I was recently invited to speak at a conference in Berlin on the topic of "the ability of democracies and democratic institutions to adequately address the phenomenon of growing religious pluralism." I detected an agenda in the question, and tried to answer the question by responding to the agenda, thusly:
“Growing Religious Pluralism”:
A Contrarian View
I have been asked to respond to the question whether modern democracies and democratic institutions can adequately address the phenomenon of “growing religious pluralism.” It is difficult to answer the question, in part because I do not in the first place automatically assume the existence of “growing religious pluralism.” It is perhaps appropriate first to address the unstated assumption in the question: in what way, if at all, can it be said that religious pluralism actually is “growing”? Part of the difficulty in recognizing the validity of this question lies not in the existence of religious pluralism per se, but rather in long history of the problem itself—the prevalence of religious pluralism in democracies is far older than modernity, dating back at least to the execution of Socrates by the Athenian democracy after being convicted of, among other things, introducing new gods to the city. If history suggests that religious pluralism has always been with us and was perhaps even more problematic in the past—after all, modern democracies do not regularly execute individuals who introduce new gods to the city—then why is there a widespread assumption that religious pluralism is “growing”? Why is the growth of religious pluralism taken to be a simple observable fact?
Perhaps what underlies the perception that “religious pluralism” is increasing is the implicit acknowledgement that, in reality, what is increasing are the numbers of people following religious traditions that have not previously had a significant presence in Western societies, particularly Islam, but also Hinduism, Sikhism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. This reformulation of the question suggests that what modern Western democracies are labeling an increase in religious pluralism is, rather, an increase in the numbers of people of non-Western religious traditions, not those traditions per se. Many of these traditions have however, been acknowledged by Western societies for a long time—for example, John Locke argued for the need to tolerate the Jewish, Hindu, and “Mohammandan” traditions in his 1689 treatise, Letter Concerning Toleration. So, again, are modern democracies actually experiencing more religious diversity than before?
Religious pluralism has been part of Western societies to one extent or another for its entire existence. It can therefore be suggested that the perception that religious pluralism is a “growing” phenomenon is not necessarily based on increasing numbers of religious sects, but is instead inspired by an underlying assumption that religion, as a phenomenon, would decrease in salience and significance with the advance of modernity. Underlying observations about increasing religious pluralism is the subtle realization that the “secularization thesis” has not come to pass.
Put another way, the sense that religious pluralism is a “growing” phenomenon may not be the result of any actual increase in pluralism but is rather the consequence of unconscious disappointment borne of the realization that long-standing Enlightenment assumptions about the results of certain historical processes—particularly, that “modernization” would result in “secularization”—have not come to pass. What is perceived as “growing religious pluralism” in Germany and the United States may not be an increase in religious pluralism as such, but rather the awareness a) that religion does not seem to be withering away as expected, either its Christian variety in America, nor its Muslim variety in Europe, and b) that the kind of religion that seems in particular to be maintaining its hold and remaining visible in the public sphere is that with a “traditional” or “conservative” bent that is, to a greater or lesser extent, against “modernization” in general and liberalism in particular. Perhaps, then, what is growing are religious voices that stand directly against certain longstanding assumptions by modern intellectual elites about the undergirdings of modern liberalism, including the privatization of religion, the preeminence of conscience, individual autonomy, and formal legal equality.
A rather striking potential implication of the above scenario, if it is in any way correct, is that it may very well be the case that religious pluralism, in every significant sense, is actually shrinking. This suggestion requires justification. Historically, religious pluralism has created problems by inspiring clashes within religious traditions, a situation often referred to as “sectarianism.” Indeed, the most ferocious forms of sectarianism have often occurred not between different religious traditions, but within the same tradition. The Thirty Year War between Christian sects in the Middle Ages and the current conflagration in Iraq between Shiite and Sunni Muslims are powerful examples of this phenomenon. The word “sectarianism,” which is not commonly employed in contemporary discourse, might be understood as a less benign form of religious pluralism. The term denotes far more religious intensity than “pluralism” can convey. Traditionally, the problem with pluralism is that it results in sectarianism—that is, divisions both between and within religious traditions.
Relatively recent instances of religious sectarianism in America provide a way to draw contrasts between earlier forms of sectarianism and the contemporary belief that the world is in the throes of “growing pluralism.” Consider the title of an essay written in 1967 and published in a well-known book by American sociologist and religious historian Sidney Mead—“The Fact of Pluralism and the Persistence of Sectarianism.” Only forty years ago, Mead could write about “pluralism” and “sectarianism” as essentially the same phenomena. The challenge for liberal societies at that time was to negotiate the differences between religious traditions. For much of recent American history, this amounted to negotiating some of the differences between Protestant sects, but from the mid-nineteenth until the mid-twentieth century, it meant, above all, addressing the differences between Protestants and Catholics. Catholics were long regarded as traitorous and downright evil by many American Protestants. Suspicions of Catholics date back to colonial times, when the state of Virginia banned “popish priests,” Georgia forbade the inheritance of land by Catholics, and a relatively tolerant Maryland circumscribed the public celebration of Mass; forbade Catholics the ownership of firearms, and placed a special tax on new Catholic residents in order to discourage growth in their numbers. Hostility towards Catholics can be traced back into English history as well as to theological contests in the times of Martin Luther in Germany and John Calvin in the Netherlands. The height of Protestant-driven anti-Catholicism in the United States occurred in the 1840-50s, following a large influx of Catholic immigrants into Northeast urban areas. This circumstance led to the rise of the nativist “Know-Nothing” Party, which sought to prevent Catholics, who were viewed as pawns of the Vatican, from undermining American values and democracy; for a time, this party enjoyed considerable electoral success. For their part, Catholics tended to separate from the dominant Protestant society, building an extensive network of “alternative” institutions, a Catholic sub-culture that is still discernible in some large Northeastern cities. Indeed, Catholic identification of with the faith was so intense that many American Catholics fought with their Catholic “compatriots” on the Mexican side during the Mexican-American war. Occasionally, violence broke out between Protestants and Catholics. Anti-Catholic violence was frequently perpetrated by the Ku Klux Klan, which was started as a primarily anti-Catholic organization. Violence also came in the form of a pitched battle fought in 1844 in Kensington, Pennsylvania, over which translation of the Bible should be assigned to students. The use of battlefield artillery in this battle resulted in fifteen deaths and over thirty wounded.
Sectarianism of this sort has persisted until relatively recent times. The continued separation of Catholics from wider society was decried in a 1951 article entitled “Pluralism: The National Menace.” In 1955, religion scholar Will Herberg wrote in his classic study Protestant-Catholic-Jew that, “American Catholics still labor under the heavy weight of the bitter memory of non-acceptance in a society overwhelmingly and self-consciously Protestant. Hardly a century has passed since Catholics in America were brutally attacked by mobs, excluded from more desirable employment, and made to feel in every way that they were unwanted aliens.”
Nevertheless, in less than forty years, American Catholics have left behind the days when they were suspected as minions of the Pope and tradition-bound ritualists dubiously loyal to America. Today, Catholics are at the center of mainstream American society. Certainly, much of this has to do with the “mainstreaming” of Catholicism, a process undertaken by design, through elements such as Horace Mann’s “common schools,” the rise of an identifiably non-sectarian but vaguely Christian—later, Judeo-Christian—“civil religion,” and, perhaps most importantly, through the historical contingency of anti-communist sentiments among Protestants and Catholics alike. Remarkably, in the 2004 American presidential election campaign, Democratic candidate John Kerry’s Catholicism was almost a non-issue, except to the extent that traditional Catholics pointed out what they considered his doctrinal shortcomings.
A noteworthy new phenomenon is perceptible in this opposition against a nominally Catholic candidate by Catholics. In the contemporary American landscape, the greatest allies of self-professed traditional or orthodox Catholics who opposed Kerry—Catholics who seek to adhere to traditional teachings pre-dating Vatican II, who prefer the Latin Mass, and for whom recent sexual scandals within the clergy reveal the dangers of liberal influences in seminaries—are “traditionalist” evangelical Protestants. That is, conservative Catholics are most firmly aligned with many whose forbears would have belonged to the Know-Nothing Party, if not to the Ku Klux Klan. Traditional Catholics, along with conservative evangelical Protestants, are now more inclined to oppose a Catholic candidate for political office if the candidate is liberal than they are to identify, above all else, with a co-religionist, as they did in 1960, when John F. Kennedy successfully ran for President. As further evidence of this striking shift, consider that five of the nine current Supreme Court Justices are Catholic; the nominations of four of these Justices—Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Chief Justice John Roberts, and, most recently, Samuel Alito—were successfully vetted largely through the efforts of conservative Protestant evangelicals.
Doctrinal and sectarian differences between Protestants and Catholics have not disappeared, but, in the context of contemporary America, these sects are united through shared views on key political issues such as abortion, stem cell research, euthanasia, and the strict separation of religion and politics. Opposition to certain aspects of liberalism, particularly those that emphasize lifestyle choice, individual autonomy, and moral relativism, have also united conservative Protestants, Catholics, and Jews. The journal First Things serves as the sounding board for the continued political alliance between conservative Catholics and evangelical Protestants. The journal’s editor is Father Richard Neuhaus, a former Lutheran minister who converted to Catholicism and is now a priest.
All in all, there is little evidence of “growing religious pluralism,” at least not in the most important classic historical sense, where religious pluralism manifests as outright sectarianism between and among various religious faith traditions. Rather, in the United States in particular and to a growing extent Europe, one sees two great “parties” forming: on one side, an increasingly unified “traditional” party of religion, and on the other, a secular-minded party of “progressives.” In the United States, the division between these two parties is captured by the colors of maps shown on television during election coverage, where the country is divided between “red states,” most of which are located in the interior of the country and whose populations are comprised mainly of religiously-minded individuals, and “blue states,” located primarily on the East and West Coasts and whose populations are comprised mainly of more secular-minded “progressives.” In contrast, Europe is decidedly more “blue” than “red,” a fact regarded with jealousy by denizens of blue states and with dismay, if not outright disdain, by citizens of red states. Nevertheless, the demographic shifts taking place in Europe as a result of high rates of immigration and high fertility rates among immigrant populations, the majority of whom are Muslim, it may well be expected that Europe too will eventually be divided between conservative “red” and progressive “blue.”
The issue at the core of the division between “red” and “blue” is reflected in the question, “Can democratic norms, institutions, and practices be reconciled with growing religious pluralism?” In this question too lurks a set of assumptions, in that what is at issue is the very definition of “democratic norms, institutions, and practices.” Should the definition be based on traditional religious principles or on the secular values that have been assumed to be the bedrock for democracy for so long? Basic assumptions about how human beings are to conceive of themselves in relation to other human beings are being called into question. Are human societies conceived of primarily as autonomous individuals coming together by choice and agreement, under the philosophic aegis of “voluntarism,” or are they constituted primarily through relations with others as defined by specific duties and obligations that stress family and community, nation and generation? The first model is captured in the Social Contract theory inaugurated by Thomas Hobbes and John Locke in the seventeenth century; the second is, at its core, Aristotelian, and was described by Edmund Burke in the eighteenth century and has been defended by more contemporary thinkers such as G.K. Chesterton, Alasdair MacIntyre, Christopher Lasch, Wendell Berry, and Jean Bethke Elshtain.
The question, as posed above, suggests that, at the very least, there is a tension, if not an outright contradiction, between “growing religious pluralism”—which might more accurately be described as growing religious traditionalism—and the “practice, norms, and institutions” of democracy. However, it also begs the question that lies at the heart of the difference between the two dominant “parties” on the scene today—whether secularists can assume, as they so often do, that their position comprises the fundamental definition of democracy. Indeed, the hostility between adherents of “red” and “blue” positions may be stoked by the unconsciously dismissive nature of the question whether democracy can be reconciled with religious pluralism, which just adds fuel to the anger of religious adherents whose views secularists often automatically regarded as thoroughly anti-democratic, if not entirely unreasonable.
Whether questions about democracy and religious pluralism can be addressed in a more productive and peaceful manner in coming years in the United States is an open question. There are some grounds for hope that secularists will move away from their most condescending and dismissive positions and that religiously based voices will move beyond defensive reactions and playing the victim. These positions are being moderated by religious and secular voices alike. The Democratic Party, which once claimed the great preacher, William Jennings Bryan, as a standard-bearer, is seeking to reclaim its that historically-based religious voice. Conservative evangelicals and Catholics alike no longer view their affiliation with the Republican Party as having been ordained by God, a fact demonstrated in the recent 2006 mid-term Congressional elections.
It may very well be that the “norms, practices, and institutions” of democracy lie somewhere between the secular and the religious positions, in an area of creative tension that accords respect to individual autonomy while also acknowledging its limits, and that views tradition with a healthy suspicion while simultaneously acknowledging it as a rich source for a sense of community and mutual obligation, not only between members of families, communities, and nations, but also between generations, including those generations as-yet unborn.
Issues of democracy and religion are no less relevant to contemporary Europe. It may well be that the relative triumph of the secular worldview in European countries such as Germany will have unique implications for these issues in Europe. The United States provides an example of one possible implication, which centers on demographic issues. It is interesting to note that birthrates in America’s “blue” states are similar to those in Germany and Europe, that is, below replacement rate. However, birth rates in “red” states are regularly above replacement rates, which suggests that there may be a connection between a worldview that rejects the idea of complete individual autonomy, one that embraces traditionalism – including religious traditionalism – and the willingness to compromise ones’ “freedom” for the joys and burdens of bringing up children. Those holding a religious worldview, it might be concluded, are more willing to accept values of duty and self-sacrifice, and might be thereby less susceptible to appeals to more individualistic forms of self-satisfaction. Thus, those people less wed to a “progressive” worldview are more likely to produce families in larger numbers. Ironically, one might conclude on this basis that conservatives have a greater belief in the future than progressives!
Although the United States faces its own demographic challenges, they are slight in comparison to the inability of most European nations to repopulate their cities and towns through reproduction. Financial incentives for starting families have proven largely ineffective, suggesting that devotion to bringing a new generation into the world ultimately has little to do with monetary compensations, and therefore has a difficult time registering in the liberal mindset so dominated by market considerations. Europe faces a profound challenge arguably arising not from religious pluralism, but from its absence — divided, as it is, between two great parties, the party of secularism and a growing party of Islam – an absence that may contribute to the “Islamization” of Europe in approximately half a century given current demographic trends and that may have the ironic result of a religiously singular Europe in several decade’s time. It may very well be that the “norms, practices, and institutions” of democracy, rather than being hindered by “growing religious pluralism,” in fact depend upon the creation of actual religious pluralism for their continued existence. Ironically, what Europe may need in order to remain Europe is a genuinely growing religious pluralism.