A Secular Age:

Multi-religious denominationalism and American identity

posted by Richard Amesbury

secular_age1Charles Taylor has argued that those of us living in North America and Europe are witnessing a shift in our social imaginary from a “Durkheimian” self-understanding, according to which political identity is tied to religious belonging, towards a “post-Durkheimian” view, in which the two are no longer seen as intrinsically linked. In the emerging dispensation, Taylor predicts, “it will be less and less common for people to be drawn into or kept within a faith by some strong political or group identity, or by the sense that they are sustaining a socially essential ethic.” Whatever its merits as an analysis of contemporary European self-understanding—and these are surely significant—Taylor’s reading strikes me as underdetermined by the American evidence, which speaks in favor of a quite different interpretation: what is replacing the conception of the United States as a “Christian nation” is not a post-Durkheimian imaginary but an alternative “neo-Durkheimian” one, which portrays America as a religious nation, understood quasi-pluralistically. This difference between the United States and Europe is due not merely to the absence in the U.S. of an established church—a feature often cited by secularization theorists to explain certain religious dimensions of “American exceptionalism”—but to the presence of an alternative ecclesial structure.

In what Taylor calls “paleo-Durkheimian” societies, such as those found in pre-modern Europe, the dominant ecclesial form was that of the church. A church, as Weber and Troeltsch defined it, aspires to encompass the whole of a population—saints as well as sinners. The Roman Catholic Church’s claim to universality was of course challenged by the Reformation, one result of which was the emergence of Protestant sects, which aimed to include only the elect, and whose efforts to distance themselves from the established church necessarily had implications for the political belonging of their adherents. Yet, the fragmentation of Christendom resulted not in the demise of the “church type,” but rather in its proliferation. The theo-logic of divine sovereignty intersected with the Westphalian logic of state sovereignty to ensure that, while there could be many churches in the world—and indeed multiple religions—there could be no more than one per nation: cuius regio, eius religio.

But, as Taylor notes, in the United States, where establishment was prohibited by the First Amendment, the church structure morphed into something novel: namely, denominationalism. Whereas churches are compulsory institutions, denominations are free associations, existing only in the plural.  Unlike sects, however, denominations carry on the role of integrating national and religious identity. Indeed, as a voluntary form of association, the “denomination type” seems prima facie better calibrated than the “church type” to mediate the religious identity of a constitutional republic that has been mobilized into existence and conceives of itself as underwritten by a social contract. In this way, Protestant denominationalism provided a distinctively American means of maintaining a link between God and nation.

During the twentieth century, successive waves of immigration succeeded in eroding this informal Protestant establishment, but not the structure of denominationalism itself, which, as Taylor notes, expanded to accommodate new arrivals. These developments are aptly reflected in the title of Will Herberg’s 1955 essay, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: what it succeeds in capturing is not the vibrant diversity of American religiosity at mid-century (which included many more options than the three Herberg discusses), but the nature of the expanding denominational framework. It was around this same time that it became popular to refer to the United States as a “Judeo-Christian” nation—a neologism that covered a multitude of sins, even as it signaled real changes in the self-understanding of the American nation. America’s “greatness” was increasingly said to rest on the foundation not of Christianity per se, but of religion. Herberg wrote, “It may indeed be said that the primary religious affirmation of the American people, in harmony with the American Way of Life, is that religion is a ‘good thing,’ a supremely ‘good thing,’ for the individual and the community. And ‘religion’ here means not so much any particular religion, but religion as such, religion-in-general.” Notably, it was at this same juncture, in 1954, that Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. A similar sentiment was expressed by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1952: writing for the majority in Zorach v. Clauson, which upheld a New York program allowing students to be released from public schools for off-site religious instruction, he averred, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”

Currently, the character of American civil religion is undergoing yet another significant shift, as Islam is gradually incorporated into the denominational matrix at this same symbolic level. As was the case for Catholics and Jews, Muslims have, to be sure, encountered strong opposition to their full inclusion in the body politic, not simply from within but also from outside the existing denominational edifice, from those who still adhere to the conception of a Christian America. At the same time, it should be noted that the logic of denominationalism permits immigrants to be integrated through, and not simply in spite of, (at least some) religious differences. As Taylor himself notes, one way “that Americans can understand their fitting together in society although of different faiths, is through these faiths themselves being seen as in this consensual relation to the common civil religion.” Herberg had made a similar observation with respect to earlier waves of immigration: not only was an immigrant “expected to retain his old religion, as he was not expected to retain his old language or nationality, but such was the shape of America that it was largely in and through his religion that he, or rather his children and grandchildren, found an identifiable place in American life.”

Indeed, ample documentation suggests that new Americans are, as Raymond Williams put it, “more religious than they were before they left home.” Part of the explanation is that religious communities can help to ease the transition from one culture to another. But the decision of many immigrants to foreground this particular aspect of their identity may also be due to the fact that American society tends to be more tolerant of religious than of racial differences. As José Casanova has noted, “[t]his positive affirmation of religious identities is reinforced [. . .] by what appears to be a common defensive reaction by most immigrant groups against ascribed racialisation, particularly against the stigma of racial darkness.” The politics of immigrant identity negotiation is rather starkly framed in the title of a paper by Arvind Rajagopal: “Better Hindu Than Black?” By choosing actively to identify in terms of religion, rather than allowing themselves to be categorized simply in terms of the more limited logic of ascribed American racial identities, Hindus from India and Muslims from West Africa, for example, can improve their chances of achieving recognition as full members of the polity.

But although the American denominational matrix is more capacious than its racial correlate, it is nonetheless limited in terms of what it is prepared to welcome, and new constituencies have had to struggle for space under the sacred canopy. Some have never succeeded in achieving full acceptance, and those that have succeeded have often had to make concessions to prevailing understandings of what counts as legitimate religiosity. While it is possible, if not easy, to be integrated as a Muslim, it is, for example, doubtful whether one could be integrated through Santeria. The Protestant ethos out of which denominationalism emerged continues to exert a strong influence on how it is structured, and outsiders seeking inclusion commonly find themselves having to squeeze their traditions into a Protestant-shaped mould.

Entire “religions” are thus obliged to find a place for themselves within a symbolic framework, the original function of which was to organize the varying branches of American Protestant Christianity. The upshot is that genera like Judaism and Islam are collapsed into the spaces once reserved for species like Methodism and Presbyterianism: it is as a Muslim, rather than as an Ismaili, say, that one becomes an American. At the same time, however, one result of assimilation among Protestant denominations is that, for purposes of interfaith “representation,” Protestantism is usually treated as a single entity (often standing in for the whole of Christianity). Increasingly, so-called world religions are coming to take the place in the organizational matrix of American civil religion once reserved for Protestant denominations. As Casanova has noted, “American religious pluralism is expanding and incorporating all the world religions in the same way as it previously incorporated the religions of the old immigrants.”

Although its genealogy is complex and impossible to summarize in the space remaining here, one persistent feature of the discourse of religious pluralism is worth noting—namely, its construction over against various formations of the secular. As Tomoko Masuzawa has argued, “religion” first became identified as a discrete category just as it was deemed to be withdrawing from, or at least becoming circumscribed within, European culture, thus permitting an invidious contrast between the enlightened West and the religious East. But as the dominance of Christianity came increasingly to be perceived as under threat from those same secularizing tendencies, Christian theologians sought new ways of vindicating Christianity: one solution, as Masuzawa shows, involved the pluralistic affirmation of religion in general, over against irreligion. Rather than attempting to demonstrate the superiority of Christianity vis-à-vis all other alternatives, the new apologetic strategy involved enlisting erstwhile competitors against (what these European theologians took to be) a common enemy. The success of this strategy depended of course on being able to emphasize similarities rather than differences among the “major traditions,” minimizing alterity in the interests of an essential unity. What came to be called “pluralism” was in effect a strategy for containing difference. The goal, as Charles Carroll Bonney announced in his opening address to the First World’s Parliament of Religions in 1893, was “to unite all Religion against all irreligion; to make the golden rule the basis of this union; and to present to the world the substantial unity of many religions in the good deeds of the religious life.” That today’s “new atheism” positions itself against religion suggests that pluralist theology has indeed succeeded in changing the terms of the debate.

Part of what this debate is currently about is precisely the place of “nonbelievers” in societies that continue to understand political belonging in religious terms: thus, the common complaint, voiced by Richard Rorty (among innumerable others), that “no uncloseted atheist is likely to get elected anywhere in the country.” In his inaugural address in January 2009, President Barack Obama pronounced the United States “a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.” The inclusion of “nonbelievers” marked a significant departure from the boilerplate rhetoric of American civil religion. Yet, while it is plainly true that one need not claim a religious affiliation in order to be a citizen in the legal sense, there is reason to believe that the emergence of what might be termed multi-religious denominationalism has actually served to sharpen the moral boundary between “believers” and “nonbelievers,” and it is far from obvious that one can be incorporated through “unbelief.” In an illuminating recent study, Penny Edgell et al. found that their respondents ranked atheists first in terms of groups that do “not at all agree with my vision of American society,” followed rather distantly by Muslims, homosexuals, conservative Christians, and recent immigrants. The researchers theorize that increasing tolerance of religious diversity has further marginalized those who are not religious, and that atheism has come to function as the “other” against which the imagined community of America tends to be defined. If America is understood as a religious nation—if the “common ground” of American identity is seen as sacred ground—then non-religious ways of being will ipso facto be perceived as threatening to the social order.

A noteworthy finding of the study was that having a “conservative Protestant identity” was not a strong predictor of attitudes toward atheists. Rather, the independent variable seemed to be one’s “beliefs about the appropriate relationship between church and state and about religion’s role in underpinning society’s moral order.” In other words, the fault line at issue runs not between religion and secularism, or even between conservative Christianity and militant atheism, but cross-cutting these, between competing conceptions of the relation between religion and American civic belonging. If the argument I have sketched here is correct, the heart of the problem is that although the denominational structure has been widened to accommodate new entrants, its Durkheimian marriage of God and nation has not adequately been problematized.

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4 Responses to “Multi-religious denominationalism and American identity”

  1. As one who chose to be a “non-believer” in the traditional sense early in childhood, and who learned why as I studied and thought as I matured, I, too, was pleased to hear President Obama include “non-believers.” I often voice the inability of a known “non-believer” to be accommodated in American life. How long, if ever, it will take for acceptance to arrive, I have not a clue. Polarization is very apparent today.

  2. avatar Tamar Frankiel, Ph.D. says:

    A missing piece in Professor Amesbury’s astute commentary is the role of those who claim to be “spiritual” without being religious. As regional studies of American religion have shown, the proportion of these is stronger in the West and Pacific Northwest, and often correlates with a large number of political “independents.” But they exist everywhere today. The category of the population who might say they are more spiritual than religious covers a wide range, from part-time churchgoers to 12-step group members to those who study Tarot and astrology. Its makeup is probably 70% female.

    The “spiritual” group varies in importance, but raises important questions: Are nonbelievers [in a traditional God] equivalent to non-affiliaters? Those seeking public office may have to demonstrate a regular “religious” affiliation, but is it possible that “spirituality” is supporting a continuing vision of America that actually allows for the expansion Professor Amesbury notes, from simple denominationalism to a more complex inclusion of many “world religions.”

    Whether the exclusion/inclusion boundary is “moral” seems open to doubt. In the sense of morality which (in Durkheim’s view) includes acceptance of rules and obligations, most people acknowledge that atheists can and do act morally and are good citizens. I would suggest that discomfort with atheists, immigrants, and certain religious groups hasto do more with a sense of purpose: Do we agree that we are here for a purpose, as human beings and as Americans, to fulfill certain ideals? Suspicion that one or another individual or group doubts that purpose (as when atheists say that life has no purpose) or holds an opposing view of life’s aims (as many believe about Muslims) is more powerful than the actual evidence that these questionable ‘outsiders’ are living a good, law-abiding American life.

  3. avatar Vera Alice Bagneris says:

    The point is well-taken, America understands that religion is important.

  4. “Interfaith” may no longer be an adequate term for the dialog that is taking place in the public sphere regarding religion and its role in society. America seems to be fertile ground for experimenting with a rhetoric that will invite representatives who associate with faith (as it is conventionally understood) as well as those who do not to the table of “interfaith” dialog.

    A rhetoric that will account for the blur between religions as institutions, faith as personal investment in an institution, and spirituality as an openness to transcendence in general is also necessary.

    Perhaps a good place to start would be making the conversations of academia (which have some momentum when it comes to these issues) more accessible to and approachable for the general public.

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