Two Faces of American Pluralism: Political and Religious

By Mihut, Liliana | Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies, Winter 2012 | Go to article overview

Two Faces of American Pluralism: Political and Religious


Mihut, Liliana, Journal for the Study of Religions and Ideologies


Abstract: The paper examines the contours, features and developments of two faces of pluralism, as well as their interactions. First of all, based on the analysis of the pluralist theories, it underlines that pluralism is not perceived now only as a particular American school of thought, but mostly as a generic concept with meanings and connotations that vary from one epoch to another. Second of all, it scrutinizes the political pluralism in the United States, more exactly the relationship between constitutional pluralism and party pluralism, as well as the pluralism of interest groups. The religious pluralism is seen both as denominational pluralism and as diversity of religious organizations. The paper shows that, in spite of the common ground in the constitutional provisions and much interference in their development, each of the two faces of pluralism has followed its own dynamics. Next, it focuses on the new religious pluralism, which has nourished controversies regarding its effects on democracy in America. Although prestigious scholars have warned that these new challenges face real perils, the author of this paper sides with those who see them less of a threat than an opportunity for democracy to develop new interactions and participative tools, without abandoning its principles and values.

Key Words: conservatism; constitutional pluralism; democracy; interest groups; liberalism; party pluralism; political pluralism; religious pluralism; Religious Right.

Pluralism is usually seen as a basic characteristic of the democratic regimes. In this very broad meaning, pluralism is proper to all Western democracies and, in the last few decades, to most Central and Eastern European countries, more or less. However, comparative analyses have stressed that the United States (US) has the most relevant experience of pluralism, both in theory and practice. The analyses have also underlined the polymorphous nature of pluralism: the political dimension is intermingled with the social, cultural, ethnic, or religious dimensions.1

This paper focuses on two faces of pluralism in American society, namely the political and the religious ones. First, a brief history of pluralism in its theoretical aspects is presented, and then the main features and developments of the two faces, as well as their interactions are explored. The approach is an attempt to answer the question: is the new religious pluralism a threat or an opportunity for the American pluralist democracy?

Theories of pluralism

There is no doubt that the precursors of pluralist theories can be found in ancient Greek thought, more exactly in Aristotle's view that the state is a multiple entity that involves separation among its specific activities. This approach inspired the modern principle of the separation of powers, which is often seen as the core of the political pluralism.

However, only in the early 1920s, in England, did pluralism develop into a theory, even if it did not take the shape of a coherent academic school. J. N. Figgis, an Anglican priest, saw his church as a voluntary association, not as a state-enforced compulsory association, and therefore he advocated for religious freedom and the autonomy of religious organizations. H. J. Laski, a legal and political theorist, was the first who introduced pluralism as a political concept, and pleaded for a "pluralistic state," a decentralized one, where the power is diffused to local authorities and autonomous associations as well.2

This version of pluralism came to be connected to the American pluralist tradition, especially thanks to Laski, who appreciated both the vision of the Federalist Papers and William James's philosophical view of the "pluralistic universe."3 The British scholar, who was repeatedly a guest lecturer at prestigious American universities, discovered in American federalism the equivalent of political pluralism.

Across the Ocean, in the US, pluralism has been a characteristic feature from the very beginning, its first expression being the Constitution itself, which was based on two principles: separation of powers and federalism.

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