Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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Religious Pluralism and Social Conflict


An alternative (but not completely incompatible) view of American religious development is to reframe it, deemphasizing the formation and dissolution of consensus and focusing instead on religion as a consistent source of social differentiation and a tool of social conflict. American religious history thus becomes a series of political and cultural challenges to white, male, Anglo-Saxon, mainline Protestant hegemony.

One version of this narrative is to describe American religion as a series of "disestablishments." The first, of course, was the legal disestablishment of the colonial churches. The First Amendment of the Constitution prevented a federal establishment; state governments varied in their religious establishments, some maintaining state churches until early in the nineteenth century. As Murrin (1990) noted, at times in some American colonies there were fewer legitimate religious options than at the same time in England. Those viewing the New World as their opportunity to build a "New Jerusalem" did not have religious tolerance—as we now think of the term—as one of their goals.

Colonial society could not sustain established churches, and a de facto Protestant pluralism developed. Effective control of institutional religious life was undermined by a consistent influx of new immigrants, many with different religious loyalties (e.g., Fischer 1989, Hackett 1991), and the expansion of the frontier (e.g., Finke and Stark 1992, Innes 1983). Also, among seaboard elites, Enlightenment ideas of individual rights, freedom from government intervention, and the historical march of progress gave ideological justification to a right to freedom of expression (Bailyn 1967).

After the legal institutional separation of church and state, however, a Protestant cultural hegemony continued. If one takes church-state cases decided by the U.S. Supreme Court as a measure of conflict over religion, Protestant hegemony was relatively uncontested until the middle of the twentieth century (Demerath and Williams 1984). Certainly there was religious conflict over the waves of Catholic and Jewish immigrants that came to America in the 1840s-1850s and then again in the 1890s-1920. But well into the twentieth century, Protestantism asserted itself successfully, restricting immigration, prohibiting alcohol production and consumption, and fostering assimilation (Anglo-conformity) as a social ideal. Whether nativist or progressive, public discourse was still dominated by Protestant voices.

The second disestablishment was the shattering of this cultural hegemony following World War II. There was a large-scale movement of American Catholics out of urban ethnic neighborhoods into middle-class suburbs and, after 1965's immigration law reform, a new wave of immigration from Latin America and Asia. Protestant control of public life was increasingly eroded, symbolized by conflict over schools and education. Particularly in urban politics, a Catholic ethnoreligious "establishment" emerged (Demerath and Williams 1992).

Increasing socioreligious diversity, combined with the countercultural challenges of the 1960s and early 1970s, has produced a third disestablishment—one that undermines all traditional institutionalized forms of religion in favor of a variety of syncretic, ideologically polarized, grassroots, feminist, and often relatively privatized forms of spirituality (e.g., Hammond 1992, Wessinger 1993, Wuthnow 1988).

The fragmenting of religious, cultural, and even political authority represented by successive disestablishments has been abetted by tendencies that have always been present in American religion but were perhaps minor chords until institutional and social structural changes provided the opportunities to flourish.

The Reformed Calvinist orthodoxy of Puritan New England was intermittently, but repeatedly, challenged by versions of Protestantism that focused on individualized, ecstatic religious expression, emphasizing spirit over intellect, and containing significant components of Arminianism and "perfectionism." These challenges included the "Great Awakening" in western New England in the mid-eighteenth century (e.g., Stout 1986), the growth of evangelizing denominations such as the Baptists and Methodists (Hatch 1989), the "feminization" of American religion (Welter 1976), and a host of less formally organized, popular forms of charismatic faith (P. Williams 1980).

At various times, major political and social divisions have centered on the differences between established, "respectable" forms of religion and pietistic, grassroots forms. For example, Howe (1990) and Carwardine (1993) discuss this very conflict in the antebellum North. Kleppner (1970) and Hammond (1979) demonstrate religion's importance to political conflict by concluding that religious differences influenced voting patterns as much as class or party differences in the Midwest and the "burned over" district of New York, respectively, in the late nineteenth century.

Studying the twentieth century, Marty's (1970) interpretation of American Protestantism holds that religious conflict was centered in a basic disagreement over strategy for the church's work in the world—whether it should save souls or reform social institutions. This conflict emanated from strictly theological differences into issues shaping the public sphere, such as the efficacy of social reform. Relatedly, Pope (1965) connected conflict over religious ideology and cultural styles to labor and class struggles.

Finke and Stark (1992) chart a long history of conflict in American religion between those groups whose strategy for institutional preservation was to relax their opposition to the "world" for the purposes of inclusion, and those groups who retain a sectarian separation and sense of election as a compensation for their doctrinal and behavioral discipline. Thus in many ways American religion has been an arena of social conflict and succession.

Related to this "conflict" approach to American religion is an emphasis on the ubiquity of the "congregation" as the central organizational form for many religions. Wind and Lewis's (1994) recent two-volume work makes this point with a variety of empirical and conceptual arguments. R. S. Warner (1994) argued that the congregation is the distinctive form of American religion and that there is a general convergence toward a de facto congregationalism. While the model of congregational life comes from reformed Protestantism's reappropriation of the Jewish synagogue tradition, other faiths have freely adopted and adapted it. As an organizational form, the congregation is neither liberal nor conservative necessarily; bulwarks of liberal Protestantism such as the United Church of Christ or the Unitarian-Universalists share many organizational characteristics with Independent Baptists and the Assemblies of God.

"Local" concerns and local identities have had the preeminent place in American life in religion as in politics. Denominational bureaucracies are often distant, both geographically and socially. Coupled with an anti-institutional cultural theme, and a recurring pattern of distrust of doctrinal knowledge in favor of an emotional immanentism, local congregations may be regarded as the organizational unit that ultimately matters. Even internationally organized religions, such as Catholicism or Islam, have felt this pressure toward congregational autonomy in the United States.


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