Topic 12
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12. One and Many: Religion and the Culture Wars

THEME:  "Pluralism and its Discontents."

Since the last third of the 20th century religion in the United States has been shaped by two major trends - the increase in religious diversity and the polarization  and controversies that contribute to the so-called culture wars. It has become a truism, heard ceaselessly in the media and in political discourse, that we have entered the 21st century as a divided nation.

These divisions and tensions are rooted in movements and trends in the last third of the 20th century.  

The population grew rapidly after World War II and became even more diverse, with many immigrants from non-European continents bringing religions distinct from the Judeo-Christian traditions that had become part of American life during the first half of the century. These new American communities brought new challenges for defining American identity. 

At the same time, divisions within American Protestantism (between conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and modernists) and the growth of new denominations (generated by Pentecostal and Evangelical movements), largely unconnected to the historical Protestant churches, reconfigured Protestantism (see Topic 11 as well as below).  The rise of political activism by the Christian Right and the divisive issues of the "culture wars" contributed to the polarization of national life.

Given these trends, it is not surprising that Civil Religion has also become a source of controversy.  During the last decades of the century the relation between the Many and the One in American life became increasingly problematic, with contending visions for the religious meaning of the American nation.


 Marty, chap. 20: New Paths for Old Pilgrimages

Eck, chaps. 6-7

Porterfield, #37: Daly, Beyond God the Father; #40: Ruether, Sexism and God-Talk; #41: Frankiel, The Voice of Sarah. These sources documents aspects of the gender issue in late 20th-century American religion.
#42: Epstein, Thoughts Without a Thinker looks briefly at aspects of Buddhism in contemporary American life;
#43: Reed, Active Faith, illustrates the use of the political arena by the so-called Christian right.

Moore, #9: Evangelizing the World in this Generation
Moore, Postscript: Civil and Uncivil Religions [optional reading, an essay from another of Moore's books]

Larry Rouner, "What is an American? Civil Religion, Cultural Diversity, and American Civilization."  [see the discussion below for the context of this useful optional reading..]

World Religions in Boston [online resource to supplement Eck's book.]
Pluralism Project, Harvard University [Check this out for the research Prof. Eck's work has stimulated.]
      Islam in America: From Slavery to Malcolm X

The Christian Right
[Adapted from an online essay by
Grant Wacker
Duke University Divinity School

©National Humanities Center}

Defining the Christian Right is the first task of this essay. At the end of the 1980s, it was commonly assumed that the Christian Right consisted entirely of evangelical Protestants. Polls from that period suggested that evangelical Protestants comprised the majority of adherents, but many members of the Christian Right were not evangelical Protestants, and many evangelical Protestants were not members of the Christian Right. More precisely, the Christian Right drew support from politically conservative Catholics, Jews, Mormons, and occasionally secularists. At the same time, many evangelical Protestants showed little interest in the Christian Right's political goals. Those believers, who might be called evangelical outsiders, included confessional Protestants (especially of Dutch and German extraction), Protestants from the generally apolitical peace churches like the Amish and Old Order Mennonites, fervently fundamentalist Protestants who were so conservative that they held no hope for America or any civil society, and black and Latino Protestants who tended to be politically liberal though theologically and culturally evangelical. Evangelical outsiders also included millions of born-again Protestants who were generally sympathetic to the political aims of the Christian Right but, as a practical matter, remained more interested in the devotional aims or charitable work of the church than in winning elections. It may be helpful, then, to think of the Christian Right as the large shaded area in the middle of two overlapping circles. The shaded area consists of (1) evangelicals who cared enough about the political goals of the Christian Right to leave their pews and get out the vote and (2) non-evangelicals who cared enough about the political goals of the Christian Right to work with evangelicals.


How large was the Christian Right in recent elections? Hard figures are hard to come by, but polls and other indicators such as book sales indicate that the inner core—the shaded area—claimed no more than 200,000 adult Americans. On the other hand, fellow travelers, people who explicitly identify themselves as partisans of the religious right (a slightly broader category than Christian Right), ranged from ten to fifteen million. Sympathizers who might be mobilized over a specific issue such as abortion or gun control may have enlisted thirty-five million. Though the Christian Right's numerical strength leveled off in the early 1990s, its influence at the grass roots, in state and local elections, in setting school board policies, etc., has remained conspicuous. The rest of this discussion pertains primarily to the inner core of committed partisans, secondarily to the millions of sympathizers who became involved as the situation warranted.

The Christian Right emerged from both long-range (See the essay "The Rise of Fundamentalism" in Divining America: Twentieth Century.) and short-range developments in American life.

Growth of biblical higher criticism in the seminaries

Teaching of human evolution in public schools

Threat of Communism after WWII.

 Cultural changes of the 1960scivil rights conflicts, Vietnam protests, the alternative youth culture, the women's liberation movement, the sexual revolution, and the rise of new religions (which were mostly ancient religions emerging from obscurity).

These transformations seemed to find a frightening echo in Supreme Court decisions that banned official (but not private) prayer and Bible readings in the schools (Engel v. Vitale, 1962), legalized first trimester abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973), and regulated government involvement in private Christian academies (Lemon v. Kurtzman, 1971).

A conservative Christian response quickly emerged.

Led by charismatic, energetic figures like Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schlafly, activists sought to defend traditional Christian values:

authority of the Bible in all areas of life

necessity of faith in Jesus Christ

relevance of biblical values in sexual relations and marital arrangements.

What differentiated Falwell, Robertson, and Schlafly from other Christian spokesmen was their linking of traditional Christian values with images of a simpler small-town America of the past. Indeed, the Christian Right proved so successful in translating its concerns to a wider audience that national pollster George Gallup pronounced 1976 "the year of the evangelical." The mass media agreed. Both Time and Newsweek ran cover articles on the insurgence of evangelical Protestant Christianity. (It should be stressed that many who called themselves evangelicals, including the new president in 1976, Jimmy Carter, did not share many of the aims of the emerging Christian Right, but outsiders often failed to note such distinctions.)

In the face of this conservative Christian insurgence, the mainline Protestant establishment and the secular media looked like the proverbial deer in the headlights—utterly stunned. Where did these folk come from? What did they want? How could the Christian Right flourish in the sunlit progressivism of the Age of Aquarius?

The world-view of the Christian Right, which rests upon four cornerstones.

bullet The assumption that moral absolutes exist as surely as mathematical or geological absolutes constitutes the first. These moral absolutes include many of the oldest and deepest assumptions of Western culture, including the fixity of sexual identities and gender roles, the preferability of capitalism, the importance of hard work, and the sanctity of unborn life. More importantly, not only do moral absolutes exist, they are clearly discernible to any who wish honestly to see them.
bullet The assumption that metaphysics, morals, politics, and mundane customs stand on a continuum constitutes the second cornerstone of the Christian Right's world-view. Specifically, ideas about big things like the nature of the universe inevitably affect little things, such as how individuals choose to act in the details of daily life. And the reverse. What one thinks about the nature of God, for example, inevitably influences one's decision to feed—or not to feed—the parking meter after the cops have gone home. Contrary to the facile assumption of mainline Protestants, influenced by the Enlightenment, it is not possible for the Christian Right to draw easy lines between the public and the private spheres of life. (There is evidence that the Christian Right abandoned Jimmy Carter at precisely this point—when he announced that abortion should be legally protected in the public sphere, although he would not countenance it in the private sphere of his own family.)
bullet The assumption that government's proper role is to cultivate virtue, not to interfere with the natural operations of the marketplace or the workplace. The Christian Right remains baffled by the secular culture's apparent unwillingness, on one hand, to offer schoolchildren firm moral guidance in matters of sexuality, truthfulness, honesty, and patriotism while, on the other hand, proving ever-so-eager to engineer the smallest details of the economy. Why should conscientious, hardworking law-abiding citizens be penalized by mazes of government regulations? Why should the irresponsible, the lazy, and the unpatriotic be rewarded by those same public institutions?
bullet The assumption that all successful societies need to operate within a framework of common assumptions. Since the Western Jewish-Christian tradition has provided an eminently workable premise for the United States for the better part of four centuries, it makes no sense to undermine these premises by legitimating alien ones. The key issue is not so much what would be permitted as what would be legitimated. Many, perhaps most members of the Christian Right feel that it is one thing to permit dissidents to live in peace, quite another to say that any set of values is just as good, or just as functional, as any other set.

Siege Mentality: The Christian Right sees traditional Christians under siege. Simply stated, Christian civilization has to be defended against outside attack, especially from:

the secular media - The Christian Right bitterly complains about the way that traditional Christians are overlooked, if not caricatured, in network newscasts, situation comedies, and mass circulation periodicals. They note, for example, that nearly half of the American families routinely bow their heads to offer thanks before eating, yet such simple rituals of traditional piety almost never show up on TV, except in contexts of ridicule.

the public schools -
The Christian Right objects to the way that their children are manipulated in the public schools. Some of the Christian Right's objections center upon the watering-down of old-fashioned academic standards, but the heart of its concern lies in the "values clarification movement." To the Christian Right, the movement does not simply "clarify values," it leads children and teenagers to believe that their parents' ideals are ephemeral constructions of time and place, and thus replaceable at will.

the enemies of the traditional family -    Perhaps most importantly, the traditional family finds itself besieged on all fronts. The media and the schools do their part, but the most pernicious assault stems from government policies that encourage abortion, divorce, and fatherless families. If millions saw the Equal Rights Amendment as a threat, not a boon, to the security of ordinary women, it was because the ERA promised to corrode the only tethers that kept men firmly bound to the responsibilities of home and hearth. (Note the relevance of Randall Balmer's "American Fundamentalism: The Ideal of Femininity," in Porterfield, 101-116)

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God Fights Back (An episode on Fundamentalism and Politics in the PBS series, The Peoples’ Century)

Historians Debate (Prof. Wacker's recommendations for further reading)

Sometimes it seems that the only thing growing faster than the Christian Right is the torrent of books and articles about it. Theologians, historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and political scientists have probed the movement from a variety of disciplinary perspectives. One common approach sees the movement in terms of right-wing radicalism, subversive at best, militant and dangerous at worst. Others depict the Christian Right more benignly as an effort to preserve real or perceived traditional values in the face of modernity in general and modern secularism in particular. Still others have sought to set the Christian Right in the context of global economic and cultural changes, focusing especially upon the secular state as the nemesis of God-fearing people everywhere.

Three volumes merit special notice. Political scientist Michael Lienesch, in Redeeming Politics (1993), offers a subtle and empathetic account of the Christian Right's beliefs and values. In crisp and accessible prose, Lienesch walks the reader through the Christian Right's notions of self, family (including sexuality and gender), politics, economics, political views of the American nation, America's relation to the world, and the end of time. William Martin, in With God On Our Side (1996), affords a particularly rich narrative of the emergence of the Christian Right in post–World War II evangelicalism, its vigorous mobilization in the 1970s, and its ability—and inability—to implement its vision in the Nixon, Reagan, and Bush White Houses. Martin combines a sociologist's awareness of the larger picture with a historian's feel for the nuances and contradictions embedded in the story. Finally, Piety and Politics, edited by Richard John Neuhaus and Michael Cromartie (1987), marshals a collection of scholarly articles and book chapters on the long-range background of the Christian Right, pieces by Christian Right spokesmen and evangelical critics of the Christian Right, and critical perspective essays by outsider theologians, sociologists, and historians.


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Civil Religion and Diversity

Most Americans see the creed as the crucial element of their national identity. The creed, however, was the product of the distinct Anglo-Protestant culture of the founding settlers. Key elements of that culture include the English language; Christianity; religious commitment; English concepts of the rule of law, including the responsibility of rulers and the rights of individuals; and dissenting Protestant values of individualism, the work ethic, and the belief that humans have the ability and the duty to try to create a heaven on earth, a "city on a hill."
- Samuel P. Huntington, "The Hispanic Challenge," Foreign Policy magazine

In recent decades, American civil religion has found itself in competition with a new civic ideal: diversity and multiculturalism.

Some might say diversity and multiculturalism are the creed, and civil religion is the relic of a bygone era of white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, who are now dead - and the deader the better.

During the civil rights era, while Martin Luther King stressed the importance of bonding black and white interests together, black nationalist movements, Marxists and many white intellectuals rejected American civil religion as the invention of the white man and thus intolerably tainted.

During the height of the Vietnam War and the struggle for integration, author Susan Sontag wrote this oft-quoted screed::

"America was founded on a genocide, on the unquestioned assumption of the right of white Europeans to exterminate a resident, technologically backward, colored population in order to take over the continent," she wrote in a 1967 Partisan Review symposium. "The white race is the cancer of human history; it is the white race and it alone - its ideologies and inventions - which eradicates autonomous civilizations wherever it spreads, which has upset the ecological balance of the planet, which now threatens the very existence of life itself."

Bellah traces the decline of the "Anglo-Saxon" and their creed to a long-fermenting hostility of American intellectuals to white Protestant culture and the decline of mainline Protestant churches.

      "The rejection of the Anglo-Saxon image of the American goes very deep, and there is a great effort to retrieve the experience and history of all the repressed cultures that 'Americanization' tried to obliterate," Bellah wrote in The Broken Covenant. "Instead of one American civil religion, it is argued, there are many civil religions; instead of one covenant, many."

Can one nation, "under God," continue to exist in such a state of plurality? Is the true American civil religion the sole property of "native" (i.e., white) Americans? Will diversity and multiculturalism overtake, obliterate and replace civil religion, or will American civil religion incorporate diversity and multiculturalism within its tenets?

Harvard Professor Samuel Huntington has taken the highly controversial view that the American creed is the product of Anglo-Protestant culture. This "creed" - a term Huntington uses in place of civil religion - faces a survival challenge if the masses of new immigrants do not assimilate to the "core Anglo-Protestant culture." In his article, "The Hispanic Challenge," Huntington argues that mass migration to the United States, coupled with the ideology of diversity and multiculturalism, are undermining America's national creed and threatening its basis as a nation-state.

"In the final decades of the 20th century, the United States' Anglo-Protestant culture and the creed that it produced came under assault by the popularity in intellectual and political circles of the doctrines of multiculturalism and diversity; the rise of group identities based on race, ethnicity, and gender over national identity; the impact of transnational cultural diasporas; the expanding number of immigrants with dual nationalities and dual loyalties; and the growing salience for U.S. intellectual, business, and political elites of cosmopolitan and transnational identities," Huntington wrote.

Sherrill takes a more optimistic view: American civil religion, rather than being a static creed that is the sole domain of white Americans, is an ever-evolving phenomenon that adapts and incorporates diversity - and in fact is the very force that enables pluralism in the United States.

"American civil religion provides background, ideas and vocabulary for a national discussion. It is accessible to Americans if they've been here since 1620 or if they arrived from Vietnam six weeks ago," Sherrill said. "There are certain ways the country talks about itself as 'the land of opportunity,' an open society, democratic way of life, etc. - all of which have a pull on the imagination of people who are fleeing horrible circumstances elsewhere."

Sherrill said different versions of civil religion exist and often compete in different regions of the country and among different ethnic groups.

"Civil religion works at a national level and filters down into local communities; and it is very different on the East Coast, the West Coast and the Southwest. Every group in America that is religious and is serious about its national character incorporates civil religion in its own terms," he said.

"Civil religion in Los Angeles is a huge contest among so many different groups, each of which has its own version of the religious meaning of the country. They would disagree on almost every issue except for the belief that America sanctions the smaller version that they enact in their particular neighborhood," Sherrill said.

The next great challenge for civil religion is whether it can serve to keep the nation cohesive as it moves increasingly toward "radical pluralism," according to Leroy S. Rouner, a professor of philosophy, religion and philosophical theology at Boston University.

"The internal test for American civil religion today is whether it can survive without a common religion as its basis. The immigrants who are reinvigorating American life today are not from Christian Europe; they are largely from Vietnam, Korea, and China, and their religious backgrounds are Buddhist and Confucian, in which, for example, the idea of 'rights' is regarded as asocial and divisive," Rouner wrote in his essay, "What is an American? Civil Religion, Cultural Diversity, and American Civilization."

(This essay is from FACSNET: Religion and Public Life)