Sociologist Nathan Glazer observed several years ago that multiculturalism had become the new civil religion of America, replacing that fusion of pious and rational principles enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address.
Diana L. Eck, a Harvard religion professor and director of the university's Pluralism Project, gives a popular portrayal of the forms taken by religions imported from Asia and the Middle East in this age of multiculturalism. These are fruits of a political act, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965. Eck worships, eats, schmoozes, and eats some more with Hindus, Buddhists, and Muslims in America, showing how the faiths transform and are transformed by American life. "[T]he founding fathers wrote what some have called a 'godless' Constitution, one that deliberately steered away from the establishment of any sect of Christianity, even Christianity itself, as the basis of the new nation." What replaces Christian primacy was "pluralism[,]…the dynamic process through which we engage with one another in and through our very deepest differences." Thus when the U.D. Army permits Wiccans to be identifies as such on their dog tags, we see pluralism working its wonders.
Eck could not have foreseen how problematic her thesis is today, post September 11. "America's vibrant new Muslim communities are here to stay," she writes. "Now more than ever, all Americans need the instructive challenge of the Qur'an: that our differences require us to get to know each other." But this presumes that the immigrant computer-geek from Pakistan and the Harvard professor from Montana know America's first principles. Unfortunately, both the new religions and the new civil religion appear closed to knowing the roots of the old civil religion—which still retains some vitality. Hearing the "Battle Hymn of the Republic" sung in that National Cathedral prayer service proved how much ours is bother a Christian nation and a tolerant one, contrary to the apostles of soulless pluralism.
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This article appeared in the Fall 2001 issue of the Claremont Review of Books