Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal

Article excerpt

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, 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. …