From R. Laurence Moore, Religious Outsiders and the Making of Americans, (Oxford University Press, 1986),. Postscript, pp. 201-210.

Civil and Uncivil Religions:
Describing Religious Pluralism

   What then is the point? In the Introduction we traced the history of a Protestant desire. Throughout the nineteenth century most Protestant evangelicals who could be located within the Calvinist, Methodist, or Lutheran traditions warmly endorsed America's experiment in religious disestablishment. At the same time, they expected Americans to move toward a common faith which they thought would resemble their own sectarian outlooks. They were prepared to tolerate diversity, but they did not regard diversity as in itself a good thing. Too many sharply distinctive faiths in fact nullified not only their belief in the unity of the Reformed church but their idea of a virtuous republic as well. To them, maintaining a sensible piety among the American people was a public concern.  

Jefferson had spoken of a "wall of separation" between church and state, but Jefferson was not much of an evangelical. His met­aphor badly characterized the attitude of ministers who took the lead in describing America's religious system. They viewed the United States as a Protestant Christian nation. Many of them wanted the Constitution to say so explicitly, and they lobbied for legislation that laid down broad guidelines for religious and moral behavior. The freedom to worship in odd ways did not, they believed, require governments to encourage people to exercise that freedom. Unfolding events in the nineteenth century did little to sustain the hopes of Protestants who were waiting for a fun­damental religious unity to emerge. However, the situation was sufficiently complicated to lend plausibility to any number of interpretations. What one chose to describe remained very much under the influence of what one wished to prescribe.

By the middle of the twentieth century, the nineteenth‑century Protestant desire clearly needed recasting. The permanence of diversity, diversity that included non‑Protestant religious traditions, could no longer be doubted. Nonetheless, those who wanted to continue to emphasize some form of essential religious unity found ways to do so, none more persuasively than the American sociologist Robert Bellah. Bellah described the emergence of a civil religion in the United States which, while it did not replace or compete with individual churches, formed an arch of consensus over them. Civil religion, according to Bellah, had a life and institutional base of its own. Bellah argued that its major tenets were not even originally Protestant. But even if they were, the American mission which they sanctified had long ago expanded to include Catholics and Jews. Bellah found a good bit of the evidence for what he wanted to argue in the inaugural address of John Kennedy. America's first Catholic president molded his phrases to fit a tradition of public religious rhetoric that went all the way back to John Winthrop.

Without question, Bellah was onto something important, and he was not the only distinguished scholar who in the post‑World War II era managed to locate an American faith that transcended the crazy quilt pattern of denominational divisions. Americans are nationalistic like other people, and their nationalism was and is frequently expressed in religious terms. The paradox has not been lost on European observers. A nation that supposedly is neutral about religion has made religion an obligatory part of public ceremonies. Americans cannot even begin a football game without calling on a clergyman, and it scarcely matters of what faith, to invoke the divine blessing that they assume is peculiarly theirs. Yet if the rites of civil religion suggest that Americans share religious myths, mere reference to them does not settle the issue of how much of themselves Americans invest in non-acrimonious religious observance and how much of themselves they invest in using religious lines to separate themselves from one another. Civil religion exists, but it too, like more ordinary religions, may have split Americans into separate camps as often as it has brought them together.

    Common myths do not have to be read in the same way. That is one important caveat. Studies of popular culture have begun to take account of how people misread or creatively misinterpret texts that are assumed to have a clear and single meaning. Public ceremonies are no different from texts. Most Americans celebrate the commercially promoted holidays of Christmas and Thanks­giving, but what their private recreations on those days mean to them is anyone's guess. The same can be said about Inauguration Days, Fourth of July celebrations, and Memorial Days. Americans may or may not pay much attention to what presidents say when they take office; but since the ritual utterances are in the main bland (Jefferson, Lincoln, and Kennedy are exceptions), Ameri­cans are not forced into a single pattern of understanding mean­ing. Americans may remember on the Fourth of July that they are glad to be American, but whether that memory in most cases relates to feelings solemn or specific enough to qualify as religion is subject to doubt. Memorial Day celebrations in small towns give as much evidence of patterns of geographical tribalism as of a common faith. Insofar as the rites of a public religion evoke strong emotional response, they do most certainly reinforce American patriotism. However, as we have seen, patriotic flag waving permits a language that proclaims difference. A civil reli­gion therefore turns into an arena of contested meanings where Americans make assertions about what makes them different from other Americans. The Civil War stands as an ample reminder of just how bad things can get. A functional unity of the majority may in normal times be the product of civic piety, but we ought not on that account forget the differences, or the ways in which what is called civil religion can reinforce the least attractive com­mon denominators of the American people.

    The last point, although acknowledged, is de-emphasized in the prescriptive outlook that clearly underlies much of what has been written on the subject of civil religion. At its best, according to Bellah, American civil religion recognized that the nation stood under transcendent judgment. If regular denominational religions have had trouble keeping that point of view in mind, we should not be surprised that past American politicians have in their public piety fallen shorter of Bellah's idealism than Bellah wished to con­cede. When the "sixties" were over, some proponents of civil religion followed Bellah in writing sadly about the "empty and broken shell" of American civil religion.' There was reason for sadness, but what they thought had failed was not failing for the first time in American life. Gratitude is due to anyone who tries to hold America to high expectations, but only historical forgetfulness can permit us to believe that the American past furnishes consistent encouragement to those expectations. What the original tribal inhabitants of North America learned about America's sense of national destiny was as relevant to understanding the uses of civil religion as Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address.

     The success that the American people have had with their institutions was not necessarily in the design, for the system has often worked in ways that would have confounded the designers. Madison, in the celebrated tenth paper that he wrote to argue the Federalist position, came as close as anyone ever has to explaining the "genius" of American politics. Societies, according to Madison, are collections of groups or factions that seek to satisfy selfish, frequently economic, interests. In pure democracies or in small republics, factions posed grave dangers to individual liberty. Any one of them had a fair chance to become a majority and thus gain the unchecked power to impose its particular interests on everyone else. In a large republic, such as the United States was intended to be, the danger of factionalism was significantly reduced. Elected assemblies imposed a check on popular majorities. More important, large republics, spread over an extensive geographical area, multiplied the number of factions to the point that no one of them could become the majority. As a result, factions had to compromise and to be content with only part of what they wanted. They sometimes even had to concern themselves with the public good. Madison never imagined that the selfish desires responsible for the formation of factions would disappear or cease to be a primary motive in political behavior. He merely predicted, with reasonable accuracy, that the projected American system could control the dangerous consequences of factionalism.

The analysis that Madison applied to political behavior was just as prescient with respect to the American system of church voluntarism. American religious sects are a species of faction, and the religious history of the United States gives us little reason to think that tolerance would remain an entirely safe principle if any one of them gained an overwhelming majority. Will Herberg was being uncharacteristically Pollyanna‑ish when he concluded that the "American tends to feel rather strongly that total religious uniformity... would be something undesirable and wrong."5 Perhaps recently, a pluralism of religions and churches has become "axiomatic" to most Americans. However, the full extension of reli­gious tolerance, if indeed full tolerance describes the present state of religious affairs in the United States, was more the product of conditions of pluralism which no one sect had the power to over­come as of an abstract belief in the value of pluralism. Contem­porary studies that point to a strong correlation between religious affiliation and prejudice should remind us that religious tolerance was not the free gift of a dominant religious group, the Consti­tution notwithstanding, but the product of uneasy arrangements made between groups that did not much like one another.' If Americans are now more religiously tolerant than they were in the nineteenth century, it is not because they are collectively more high‑minded but because they care less about religion. A civil reli­gion that guarantees an absolutely unqualified religious liberty to everyone has about the same standing in American life as Madi­son's realm of the public good. One has no trouble finding it pro­claimed and respected, but it owes its existence to the frustration of sectarian interests rather than to the disappearance of selfish ambitions and dark suspicions about the value of someone else's religion.

In raising questions about the degree of religious consensus in the United States, we most certainly run the risk of exaggerating divergence. Any number of observers have remarked with respect to political behavior that the ideological differences among Amer­icans have been relatively insignificant. Otherwise the American party system could not have operated as it has. An analogous observation about American religion suggests that although one can count hundreds of religious groups in the United States, the vast majority of religious Americans have gravitated toward a small number of "mainline" denominations. Edwin Gaustad, for example, argued on the basis of religious statistics gathered in 1965, that is, in a period marked by a seemingly large amount of religious splintering, that only ten major Christian denomina­tional families existed in the United States.' Despite journalistic attention given to new religions that attracted young students, the ten major denominational families together comprised 57.9 per­cent of the total national population and 90 percent of church membership.

Gaustad sensibly suggested, therefore, that America's system of religious pluralism has stopped well short of religious anarchy. He confirmed what nineteenth‑century religious statisticians had observed: in whatever time period, most Americans who affiliated with churches confined their enthusiasms within the structures of no more than ten main groups. In fact, judged by these measures, the degree of unity is increasing. That is, the ten largest denom­inations at the end of the nineteenth century, as counted by H. K. Carroll, comprised a smaller proportion of total church adherents than they do now (75 percent as opposed to 90 percent). But Gaustad made nothing of the trend. His main thought was to dem­onstrate that the names of the "mainline" denominations change, but the number of them stays roughly the same.

Although religious census statistics are not wrong (at least no more wrong than statistics about religion always are), one still feels a bit like blind men before the elephant. Most of what one describes depends upon what one happens to touch, and it is not at all clear how best to sum up the whole. As noted, Gaustad might have used census statistics to suggest more unity than he did. In 1965 only two denominational families counted more than 10 per­cent of the national population‑Roman Catholics with 23.8 per­cent and Baptists with 12.2 percent. (The proportional predomi­nance of both groups has increased since 1965.) Together these two major denominational families claimed 36 percent of the national population and 56 percent of the church population. Measured against such statistical preponderance, one wonders what else could qualify as major. Perhaps Methodism, which housed 7 percent of the national population. Beyond that, none of the other denominational families labeled as "major" by Gaustad accounted for more than 5 percent of the national population, and only one, the Lutherans, exceeded 4 percent. The bottom seven of the "major" denominational families divided a scant 14.5 per­cent of the national population, and only 22.5 percent of the church population. Statistically, Presbyterians (2.3 percent of the national population) and Episcopalians (1.8 percent) were closer, much closer, to Christian Scientists and Pentecostals than to Catholics and Baptists. It is hard to see the choice of the number "ten" to count "major" families as anything more than a wish to have a list long enough to seem tolerant but not so long as to appear indiscriminate.

Gaustad is an astute observer of American religious life, and he did not rest his conclusions on statistics alone. He noted correctly that members of most of the smaller denominations on his list of ten were proportionately over-represented in the most influential institutions that comprise American society. Moreover, although theoretically split by family lines, some were on the verge of forming a Christian Union that would put them numerically in the same league with Baptists. Still, one is left with questions about splits in the major "denominational families." Baptists are the largest Protestant family precisely because their name covers any number of conventions and congregations which encourage a consciousness of separation. Catholics, who despite large num­bers have only recently made it onto lists of "mainline" churches, have managed to advance in America despite the well‑known eth­nic parochialism that in reality divides the church. Any grouping of denominational "families" is bound to underestimate the degree to which religious Americans have made their primary alle­giance to numerically small groups.

The same caution holds true even if one ignores families and counts separate denominations. The latest census, published in 1984, showed four Christian denominations with over five mil­lion members; nine more with over two million; and twenty‑two total with over one million. Although diversity already becomes more apparent if we separate Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, and others into their various national organizations, we ought to go further. We ought to be looking at individual churches which have always been among America's strongest local institutions. The label "denomination" conceals any number of class, ethnic, and racial differences, not to mention distinctive theological per­spectives and styles. The fact that individual Americans frequently change denominations, despite strong denominational loyalties, is a sign of that. In moving from one place to another, and faced with the need to sink instant roots into something particular and famil­iar, people sometimes find a denominational name of little help in deciding where to turn.

    America's system of religious pluralism is not anarchy. We have no quarrel with that statement. We have, however, wished to reiterate several things that are not always apparent in efforts to draw lines between "mainline" and "non‑mainline" churches in the United States, lines which place even many of those born on American soil in the latter category. The gulfs that religious Americans have invented to distinguish their various religious groups have not always, or even usually, had much to do with the­ology. Ecumenicists have been perfectly correct in saying that America does not need so many faiths as it has to house the range of its theological opinion. Any sophisticated theological perspec­tive could instantly dissolve the importance of most beliefs that divide American Protestant groups. But religious modernists, who have yearned for a tolerance that flows from consensus, have tried to let an abstract possibility serve as reality. They have misread the facts that sectarian division is contrived, that religious groups exaggerate the differences that separate them, as evidence of incipient unity. What they have forgotten to ponder is why the divisions do not easily go away.

Andrew Greeley has persuasively noted that American churches have succeeded not merely because they have provided their adherents with a framework of religious meaning sufficient to explain the world they live in.' If that were the only thing, sec­ularism would long ago have worked more corrosively on Amer­ican religious loyalties than it has. American churches have also provided a shelter for people who otherwise had no clear niche in a bewilderingly unstructured society. Americans needed an unusual differentiation of religious persuasions because they had an unusual need for a wise variety of social identities. The sepa­ration of church and state in America has not done as much for the virtue of either church or state as its proponents usually claim. It did not much help Americans to find God or public virtue. What it did do was enable them to find themselves.

This returns us to the problem of understanding the paradox­ical relation between outsider religious groups and so‑called "mainline" churches. What we have tried to suggest is that "mainline" has too often been misleadingly used to label what is "normal" in American religious life and "outsider" to characterize what is aberrational or not‑yet‑American. In fact the American religious system may be said to be "working" only when it is cre­ating cracks within denominations, when it is producing novelty, even when it is fueling antagonisms. These things are not things which, properly understood, are going on at the edges or fringes of American life. They are what give energy to church life and substance to the claim that Americans are the most religious peo­ple on the face of the earth. This often unexamined cliche by the way only means that a lot of Americans go to church. It does not mean, at least not without more proof than is offered here, that Americans are an especially spiritually minded people.

All of the examples we have presented were meant to change the meaning of our common vocabularies by revealing their ambiguity. As the argument ends, we may concede that the Mormon church in 1840 is not usefully characterized as "mainline." Nonetheless, nothing was more central to American culture at the time than the Mormon "controversy." Americans discovered who they were by locating themselves with respect to it. Furthermore, nothing was more "normal" or "typical" of American life than the process of carving out a separate self‑identification, a goal toward which all the early Mormon enterprise was directed. The same effort was being made by much larger groups, the Catholics for example, as well as by churches that already thought of themselves as being on the "inside." Unitarian belligerency in the face of Transcendentalism was the response of a group that was trying to balance feelings of cultural superiority with fears of social extinction. There is no way to deal with questions of inside and outside without sharply qualifying the objectivity which those labels seem to claim. What was in conventional terms outside the American religious mainstream turned American religious history into an interesting story. Pluralism may not have meant anarchy. But it did mean pluralism.

Many of the religious groups we have written about in these pages attracted people with strongly felt social insecurities. But what should we make of that? To call their activities marginal blinds us to the great number of Americans who have had to find ways to confront social insecurities. To call certain religious positions escapist or unrealistic because they failed to encourage political activity that promised relief to downtrodden groups conceals how little many people have gotten from politics even in what is theoretically as democratic a country as exists in the world. As the reader was warned in the beginning, the point of view of this analysis is not particularly optimistic.

On the other hand, if the time has long come when Americans must stop writing about their unique success, they may take certain satisfactions in reviewing the historical record. The United States absorbed a vast number of people who had no opportunities elsewhere. It did not do that without violence, oppression, and exploitation, but one can imagine a far worse scenario. On ba­lance, the proliferation of religious identifications helped contain the worst tendencies in American life. That was not because the various religions taught brotherly love, although most of them did. Nor was it because religions sought to avoid antagonism. Quite the contrary. Nor was it because diversity did not really entail dis­tinctiveness. What the proliferation did was to provide ways for many people to invest their life with a significance that eased their sense of frustration. For many, no doubt, that meant coming to terms with and accepting social and political powerlessness. For others, it led directly to gaining conventional forms of power in a world that was no longer primarily religious. America was potentially as great a religious battleground as had existed in the course of Western Civilization. That it did not become one of the worst is probably enough of a success so far as history goes. Con­sensus as a myth became believable, and the long‑range effects of very real conflict were blunted. Whether that success, the result of a providential mistake, will continue in the future is another matter.