Teaching American Religious Pluralism

On Teaching American Religious Pluralism to Foreigners
by Kevin M. Schultz, University of Illinois, Chicago

I just had the joy of teaching about America's religious pluralism to 30 high school teachers from around the world.

My school, the University of Illinois at Chicago, participates in a State Department exchange that brings to Chicago 30 American history teachers from around the world. They're here for six weeks, including two weeks of travel time, to learn about all-things-American. There were two teachers from Japan, two from Norway, and two from Scotland. Other than that, there was one representative from places all over the world--Belgium, South Africa, Nairobi, Turkmenistan, the Czech Republic, Italy, Columbia, the Philippines, Israel, and much more. I got to lecture on American religion and religious pluralism. We read about the culture wars and Bellah's "Civil Religion in America." I lectured on American religious history from the Puritans to today. A full three hours, to say the least.

The first thing I learned was how unique our system of religious freedom is.

The separation of church and state, with the state still being relatively friendly to religion, is one-of-a-kind. And, besides a few of the Muslims in the crowd, most of the others envied our system, although they remained baffled by how we Americans could be such a nation of believers but never have to learn about religion or religions in public schools. They had me there--parents do carry this burden, or pass it on to the institution of their choice--but that was the deal we've brokered here in the United States. The Palestinian guy wasn't buying it, saying in his nation-less land, the schools taught the "two religions around them, Islam and Christianity." He didn't flinch when I asked if they taught Judaism too. Of course they didn't.

The second thing I did was hypothesize that our history of recognizing religious pluralism has four stages, each resembling the swing of a pendulum: (1) the Puritan "city on the hill" which declined as soon as it was established into the Founders notion of religious freedom as enshrined in the Constitution (no religious tests) and the First Amendment; then (2) a swing back toward creating a culturally unified Protestant nation beginning with the Second Great Awakening and carrying on until the first decades of the 20th century (see Ed Blum's Reforging the White Republic); then (3) the decline of this Protestant hegemony (and another swing of the pendulum) from, say, the 1920s to the 1970s, with the 1962 and 1963 Supreme Court cases bringing the point of pluralism home (with Catholics and Jews in the vanguard); and (4) pluralism challenged, with the rise of the Religious Right and the Moral Majority trying to push the pendulum back.

I'm not sure how far the pendulum will swing back this time around, but I do think it's interesting, and vitally important, that each time the pendulum swung to the "honoring pluralism" side, a batch of laws were passed or upheld, first in the form of the Constitution and the First Amendment, and second in the Supreme Court cases of the early 1960s that declared that "favoritism cannot be tolerated."

Perhaps the enshrinement of these ideas allowed the pendulum to go back again toward Protestant Christianity, with Americans secure in the knowledge that the religious freedom that Americans are unique in possessing will remain intact. After all, even in phase four, the Moral Majority includes among its ranks conservative Jews and conservative Catholics. Pluralism wins?

Just a thought. Or just another over-simplification.


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Will Katerberg said…
"One of a kind"?

Canadians might beg to differ. In Canada, provincial governments fund religious schools (policies and extent vary) and provide tax breaks to religious institutions and clergy. More than that, in Canada in some provinces, religious courts (e.g., Jewish) have some powers to deal with civil matters such as divorces.

The U.S. is not unique in a strict singular sense, but is part of a small number countries with that kind of pluralism and religious liberty.
Kevin M Schultz said…
Dear Will,

Well, there were no Canadians at the seminar, so I hadn't heard this. But your description of the Canadian situation sounds a lot more friendly to religious organizations than the relatively free market system we use in the United States, confirming my notion that the system in the US is largely unique. But I don't know the situation in each of the 191 nations, and the provinces controlled by nation-less peoples.

flacius1551 said…
I think it is distressingly naive to claim that pupils are not taught about the majority religion of the United States in public schools just because they do not take religious instruction classes there. They learn about it every day, constantly, in music, history, literature, etc., etc., etc., and the number of publi schools that permit, encourage or enforce either by fiat or by convention religious practice is awfully high.