Revising the Map of American Religion

Power shifts among religious groups depending upon their programs, the cultural climate, population shifts, and more. Presented at the 1997 Symposium of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences.


Abstract: The concept of mapping religion and then acting on the basis of that concept necessarily involves discussion of another concept, that of boundaries. The notion of discerning neat boundaries serves well for assessing the inherited institutions of religion in America; assessments of trends within them reveal impressive continuities in organization and structures of meaning. Many of the most important religious developments in the last third of the century, however, appear to be less bounded—or even unbounded—and on the blurry landscape of boundarylessness there are more evident discontinuities, innovations, and evidence of fluidity. An analysis of several trends on the unbounded landscape suggests that, in the new century, there will be a great deal of interchange and conflict between these two ways of conceiving American religious dynamics.


The concept of boundaries has become central in much social scientific and political discourse. The acts of defining boundaries, transgressing them, and being limited by them enter into discussions of power and other elements in human relations. In the simplest physical as well as metaphorical sense, mapmakers serve geographers and citizens by drawing boundaries. The cartographers follow upon the work of surveyors, who measure the landscape and determine, for example, where the lines between states should fall.

When a coastline or a river provides a natural barrier and matches the line between political jurisdictions, it is easy for mapmakers to provide a line of demarcation that will be both visible and credible to all who use the map. When their drawn lines cross and interrupt undifferentiated prairie or desert landscapes, however, they will be indiscernible to people on the landscape and credible only for limited purposes. The rendered boundary lines announce, for example, that here Arizona ends; here New Mexico begins. So it is and shall be, we shall see, with what is natural and what seems arbitrary in the situation of religion and matters of the spirit on the American landscape today.

The eyes of children or naïve adults can help the literal-minded to see what they had earlier missed on the landscape and to become suspicious of the all-purpose serviceability of the lines cartographers draw on the maps that are designed to represent the reality of physical sites. In Strange Dreams (1996), Brian Andreas gives voice to the vision of the child and the unsophisticated in books that listen to unnamed “StoryPeople,” who express themselves through hand-stamped print, as if epigrammatically. One of these “tweaks,” as the author calls them, quotes an anonymous, folkloric “he” who says, “I like Geography best, he said, because your mountains & rivers know the secret. Pay no attention to boundaries.”

Whoever would assess American religious phenomena at this century’s end will and must “pay attention to boundaries” that have been drawn over the spiritual landscape. But it has become more and more apparent that scholars must also be attentive to what secrets the figurative “mountains and rivers” know and what they reveal about religious circumstances and movements.


The Limited Legitimacy of Boundaries

“Pay no attention to boundaries,” yet boundaries are there. Whoever enters a small city will notice that at once. At the edge of town, a sign erected by the local service club will list a number of separate bounded entities, thus: “The churches of ________ welcome you.” Similarly, in a city of any size, the Yellow Pages of the telephone book, in its always extensive entry “Churches and Synagogues” (a section bounded alphabetically by “Chiropractors” and “Cigars”), will list hundreds of institutional embodiments of what the people in them—which means in denominations and then congregations—would argue are essentially expressions of boundless spiritual realities.

A reader of this section of the phone book will find in the alphabetized sequence of denominations and congregations a list of institutions that are very vivid to those who belong to them. For many adherents, these organizations simply represent religion for them. Thus religion equals church or synagogue participation. But the alphabetical and institutional approach is at the same time confusing and arbitrary. The boundaries between the entities that fall under the letter U, for example, are thick and well defined. Here are Ukrainian Orthodox, Unitarian Universalist, United Church of Christ, United Holy Church of America, United Methodist, United Pentecostal, United Protestant, Unity School of Christianity, Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, and Unification Church. Transgress any boundary and you will be aware of the reality of the different worlds that these various U denominations represent.

Some observers, noting the erosion of authority and the apparent increase of religion not tied to institutions, speak of this as a postdenominational age, or at least a time when denominational life has become especially problematic.{1} Observing adherents close to the figurative landscape, as they interview people and watch them in action, the reporters and scholars emerge with very different agents’ descriptions from the descriptions offered by agents bounded by denominations and similar inherited institutions. The mountains and rivers of the spirit lay bare their secrets. In such cases, the “pay no attention to boundaries” dictum makes sense. We are shortly to pursue some of the kinds of boundaryless distinctions that Brian Andreas tweaks in his apt and provocative word about landscapes and boundaries.


Ambiguity over Boundaries

Boundaries are helpful for describing the contours of American religion in two prominent ways. Both of them suggest relative continuity and even changelessness in the religious scene. The first, as noted, demarcates denominations and congregations. The second represents the lines social scientists apply after engaging in survey research, especially by polling the public.

Concerning the former, little need be said here since there is little news on the boundary front. Whoever consults the Yearbook of the American and Canadian Churches 1997 will find that for all the changes of the half-century—sexual revolutions, the invention of the Internet, radical theological experiments, ecumenical endeavors, and the like—the yearbook for 1997 will not look much different from that of 1947 (Bedell 1997). There were and are over 200 church bodies, their changed names reflecting chiefly mergers within denominational families, not across boundaries between them. Therefore, there are subtle redrawings of the denominational family trees as various subgroups of Presbyterians, Lutherans, and the like find others of their subgroup kin, and link with them. When the Evangelical and Reformed merged with the Congregational Christian body in 1957 to form the United Church of Christ, they manifested an impressive exception more than they set a trend.

In respect to morale and prosperity, of course, these denominations have enjoyed or suffered very differing and sometimes surprising fates. Together, the leaders of all of them know there has been a general subversion of authority as the laity and local clergy have questioned the hierarchies or the church convention rulings and then generally gone their own ways whenever they found denominational stipulations to be inconvenient or uncongenial.

The boundary line has tended to hold with respect to the issue of who gets to enter the clergy—do women? Homosexuals? This was in most cases the question that represented the first and last line of meaningful denominational authority. It has become increasingly difficult to excommunicate those who were perceived to have become errant and wayward, or even to picture leadership or the community as a whole trying to exercise rights to excommunicate or to claim such rights.

Consequently, many of the old purposes of denominations have eroded or disappeared, making it less valid or valuable than before to “pay attention” to denominational boundaries. They now served less well than they had been devised and intended to serve, for instance, as signalers or definers of the actual beliefs of members. For one thing, most denominations or movements could not always contain the polarized parties within them. One had to ask what kind of Catholic or Presbyterian it was who encountered you, so vastly did they differ from each other. Using a doctrinal textbook or a manual of discipline would as likely miscue or mislead an interviewer of many typical Lutherans or Methodists, so vaguely would their belief and behavior match the boundaries on the printed page.{2}

As with their intentions, so with their realities: fates among them differed. Those called “mainstream” in Protestantism, and, with them, many in Roman Catholicism, continued to relate to population cohorts of those who told poll-takers they preferred or found their identity in Catholicism, Episcopalianism, and the like. But declines in mass attendance and the drastic decline in clerical ranks suggest that “the mountains and rivers” of Catholic spirituality do not match the boundaries on the pages of the Yearbook of the American and Canadian Churches 1997. Similarly, the very significant declines in the measurable and active membership of those who prefer mainstream Protestantism—United Methodism, United Church of Christ, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and more— made up some of the major news of the half-century. And controversies, putatively and in part over doctrine in the conservative bodies such as the Southern Baptist Convention and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, were as much expressions of culture wars as they were comprehensible (to the laity and most clergy) battles over centuries-old statements of doctrine.

At the same time, one notes that through all these changes and assaults on denominations and denominationalism, the very impulse to keep measuring and the intensity of the conflicts showed how much denominations, now altered in character, continued to mean in the age that was supposed to be postdenominational. Denominations survive. Boundaries between them mean something, even if it is something different from their meaning a half-century ago.

As with the boundaries in the Yearbook of the American and Canadian Churches 1997, so with the public opinion polls. There has been surprising continuity in what can be measured and thus boundaries there. One may take only the most regular, constant, publicized, and even eponymic polling agency for the example. What the public knows as the Gallup Poll, at the Princeton Religious Research Center, is a dramatic illustration of religious continuities. In the report Religion in America 1996, the Gallup people turned in a near end-of-century assessment.

Despite . . . ebbs and flows, one of the most remarkable aspects of America’s faith is its durability. In the face of all the dramatic social changes of the past half century—depression, war, the civil rights movement, social unrest, technological change—the religious beliefs and practices of Americans today look very much like those of the 1930s and 1940s. (Gallup 1996, 8)

I cannot resist noting a continuity in continuities of judgment on this matter, by reference to an assessment made by an interfaith triad of scholars in 1968. They wrote in the peak year of social change and unrest in America, at a time when it was more natural to remark on the possibility or actuality of revolutionary change than to note continuities. Yet while the authors spoke of such “revolution” and reported on its dimensions, all three found reason to note how little any of this would show up in opinion polls taken in, say, 1952 and 1968. Their observations may be idiosyncratic, or a reflection on the hermeneutics of opinion polling, but whoever revisits the statistics of survey research in 1952 and 1968 and 1996 is likely to agree with the Gallup judgment just quoted (Greeley, Marty, and Rosenberg 1968).

Back to Gallup, who compared the 1940s and 1990s in the recent work. In 1944, 96 percent of those polled said they believed in God; in 1994, 96 percent said the same. In 1950, 39 percent of the people said they “happened to attend church or synagogue” that week; after a high of 49 percent in 1955 and 1958 and lows of 40 percent in 1970 and 1990, 43 percent made the claim about attendance in 1995. In 1940, 72 percent claimed church or synagogue membership; after a high of 76 percent in the 1940s and lows of 65 percent in 1988 and 1990, 69 percent avowed membership in 1995.

Of course, there was change within the patterns of continuity revealed on the pollsters’ maps. At midcentury, the Princeton people would not even have asked whether someone was “born again”—the term was then culturally confined to the old Bible Belt. Now, extended, thinned out, vague as a boundary setter, the term “born again” was credibly self-descriptive for 41 percent of the people surveyed in 1995.

Perhaps more significant as an alert to the presence of “mountains and rivers” that do not match map boundaries were Gallup findings that 69 percent of the people thought religion was an “increasing influence” in American life in 1957; only 14 percent thought so in 1970; 37 percent thought it was increasing in 1995 (Gallup 1996, 20, 29, 41, 43). Of all the Gallup measurements, this one wavers most and may be the least reliable. Responses may reflect historical naïveté, reaction to significant events on the religious scene or the absence of them, cultural distractions, and the like. Yet its presence among the questions and responses serves to alert the public to the subtleties and high drama of cultural shifts in the eyes of citizens, whether church members or not.


The Mapmakers and the Photographers: Changes In Perception

Denominations and congregations survive and evidently hold what we might call the active loyalty of about 40 percent of the American people and the passive loyalty of about 60 percent, year in, year out. Historian Brooks Holifield reported on assessments of church attendance estimates that about 35 percent attended regularly in late colonial America, and 36 percent in the middle of the nineteenth century By 1887, the figure may have been 35-40 percent, and, in 1906, 40 percent claimed to attend regularly—as is the case today—”though the claims might be exaggerations” in every case (Holifield 1994, 26-28). That is, about two out of five Americans can be counted on to support the inherited if innovative and adaptive institutions of religion week in, week out. About three out of five think of themselves as “on the rolls” and are evidently summonable for special occasions, causes, and expressions of fidelity. Yet the task of chronicling their vagaries and vicissitudes in the course of the past half-century presented challenges to the chroniclers and mapmakers of religion, who on the bases of autobiography, perception, and other kinds of measurements aside from writing denominational history or taking institutionally focused polls, knew that they also needed to draw maps or take photographs that did more justice to the secrets of the figurative religious “mountains and rivers” as they paid less attention to drawn boundaries.

At the time of the nation’s bicentennial, I was asked to take a stab at redrawing the map paying no attention to denominational boundaries. Already then—some, with benefit of hindsight, today might say “tardily”—my map took notice of the fact that the observing and writing about denominations provided insufficient, inaccurate, and even distorting visions of American religion (Marty 1976, 4-5). With a different set of questions or surveying tools, one could come up with different answers and measures. To “pay no attention to boundaries” then meant, as it usually does, paying attention to different, and different kinds of, boundaries, just as the photographer notes the boundaries created against plains and sky by mountains or those created by the banks of rivers.

In 1976, six elements seemed to be able to contain nondenominationalized perceptions of religion in America: mainline, evangelicalism and fundamentalism, Pentecostal-charismatic, the new religions, ethnic religion, and civil religion. Keeping an eye on these only informally bounded expressions, I rather boldly and perhaps a bit foolishly wrote that “if there are spaces between these clusters, spheres of belonging that are not species of these genera, voids or unmapped areas, they have escaped me entirely.” But I hedged this with the avowal that if this was what I thought was a “plausible fourth [the denominational map having been second in a discernible sequence of four to that date] map of religious America, some day there will be fifth or sixth maps” (Marty 1976, 17, 204).

For instance, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Mormons—who are 5 million strong and rapidly growing—represented a subculture or culture that shared some elements (such as moral claims matching evangelicalism’s) with others, but was also very distinctive. Mormons were a church, but they were also a people, just as Jews are a people whether individual Jews are observant or not. One could find other such examples, even if less statistically prominent than the Mormon exception or addition to the map.


Individualized, Invisible, Protean, Postmodern Religion

What the tools of measurement, cartographic instead of photographic, institutional instead of spiritual, failed to suggest were presences and changes that more obviously “[paid] no attention to boundaries.” These have become sufficiently significant, and, for some of the population, so determinative and so nearly normative that it would not be misleading to institutionalize them and begin to draw boundaries around them. This expression deserves separate treatment in any accounting of American religion.


Noninstitutional religion

Only historians captive of the denominational vision at midcentury would have insisted that they had covered the subject by noting the career of church bodies or synagogue life, in either particularized or open, ecumenical, and interfaith or interactive ways. They were alert to the ways in which citizens of many faiths came together under what Peter Berger called the “sacred canopy” (1967) of shared religious expressions—for example, in civil or public religion (Bellah 1967). Such expressions overarched the faith groups, as in religious support for a so-called American way of life that attracted people of most faiths—just as it was potentially subversive of their integrities. The civil religion could command loyalties or appeal to some elements in religious response that the particular bodies could not summon, for example, in wartime. The boundaries between religious institutions remained through it all but were less decisive than one might have imagined in determining the outlook of people who chose to identify with them. This indeterminable character took numerous forms.


Invisible religion

What Emile Durkheim called “collective representations” (Pickering 1984, 283-90, 371-73) of a public or a nation in religion, or what Berger called the “sacred canopy” (Berger 1967), also did not attract and express all the religious energies in the United States or in any late-modern, industrialized, free society. Beyond a canopy and a great relativizer of institutions (“pay no attention to boundaries”), there existed what Thomas Luckmann, in one of the more decisive labelings of the period, called “invisible religion” (Luckmann 1967). It was not truly invisible, if by that one meant disembodied, meaning that there were no people in whom its expressions could be observed. Rather, these expressions simply did not form conventional, palpable, measurable, or traditional institutions.


Loss of boundaries within the self

Psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, in a book significantly titled Boundaries (1969), won concurrence among many readers with his observation that there was emergent a “protean” sort of individual, named after the god Proteus, who could take an infinite number of forms or guises. Lifton posed over against this a reactionary emergent that he called “constrictive,” one who, fearing that he or she might be overwhelmed by change and that his or her commitments and persona would be dissolved, built up strong psychic defenses and ruled out signals that were in any way uncongenial—a sort of fundamentalist-prone individual. The boundaryless individual was free to pick and choose among sets of religious symbols, to be eclectic, to live with apparent contradictions in attachments, to make fleeting commitments, and to refuse to be loyal to denned dogmatic or traditional systems. Boundaries between sacred and secular, religion and nonreligion, inherited religion and innovative impulses, assent to authority and radical claims for autonomy, characterized the protean person in matters of faith. Such a type developed partly in response to the market situation—so many options were available and bid for attention—as well as because of an increase in mobility, plus the appeals of mass communication, the contacts made with “others” in mass higher education, intermarriage, and the like (Lifton 1969).


Individualized religion

Robert Bellah most notably pointed to recent trends that saw the individual in isolation from community and collectives in matters religious. Now the figures that suggest retention of the loyalty of believers to religious institutions, expressions that are manifest in survey research, were shown to be partly illusory. The spiritual scene had become increasingly a buyer’s market. This was not an entirely new situation. Immigrants had had the choice of whether to affiliate with the transported religious communities from “the old country,” to go shopping for new expressions, or not to practice at all. In all cases, there were agents ready to market what might appeal to the seeker (Bellah et al. 1985).

Next, the revivalist, evangelist, and conversionist approaches in new cities and on the frontier were developed in evangelical Protestantism but were also prominent in Catholicism (Dolan 1978) and led to denominationalism in Judaism (Raphael 1984). But the revived, evangelized, and converted people, in those earlier terms, characteristically took their responsive impulses to communities: the Catholic parish, the Reform or Conservative synagogue, Methodist or other Protestant collectives, and the like.


The choice to be spiritual

In Bellah’s reporting and in the eyes of the many observers who agreed with him, the demand was that the subject make a choice. Peter Berger, reflecting the etymology of the word “choice” in the Greek word haeresis, called this “the heretical imperative” (1979). In making a choice, the agent might well find a way to remain, as it were, in control of the sacred. This meant that he or she might live largely independently of religious collectives, indifferent to organized religion or even hostile to it. In the course of the last quarter-century, many rejected the very word “religious” and chose to claim that they were “spiritual.” They might remain nominal or marginal members of theistic religious groups, but they turned their attention to the idea of connecting to spiritual “energies” that they thought were pulsing through the cosmos. Literary critic Harold Bloom called these expressions “the American religion” (Bloom 1992).

In all these cases, too much could be made of novelty. Martin Luther spoke for the central religious traditions of the West when he stressed personal appropriation and commitment: just as one must die by oneself, one must believe by and for oneself. But in those traditions, the collective (for example, “the congregation of Yahweh,” “the Body of Christ,” “the people of God,” “the Church Catholic”) always had priority, and from the symbolic pool of each collective one drew for one’s own sustenance. In late-twentieth-century times, it is the individual who sets the terms; to the degree that he or she found an institution that matched the chosen spiritual trajectory, that institution would be put to work and would attract measures of loyalty that could easily be later abandoned.


The erosion of public-private boundaries

While the line between private and public religion had not been completely eroded—citizens still usually spoke of religion as a private affair—it became ever more clear that religion, far from disappearing or being marginalized, had remained and had to be acknowledged in the public spheres of life. This was evident in the controversies over U.S. Supreme Court decisions. It was apparent in the addition of new groups to the political (which is a species of the genus public) realm. The various movements on the religious Right such as the Moral Majority or the Christian Coalition had to be reckoned with by major political parties, just as the voice of Catholic bishops, of Jewish and African American religious leaders, and, of course, mainstream Protestant interventions in politics had long been apparent and heeded. When religion went public, new coalescences appeared, ad hoc alliances prospered, and boundary meant less and less.

In local communities, the various boards—school, clinic, zoning, town, hospital, library, and the like—were sounding boards and battlefields, as religious individuals and collectives vied for their place in the public sector. Meanwhile, signals from the public, especially through mass communications, meant that the private could not be kept private and preserved. Another boundary deserved and attracted less devotion than before.


Clerical or professional leadership and lay participation

One of the major differentiations in the realm of the spirit through the moderm centuries had been between clergy and laity, between religious authority imposed from above and the religion of the folk that endured and prospered subversively, as it were. The religious market situation, the claims for autonomy in matters of personal import, the availability of higher education, and the increasing awareness among publics of the competition of claims between religious authorities were factors that led to what Mark Chaves documented as a “crisis of religious authority” (Chaves 1991). He saw this trend, not secularization, representing one of the great changes of the time; or, rather, he thought this authority crisis was itself the mark of secularization.

For example, before midcentury, most communicants in the one-fourth of the American citizenry that was Roman Catholic rarely had opportunity to pursue higher education. In what was called ghetto Catholicism, bright young men might be plucked from obscurity, sent to seminary, indoctrinated and equipped, and then ordained to be transmitters of authority unquestioned to a putatively passive laity. Catholicism prospered through doctrinal proclamation, canonical imposition, and priestly enforcement. “What the pope says, what the archbishop claims, what my priest insists upon goes” would have been a characteristic expression. The laity might drag their feet, be selective about following clergy, express quiet dissent, or leave the fold, but assent to ascribed and official authority was still a mark of Catholicism.

After World War II, the GI bill made the college and university experience available to millions. Catholics became among the most highly educated among American religious cohorts. As the number of priests declined after the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), there were new openings for positive lay expression. The enlarged opportunity for women to assume all but ordained leadership (women were not allowed to be ordained) demonstrated that traditional lines of authority meant less than before. On the other hand, many women leaders—pastoral associates and the like—often attracted more response than did ordained male clerics.

With the new learning and increased awareness of issues, the Catholic laity became better equipped to do its own appraising of priestly, or what Catholics called magisterial, claims and often neglected or even rejected these. Thus the papal proclamation Humanae Vitae, condemning “artificial” birth control in 1968, did not match the experience of or ring true to the understanding of huge Catholic majorities, and they were ready to convey as much with their actions. This did not mean that Catholics no longer wanted to be led. It did mean that leadership had to win support through charisma, rhetoric, or example and not merely to assert it. Needless to say, a similar situation prevailed pretty well across the board in religion. Professional and ordained clergy remained in place and often won impressive support, but an expressive laity altered the concepts of authority and its realizations.


Ad hoc and crisscrossing ecumenical patterns

Concurrent with all the other changes occurring in the religious situation was an erosion of boundaries between the institutions or communities. Many of these resulted from positive impulses. Thus the Christian ecumenical movement received encouragement from leaders throughout mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism. But from the beginnings of the movement in Protestantism and Orthodoxy in 1911 and through the midcentury realization of the World Council of Churches and the modern National Council of Churches in 1948 and 1951, ecumenism meant ordered, negotiated ententes between religious bodies, each of which remained intact, bounded, and autonomous (Neill and Rouse 1967).

By century’s end, while the ordered forms persisted, what we might call ad hoc ecumenism had challenged the traditional forms. Christians and Jews kept up their official guards, especially as Jews, fearing intermarriage, conversions to Christianity by marital partners, or ceased observances, tightened regulations about marriage, although to little avail. Yet Jews and Christians both rather unguardedly crossed many boundaries. Many evangelical Protestants, historically standoffish in interfaith affairs, came into close relations with Jews, thanks to their common commitment—though for vastly different reasons—to Israel. The same evangelicals and Pentecostals often found ad hoc but not superficial common cause with many Catholics on issues such as opposition to abortion or acceptance of charismatic expression. They then forgot old hostilities and demarcations. Many individuals in mainstream Protestantism were self-declared evangelicals. Many evangelicals moved into the mainstream along with leaders like Billy Graham, who had more access to power than did those Protestants who at mid-century had tried to hold on to a monopoly on mainstream religious expression and authority.

A kind of crisscrossing or crazy-quilt pattern of interfaith and ecumenical relations developed. All of it was erosive of confessional and nominational boundaries. Certain Methodists therefore found more in common with certain Catholics on social issues than they did with other sorts of fellow Methodists or Catholies “back home.” The same Methodists might make common cause with Jews or Lutherans on another set of themes, while the same Catholics might oppose all of them on still others, making their common cause then with conservative evangelical Protestants. Jews who welcomed evangelical support for Israel resisted evangelical efforts to convert Jews.

No central authority in Rome, Geneva, Wittenberg, Canterbury, Jerusalem, or New York could issue effective and enforceable guidelines on the ecumenical front. Of course, there could be reactionary countertrends, and these developed among Southern Baptists and Missouri Lutherans in the 1970s. Members of these denominations were successful at raising denominational boundary lines but at fearful expense to the integrity of their organizations. Ironically, the victors in conflicts within such bodies were often seen by outsiders not as defenders of their particular Baptist or Lutheran heritages. Instead, they appeared to be generic Protestant fundamentalists or, for another example, devotees of new church growth movements that often contradicted central theological themes of such traditions.

It was sometimes said that the ecumenical movement had become comatose by century’s end. Instead, it could be argued that the ecumenical spirit thrived but now found forms that did not match old boundaries and disciplines.


Unbounded pluralism turned multicultural turned postmodern

At midcentury, for various reasons, American religionists began to seek new models for national life. Leaders within the old mainstream Protestant hegemony were having to yield their old on power in what Harvard historian William Hutchison (1989) called “the second disestablishment” of such religious elements. Coalitions and common endeavors during World War II led many under the “sacred canopy” to seek ways to recognize diversity in American religious life. Newly assertive Catholics, Jews, and, eventually, African American Protestants did not want to be perceived as marginal.

As a result, new inventions such as the Judeo-Christian tradition were coming to maturity around midcentury (Silk 1988). By 1955, Will Herberg and other sociologists could take for granted that, under the American sun, Protestant, Catholic, and Jew formed a triad (Herberg 1960), and Father John Courtney Murray, S. J., in We Hold These Truths (1964), effectively made the claim that there were four parties, secularism or secular humanism being the fourth. In The Religious Factor (1961), sociologist Gerhard Lenski, while concentrating on one metropolis, Detroit, showed that black Protestantism was its own self-dependent religious entity. Now observers had noticed five cohorts in what, it was agreed upon, would be called American religious pluralism. No sooner was the ink dry on these sociological and theological treatises than many new voices were heard. In the 1960s and 1970s, these challenged the old and neatly bounded forms for comprehending pluralism. Gender was an issue: women, gay, and lesbian leaders asserted that they represented different voices that had to be reckoned with independently. “Others” came to be a prosperous category, as Orthodox Christians, Mormons, Muslims, new religions, and Native American spiritualities all came into the spotlight and found a voice and a home. The particularities of pluralism were chopped ever finer in the category of multiculturalism. Under its canopy were to be found groups within which people gained political power and pursued political identities. Others challenged old dominant groups, spoke up for their ancestors as victims, and made positive, enriching contributions.

While the multicultural impulse was often salutary for the people within the groups involved, claims for multicultural integrity often, ironically, relativized the situation. The groups sounded more and more like each other even as they claimed difference (Menand 1992). As many of them challenged national religious metahistories and canons, they also often helped produce predictable countercanons and new components in the stories of ways to be American and religious (Marty 1996). This is not the place to question the integrity of these groups or to enlarge upon the double effect through which they both particularized and relativized religious expression. The only point to be made here is that, taken together, their efforts led to a further erosion of boundaries by their very multiplicity and often mutually exclusive claims.

The American pilgrim on a sacred journey therefore was free to be ever more eclectic. High-church Anglicans in Episcopal cathedrals came to sing the evangelical “Amazing Grace.” In mainstream Protestantism, God could be addressed as he or she or both or neither. White evangelicals sang black spirituals. Catholics on spiritual retreat might read Zen texts or Hasidic stories. Jews, often uncomfortable with kin Christianity, reached for more distant, Asian spiritual expressions to enhance their own. One might stay within a camp and thus be aware of boundaries, but the camp boundaries did not any longer hold captive or define the people within them. The people could reach across the old lines for whatever pleased or helped or challenged them in their spiritual journeys. The result was a kind of pastiche spirituality, made up of montages and collages of spiritual signals and symbols: it came to be called post-modernity.


Where boundaries survive

It would be misleading to claim that all American religion at century’s end could be captured with one metaphor. From the beginning, we have argued that the lines drawn on the religious maps remain and have certain kinds of significance. But the metaphorical mountains and rivers have their own secrets, which are now being laid bare. All too visible are those features of the landscape and climate that do not show up on the maps where political and organizational lines have been drawn.

New line-drawing also goes on, among people like Robert J. Lifton’s “constrictive” types as well as among people of open outlook. These latter seekers pursue integral and organic outlooks and ways of life through what has been called ressourcement, a return to sources. Extreme forms of this retrieval occur in fundamentalist efforts to draw boundaries and hold adherents with them while they promote negative views of the “other.” Moderate forms of this also take the form of patterns of resistance against the erosive and dissolving elements in American life, its spiritual marketplaces and cafeteria lines.

In the new century, one may expect a continued drama among those who, like so many around the world, have at least three choices. Some turn tribal and exclusive within their boundaries. Others seek to choose communal life of a more open character but still respectful of boundaries. Still others heed the call to “pay no attention to boundaries” and then invent new kinds of responses.



  1. Pioneers in formulating this literature are Robert Wuthnow, who, in The Restructuring of American Religion, saw “parachurch” or “Special Purpose Groups” as a challenge (Wuthnow 1988, 100-32), and Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, who, in American Mainline Religion, regarded “individualism” as a threat to the vitality of denominations and congregations (Roof and McKinney 1987, 244-51).
  2. Among the first to note this erosion of distinctives, or ignorance about it, was Gerhard Lenski in The Religious Factor (Lenski 1961). Several years before Lenski published, John A. Hardon, S. J., illustrated how relatively useless it was to follow the lines of dogmatic book boundaries to describe denominations such as the Methodists, Baptists, and the like; too few clergy and lay members were aware of, moved by, or content with the founding doctrines, and many had determined other ways to relate to the denominational traditions (Hardon 1956). But see works like Reimagining Denominationalism (1994), by Robert Bruce Mullin and Russell E. Richey, for illustrations in which denominational vitalities can be discerned and reconceived.



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Bedell, Kenneth B. 1997. Yearbook of the American and Canadian Churches 1997. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press.

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