Pluralism: A Civic Responsibility

Week of Monday, November 12, 2001

My wife, a second grade teacher, tells me that the educational code of our state mandates a “patriotic observance” of some sort the first period of each day. For the record, she is not in compliance. Clearly, our state wants to inculcate among our youngest citizens a sense of political patriotism or civic obligation to the common good of the larger community (city, state, country). The Pledge of Allegiance, says my wife, would fulfill this requirement. Part of that Pledge reads that we are “one nation...indivisible.” But what is the basis of our national unity amidst all our religious plurality? Out of all our variegated manyness (E Pluribus) where does our country find a oneness (Unum)?

Some people appeal to a religious or theological unity, such as we see in some Islamic states (Iran, Saudi Arabia) or, to a lesser degree, in ethnically homogeneous nations that make explicit appeals to blatant religious and ethnic nationalism (Russia or Serbia). During our four years in Moscow I was always irritated by the Russian proverb, “to be Russian is to be Orthodox,” as if there was no difference between personal faith and civic responsibility.

In a Christian version of this appeal to religious unity, some believers insist upon thinking about America as a “Christian country” and demanding political and legislative concessions to reflect that. Take these three examples from Diana Eck's new book A New Religious America (2001). From 1947–1954 the National Association of Evangelicals campaigned for an amendment to the Constitution that would read, “This nation divinely recognizes the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of Nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.” In 1992 Arkansas governor Kirk Fordice created a stir when he referred to America as a “Christian nation,” a statement he later renounced. Finally, in September 2000, the Family Research Council denounced the first-ever Hindu invocation given at the US House of Representatives, saying it would lead to “ethical chaos” and lamenting that it signaled a drift from our Judeo-Christian roots. Later it issued a retraction.

For the United States there are at least two problems with appealing to Christianity as a basis for national unity. First, our founding fathers wisely set up a secular government that separates church and state. More practically, as we saw in my essay last week our country is home to 30 million citizens of non-Christian faiths (and increasing by about a million a year), or, in an age of increased secularization, no faith at all. But even though religion cannot be the basis for our country's unity, clearly our substantial religious diversity has ramifications for our national unity.

Eck likes to tell her students that if they want to see the political implications of our country's new and radical religious diversity, just attend the meetings of your community's city council, school board or zoning committee. Or think for a moment about the issues now faced by the armed services and the everyday workplace. Should architectural plans for a Buddhist temple in southern California be made to comply with the local Mediterranean look, or granted a variance so it can express its indigenous, Asian look? Should a Muslim be able to wear religious garments or be excused to pray at work? How would you feel about Hindus purchasing a vacant building in your local downtown and renovating it for a community center? Is a Wiccan chaplain in the military as legitimate as a Baptist one? These issues, as Eck points out, are no longer restricted to New York City, San Francisco or Chicago; they have become commonplace in Toledo, Fort Wayne, Cedar Rapids, and the like.

It's true that our country has distinctly Christian roots, historically speaking, and there is no reason this should not be honored with genuine gratitude. But unfortunately, this historical legacy has often meant one of two things for our non-Christian citizens: exclusion or assimilation.

An exclusionary bias in our civic life has often made immigrants feel like they should stay home or go home. Sometimes we fear people who are different from us, often out of sheer ignorance, as Eck admits about herself: “When I graduated from the top ten of my class in Bozeman Senior High School, I could not have provided even the most rudimentary account of the fundamentals of Islam or Hinduism, even though these constitute the faith and worldviews of nearly half the world's population.” Ignorance leads to passively absorbing denigrating stereotypes, often fueled by media. In its more vicious manifestations, exclusion leads not only to a general xenophobia but to acts of harassment, vandalism and civil rights abuses. Think of groups like the KKK and their ilk.

Christians are hardly the only ones to blame here, either, as Eck points out. Harvard's President Abbott Lowell suggested a restrictive quota to redress the “Jewish problem” after alarmists pointed out that the number of Jewish men there increased from 6% in 1908 to about 21% in 1922 (the faculty rejected the plan). Here at Stanford the director for the Catholic Community has told me similar stories of widespread admissions discrimination against Catholics in Stanford's early history.

Assimilation is a more benign but equally inadequate response to our non-Christian citizens. It tells the Sikh or Muslim to come, but leave your differences behind. Blend in. The most powerful and popular expression of the assimilationist posture is the melting pot metaphor. In the melting pot “differences dissolve into the common pot, adding their flavors but losing their form.” For a more erudite version, there is John Quincy Adams, who urged that immigrants to America “must cast off the European skin, never to resume it. They must look forward to their posterity rather than backward to their ancestors.”

To a greater or lesser degree, the exclusivist and assimilationist stances solve the problem of radical religious diversity by a homogenizing inclusion, expecting all Americans to conform to the reigning and generally white, Protestant and Christian ethos. But Eck is surely correct when she argues that our nation's oneness can never be based in religion; it can only be a civic unity that is genuinely pluralistic, that is, that embraces religious (or ethnic, racial, cultural, etc.) diversity and difference as constituents of a new, political community. The truly pluralist appeal thus says, “come as you are, pledged only to the common civic demands of citizenship.”

Our country's widespread religious diversity thus calls for genuine political pluralism. If we lived in a totalitarian state such as the former Soviet Union, the government could enforce toleration for all. But as Eck points out, in a democracy tolerance cannot be imposed and a siege mentality of retreat into religious xenophobia must be rejected. We need, she urges, “energetic bridge builders.” Is it too much to hope and pray that Christians can be in the forefront as blessed, civic peacemakers and community-builders (Matthew 5:9)?

Regardless of the theological convictions believers have about people of other faiths, or how an atheist or secularist thinks about religion, “the covenants of citizenship to which we adhere place us on common (civic) ground.” Christians should expect no privileged status and demand no more or less than a level playing field. We must recognize the inherent tension in the First Amendment (1791), “the free exercise of religion calling for the protection of religious groups, while the non establishment of religion prohibiting any such special treatment.”

In a world in which religious identity often tears countries apart and is presumed to be the most divisive difference of all, the challenge is great.

How we move from being a nation that puts up with what are infelicitously called `aliens' to being a nation that welcomes newcomers of every religion—how we move from being strangers to neighbors—is one of the greatest challenges of America's new century of religious life. Nothing is more central to most religious traditions than hospitality toward the neighbor, even toward the stranger.
The good news is that there are, in fact, Christian leaders making positive contributions. The evangelical theologian Os Guinness, for example, was a leader in crafting the Williamsburg Charter (1988) as a basis for the civic pluralism that Eck envisions. Its preamble issues “a call to a vision of public life that will allow conflict to lead to consensus, religious commitment to reinforce political civility” in such a way that our radical religious diversity becomes an asset and not a liability.1
  1. Unless otherwise noted, all references in this essay are from Diana Eck, A New Religious America (San Francisco: Harper, 2001).

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