With the constant barrage of updates on our respective fields of interest by way of Twitter, Facebook, blog posts, or listservs - not to mention good old-fashioned paper catalogs from publishers - it’s always a pleasant surprise to come across a new book that you haven’t seen mentioned anywhere. A few WorldCat search queries recently led me to just such a surprise by pointing to the recently published Gods in America: Religious Pluralism in the United States (Oxford, 2013), an anthology edited by Charles L. Cohen and Ronald L. Numbers. Although I have not yet had a chance to read each and every essay, I thought I would share a few impressions on the volume here.
Gods in America boasts a stunning list of notable contributors: Amanda Porterfield, Thomas Tweed, R. Marie Griffith, Deborah Dash Moore, and many others have essays included in the volume. As is to be expected, the diversity of their interests is reflected in the subjects of the book’s essays. Porterfield offers the first essay of the collection, a historiographical review of the concept of religious pluralism and its historical relationship to the academic study of religion entitled “Religious Pluralism in Religious Studies.” She traces two currents of scholarly attitudes toward religious pluralism as both an object of inquiry and an American ideology or practice: one that has sanctioned an idea of religious pluralism as a positive guiding principle for understanding American religion (including scholars such as Catherine Albanese, Diane Eck, and William Hutchison), and another stream that has been more critical of the concept and of the role the academy may play in bolstering its cultural clout (D.G. Hart, Russell McCutcheon, Timothy Fitzgerald, and others are included in this second group). Porterfield’s thoughtful review of these scholars will be of interest to anyone who wrestles with the knotty concept of religious pluralism in their own work.
The volume’s opening section, of which Porterfield's essay is a part, provides larger overviews of the book’s theme from a variety of perspectives and includes a rich and substantial essay by Bret Carroll on space and pluralism entitled “Worlds in Space: American Religious Pluralism in Geographic Perspective.” In the second section, essays consider pluralism in the experience and history of American Protestantism, Catholicism, and Judaism, while the third section broadens the scope of inquiry to include Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism. The fourth and fifth sections are more varied in their approaches and subjects. Essays in the fourth section consider the impact of religious pluralism on the experience of American women, the relationship between religious pluralism and various strains of popular religion, and the “invisibility” of the diversity of African-American religious experience in both popular discourse and academic scholarship. The final section includes discussions of shifting conceptions of pluralism in the post-World War II period, connections between American foreign policy and principles of religious pluralism at home and abroad, and the influence of American law on the legitimization of religious minorities in the public square.
Anthologies can sometimes feel uneven and unwieldy, but the essays in this volume complement each other quite nicely. Several of the essays surveying a specific religion - Yvonne Yazbeck Haddad on Islam or Deborah Dash Moore on Judaism, for instance - would make excellent entry points for readers looking to familiarize themselves with issues of pluralism in relation to a given tradition. A number of the essays in the final sections, such as Stephanie Mitchem’s contribution on African-American religious diversity and R. Marie Griffith’s chapter on women and pluralism, suggest possible questions, often quite provocative, to help guide future research. In this sense, Gods in America is not only an exceptional survey of the topic and a thorough introduction to many of its related themes, but is also a useful collection for thinking about fruitful questions for the future. It will certainly be of interest to many of RiAH's readers.