[easyazon_image align=”left” height=”333″ identifier=”0691182728″ locale=”US” src=”https://englewoodreview.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/51B2ojLSvCL.jpg” tag=”douloschristo-20″ width=”216″]Can the United States thrive in a
diverse, multifaith social environment?
A Feature Review of
Out of Many Faiths:
Religious Diversity and the American Promise.
Hardback: Princeton UP, 2018.
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Reviewed by Barton Price
The question that pervades the volume Out of Many Faiths is how the United States can thrive in a diverse, multifaith social environment that finds common ground among all religious faiths for the betterment of society. This has been the chief question that has captured Eboo Patel’s career and rise in popularity. At the heart of Patel’s essays is the core American faith, a civil religion that transcends religious identity. Patel asserts that civil religion “hold[s] a diverse society together, to provide us with a narrative that allows people from a range of backgrounds to not only feel American but also feel that there is something sacred in that” (23). His definition of civil religion is informed by Philip Gorski’s American Covenant—a book that I reviewed for ERB in 2017. Yet he departs quite drastically from Gorski’s and Robert Bellah’s understanding of American civil religion as rooted in a Judeo-Christian tradition and its sacred texts of the Hebrew Bible and Christian New Testament.
Instead, Patel sees American civil religion as far more expansive and inclusive of religious traditions that have risen in numbers since the influx of immigrants in the latter third of the twentieth century. This inclusion is somewhat self-serving, as it allows for his own native faith of Islam to be part of the civil religious fabric. It also creates some difficulty in establishing the core narratives, texts, and rituals that would help redefine American civil religion. What makes the Judeo-Christian tradition such a compelling backbone for civil religion is its shared Hebrew texts and the seeming historic exclusion of Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism prior to 1965. Nevertheless, Patel sees a robust participation in American civil religion by a diverse set of religious traditions as vital to “increase our social capital, strengthen our social cohesion, and [making religious communities] far less likely to develop oppositional and separatist identities” (27).
Patel organizes his contribution to the volume according to seven short essays. The first of which outlines the key concepts of pluralism, civil religion, and religious community formation. Chapter two summarizes the story of Cordoba House, and Islamic community center and mosque planned to serve Manhattan close to the former site of World Trade Center towers. Chapter three describes the persistence of Islamophobia in present-day America. Patel places sharp criticism on the rhetoric and policies of President Donald Trump.
Chapter four broadens the scope of religious prejudice and discrimination to narrate the history of American nativism and anti-Catholicism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. It is in this chapter that Patel undermines his own assertion in chapter two. While Patel argues that the Islamophobia that thwarted the plans of Cordoba House are un-American, the history that he writes in chapter four showcases that prejudice and discrimination have been a defining feature of the American experiment. Likewise, his analysis in this chapter highlights the creativity deployed during the middle of the twentieth century to foster a national self-styling as “Judeo-Christian.”
Chapter five explores how Jewish and Muslim Americans have attempted to balance a commitment to their religious identities while also embracing facets of the American status quo that illustrate that such religious communities are not oppositional to American values. It is in this chapter that Patel takes for granted the economic forces that have established and preserved the American status quo and how those same forces have created internal tensions for religious communities. For example, Patel writes that Hindu and Muslim families (of which many of the parents are first generation immigrants) strive for inclusion within the American middle-class status quo. These parents experience disappointment that their children (many of whom were born in the United States) are less devout and more absorbed into secular popular culture. These tensions expose the generational difference of religious devotion. Yet Patel does not ask the question of whether or not the capitalism that the immigrant parents embraced as a means toward socio-economic stability has not also planted the seeds of consumerism and materialism within their children and have thus attenuated the fervor of religious commitment of subsequent generations.
Chapter six offers another example of Muslim social action that engages the intersection of race and religion in Chicago. Finally, chapter seven is a postscript that reiterates Patel’s trademark tone of optimism that a pluralist America holds the key to a “potluck” of contributions to the common good.
This volume includes three “commentaries,” essays written by scholars who offer reflection and critique of Patel’s seven essays. The responses are as diverse as the disciplines from which each author is a specialist. That each commentary is idiosyncratic underscores the problems of a lack of a common lexicon or narrative in a pluralist society. Laurie Patton’s commentary underscores the need for new narrative myths that will aid in revising America’s history to include a plural society. She offers vignettes of interfaith cooperation and exchange as models of such new myths. Patton’s writing is the most akin to Patel’s in the use of anecdotes. Yet her new myths lack historical distance and apocryphal antiquity to be compelling enough.
John Inazu’s commentary looks at the protection of religious freedom in the First Amendment and subsequent case law. He also asserts that the courts have limited our understanding of religious identity by virtue of focusing on the other First Amendment rights of speech and association to the detriment of the right of assembly. Robert Jones’s commentary is perhaps the most direct critique of Patel and the most compelling argument. Jones contends that the demographic shifts in America that show a decline of Christians and white citizens over the past few decades should be seen as an explanation for the pluralization of American and backlash against that pluralization. Because the consensus of white American (inclusive of Judeo-Christian tradition) and especially of Christian America has eroded, there is the anxiety that a majority group is no longer dictating the consensus.
What made Jones’s essay most compelling—and where it helps to augment Patel’s thesis—is his analysis of G.K. Chesterton’s observation of America as “a nation with the soul of a church” (125). Chesterton said that this soul was not based on a specific religious tradition. Instead, it rested on a civic creed rooted in the foundational documents of American governance. Those documents, however, are secular in nature, as the United States was the first secular state established in the modern West. Thus, for American civil religion to thrive and to allow for greater participation of a diverse array of religious groups, the civil religion cannot appeal to a Judeo-Christian heritage, an Abrahamic heritage, or any other religious heritage. It must be a secular civil religion in which the consensus of texts, narratives, and myths are based in an ever-expanding body documents and stories that buttress the civic creed of liberty and justice for all.
C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com
Reading for the Common Good
From ERB Editor Christopher Smith
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