A few days before Thanksgiving The New York Times carried a brief report about a pre-holiday interfaith breakfast in Westchester County, the affluent suburban area just north of New York City. It was convened by Rabbi Mark Sameth, known as “the country-and-western rabbi”, and the Reverend Steven Phillips, a Methodist described as “a sort of bluegrass minister”. As their nicknames indicate, both men have a background in country music. They were joined in the sponsorship of the event by representatives of the Upper Westchester Muslim Society and the Many Branches Sangha, a Buddhist organization. (I would guess that the phrase “many branches” refers to different schools of Buddhism being represented in the organization, something made necessary by the great religious diversity of American Buddhists.)
The Times story makes reference to the recent book American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us by Robert Putnam (of Bowling Alone fame) and David Campbell. The much-discussed book uses a multitude of data to show the paradox that, on the one hand, religion polarizes American society in terms of morality and politics, while on the other hand the same society has become much more tolerant of religious diversity (not least demonstrated by increasing intermarriage across religious divides). The latter trait is evidence of an all-embracing civil religion, also known as “the American Creed”, which serves to keep the polarization from blowing up the society. In other words, the very real culture conflicts are kept under control by the equally real first commandment of the civil religion—“Thou shalt be tolerant!”
The story about interfaith amity in suburbia might also have referred to another recent book, God Is Not One, by Stephen Prothero, a colleague of mine at Boston University. Prothero undertakes a book-length refutation of the widespread belief that, essentially, all religions are the same. Emphatically, they are not. Just look at the traditions represented at the aforementioned breakfast. At the core of each is a proposition thoroughly implausible to those outside the tradition—that God gave the Torah to the chosen Jewish people, that God came to redeem the world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, that the Koran was revealed to Muhammad by the angel Gabriel. And that is just within the so-called Abrahamic family of faiths. With some straining one might argue that these have some common assumptions that may serve as a basis for common moral judgments, for example about human rights. This becomes more difficult as one steps outside what religious thinkers in Japan like to call “the religions of western Asia”. Take Buddhism. As far as I know, every school of Buddhism agrees with the proposition, one of the basic Noble Truths, that the self is an illusion. How can an illusion have rights? But even within the major traditions there are crucial differences making it hard to maintain that all Jews or all Christians have the same beliefs. The understandings of the meaning of Torah of a Reform rabbi and a follower of Lubavitcher Hasidism are miles apart. And how many Methodists can entertain the notion that Jesus appointed the apostle Peter as head of the church that continues in an unbroken line to Benedict XVI, the current Vicar of Christ on earth? Prothero is very right indeed.
With some music accompaniments (presumably of the country-western type), there were readings from the Hebrew Bible, the New Testament and the Koran at the Westchester breakfast meeting. The assembly ended with everyone singing “This Land is Your Land”. Appropriately enough, one of the participants was Nora Guthrie, daughter of Woody Guthrie.
It would be easy for anyone with a modicum of theological sophistication to make fun of this event. It could be subsumed under the term coined by Robert Wuthnow, the Princeton sociologist of religion—“patchwork religion”. Or one could call it “interfaith kumbaya”. I would strongly advise against such a putdown.
From the high ground of theological sophistication every form of popular religion appears superficial. But that is in itself superficial. Popular piety often contains insights, however inarticulately expressed, which are more profound than the cerebral exercises of theologians. As to the American civil religion, it is built on a very profound insight indeed—the intrinsic worth of every human individual as an individual, regardless of any collective identifications, including the ones based on religion. This civil religion has, of course, its sacred texts (notably the Constitution), which are often understood in a fundamentalist manner. But more importantly, I think, this creed is lived by many people who don’t read any texts. One of the more impressive manifestations of this popular piety was the warm outreach to Muslim neighbors in the wake of 9/11, which, at least to date, has continued—as evidenced by the aforementioned event.
There is yet another profound insight of American popular piety. It was expressed, inarticulately to be sure, in the much-ridiculed statement by President Eisenhower that he believes in “faith, no matter what it is”. Whatever he may have thought about this (not much, I suspect), there is an underlying message here that is not superficial at all. Every religion has a common perception of reality that sets it apart from a purely mundane worldview—namely, that there is a reality beyond the reality of everyday life, that this reality involves mystery, and that it evokes awe. I think that such awe is salutary in a social and even political way, quite beyond any particular religious practices or doctrines. It teaches tolerance, because, at the end of the day, we all stand before the mystery of the world.
A few months ago I was driving with a colleague in central Texas. As we passed the town of Temple, he asked me whether I would like to look at the recently constructed Hindu sanctuary. Of course I did. (I don’t know whether the choice of location was dictated by the name of the town.) My colleague was not sure of the way, so we had to ask. Everyone knew how to get to the “Hindu church”. It is an impressively large building. The architecture is unmistakably Indian. There was no priest there, but we were shown around by a very friendly lay member of the community, an engineer. (As is typical of Hindus in America, most of whom are professionals with higher education). Two things impressed me on this tour. One was the physical setup inside the sanctuary—a large common area for community worship services, attended on important holidays by large numbers from all over the region, and some eight or ten small chapels, each dedicated to a specific divinity. Our guide explained that in India, most temples are dedicated to one or two gods. This cannot be done here, as immigrants come from all over India. So the temple has to have provisions for the worship of an array of gods and goddesses—a wonderfully American modification of Hindu piety. The other thing that impressed me was our guide’s reply to a question of mine. I asked him whether they had encountered any hostility from the neighbors. None at all, he said. People were curious, but consistently friendly. Note: This is the heart of the Bible Belt. I wonder whether the neighbors’ reaction would have been equally friendly, say, fifty years ago. Putnam and Campbell are right: America has become both more diverse and more tolerant. Good news, I think.