by Robert Wuthnow
(Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2005), 448 pp., $29.95.
In America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity sociologist Robert Wuthnow surveys the religious map of America. His aim is to promote pluralism among Christians and the ever-growing numbers of non-Christian groups. By pluralism he means embracing diversity as opposed to merely tolerating it:
Tolerance, especially of the knee-jerk variety, is not the same as true pluralism…. It is too casual, too easy. Tolerance of that kind works as long as people can slink off by themselves, avoiding contact, and never facing up to what they truly believe.
Like Milton, Wuthnow cannot praise “a cowardly and fugitive virtue that slinks out from the race.” He promotes the full engagement of Christians with non-Christians, where each religion accepts the “challenges of diversity” by renewing itself through a self-scrutiny inspired by the presence and challenge of the others. “Religious pluralism”, he writes, “will prove most enriching if it results in a practice of sustained critical reflection about the unwavering human desire for transcendence.” Ideally, diversity will stimulate a kind of Socratic dialogue through which each religion will come to know itself as one among many and thereby better appreciate what it shares with all the others.
Such is Wuthnow’s aspiration; such, we might even say, is his project. And it is a stretch, for he knows that it is not diversity with pluralism, but diversity with tolerance, that has always characterized American religious life. Wuthnow thinks interreligious relations in America could be better than they are, and he fears that in the absence of progress toward his pluralist goal they will one day be much worse. Mutual evasion, he argues, is a shaky basis for toleration, a most unstable mean between intolerance and genuine pluralism.
Wuthnow’s analysis rests on a “Religion and Diversity Survey” conducted by telephone in 2002-03 with a representative national sample of 2,910 adults. Wuthnow and his team then followed up with in-depth interviews of 200 of the respondents, 50 of their clergymen, as well as an ambitious independent program of interviews in areas of the country selected for their religious diversity. For historical perspective, Wuthnow examined “hundreds of primary and secondary documents from the past” relating to the American confrontation with religious diversity.
Thanks no doubt to this investment of labor, the great virtue of America and the Challenges of Religious Diversity lies in its careful depiction of the state of American Christianity today. Wuthnow’s narrative is endlessly subtle and informative. He divides contemporary American Christians into three basic types: “spiritual shoppers” (31 percent of respondents), “inclusivist” Christians (23 percent) and “exclusivist” Christians (34 percent):
A spiritual shopper . . . usually does not privilege Christianity and . . . does regard all religions as equally true. A Christian inclusivist does privilege Christianity but also believes there is truth in other religions. A Christian exclusivist believes that only Christianity is ultimately true.
Wuthnow coins a motto for each of these groups– “embracing diversity” for spiritual shoppers, “many mansions” for inclusivist Christians, “one way” for exclusivist Christians–and he provides an extensive account of each.
Now, it might seem that of these three groups the spiritual shoppers best fit Wuthnow’s bill for the American future; by their own account, at least, they “embrace diversity.” Wuthnow debunks this claim, however. If the ideal of pluralism is to combine a conviction in the primacy of Christianity with an openness to diversity, the shoppers are non-starters, for what distinguishes them is precisely their rejection of Christian primacy. They are not Christian at all, but post-Christian. Their “openness” to diverse ancient traditions translates in practice as an inability to commit themselves to any one “long enough to gain a full understanding of it.” The shoppers interviewed tend to offer scraps of Zen simmered in a broth of psychobabble. One of them, reflecting on his many spiritual vicissitudes, “now thinks of Jesus as his inner child.” Wuthnow’s spiritual shoppers much resemble David Brooks’ Bobos, the chief difference being that Wuthnow always keeps a straight face. His point, nonetheless, brings a smile: Seek and ye shall find; shop and ye shall not.
Inclusivist Christians blend a continued submission to the authority of their ancestral faith with an earnest respect for other faiths. They, too, disappoint Wuthnow, for while moderately keen on diversity in theory–less so than spiritual shoppers but much more so than exclusivist Christians–they are mostly strangers to it in practice. Their knowledge of non-Christian faiths is minimal. Wuthnow shows how “mainstream” Christianity can be wishy-washy without being pluralistic: That Presbyterians can no longer bring themselves to consign a Buddhist to hellfire tells us something about their Christianity, but it implies no genuine engagement with Buddhism.
As to exclusivist Christians, Wuthnow does his best to dispel the caricatures of them prevalent in enlightened circles. The belief in “one way”–i.e., that there is no salvation but through Jesus and no authoritative guide for man but the Bible–is not confined to bigots inhabiting enclaves of rural imbecility. Exclusivist (primarily Evangelical) Christians are neither an anomaly nor a throwback, but are as much a product of the contemporary scene as the other two categories. Many of them, indeed, are travelers from these other categories to an exclusivist destination.
While some exclusivist Christians interviewed expressed resentment or apprehension at the number and popularity of non-Christian sects in America, most were relatively indifferent to them. Exclusivists do not cultivate ecumenical contacts with these groups, but neither do they strain to rescue them from damnation. Rather, they take the view that there is more merit in saving the souls of Christian non-churchgoers. They make de facto peace with diversity, but at a far remove from Wuthnow’s pluralism.
Since so little is afoot in the way of meaningful interfaith dialogue among congregations, Wuthnow turns elsewhere for evidence of its possibility: to intermarriage. Churches have little to do with ashrams, but Christians do marry Sikhs–and fully half of all Jews marry Christians. Couples must negotiate the terms of their interreligious relationships because they must decide how to raise their children. If there is a frontier of practical religious pluralism, this is it.
When I was a teenager in the early 1960s, our liberal Jewish congregation vigorously opposed intermarriage, even as it celebrated ecumenism. The prevailing wisdom was that the interfaith gulf was too wide to bridge and that a mixed couple would pay a steep price for its imprudence. That may have been true then; Wuthnow denies that it is so now. On the whole, the couples he surveys have succeeded in reaching a modus vivendi. Wuthnow discusses the process of accommodation by which each partner comes to terms with what is theologically alien in the other. In general, he tells us, the partner whose attachment to his or her original way is strongest prevails. Ah, but that’s the rub: Intermarriage succeeds nowadays because so many are but loosely attached to their original faiths.
A particularly poignant feature of Wuthnow’s account of intermarriage is his presentation of the clergy’s role. Clergymen provide little useful guidance in navigating the shoals of connubial pluralism. They hesitate to oppose intermarriage, knowing that the lovers would simply shop for a more acquiescent pastor. Usually, therefore, clergy fall back on one of two modes of response: the “managerial”, in which they treat the question of intermarriage as one of administration; or the “therapeutic”, in which they assure the young people that they will be there for them if, and probably when, the tensions of faith hit the proverbial fan. Evasion figures often in the scenarios Wuthnow chronicles.
Because Wuthnow offers such weak grounds for hope in the triumph of genuine pluralism, we are thrown back faute de mieux on toleration. Personally, I’m glad to settle for it and think Wuthnow is far too worried about the implications.
Wuthnow fears that relying merely on toleration will lead to intolerance because of the lack of any genuine understanding among the various faiths, but toleration has never depended on such understanding. Rather, it has depended on satisfaction with what we may call sectarian privacy. Wuthnow refers to 9/11–how could he not?–and warns that the public reaction to it may have colored some of the responses in his survey. In fact, he recorded high levels of Christian toleration for Islam. Christian Americans so amenable to the presence of Muslims are hardly likely to turn nasty toward Hindus, Buddhists, Jews or each other, for that matter.
Nor does a return to intolerance seem likely when we view matters from the theological side. No church any longer maintains a theology of active intolerance (not even the “exclusivist” ones). When I was growing up in Chicago, the Irish kids never missed a chance to assault us; their children are more likely to enfold mine in a warm, post-Vatican II bear hug.
Wuthnow looks askance at toleration, however, not just because he sees it as resting on shaky ground, but because it provides such a pale and uninspiring alternative to genuine pluralism. Indeed, we might even regard it as an obstacle to pluralism, for the essence of toleration is that each denomination (even each congregation) minds its own business. This comes up repeatedly in the book: Congregations and pastors are too involved in maintaining themselves to open up to others. Clerics are inward looking, mindful of the niche they fill and the risk of offending their members.
Wuthnow presents such interfaith relations as do exist in America today as primarily ceremonial, and therefore evasive, in character. He leads us to conclude that such contacts mainly serve to parade our toleration. We offer tokens of goodwill toward fellow citizens of other faiths as a way of excusing our lack of real interest in them.
But isn’t this exactly what the founders of toleration intended, from Spinoza and Locke through Washington, Madison and Jefferson? They preached benign neglect toward sects other than one’s own on the grounds that agreement on doctrinal matters was as superfluous as it was impossible. Salvation depended not on theological conformity but on the practice of Christian charity, and charity required not the zealous imposition of theological dogma on others, but theological modesty and a consequent abhorrence of persecution. As Locke put it in his Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), the “characteristic mark” of the true Church was toleration; no tolerant church was any more or less true in what was essential (that being charity) than any other tolerant Church. The requirements of charity extended also to non-Christian sects so long as they too practiced toleration–and so George Washington’s famous 1790 “Letter to the Jewish Community of Newport, Rhode Island.”
By the light of this wise American tradition, the indifference of our Christian denominations to the teachings of our non-Christian ones is a blessing. The goal is peace among the sects (“toleration”), and indifference, however emotionally pasty it sounds, conduces to peace. To encourage sectarians to engage seriously–even (dare one say it?) passionately–with each other is to encourage quarrels. And the more heated these quarrels, the greater the temptation to try to drag the government into them, or to fall into such rowdy fractiousness as to require the government to restore order. “Live and let live”, by contrast, is the prudential motto of people not excessively interested in each other. This is how Americans practice diversity. Wuthnow scorns such narrowness, but it works. In religion as in so many other matters, the genius of America is its pragmatism.
Alas, Wuthnow is a well-meaning troublemaker. In grasping for so much in the way of interfaith dialogue, he won’t leave better than well enough alone. He wants us not just to acquiesce in diversity as an existential fact, but to internalize it in our souls. He wants the mostly perfunctory interfaith dialogue that occasionally demands an hour of our outer lives instead to genuinely shape our inner ones. He appears oblivious to the historical fact that whenever human beings have regarded theology as a life-or-death issue, they have engaged in life-or-death struggles over it.
Not to worry, though. While Wuthnow wants much more than toleration, in today’s prevailing spiritual flaccidity he is not likely to get it. Those dogs will go on sleeping after all. Indeed, as we read him a paradox occurs to us. At one end of his spectrum snuggle the exclusivist Christians, closed to the teachings of other faiths by their insistence on the exclusive authority of their own. At the other end lie the spiritual shoppers, closed to the teachings of all faiths because, rejecting spiritual authority as such, they cannot approach any tradition with the seriousness that it demands. In the middle stand the inclusivist Christians. Undecided between these two reasons for imperviousness to the challenge of the alien, they lean now toward the one, now toward the other. In other words, their pluralism depends on their indecision.
So much for Wuthnow’s project of fostering faiths that remain true to themselves while cultivating genuine openness to others. And at a crucial moment he falters, suggesting that this isn’t his vision for American society as a whole but only for the relatively few “restless souls who have been unable to confine their faith to a single tradition.” For these few only, “learning more about other traditions will be richly rewarding. . . . Some will be drawn away from the faith in which they were raised. Most will probably discover within themselves a deeper desire to understand their own faith and to serve on the basis of that understanding.” In either case, their relationship to the religious life of society as a whole would remain tangential.