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  • Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal
  • Charles H. Lippy
Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal. By William R. Hutchison. (New Haven and London: Yale University Press. 2003. Pp. xi, 276. $29.95.)

Hutchison, a distinguished scholar of liberal and modernist tendencies in American Protestantism, in his newest book joins the growing number of historians and other commentators who have turned their interpretive lens to the rich diversity that has become a hallmark of America religious life. Hutchison is not as captivated as some by the stunning growth of traditions such as Islam, [End Page 347] Buddhism, and Hinduism in the last forty years; nor is he as smitten as others by the vast range of personal approaches to spirituality that make the lived religion of ordinary folks such a fascinating topic for exploration.

Rather, Hutchison presumes that some understanding of pluralism was indeed a "founding ideal" of the American enterprise, although pluralism itself has had, as he puts it, a "contentious history." For Hutchison, that history is contentious because he believes that what pluralism denotes has itself evolved from the colonial era to the present and that securing it has often occasioned much struggle.

In its earliest guise, pluralism for Hutchison represented simple tolerance of diversity. Although the vast majority of European settlers were Calvinists of some sort, they exhibited considerable differences with regard to particulars of belief and practice. Diversity was acknowledged and accepted, so long as religious difference did not disrupt public order.

In time, there emerged a selective tolerance, sometimes an "amused tolerance" (p. 38), of more radical religious expressions, such as those of the Millerites and the Transcendentalists. But underneath there remained a powerful intolerance as well, as the well-known hostility to Roman Catholics, Latter-day Saints, and others testifies. Tolerance meant putting up with others, so long as the evangelical Protestant majority retained its influence as an unofficial establishment.

Hutchison argues that by the later nineteenth century the ideal of pluralism was moving from tolerance to inclusion. The social gospel, while helping secure a place for Protestantism in a changing urban, industrial culture, was open to a more liberal stance that promoted inclusion. The increasing presence of Roman Catholic and Jewish immigrants also prompted calls for inclusion, particularly when Reform Jews and more liberal Catholics such as John Spalding and John Ireland seemed to echo the paean to progress that issued from industrial growth. The World's Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in 1893 in conjunction with the Columbian Exposition, represented both the possibilities and problems of pluralism as inclusion. On the surface a showcase for inclusion since representatives of the world's religions were welcomed at the gathering, the Parliament also assumed the finality and superiority of Protestant Christianity among humanity's religious traditions.

By the twentieth century, it was clear to theologians, anthropologists, and a host of others who dissected American culture that tolerance and inclusion were necessary, but insufficient. Despite backlashes that came with those who resisted assimilation of any sort and the celebration of a mythic Judeo-Christian heritage—best epitomized in Will Herberg's 1955 Protestant, Catholic, Jew—it was increasingly clear that pluralism required full participation in public conversations about the nature and character of the America enterprise. No longer would it do, as Hutchison sees it, for any single group to presume it could dictate comprehensive policy and vision, while consigning others to the margins. [End Page 348] By the twenty-first century, Hutchison insists, simple tolerance and inclusion were assumed as basic to the social covenant. It was time for full participation of all religious approaches as equal partners in the covenant, however challenging it might be to sustain a civil conversation.

Engagingly written and mining a vast range of sources, Hutchison's important exploration of the pluralist ideal assures that the conversation will indeed be civil.

Charles H. Lippy
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga


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