(Reprinted with permission from the Harvard Divinity Bulletin, written by Gary Dorrien.)
Several years ago, Martin Marty announced at a meeting of the American Academy of Religion that he had devised a new scheme for characterizing religious groups. Instead of distinguishing among fundamentalists, moderates, liberals, and the like, and instead of emphasizing denominational differences, he proposed that henceforth scholars should divide all religions groups into two fundamental categories: “mean-spirited” and “non-mean-spirited.” This attractive sentiment pervades his latest meditation on what he calls our “almost shattering controversy” over the implications of America pluralism, especially religious pluralism.
Marty acknowledges that for all its vaunted liberality and social tolerance, his own group—Protestantism—has been peculiarly ill-suited to respect the identity claims of other kinds of Americans. In the early years of this century, mainline Protestants sought to “Christianize” American society by projecting their social and religious ideals onto all Americans without apology. This commitment was proclaimed with particular fervor by proponents of the social gospel in the church’s progressive wing. The social Christian resolve to create a new kind of American Christendom was reflected in the name of Charles Clayton Morrison’s new magazine, The Christian Century, which became the flagship journal of mainline Protestant churches.
A half-century later, when Marty joined the magazine’s staff, the editors were still editorializing against the “national menace” of pluralism. “The editors were not racist; in fact they pioneered among white Protestants in promoting civil rights and racial integration,” Marty recalls. “But they wanted African Americans to be integrated into the white America that these editors best knew. They also expected Jews to be, as they might have said, ‘just like us.’” For the leaders of midcentury liberal Protestantism it was simply taken for granted that the only kind of pluralism worth having was the kind that assimilated nonliberal Protestant groups into liberal Protestant ways.
The One and the Many is a liberal Protestant call for a different kind of response. “During the final quarter of the twentieth century many groups of citizens have come to accuse others of having wounded them by attempting to impose a single national identity and culture on all,” Marty observes. “The other set, in turn, has accused its newly militant adversaries of tearing the republic apart.” Taken together, the conflicts between those who insist on the necessity of a common national identity and those who emphasize their separate identities have produced “a shock to the civil body, a trauma in the cultural system, and a paralysis in the neural web of social interactions.”
This is the consuming social trauma of our time, he cautions. In the late 1960s, Jesuit theologian John Courtney Murray insisted that American Protestants, Catholics, Jews, and secularists already inhabited separate “universes of discourse.” He judged that the defining creedal differences between America’s dominant groups were deep enough to make their moral disagreements incommensurable. Murray’s emphasis on incommensurability strengthened his case for status recognition, just as the same argument promotes liberationist and various post-modernist claims today.
Some kind of exclusivism is often an effective strategy for excluded groups. Marty demonstrates his appreciation of this truism by sprinkling his narrative with examples of American Catholics, Jews, blacks, and others who resisted their subordination in Protestant America by defining themselves against its reigning myths. His account takes seriously the moral and social ravages of Protestant domination. It offers no sympathy for those who want today to reimpose “one story on the many.”
Eugene Goodheart, a professor of literature and an anti-utopian, spoke some years ago to a radical generation whose members were united, he said, in their apocalyptic disaffection from the institutional life of the country. He also noted that “deeper than the disaffection is a shared Manichean sense of their own innocence.” While not dismissing the radical critiques, Goodheart argued that “the implicit paradigm for the mind behind the current demand for relevance is tabula rasa, purged even of the vestiges of Christian, Judaic, or classical traditions.” To his list I will add “American” traditions. Times and contexts have changed, but much of what Goodheart said is still relevant.
—from The One and the Many