The idea of Christian America meets with determined opposition on many fronts, and for many reasons. Few have pulled together the argumentative strands of opposition with such verve as Diana L. Eck of Harvard University. Her book, A New Religious America: How a Christian Country Has Become the Worlds Most Religiously Diverse Nation (HarperSanFrancisco, 404 pages., $27), should, in the view of some, permanently retire the idea of Christian America. As the publisher says, Prof. Eck is an articulate and credentialed Harvard scholar, and her findings strike at the heart of xenophobia in this country [and are] sure to startle many Americans. To say that Prof. Eck is well credentialed is an understatement. She is Professor of Comparative Religion at Harvard, Master of Lowell House (or, as she prefers, co-master), Director of the Pluralism Project, the recipient of major grants from the Ford Foundation, and in 1998 President Clinton bestowed upon her the National Humanities Medal. Her dustjacket photo, by Bachrach no less, reveals a woman both feisty and thoughtful, and the endorsements of the book by prestigious academics”Harvey Cox, Edwin Gaustad, Wade Clark Roof, Alan Wolfe”far exceed the fulsome praise customary among friends. A New Religious America intends to be, and is, a major statement.
Eck knows something of the history of the Christian America that she insists is now past, and she is not entirely unsympathetic to that history. She quotes Tocquevilles assessment of America in the 1830s: There is no country in the world where the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America, and there can be no greater proof of its utility and of its conformity to human nature than that its influence is powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth. In the American democracy, said Tocqueville, religion is the first of political institutions, referring not only to its public influence but to the fact that it is the school in which people learn the habits and responsibilities of democratic association.
But there is no going back to that, says Eck. Plus, her sympathy for that earlier time is sharply qualified by the early American hostility to the religion of Native Americans. She complains that the American settlers thought they were bringing religion to the Indians, but they already had a religion that can lay claim to being more authentically American. One might respond that the settlers were well aware that the Indians had their religions; they thought they were bringing them the true religion. As we shall see, it is this notion of truth in connection with religion”or, more precisely, the rejection of that notion”that is at the heart of Prof. Ecks argument.
A Religious Settlement
A hundred and twenty years after Tocqueville, Will Herberg wrote about a tripartite American religious situation in his influential book Protestant, Catholic, Jew . After World War II, the liberal Protestant cultural hegemony began to collapse, and the more conservative Protestants”those who would later be called evangelicals”were isolated in the supposed backwaters of fundamentalism. Formerly immigrant Catholics were being accepted as part of the mainstream, and a deal was struck with American Jews that, at least for public purposes, we would speak of our society as being based upon a Judeo-Christian moral tradition. This was the new religio-moral-cultural settlement celebrated by Herberg. (As a rabbi friend has remarked, It was really astonishingly generous of you Christians to give our 2 percent of the population 50 percent of the say in defining the culture.)
But, according to Eck, Herbergs new settlement is now as untenable as Tocquevilles assessment more than a century earlier. By the 1990s, she writes, it was Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and Sikh, and our collective consciousness of the wide and deep presence of Americas Native peoples was greater than ever before. What was one nation under God is now one nation under many gods, and we should not only get used to it; we must learn to celebrate the change. To help us understand and celebrate that change is the purpose of A New Religious America .
Diana Eck is nothing if not an enthusiast, and the exuberance with which she details the changed religious situation lends her account a certain charm. In Nashville she visits a Hindu temple, in the farmlands south of Minneapolis she is taken with the Southeast Asian roofline of a Cambodian Buddhist temple, while outside Toledo she notices the minarets of a mosque when driving by on the interstate. Not all of us have seen the Toledo mosque or the Nashville temple, but we will see places like them, if we keep our eyes open, even in our own communities. They are the architectural signs of a new religious America.
Prof. Eck cannot hold back from waxing rhapsodic about the symphony of this new circumstance, each retaining its difference, all sounding together, with an ear to the music of the whole. Or, better than the symphony image, perhaps we need to stretch our imagination to something more akin to jazz . . . . Learning to hear the musical lines of our neighbors, their individual and magnificent interpretations of Americas common covenants, is the test of cultural pluralism. She invites us to see the religious landscape of America from sea to shining sea, in all its beautiful complexity. At times one almost envies Prof. Ecks ebullient sense of fresh discovery, reflected in page after page of effusive appreciation. Admittedly, some readers may find the uncritical enthusiasm cloying after a while”her every visit to an exotic site or participation in an arcane ritual is moving, deeply meaningful, inspiring, etc.”but it cannot be denied that Eck has paid attention to generally neglected or unknown corners of American society, and that gives the book moments of real interest.
The Multicultural Reality
A New Religious America is a study in, and promotion of, multiculturalism. She writes, We know that the term multiculturalism has crept into our vocabulary and that this term has created such a blaze of controversy that some people mistake it for a political platform rather than a social reality. Prof. Eck wants it understood that her interest is not in advancing a political platform but in helping us understand and celebrate the multiculturalism that is, in fact, the social reality of America. This is not to say that she approaches her subject without biases. Who does? While she does not disguise the fact that she is a more or less conventional liberal (some would say leftist) on the usual questions in public dispute, the acknowledged biases in her understanding of religion itself are most pertinent to the argument.
For Diana Eck, religion is mainly, and sometimes, it seems, exclusively, a matter of spiritual experience. Doctrine (apart from the teaching of unlimited tolerance) and moral rules (apart from prescribed stances on issues in cultural dispute) are sharply subordinated. She knows there are traditionalists who think religion is delivered and passed intact from generation to generation, but they are simply wrong. Our religious traditions are dynamic not static, changing not fixed, more like rivers than monuments, she writes. The diversity celebrated at places such as Harvard is a revolution that is transforming society. Our campuses have become the laboratories of a new multicultural and multireligious America.
Eck is affiliated with the United Methodist Church and she quotes favorably a Native American executive of that body who protests the arrogance of its trying to displace indigenous religions with Christianity. Throughout our history, Eck writes, the United States has been dominated by the influence of Christianity”strongly monotheistic, with many Christian voices articulating an exclusivist view of the way, the truth, and the life. The freedom of religion enshrined in the Constitution, says Eck, clashes directly with the negative religious views of pluralism held by some conservative Christians. Here, she writes, Hinduism also makes a unique contribution by teaching us a theology of religious pluralism. In a new religious America there is no place for the definite article; we should understand the words of Jesus about himself as a claim to be a way, a truth, and a life. I am not sure that Eck really means to say that religion she calls exclusive”but that others would call inclusive because it is salvation offered to absolutely everyone”is unconstitutional. Unfortunately, she does not expand on what would appear to be a novel reading of the First Amendment.
It is in connection with the view of religion as dynamic, changing, and flowing that one may understand the authors reason for discussing her relationship with her partner, to whom the book is dedicated heart and soul. The reader may think this a personal matter that is extraneous to the subject at hand, but the author uses it to illustrate the kind of liberation from tradition that she extols. Dorothy Austin is a professor of psychology and religion and an Episcopal minister who has, says Eck, a genius for making friends. It was considered a major breakthrough at Harvard when a same-sex couple was appointed as co-masters of Lowell House. Eck writes of Ms. Austin, She kicked off her shoes with me at many temples, mosques, and gurdwaras, and much of the book indeed reads as an account of friends having a jolly good time on a spiritual shopping spree, eagerly consuming one new experience after another. The jollity, however, should not be allowed to obscure the very big argument that Prof. Eck wants to make.
Who We Are
Ecks purpose, as she says many times over, is to explain who we are as a people”or at least who we would be if we overcame the hatred and bigotry that prevents us from being who we are. References to hatred and bigotry abound in the book, and sometime seem to include everyone who disagrees with the author, especially people who subscribe to what we may call definite article truth. On the other hand, hatred and bigotry are very bad things that cannot be condemned too often, so one is inclined to cut Prof. Eck some slack with respect to a style that might otherwise be criticized as grindingly repetitious and offputtingly strident. The patient reader will recognize the heart of the argument being made: when it comes to religious and cultural diversity, Americans can be put into three categories”those who favor exclusion , those who favor assimilation , and those who favor pluralism . According to Eck, Peter Brimelow, who argues in Alien Nation that the country needs to get control of its immigration policy, is obviously an exclusionist (see hatred and bigotry above). Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., who says in The Disuniting of America that multiculturalism, especially on campus, has accented the pluribus at the expense of the unum , is an assimilationist. And, of course, the author and others whose motto is, as she says, the more pluribus the better are the pluralists.
Prof. Eck is perhaps unduly optimistic about the number of Americans in her third category. Although she acknowledges that Harvard is not the bellwether of American society, she keeps returning to Harvard, and especially to the Harvard Divinity School where she teaches, as the exemplification of the new religious America that she favors. It seems that almost everyone at Harvard shares her understanding of pluralism. And not only at Harvard. She is delighted to discover a Buddhist group near Boston that leads an annual pilgrimage deploring the history of slavery in America, and Native Americans in the area who observe Thanksgiving Day as a National Day of Mourning. But one may respectfully ask whether these are instances not of pluralism but of out-group assimilation to the dominant culture, meaning the dominant culture of Harvard and environs. The reader cannot help but wish that Prof. Eck had explored such nuances. But then, the book is already very long, or at least seems very long, and it is perhaps understandable that the author did not want to let critical analysis get in the way of the celebration of diversity.
Some of Ecks efforts to recruit others to her understanding of pluralism, however, do seem to be a bit of a stretch. For instance, she quotes favorably Father John Courtney Murray on the coexistence within the one political community of groups who hold divergent and incompatible views with regard to religious questions. In the very same We Hold These Truths , however, Murray writes: The American Proposition rests on the more traditional conviction that there are truths; that they can be known; that they must be held; for, if they are not held, assented to, consented to, worked into the texture of institutions, there can be no hope of founding a true City. That, of course, is the precise argument that it is the entire purpose of A New Religious America to refute. Eck is correct in saying that Murray favored a structure of dialogue over a structure of warfare, but his understanding of dialogue assumes the idea of definite article truth from which Eck says we must be liberated. Fr. Murray was quite insistent that the democratic pluralism he favored has a very particular religious and cultural history grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. Eck is in many ways admirably ecumenical, but she lets her irenic spirit get the best of her when she tries to recruit to her position figures such as John Courtney Murray who spent their careers advocating a position diametrically opposite to hers.
This irenic overreach is evident also in Prof. Ecks appropriation of the Williamsburg Charter. That document was signed by a wide array of religious leaders on the bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution, and was intended to propose a way in which Americans might continue to live together with our deepest differences. Prof. Eck greatly admires the Williamsburg Charter, and I confess that I agree with her good judgment in this case. At the same time, I must declare a vested interest, since I was chairman of the committee that wrote the Williamsburg Charter. I regret to say that Prof. Eck gravely misunderstands the intention and text of the document. Here again, she would have been well advised to contain her irenic pattern of recruitment.
The argument of the Charter is that it is a false pluralism that pretends our deepest differences finally make no difference. The Charter sets forth how we view the place of religion in American life and how we should contend with each others deepest differences in the public sphere. The key word here is contend. The proposal is that definite article truths in conflict can be engaged within the bond of civility in addressing controverted questions of public policy. The Charter also assumes the history-specific, Judeo-Christian development of the authentic pluralism that it espouses. In sum, and as with Fr. Murray, the Charter stands in starkest opposition to the argument of A New Religious America . I do not suggest that Prof. Eck is deliberately misrepresenting the Williamsburg Charter. Any document could be improved, and it is more than possible that, despite my efforts and those of many of the countrys leading thinkers on these matters, the Charter is subject to the misunderstanding proposed by Prof. Eck. I do confess to being somewhat surprised, since I have never before come across such an inventive construal of what we wrote.
Truths in Conflict
The three-part distinction between exclusion, assimilation, and pluralism is hardly original with Prof. Eck, as she probably knows, and has no doubt been around so long because people have found it useful. At the hands of Prof. Eck, however, one must ask whether any of the three terms means what it is usually taken to mean. Pluralism, for instance, is much more than diversity. Religious and moral pluralism means that there exist in the same space plural ways of understanding reality and rules for living drawn from those ways of understanding. These ways are not only divergent but are frequently in conflict. The result is an ongoing contestation that, as proposed in the Williamsburg Charter, need not destroy but can actually strengthen the bond of civility. These different ways of faith and life come with different rituals, customs, and spiritual accents”all of which Prof. Eck amply appreciates”but they also come with, indeed they necessarily assume and assert, different truth claims. By excluding definite article truth claims”i.e., this is the truth”Eck effectively stifles the reality of pluralism. When no truth claims are privileged, when all are radically relativized, all are effectively silenced, at least in public. Such a simplistic formulation of pluralism results in the death of pluralism.
That is one way of stating the difficulty with Prof. Ecks argument. One may take a slightly different tack, however, and suggest that, contrary to her repeatedly proclaimed intention, she is, no doubt inadvertently, advocating a course of exclusion and assimilation. In the orchestra or jazz stylizations of A New Religious America , it is made clear time and again that one very large group does not belong, at least not until its members change their ways. It is composed of the Christians who would convert others to their faith and even, as she complains, publicly privilege the Judeo-Christian tradition by, for instance, posting the Ten Commandments in public places. In a country in which more than two-thirds of the people claim to believe that Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life”and to have made a personal commitment to him as such”this is a very large exclusion. As for her advocating a course of assimilation, there is no mistaking her eagerness to assimilate the relatively small part of the population that professes a religion other than Christianity or Judaism to her understanding of all religions as dynamic not static, changing not fixed, more like rivers than monuments.
This combination of exclusion and assimilation produces not pluralism but Harvard. And, of course, similarly elite campuses which are variously described as laboratories for the America that will be or as miniature representations of the America that is. Prof. Eck manifestly loves Harvard, as do many good people, but she seems to be undecided about whether it is because Harvard is not like America or because Harvard is like America. Most of the time, she settles on the resolution that Harvard is what America should be and, she fondly hopes, is becoming. Now Harvard is somewhat diverse in terms of the ethnic, national, and religious backgrounds of faculty and students, but, in terms of its dominant moral, intellectual, and political habits, is it pluralistic? If one insisted upon saying it is pluralistic, it is clearly a very particularist kind of pluralism. Harvard is not pluralistic in the way that, say, Brooklyn is pluralistic. Pluralism means different worlds. Harvard is one world of informal exclusions and assimilated particularisms. Brooklyn is many worlds.
In a Long Tradition
In her enthusiasm, which, as I say, is not without its charms, Prof. Eck and her friends have kicked off their shoes and sat in on sundry exotic rites. One gets the impression of an academic seminar on a nonstop field trip. The result is a book that reads like a Baedeker of the remote and offbeat, except that, as she keeps pointing out, these exotica are to be found right here in places such as Chicago, Phoenix, and Sacramento. Look! she is shouting to get our attention. It is not them and us. This is who we are! She cites Hillary Rodham Clinton on how we have become a global village. Also Mrs. Clinton on what makes America great when welcoming Muslims to the first-ever observance of Eid al-Fitr at the White House: For two centuries we have prided ourselves on being a nation of pluralistic beliefs, united by a common faith in democracy.
Ecks assertions about who we are, however, are frequently overwhelmed by her earnest longing for who we might be. In this respect her book is part of a long tradition that goes back to Emerson, Thoreau, and the nineteenth-century Transcendentalists. This is especially evident in her section on the Easting of New England. There the bulk of her treatment of Hinduism in America deals with esoteric groups such as the Vedanta Society that have long catered to a small American elite fascinated by the wisdom of the East. As an aside, she notes that today, usually under the auspices of what is called New Age, this turn of mind has gradually saturated the whole of American culture with essentially Hindu, more broadly Asian, ideas without speaking of them as such. There is much truth in that, but Eck does not develop the point, perhaps because that saturation is, in fact, an instance of Christian America assimilating, however incoherently, alternative traditions. She writes, with apparent regret, that Hinduism has not developed any kind of public presence in America, and that immigrants from India identify themselves not as Hindus but as Indian-Americans. Pretty much as earlier immigrants”Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, et al.”did before them.
It is the new in A New Religious America that is unpersuasive. Prof. Ecks liberal exorcizing of definite article truth is in clear continuity with, and for the most part simply reiterates, the position of William Ernest Hocking, also of Harvard Divinity School, who was the driving force behind the 1932 report Re-thinking Missions that, according to most historians, marked the end of oldline Protestantisms commitment to world missions. The argument that prevailed is that Christianity has no greater claim to truth than do other religions and therefore the effort to convert others is finally no more than an instance of cultural arrogance. Of course, world missions continue to flourish today, but the enterprise is almost entirely under evangelical Protestant and Catholic auspices, precisely the forces supposedly prone to the intolerance and exclusion that Prof. Eck deplores.
As recounted by Eck, the high point of the interreligious pluralism that she favors was the 1893 Parliament of World Religions in Chicago. Swami Vivekananda was the star of the gathering and he went on to found the Vedanta Society, which was the forerunner of other projects in the Easting of America. Eck discusses in detail and ascribes great importance to, for instance, the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON or Hare Krishna), a group that has never had more than four thousand members in the U.S., and is chiefly attractive to young people from thoroughly secularized Jewish homes (see Rodney Stark, One True God , p. 111). The 1993 centenary observance of the Parliament, also in Chicago, was, Eck admits, a pale reflection of the first event, and was noted chiefly for its effort to draft a global charter of ethics under the leadership of the dissident Catholic theologian Hans Küng. She waxes enthusiastic about the colorfully diverse opening ceremonies in Chicago, observing in passing that, since it was held on the Sabbath, Jewish participation was limited. But Jews and Judaism do not figure prominently in the new pluralism celebrated by Prof. Eck. She is pleased to report that at the Chicago affair she was seated at a table with Hans Küng himself.
The Muslim Difference
In Ecks Baedeker of a nation under many gods, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, Sikh, and Native American traditions are warmly affirmed, but even by her own telling it is finally only the Muslim presence that aspires to make a public difference in America. Whatever Buddhists, Hindus, and Sikhs may do religiously in their homes and temples, they do not want to stick out or to pose a challenge to Judeo-Christian America. Like earlier immigrants, they want to fit in, while preserving their distinctive traditions in family and community observances. Multicultural tourists such as Prof. Eck may agitate for a nation under many gods, but there is little or no public advocacy by Buddhists, Hindus, or Sikhs for such a redefinition of American society. In addition, the very large number of Asian immigrants who are Christian goes unmentioned by Prof. Eck. For instance, Presbyterianism in New York City would be practically nonexistent without Koreans. Greater enthusiasts for the idea of Christian America are not to be found.
Prof. Eck is eager to recruit Native Americans to her multicultural cause. The sad reality is that for Native Americans”many of whom now want again to be called American Indians”the trail of tears continues as they languish on reservations in alcoholic stupor, frequently exploited by tribal gangsters bent upon exploiting the vices of the majority population with casinos and related semi-criminal enterprises. To be sure, there is also the observance of Native American religious traditions”now largely fabricated with the help of multicultural experts from liberal divinity schools”which in some Indian communities is a big draw in the tourist trade. But, apart from a few radical activists, most of whom had their fifteen minutes of celebrity in the 1960s, there is no Indian program for the religious or cultural redefinition of America. There is a great sadness here, but it is part of the continuing tragedy of the countrys native population, for which the European settlers bear a large measure of moral responsibility. Over the course of more than three hundred years, however, nobody, including Native Americans, has come up with an answer that works. Many proposals have been tried, from total assimilation to nationalist separatism, and no doubt others will be tried in the future, but the reality is, for better or worse, that, in terms of posing a serious challenge to the reality of Judeo-Christian America, Native Americans are on a par with the Hare Krishnas.
The Muslim case is different. There are perhaps four million Muslims in America; nobody knows for sure. There are Muslim organizations claiming that there are ten million, while some social scientists put the figure as low as two million. Prof. Eck goes along with the convention of estimating about four million. Almost everyone agrees that at least half of these Muslims are American-born blacks. Eck gives her hunch that it is closer to 40 percent. The Black Muslim movement began in Detroit with Elijah Muhammad in the 1930s. Eck writes, For orthodox Islam, the final messenger was and is Muhammad, and to speak of Elijah Muhammad as the messenger constituted a clear heresy. She then quotes approvingly the words of Louis Farrakhan to those who question whether he is really a Muslim: I dont care if none of you believe Im a Muslim. You are not my judge. Take off the robes of Allah. They dont fit you well! And she very much approves Farrakhans appointment of a woman to be imam of an Atlanta mosque. This unprecedented move, she writes, is yet another way in which Minister Farrakhan follows his own lights, not those of an imposed orthodoxy. The suggestion is that it is less important to be Muslim, as defined by a normative tradition, than to follow ones own lights. It is a very American or, if you will, Emersonian suggestion, but one wishes Prof. Eck had addressed the objection that this inevitably ends up not in pluralism but in the monism of people following their own lights. One recalls Harold Rosenbergs memorable phrase, the herd of independent minds.
Also in connection with the Black Muslim movement, Eck offers a more sweeping generalization about black religion: Orthodoxy, after all, has never been the measure of black religion in America. Experience has always won out over official doctrine. I do not think that Prof. Eck means to say that blacks are less intelligent or thoughtful about religion, only that they are less intellectual. And those who may find Ecks generalizations about blacks to be offensively condescending should keep in mind that, for her, the priority of experience over doctrine is a mark of religious vitality and progress. What some may take as a slur against blacks and their religious sensibilities is clearly intended as a compliment. Black Christianity is generally neglected in accounts of American religion, and this book is no exception. This does not mean that in their religious travels Prof. Eck and her friends have not kicked off their shoes, as it were, also in black churches. But there are no reports here on how moving and inspiring she found their legendary rhythm and their handclapping enthusiasm. The omission is no doubt because the black church is also part of the Christian country that must give way to the new diversity that she champions. The Black Muslims, even if they are following their own lights, are sufficiently other to be of interest to Prof. Eck, but of much greater interest are the Muslims who follow the light of Muhammad, even if they are subject to an imposed orthodoxy.
An Image Problem
Muslims, along with so many others, including self-described pagans and practitioners of witchcraft, are not accepted as they should be, Eck complains. Muslims, especially those from the Middle East, are frequently viewed with suspicion. The Quran declares, Do you not know, O people, that I have made you into tribes and nations that you may know each other. Prof. Eck comments:
As Muslims become increasingly articulate about their place in the American pluralist experiment, they bring this particular Quranic teaching to bear on the question of difference . . . . How we respond to it is up to us. The Quran offers us all a good place to start: we should come to know each other. But knowing each other is not easy in the American context. Misinformation about Islam and, even more, sheer ignorance of Islam, are common . . . . Newspapers bring to American homes the images of Islamic Jihad and other terrorist organizations, their rifle-toting leaders and their hideouts, creating a view of Islam as dangerous, subversive, highly political, and anti-American.
She writes that American Muslims may well be among the first to condemn [terrorist attacks] and to speak of terrorism as anti-Islamic, and that is true. At the same time, some of the major Muslim organizations in this country are deeply entangled with those who promote and carry out such attacks. Newspapers here may sometimes be unfair in portraying Muslims, but it was not American newspapers that blew up the World Trade Center or American embassies abroad. And the newspapers only report on the long-standing and repeatedly declared determination of many Muslims in the Middle East to drive the Jews of Israel into the sea. Prof. Eck writes that all religions have their extremists, and that is undoubtedly true. She compares Muslim extremists to the Aryan Nation among Christians, one end of a wide spectrum, one thread in a complex pattern of faith and culture. The suggested symmetry, unfortunately, is not persuasive. The Aryan Nation (if it still exists as an organization) is an isolated and carefully watched handful of individual kooks, whereas the campaign against Israel and the Great Satan supporting Israel is waged by real nations who have created what Samuel Huntington calls the bloody borders of Islam.
In June of this year sit-ins outside the State Department and White House were staged by the major Muslim organizations in protest against American support for Israel. Sponsors included American Muslims for Jerusalem, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the Muslim Public Affairs Council, the American Muslim Council, the Islamic Association of Palestine, and the Muslim American Society. Their statement declared, U.S. interests will be served and our credibility enhanced when we accept the role of a true honest broker and impose a level of responsibility on Israel consistent with the billions of American taxpayer-funded aid Israel receives per year. With respect to the approximately two million Muslims in America who are not American-born blacks, this does not represent, to use Prof. Ecks words, one end of a wide spectrum, one thread in a complex pattern of faith and culture. Such actions and attitudes represent the organized public presence of Islam in America.
Muslims who are American citizens have every right to protest U.S. support for Israel, and a substantial number of other Americans agree with such protest. One gathers from her sanitized presentation of Islam and favorable references to the Palestinian cause that Prof. Eck is among those who agree. That is her right, of course, but the bias results in a gravely skewed depiction of Islam in America. It is quite possible that most Muslims in this country are more or less apolitical and want only to follow the long immigrant tradition of successful assimilation in American society. It is more than possible, it is almost certain. That is typically why people come to America. But unlike Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, and others in Prof. Ecks multicultural jazz festival, the organized public presence of Muslims is dedicated to changing Americas relationship to the Muslim world and thereby pits itself against an established component of the countrys Judeo-Christian identity, namely, Jews.
Muslims say that if there is a Jewish lobby in support of Israel, and there undoubtedly is, why cant there be a Muslim lobby in support of the Arabs? Of course there can be and there is. But as long as the public presence of Islam in America is inseparable from anti-Zionism, that presence will be controversial, and will not readily be granted the warm acceptance and invitation to caringly sensitive dialogue that Prof. Eck enjoins upon all participants in the glorious mosaic of A New Religious America . I expect that Prof. Eck is well aware of these problematic aspects of Islam in America, which, given her purposes, is a good reason for her not to discuss them.
The questions that emerge today from the encounter of people of so many religious and cultural traditions go to the very heart of who we see ourselves to be as a people, writes Prof. Eck. At times the impression is given that her book is describing the America that is, at other times it is the America that should be, and at yet others it depicts multiculturalism as a project indulged in the privileged precincts of the contemporary university. But most of the time she insists that she is alerting us to who we are as a people. Borrowing the phrase from Gunnar Myrdals classic study of race in America, she declares, The new American dilemma is real religious pluralism, and it poses challenges to Americas Christian churches that are as difficult and divisive as those of race. It is hard to know what such a statement might mean. The number of adherents to non-Christian religions is much smaller than the number of black Americans; those adherents were not for centuries subjected to the institution of slavery; they were not and are not the victims of legally enforced segregation; and she surely does not mean that Christian churches are going to divide over their attitude toward, say, Hindus the way they divided, North and South, over their positions on the status of blacks in America. Some, especially African Americans, might be offended by Prof. Ecks minimizing of the uniqueness of race as the American dilemma, but here, too, she should perhaps be cut some slack. A measure of hyperbole may be excusable in view of the urgency of her task, which is nothing less than to alert us to who we are as a people.
In view of the prevalence of ignorance, hatred, and bigotry that she discerns in American life, the possibility of religious warfare arises. On this score, she notes that much progress has been made. Today we dont form battle lines on the basis of Christian denominational polity as did our seventeenth-and eighteenth-century forebears. Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and Quakers are pretty much at peace today. She does not add, perhaps out of courtesy, that as religious forces in our public life they are also pretty much dead today. The fear of religious warfare, however, does seem remote, since, apart from the Muslim conflict with Jews, the new immigrant groups give no indication of aspiring to be a religious force in our public life. Perhaps that will change, but one expects not for a very long time.
Ecks book, like the multiculturalist advocacy literature of which it is part, makes much of the fact that there are allegedly more Muslims than Episcopalians or Jews in America, and that may be true. But how many Muslims are in Congress, or in the board rooms of major corporations, or heads of elite universities and philanthropies? With respect to Congress, the answer is zero, and with respect to other positions of influence, the answer is as close to zero as is possible without being zero. Of course a time may come when a Muslim is elected as a U.S. Senator or appointed head of the Ford Foundation, but it is almost certain that he or she will be successfully distanced from public identification with Islam, and certainly from identification with Islams public presence in the form of anti-Zionism.
In reviewing Prof. Ecks book in the Wall Street Journal , Stephen Prothero, who teaches religion at Boston University, writes: Yet whatever [religious] diversity we have is always being exercised in a Christian context. American Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam are all heavily Christianized. The Buddhist students I teach are strongly influenced by Protestant social activism. Some of my Hindu students revere Jesus as an avatar of Vishnu. Most worship in split-level temple complexes designed to function like evangelical megachurches. Mr. Prothero suggests that contemporary America is like what Zen Buddhism calls a koan , a paradoxical riddle. That riddle is not, as Ms. Ecks subtitle goes, How a Christian Country Has Become the Worlds Most Religiously Diverse Nation. It is instead how America has managed to become both a Christian country and a multireligious society at the same time. I think it even more accurate to say that America has been and is a Christian society that has been remarkably welcoming to people of different cultures and religions, and has acquiesced in the privileged status achieved by Jews. For farther than we can see into the future, the religio-cultural circumstance will continue to be more like than unlike that described in the book so disliked by Prof. Eck, Will Herbergs Protestant, Catholic, Jew .
In her concluding pages, Prof. Eck allows that religious minorities are few in number. All told, they may account for less than 10 percent of the population. But the news of this new century is that they are here, and in numbers significant enough to make an imprint on every city in America. Numbers do not matter. But, of course, numbers do matter, and the number of Americans who are not Christians or Jews is very much less than 10 percent, which would mean close to thirty million people. If we allow the generous estimate of four million Muslims, there are probably less than 10 million Americans whose religion is other than Christian or Jewish. That is less than 5 percent of the population. Apart from a significant number of non-Christian Asian Americans (Japanese-Americans, for instance), these minorities are socially marginal; moreover, apart from some Muslims, the non-Christian sector of the population is not inclined to make a public issue of their religious difference. A minaret on a citys skyline is not to be equated with an imprint on its culture.
The multiculturalism that, in the tradition of her nineteenth-century predecessors, Prof. Eck champions aims to transcend religious particularism in a kind of spiritual Esperanto. The problem with Esperanto, of course, is that almost nobody speaks it. Today, English is becoming the universal language that Esperanto aspired to be. Similarly, in America Christianity provides the encompassing religio-cultural context within which many others flourish. In a more sober passage, Eck describes the pattern of encounters with religious differences in America: Some display the ragged edges of prejudice and stereotype, and some result in acts of insult and injury, vandalism and violence. On the whole, however, I would venture that the experience of immigrant religious communities is not bigotry and prejudice but a rough-hewn tolerance, combined with a kind of laissez-faire ignorance and individualism that enables people to live and let live. Exactly. That is the way it has been, and that is the way it will likely continue to be. One need only add that there is also the influence of specifically Christian tolerance, understood as part of the command to love the neighbor, and among many Christians the hope”which it is not polite to express in public”that the others will one day be converted to the Christian gospels definite article truth.
A New Religious America is a spirited tract, and its authors enthusiasm is sometimes infectious. But it has as much to do with the religio-cultural reality of America as did her beloved World Parliament of Religions in 1893. Probably less, since that was at a time when liberal religions confidence in its conquest of particularisms was at its peak. Today that confidence is in very short supply outside the confines of university departments of religious studies. For a more credible evaluation of religion and the American experiment”as it was, is, and almost certainly will continue to be”see Alexis de Tocqueville above.
A Different Kind of Coming Home
Do we really need another conversion story from yet another radical who wandered for years through the sordid worlds of leftist delusions? The answer is yes when it is as well told as Ronald Radoshs Commies: A Journey through the Old Left, the New Left, and the Leftover Left (Encounter, 211 pages, $24.95). And the answer is yes if we are to understand the leftover left, frequently ensconced today in the academy, media, and other positions of influence, and still driven by the same delusions. And the answer is yes again because, in fact, there have not been that many conversion stories. In the last few years, there was David Horowitzs Radical Son (reviewed in FT, August/September 1997), but for the most part it seems that old leftists who are no longer that still defend their earlier idealism, or would as soon that they and everyone else forget the revolutionaries they once thought themselves to be.
Radosh cherishes a photo in which he, not yet two years old, is being trundled down Fifth Avenue in the 1939 May Day Parade, an annual festival of the Communist Party. That day, it seems to me, was my baptism into the world of Jewish radicalism, a world so small and insular that it existed inside a political and social ghetto. Like Horowitz, Radosh describes in detail a world that is hard to imagine for those who were not part of it; a world stifling in its confinement to life defined by the Party, its many front organizations and causes, and the factionalisms produced by ideological shifts and quarrels. As a young man, Radosh of course joined the Partys youth movement, then called the Labor Youth League. Most of the members of my branch, the Upper West Side LYL, were all Jewish, Radosh writes. I dont know whether he means that most were Jewish or that all were Jewish, with most of the Jews being all Jewish, but he is clear enough on what it meant to be Jewish in that context: Another shared aspect of that Jewish upbringing was a purely cultural Yiddishkeit that emphasized Yiddish literature and theater, the folk writing of Sholom Aleichem, the parables of freedom that abounded throughout Jewish culture, and, most important, a complete rejection of anything to do with religion.
As Radosh now recognizes, the militantly secularist radicalism in which he was reared was his religion, a religion that he would later, and ever so slowly and painfully, abandon. True believers were trained to understand that every facet of life is part of the struggle. The public school was part of the opposing system. While the students of PS 173 came from homes that were largely Jewish [i.e., came mainly from Jewish homes], the teachers were mainly Irish and conservative. Our parents, of course, controlled the PTA, and this meant perpetual conflict and classroom stress. In an earlier generation, the Anglo-Protestants ran the public school system in which they Americanized Irish Catholics, who then took over the schools to do the same, with much less success, for Jewish children. Later, it would be the turn of Jews, aided by a Communist-dominated teachers union, to capture the system, now filled with black and Hispanic children to whom they transmitted the radical ideas that were, in due course, turned against the Jews in charge. The gyrations of New York City politics churn, in very large part, around the public school system and the circulation of ethnicities and ideologies that have succeeded in taking it captive.
But the adults of Radoshs world did not leave the ideological indoctrination of the young to the mercies of the public schools. In summer, he and his peers went to what he calls Commie Camp, in this case Camp Wo-Chi-Ca in Upstate New York. One gets the impression of a very earnest and humorless place, an incubator for what would much later be called political correctness. Campers solemnly took the oath: We pledge ourselves to combat the influence of jokes, comic books, newspapers, radio programs that make fun of any people. But the kids also had their heroes, such as the folk singer Pete Seeger, who faithfully toed the Communist line throughout the Cold War. In 1995, President Clinton bestowed on Seeger the Medal of Honor in the Arts, and the Washington Post described him as Americas best-loved Commie. Radosh remembers an earlier and famous album by Seeger that is not much mentioned these days, Songs for John Doe . Its release was poorly timed, during the week of June 1941 when Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and invaded the Soviet Union. Songs for John Doe was filled with songs calling for no intervention in European battles on behalf of British imperialism and F.D.R., who was depicted as a warmongering Fascist in the pay of J. P. Morgan. I hate war, and so does Eleanor, and we wont be safe till everybodys dead, went one rollicking verse to the tune of Jesse James. Of course, the Party did its best to recall the album, as the left did an instant about-face, agitating for immediate intervention in the war against Hitler at the side of Americas noble ally, the Soviet Union.
The bulk of Commies is devoted to Radoshs own adventures and misadventures on the left beginning in the 1960s and up through his final disillusionment. He writes that as late as 1980, when he was working with Michael Harringtons socialist organizing group in the Democratic Party, I was certain that socialism was in our nations future. What was earlier called The Movement was in disarray, having collapsed into a counterculture of drugs, sex, and juvenile zaniness. The Marxist revolution we had hoped for was stillborn, Radosh writes, but the sexual revolution was alive and well. Early on, his wife (the former wife of sociologist, then movement activist, Alan Wolfe) began to break ranks with the left by writing witheringly about the lesbian hijacking of radical feminism. While friends such as Michael Lerner, now editor of Tikkun , championed sexual liberation under the banner Smash Monogamy!, Radosh became something of a rake, taking his sexual opportunities where he found them, and in these pages he settles scores in a way that will likely not be appreciated by some of the women involved.
The Church of the Left
But the larger story is his alienation from the left, and the fear of no longer having a place in the only world he knew. I didnt want to be excommunicated from the church of the left where I had worshiped all of my life, Radosh writes. When, with Joyce Milton, he published The Rosenberg File , excommunication was only a matter of time. Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were convicted and executed as Soviet spies in 1953, and The Rosenberg File committed the unforgivable sin of proving beyond reasonable doubt that they were guilty. The Rosenbergs were as close as the Communist Party had to American saints. As one historian wrote in criticism of the book, The Rosenbergs knew how to die; they knew how to sacrifice for their comrades. Their espionage was genuinely patriotic, because their goal was noble. Friends on the left, including Michael Harrington, claimed that they knew all along that the Rosenbergs were guilty, but Radosh should not have said so publicly, since it played into the hands of the other side.
Radosh feared excommunication, yet he wanted to break away. The book is in part an account of protracted indecision, of hoping that somebody or something would make the decision for him. Time spent in Cuba and then in Nicaragua under the petty Stalinist regime of the Sandinistas finally resolved the matter. With human rights activist Nina Shea in Nicaragua, Radosh visited with peasants who had lost what little land and livelihoods they had under the terror of the regime and were fleeing the country. I realized, he writes, that all during the decades of Somoza rule, Nicaragua never had refugees. I was probably someone waiting for a conversion experience; now it had arrived.
Ronald Radosh is now associated with efforts that, using previously secret documents from the Soviet Union, aim at setting straight the record of what is loosely called McCarthyism. Senator Joe McCarthy was a rough customer who played recklessly with the truth, but his style of anticommunism was possible because there were, in fact, Communists. Radosh quotes favorably the important article of May 2000 by Thomas Powers in the New York Review of Books . Powers wrote:
Soviet spies were of the left generally, they supported liberal causes, they defended the Soviet Union in all circumstances, they were often secret members of the Communist Party, they were uniformly suspicious of American initiatives throughout the world, they could be contemptuous of American democracy, society, and culture, and, above all, their offenses were often minimized or explained away by apologists who felt that no man should be called traitor who did what he did for the cause of humanity.
Set that by the last paragraph of Radoshs Commies :
I dont see much of my old comrades these days. But I know that some of them continue to dream secretly of revolution, and still refuse to prepare a profit-and-loss statement on their past commitments. Arthur Koestler defined them once and for all when he wrote that clinging to the last shred of the torn illusion is typical of the intellectual cowardice that prevails on the left. I once thought it would be impossible to live without these illusions; now I know that I would never have become a free man if I hadnt managed to get rid of them on my long journey home.
The story told by Ronald Radosh, like that of David Horowitz and some others, is redolent with the metaphors of religion”baptism, confirmation, church, worship, excommunication, conversion. Critics of both Radosh and Horowitz claim that, in their new-found conservatism, they still think and write and act in the factious mode of the struggle. Red diaper babies, it is said, may switch sides, but they are incorrigibly at war. There is something to that criticism. Commies , like Radical Son , is not a peaceful book. These books conclude with evil abandoned and roundly cursed, but with no suggestion of a new world found. The journey home is a journey to America, to normality, except for the abnormality of being almost obsessively at war with the enemies of America and normality. The left was the god that failed but, unlike Whittaker Chambers great Witness , there is no God found, unless it be the god of America, which is a nobler idol but an idol nonetheless. In testimonials such as Commies , refugees from radicalisms past render a great service, even if, in the end, they fail to understand that disillusionment is only part, albeit a necessary part, of being free.
Morality and Moralism
What, if any, is the moral purpose of America in the world? That question has been much agitated throughout our history. People devoted to religion and morality are inclined to the view that our place in world affairs must be morally defined, and they are right about that. Despite the many who ignore or denigrate him today, a great contribution of Reinhold Niebuhr was to draw a sharp distinction between morality and moralism. The latter is the preening self-righteousness that lends itself to crusades that too often end up in catastrophes wreaked by the arrogance of presumed virtue.
Thinking about America and moral purpose is now divided into several camps. The celebrated greatest generation of World War II produced the architects of Cold War containment, who were vindicated almost a half century later with the end of the evil empire. But not without the rise of a counter-leadership produced by the disastrously failed American war in Vietnam. A few today, mainly clustered around the Weekly Standard , call for a policy of national greatness, which is a little hard to pin down apart from its robust appetite for interventionism in the belief that a little (or maybe big) war from time to time maintains the muscle tone of the nation. Yet others are champions of globalization who seem to believe that the unstoppable economic dynamics of Wall Street and Silicon Valley have brought us to the point that we really dont need a foreign policy. Hence the title of Henry Kissingers new book, Does America Need a Foreign Policy? (Simon & Schuster, 352 pages, $30).
Kissinger is often depicted as a Machiavellian amoralist or immoralist, which I think is a mistake. He has at times exulted excessively in the craftiness entailed in the craft of leadership, but his argument is that the morality of policy must be tied to historical experience and possibility. He writes:
The very term international relations is, in fact, of relatively recent vintage, since it implies that the nation-state must inevitably be the basis of its organization. However, this is a concept that originated in Europe only in the late eighteenth century and was spread around the world largely by European colonialism. In medieval Europe, obligations were personal and traditional, based neither on common language nor on a single culture; they did not interpose the bureaucratic machinery of a state between the subject and the ruler. Restraints on government derived from custom, not constitutions, and from the universal Catholic Church, which preserved its own autonomy, thereby laying the basis”quite unintentionally”for the pluralism and the democratic restraints on state power that evolved centuries later. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, this structure collapsed under the dual impact of the Reformation, which destroyed religious unity, and of printing, which made the growing religious diversity widely accessible. The resulting upheaval culminated in the Thirty Years War, which, in the name of ideological”at that time, religious”orthodoxy, killed 30 percent of the population of Central Europe. Out of this carnage emerged the modern state system as defined by the Treaty of Westphalia of 1648, the basic principles of which have shaped international relations to this day. The treatys foundation was the doctrine of sovereignty, which declared a states domestic conduct and institutions to be beyond the reach of other states.
That is a succinct statement of the history that has brought us to where we are. Where we are going is another matter.
These principles were an expression of the conviction that domestic rulers were less likely to be arbitrary than crusading foreign armies bent on conversion. At the same time, the balance of power concept sought to establish restraints by an equilibrium that prevented any one nation from being dominant and confined wars to relatively limited areas. For over two hundred years”until the outbreak of World War I”the state system emerging from the Thirty Years War achieved its objectives (with the exception of the ideological conflict of the Napoleonic period, when the principle of nonintervention was, in effect, abandoned for two decades). Each of these concepts is under attack today, to a point where it is forgotten that their purpose is to limit, not expand, the arbitrary use of power.
Kissinger is highly critical of the drift of the Clinton Administration, and especially of ill-considered humanitarian interventions such as the actions in Somalia, Haiti, and Kosovo. While Kissinger wrote the book before the Bush Administration got underway, it would seem that the Bush team understands both the legitimacy and necessity of the nation-state. The current policy is sometimes called unilateralism, but it is better understood as a determined internationalism based on the indispensability of American leadership and the morality of pursuing the national interest”it being understood that the national interest should be pursued, as much as possible, in cooperation with others, and that, for America, the national interest is inseparable from advancing moral goals such as democracy and human rights. There are, in short, encouraging signs of a return to the Niebuhrian insight that leftist dreams of a world rationally harmonized beyond conflicts of interest reflect a dangerous sentimentality. Clear thinking about the moral purpose of America in the world begins with clearing the mind of the cant of self-pretentious moralism, of jingoism, and of the economism that suggests we do not need to think about foreign policy at all. Does America Need a Foreign Policy? is not the whole of the story by any means, but it is a good place from which clear thinking can begin.
While Were At It
Matt Labash of the Weekly Standard went to visit the Holy Land Experience in Orlando and got Rabbi Sholom Dubov, Orlandos only orthodox rabbi, to go with him. Marv Rosenthal, the founder of the enterprise, calls himself a Hebrew Christian, to which one rabbi responds, A Hebrew Christian makes as much sense as kosher pork. Not so, says Rosenthal. If a Jew says he is an atheist, agnostic, or animist, Rosenthal observes, the rabbis still say hes Jewish. But somehow if he believes in Jesus, hes no longer Jewish. After going through the Experience, Rabbi Dubov complains that it could seduce non-practicing Jews by the way it merges Jewish and Christian themes. Why do Christians have to keep on taking from the Old Testament? he asks. Why cant they say, The Old Testaments old, we gotta new”out with the Old, in with the New”but they dont say that. As it happens, the second-century Christian heretic Marcion did say exactly that. Before he was condemned by the Church, he persuaded many Christians that the evil Demiurge, the God of the Old Testament, was the antithesis of the God of Love revealed by Jesus. Truth to tell, a good many Christians who have never heard of Marcion embrace the Marcionite heresy. Christianity and Judaism have had, to say the least, a troubled relationship over the centuries, but it is doubtful that Judaism would have survived at all had Marcion prevailed. Mr. Rosenthal and his Holy Land Experience may offend Rabbi Dubov, but he should be very careful in wishing for the alternative he proposes.
Some years ago a conservative friend told me that he defines the conservative cause very simply: Lets take the country back to the Eisenhower era. But, as everybody knows, you cant turn the clock back. In fact, when clocks are telling the wrong time, we routinely turn them back, or forward. Societies are not clocks, however. In The Great Disruption: Human Nature and the Reconstitution of Social Order , Francis Fukuyama says our society went seriously out of whack in the 1960s, chiefly because of the change in sexual roles and in employment patterns forced by the rise of the information revolution. James Q. Wilson agrees that much went radically wrong about then”as evident in divorce, crime, out-of-wedlock births, ineffective schools, and much else”but he thinks the reason is chiefly cultural. The Great Disruption started at the beginning of the century and got up to speed by the end of the First World War. The Bloomsbury set had replaced Queen Victoria, resistance to war had replaced habitual patriotism, and writers a