The U.S Constitution begins with the words, “We the people …” In America today our nation is being challenged in numerous ways to redefine what is meant by “We.” Diana Eck sees this as the central challenge facing our country, especially as it pertains to the diversity of religions in America.
In her new book, A New Religious America: How a “Christian Country” Has Become the World’s Most Religiously Diverse Nation, Eck traces the current encyclopedic dimensions of ethnic, cultural and religious diversity to the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act.
By signing the Act into law, President Lyndon B. Johnson opened the doors of the United States to people groups from all over the world. After almost 40 years of immigration, America has become the most religiously diverse nation on earth, with Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists prevailing in this new diversity.
If the “We” of our Constitution can be given new definition, Eck believes it will be found in our nation’s motto which was adopted in 1782, E Pluribus Unum – “From Many, One.” At this time the “many” are evident in the myriad of new religions in our land, but what is meant by “one,” and more importantly, how will a new oneness be achieved?
A strength of the book is found in the historical depth Eck gives to the various facets of America’s new religious diversity. She contends that a major reason the world’s religions come to our nation is the constitutional establishment of religious freedom (the “free exercise” and “no establishment” clauses of the First Amendment) by the framers of the Bill of Rights.
Drawing upon our nation’s motto and our history of religious freedom, Eck argues that America’s new oneness, our newly defined “We,” will be found in a vibrant religious pluralism.
After distinguishing the pursuit of pluralism from two other American responses to the diversification of religion—exclusion and assimilation—Eck develops four features of an envisioned religious pluralism.
First, pluralism goes beyond mere diversity to active engagement with religious plurality. True religious pluralism requires participation and attunement to the life and energies of other religions.
Second, pluralism goes beyond mere tolerance to the active attempt to understand other religions. Tolerance can create a climate of restraint, but not one of understanding.
Third, pluralism is not simply relativism. Pluralism is the encounter of commitments, the engagement with, not abdication of, differences and particularities. This type of pluralism requires a structure of dialogue aimed not at achieving agreement, but at achieving relationship.
Finally, the process of pluralism is never complete, but is the ongoing work of each generation.
Let no one believe that the task of achieving a truly religiously pluralistic society in the United States will be an easy undertaking.
When American historians such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. in The Disuniting of America openly question whether there is too much “pluribus” and not enough “unum” in our nation, we face a daunting challenge.
Eck concludes the book by giving numerous examples where bridge building in the new religious landscape of America is happening and genuine pluralism is the result.
For those among us who cherish religious freedom, Eck provides a topographical map of the new religious America and a manual of instructions to guide us as we seek to engineer an authentic religiously pluralistic society.
Ron Wilson is pastor at First Baptist Church in Hartselle, Ala.