Finding the Many in the One

We’re pleased to announce that today’s post comes from our newest contributing editor, Chris Cantwell. Chris has long haunted the blog as an occasional contributor and self-promoter, so we’re happy to have him aboard in an official capacity. Chris is currently the Assistant Director of the Dr. William M. Scholl Center forAmerican History and Culture at the Newberry Library in Chicago. His research focuses on American evangelicals, and he’s currently revising a manuscript that uses the life of a turn-of-the-twentieth-century Bible class teacher who simultaneously self-identified as a fundamentalist and ran for political office as a Socialist as a window through which to reinterpret the movement’s origins. Here, he reflects on teaching American religious history based on his current work at the Newberry.

Backyard Buddhism at the Chua Truc Lam Temple
Every weekday morning I ride my bike down Chicago’s scenic Lake Shore Trail to the top of the Magnificent Mile where the Newberry resides. But before I can hit the trail, I have to navigate a busy urban thoroughfare among motorists who think bike paths are really tiny passing lanes. Though hairy, my ride down this street is short—just over two miles. But in this short span Chicago’s religious diversity, indeed, America’s religious diversity, is amazingly unveiled. In just over twenty blocks I pass by a classic Catholic parish, a fundamentalist Presbyterian church, two socially conservative Lutheran churches, two leftist evangelical communes, an affirming Episcopal church, a festive Vietnamese Buddhist temple, an American Indian Center, a Christian Science reading room, a Taoist society, a yoga center, a black Baptist church, and a Methodist congregation of African émigrés. It’s a bit of a comfort to know that if I were to meet my demise on Wilson Avenue, at least one doorway to the divine is only a step away.

And as goes the city, so goes the nation. Regardless of where one situates its “origins,” America has been a crucible of religious contact and collision from the beginning. Catholics, Jews, Muslims, myriad Native American communities, and a plethora of Protestant sects who looked upon everyone with varying degrees of suspicion and disdain called the continent home long before the Constitution’s ratification. I’ve noticed, however, that we often teach and write about this history less from the standpoint of America’s religious plurality and more from the standpoint of American religious hegemony. “Great Awakenings,” “Benevolent Empires,” or “Evangelical Centuries” are often the themes of our textbooks and curricular units. And rightly so. These tectonic religious movements have, without question, shaped the contours of American life. But they were never without their alternatives, and recent demographic data suggests we are approaching a moment that could reframe American history as the rise of religious diversity rather than the end of Protestant hegemony. If this is the case, how will we teach this new narrative?

This past week, the Scholl Center launched a year-long project that hopes to explore this very question. The program, titled “Out of Many: Religious Pluralism in America,” has gotten some attention on the blog before, but the project is now in full swing. Last week, twenty community college faculty gathered at the Newberry for a week of morning seminars and afternoon research to design curriculum that anchors the American experience in the diversity of its religious life. We were treated to morning seminars from Tisa Wenger, Kevin Schultz, and Aziz Huq, as well as an evening lecture by Martin Marty. I’ll be sure to blog about the results of our endeavors over the course of the next year, but for now I want offer a reflection on the first week’s major themes. First, I was struck how every visiting scholar emphasized integrating study of the First Amendment into our teaching and research. Tisa discussed how the statute is a kind of theological concept for many Protestants, while Aziz noted that students often find discussions of the Amendment’s Free Exercise clause to be more revealing than the more divisive history of the Establishment Clause. Second, every discussion always circled back to defining the “religious” in America’s religious history. Because let’s be honest: “pluralism” is as much a proscriptive term as a descriptive one, and we have to remain sensitive to the ways in which America’s promotion of religious freedom always entails a contest over the definition of religion. Finally, and somewhat paradoxically, was the surprising role of cooperation in our discussions. True, America’s religious diversity has been an almost constant source of tensions and conflict. But it has also been the source of innovative interfaith cooperation. This was Martin Marty’s strongest point. We are a nation of encounters, he argued. So where is the place of interfaith relations in American religious history?

We certainly didn’t answer these questions. Over the course of the next year, however, we hope to contribute to a discussion by finding ways to integrate the study of religious pluralism into humanities classrooms everywhere. This way, the curriculum of our classrooms can more accurately reflect the diversity of the streets upon which many of our students live.


Mark T. Edwards said…
Thanks for this post, Chris. Our Constituion Day event at SAU will focus in part on changing meanings of religious freedom in America, so this was timely for me. Looking forward to reading your book!
Unknown said…
Thanks, Mark. We should catch up some time. Send me a note if you're every Chicago-way, and I'll do the same. We'll vacation in Pentwater every once in a while, and though not close perhaps we could connect. Cheers!

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