A Secular Age: Multi-religious denominationalism and American identity
Charles Taylor has argued that those of us living in North America and Europe are witnessing a shift in our social imaginary from a “Durkheimian” self-understanding, according to which political identity is tied to religious belonging, towards a “post-Durkheimian” view, in which the two are no longer seen as intrinsically linked. In the emerging dispensation, Taylor predicts, “it will be less and less common for people to be drawn into or kept within a faith by some strong political or group identity, or by the sense that they are sustaining a socially essential ethic.” Whatever its merits as an analysis of contemporary European self-understanding—and these are surely significant—Taylor’s reading strikes me as underdetermined by the American evidence, which speaks in favor of a quite different interpretation: what is replacing the conception of the United States as a “Christian nation” is not a post-Durkheimian imaginary but an alternative “neo-Durkheimian” one, which portrays America as a religious nation, understood quasi-pluralistically. This difference between the United States and Europe is due not merely to the absence in the U.S. of an established church—a feature often cited by secularization theorists to explain certain religious dimensions of “American exceptionalism”—but to the presence of an alternative ecclesial structure.
In what Taylor calls “paleo-Durkheimian” societies, such as those found in pre-modern Europe, the dominant ecclesial form was that of the church. A church, as Weber and Troeltsch defined it, aspires to encompass the whole of a population—saints as well as sinners. The Roman Catholic Church’s claim to universality was of course challenged by the Reformation, one result of which was the emergence of Protestant sects, which aimed to include only the elect, and whose efforts to distance themselves from the established church necessarily had implications for the political belonging of their adherents. Yet, the fragmentation of Christendom resulted not in the demise of the “church type,” but rather in its proliferation. The theo-logic of divine sovereignty intersected with the Westphalian logic of state sovereignty to ensure that, while there could be many churches in the world—and indeed multiple religions—there could be no more than one per nation: cuius regio, eius religio.
But in the United States, where establishment was prohibited by the First Amendment, the church structure morphed into something novel: namely, denominationalism. Whereas churches are compulsory institutions, denominations are free associations, existing only in the plural. Unlike sects, however, denominations carry on the role of integrating national and religious identity. Indeed, as a voluntary form of association, the “denomination type” seems prima facie better calibrated than the “church type” to mediate the religious identity of a constitutional republic that has been mobilized into existence and conceives of itself as underwritten by a social contract. In this way, Protestant denominationalism provided a distinctively American means of maintaining a link between God and nation.
During the twentieth century, successive waves of immigration succeeded in eroding this informal Protestant establishment, but not the structure of denominationalism itself, which expanded to accommodate new arrivals. These developments are aptly reflected in the title of Will Herberg’s 1955 essay, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: what it succeeds in capturing is not the vibrant diversity of American religiosity at mid-century (which included many more options than the three Herberg discusses), but the nature of the expanding denominational framework. It was around this same time that it became popular to refer to the United States as a “Judeo-Christian” nation—a neologism that covered a multitude of sins, even as it signaled real changes in the self-understanding of the American nation. America’s “greatness” was increasingly said to rest on the foundation not of Christianity per se, but of religion. Herberg wrote, “It may indeed be said that the primary religious affirmation of the American people, in harmony with the American Way of Life, is that religion is a ‘good thing,’ a supremely ‘good thing,’ for the individual and the community. And ‘religion’ here means not so much any particular religion, but religion as such, religion-in-general.” Notably, it was at this same juncture, in 1954, that Congress added the phrase “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance. A similar sentiment was expressed by Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas in 1952: writing for the majority in Zorach v. Clauson, which upheld a New York program allowing students to be released from public schools for off-site religious instruction, he averred, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
Currently, the character of American civil religion is undergoing yet another significant shift, as Islam is gradually incorporated into the denominational matrix at this same symbolic level. As was the case for Catholics and Jews, Muslims have, to be sure, encountered strong opposition to their full inclusion in the body politic, not simply from within but also from outside the existing denominational edifice, from those who still adhere to the conception of a Christian America. At the same time, it should be noted that the logic of denominationalism permits immigrants to be integrated through, and not simply in spite of, (at least some) religious differences. As Taylor himself notes, one way “that Americans can understand their fitting together in society although of different faiths, is through these faiths themselves being seen as in this consensual relation to the common civil religion.” Herberg had made a similar observation with respect to earlier waves of immigration: not only was an immigrant “expected to retain his old religion, as he was not expected to retain his old language or nationality, but such was the shape of America that it was largely in and through his religion that he, or rather his children and grandchildren, found an identifiable place in American life.”
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