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

By Wallace, Dewey D., Jr. | Interpretation, October 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Wallace, Dewey D., Jr., Interpretation


Religious Pluralism in America: The Contentious History of a Founding Ideal by William R. Hutchison Yale University Press, New Haven, 2003. 276 pp. $29.95 (cloth). ISBN 0-300-09813-8.

HUTCHISON OFFERS IN THIS book an overall interpretation of American religion. Granted that the current religious scene in the United States impresses by its cacophonous variety, Hutchison begins by wondering if any unified story of American religion is possible, and decides in the affirmative so long as unity is found in tentative "organizing propositions" (p. 2). He organizes the story around the theme of pluralism, and recounts the different ways in which religious diversity has been understood.

For Hutchison, the only real consensus in American religious life was in the Protestant and primarily Calvinist ethos of the colonial period. Religious diversity that included many nonProtestants arrived between 1820 and 1860, not just in the first two generations after the civil war, as conventional versions of the story have it. In ante-bellum United States toleration of diversity often broke down, but usually over religious behaviors (e.g., Mormon polygamy) and not doctrine. A Protestant ethos and a degree of hegemony persisted into the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, increasingly modified by the inclusive impulses of liberal theology and the social gospel. Neo-Orthodoxy both revivified Protestant hegemony and subverted it by prophetic critique. Only in the second half of the twentieth century was tolerance of diversity replaced by a genuine pluralism according to which various religious groups could remain what they were, learn something from one another, and together contribute to the common good. …

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