Friday, April 22, 2011

Tri-Faith America

Andrew Koppelman

Kevin Schultz’s marvelous new book, Tri-Faith America: How Catholics and Jews Held Postwar America to its Protestant Promise, nicely illuminates the pre-World War II origins of contemporary ideals of tolerance and inclusion. It also sheds useful light on Justice Scalia’s recent efforts to reconceptualize the Establishment Clause.

Schultz shows how a deliberately fashioned coalition of Protestants, Catholics, and Jews (which eventually became the National Conference of Christians and Jews) worked together in a movement to refashion national identity so that all three faiths were understood as equally American. The idea was first devised in the 1910s and 1920s, first in response to the newly revitalized Ku Klux Klan, then in reaction to European totalitarianism in the 1930s. By World War II, it was incorporated into official government war material that was disseminated to millions of servicemen. By the 1960s, the idea of “Judeo-Christian America” was available for appropriation by the movement for racial equality, an issue that its pre-World War II proponents had carefully avoided. (The phrase frequently appears in the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., for example.) Drawing on a rich array of primary sources, Schultz shows how what was at first a small social movement managed to bring American society closer to its liberal ideals. It is a hugely important story, and I found it riveting reading.

The purpose of the idea of the “Judeo-Christian” was to make traditional, deep theological differences and well-embedded prejudices less salient than the idea that each of the three major faiths was simply a different way of worshipping the same God. In its time, it did a great deal of good.

It is that history that Justice Scalia implicitly relied on in his dissent in Lee v. Weisman, a 1992 decision invalidating a high school graduation prayer: “nothing, absolutely nothing, is so inclined to foster among religious believers of various faiths a toleration-- no, an affection--for one another than voluntarily joining in prayer together, to the God whom they all worship and seek. Needless to say, no one should be compelled to do that, but it is a shame to deprive our public culture of the opportunity, and indeed the encouragement, for people to do it voluntarily.” The limitation on government endorsement of religion that he proposes has its roots in the ideal of Tri-Faith America that Schultz describes: government should be barred from “specifying details upon which men and women who believe in a benevolent, omnipotent Creator and Ruler of the world are known to differ (for example, the divinity of Christ.)" More recent decisions of the Court suggest that Justice Scalia may be getting his way. Arizona Christian School Tuition Organization v. Winn, for example, which a few weeks ago held that no one has standing to challenge a tax credit for religious schools, suggests that the Court is less interested than it once was in vigorously enforcing the constraints of the Establishment Clause.

The problem with Scalia’s prescription of official monotheism is that it doesn’t fully appreciate the ways in which the ideal of Tri-Faith America responded to the conditions of pluralism specific to early Twentieth Century America. That ideal was attractive and even necessary precisely because, since the founding of the United States, the country’s religious composition had changed, with large numbers of Catholic and Jewish immigrants. What was inclusive in the 1940s is not necessarily inclusive today, any more than my then-perfectly fitting raincoat from elementary school would fit me today. We now have millions of atheists, agnostics, New Agers, Buddhists, Hindus, and assorted others. (Muslims have arrived in large numbers as well, but they aren't excluded by Scalia's proposal in the way these others are.) Theism is no better as a basis for social unity than the generalized Protestantism that prevailed at the time of the founding. If the aim is shared agreement, then it is counterproductive to propose unifying principles that large numbers of citizens cannot possibly agree to. If we are going to find bases of social unity today, they will have to be broader than this.

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