 by the Jewish sociologist Will Herberg, a book that today appears astonishingly quaint. In Protestant, Catholic, Jew Herberg argued that America was no longer a single melting pot; it was what he called a “triple melting pot.” America, said Herberg, was a “three religion country,” and “to be American today means to be either a Protestant, a Catholic, or a Jew.” As Eck puts it, “never again would an analysis of America's religious life look so simple.” As we will see next week, today this melting pot metaphor is not merely enlarged to include the new diversity; it is discarded altogether.

Eck's book recounts the field-work of some 80 colleagues who work with her on the Pluralism Project to plot America's new religious pluralism. In a widely quoted and rather effective sound bite, she puts it this way: there are now more Muslim Americans than Episcopalians or Presbyterians, and about as many Muslims as Jews (six million).1 Buddhists number about four million, and Hindus perhaps a million. Mosques, temples and meditation centers can be found in every major city. In Los Angeles alone there are about 300 Buddhist temples. In 1996 the first Muslim chaplain was sworn into the navy (today there are nine). At Fort Hood, Texas (our country's largest military base), a Wiccan chaplain has been accredited. Both Muslim and Hindu invocations have been prayed in Congress. The anecdotes are endless and fascinating.

Admittedly, today non-Christians comprise less than 10% of our country's total population (about 30 million, with a million immigrants arriving each year). But for Eck, “the news of this new century is that they are here, and in numbers significant enough to make an imprint on every city in America.” This colossal sea change in America's religious diversity, she argues, is the “salient fact of America's civic life, far outweighing in its significance the diversity of ethnic or national origins.” This will be especially true in the political arena of civic life, and the theological arena of interfaith dialogue—the subject of my next two essays.

  1. This figure is hotly debated . A study by the City University of New York indicated there were about 1.4 million Muslims in America. The Islamic Society of North America puts the figure at 8 million.

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.