"A New Religious America"
A review of Diana Eck's much-discussed book on pluralism
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"A New Religious America" attributes the rise in spiritual diversity to the wave of mainly non-European immigration into the United States. A 1924 federal statute ended the Ellis Island era of mainly European, Judeo-Christian influx by severely restricting immigration. That changed in 1965, when Congress passed a new law opening American borders again. The wording of the 1965 law favored non-Europeans, leading to the second great immigration wave--the United States now accepts on average 1 million legal immigrants per year, more immigrants than accepted by all other nations of the world combined, and nearly all post-1965 immigrants hail from Africa, Central and South America, India, Pakistan, and Southeast Asia.
These arrivals bring with them a broad diversity of new spiritual traditions. It is the new immigrants, Eck writes, who have transformed the United States into the most religious pluralistic society ever. And this task is far from complete, as a million more non-Europeans join the United States annually.
That America could become so religiously diverse, while remaining basically Christian, might have pleased the Founders enormously. Most of the Founders presumed the United States would be Christian, and George Washington even said that Christianity would be essential to the new nation's moral character. But the Founders were also disgusted by the spiritual strife that had marred so much of Europe's past, and by the notion of state-mandated religion.
But the fact that it's worked out that America, conceived as a Christian society, has opened its door to virtually all of the world's non-Christian faiths is totally consistent with the American concept of religious freedom. Arriving here 200 years ago, new Americans wanted the right to practice whichever Christian view they embraced, without encountering the prejudice or state interference directed against them in their native lands. Today many Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, and others arriving in the United States seek the same thing--the freedom to worship as they choose, a freedom their native countries may deny. No American Christian who claims the right of religious freedom can begrudge the same right to the plural beliefs of others. That this so far hasn't been a problem--diverse faiths are blooming in the United States with comparatively few instances of intolerance--is testament to the fact that the majority of Americans mean what they say about the right to determine your own faith. Who can doubt that American beliefs are so robust exactly because no one can tell an American what to believe?