Why Religious Pluralism is So Hard

In the opening essay in this book, Eboo Patel argues that of all the forms of diversity that are most salient to our shared civic life, “religious diversity may be the one that the Founders came closest to getting right.” As evidence, he points to the simple but powerful dual principles in the first amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which protect the free exercise of religion by citizens and prohibit the state from establishing or favoring one religion over another. Patel convincingly points to examples from Washington, Jefferson, and Madison—all of whom wrote eloquently and fiercely about religious freedom and laid a strong foundation for what was seen at the time as a bold, perhaps foolhardy experiment.

The relative success of this experiment was still raising eyebrows in the late 19th and early 20th century, when astute European observers such as Max Weber from Germany, Alexis de Tocqueville from France, and G.K. Chesterton from England—all societies with monarchies and official state churches—came to the United States to see for themselves exactly how the Americans were pulling off this unlikely feat. Each concluded, in different ways, that the key was a flourishing civil society, which formed character and fostered high levels of civic participation through voluntary organizations, not least of which were a dizzying array of churches and other religious organizations.

Despite this strong foundation and two centuries of relative success navigating this complex terrain, our contemporary situation presents some unprecedented challenges. No American generation prior to the current one has fully faced a test of our commitment to the free exercise of religion. For the first 100 years of the republic, white Anglo-Saxon Protestants were such a dominant cultural force and demographic reality that the practical impact of the establishment and growth of other religious groups was negligible. They posed a threat neither to the cultural fabric nor to political power.

But with a strong uptick in immigration from Ireland, the Mediterranean, and eastern Europe in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with high numbers of Catholic and Jewish immigrants, white Protestant resistance groups became more active. The requests of Jews and Catholics to be admitted inside the gates of acceptable American civil religion was met with strong opposition and violence. The Know Nothing Party, the KKK, and other white Protestant supremacist groups targeted not just black Americans but Jews and Catholics as groups that could never be properly speaking “white” or “American.” Through the tumultuous decades marked by two world wars and the Great Depression, notions of whiteness slowly expanded to admit Jews, Italians, and Irish immigrants, and the term “Judeo-Christian” began to be employed as an umbrella term for the core religious American culture. By the 1950s, as documented in Will Herberg’s classic book, Protestant, Catholic, Jew, the country was at least beginning to accept the idea of a “triple melting pot” (Herberg 1954).

In a very real sense, however, we have not been here before. These past lessons are only partially instructive for our more complicated present, for at least two reasons. First, even a cursory glance at the achievements of religious pluralism in America reveals that the acceptance of religious diversity has always been entangled with perceptions of race. In the past, the American solution has been to finesse the issue of race by broadening the definition of whiteness rather than by dealing with the problem of racism head on. But Patel’s test case of Muslim integration into the American religious fabric shows the difficulty of dusting off this strategy for the present. In America, while the historical elasticity of whiteness clearly reveals it to be a social construct, it remains at least partially connected to lighter skin tone. Full acceptance of dark-skinned Muslim Americans—African Americans or the diverse groups who have immigrated from south Asia, Africa, or the Middle East—using this strategy seems highly unlikely.

Second, virtually every previous strategy for accepting religious diversity relied on the melting pot idea. In the great American stew, cultural and even ethnic differences literally dissolved and evaporated, leaving a reduction that was palatable to white Protestant tastes. Assimilation was the expectation. And while the question was almost always left implicit, the unstated assumption was that newer religious groups, to be fully accepted, should conform toward a white Protestant ideal. Jewish immigrants, for example, rapidly learned English, prominently displayed American flags in their synagogues, which often followed Christian architectural forms, and formed themselves into denominations. But this melting pot strategy also depended on the existence of a strong reference group that provided the model and sat in the seat of cultural power—something we lack today. And as I explain below, that world of white Protestantism, and even the broader world of white Christendom, has passed from the scene in the last generation (Jones 2016).

If we’re going to chart a course for a new kind of religious diversity, we’ll have to move beyond the tread-worn strategies of finessing racial identity and melting pot conformity.

This post was excerpted and adapted from Eboo Patel's second chapter in Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise (Princeton University Press, 2018).