Friday, December 14th, 2012
These religious, theological, and ecclesial changes ran parallel with and intersected with changes in mobility, cultural identity politics, and worldview alternatives. Historians of religion in the late twentieth century followed suit, challenging traditional religious narratives too heavily focused on Puritan ideals and cultural hegemony. The descent of Protestantism in American intellectual ideology was fostered by an increasing recognition of pluralism, voluntarism, and cross-cultural contact.
Religious changes since 1950 have been massive indeed. The first philosophical problem encountered in the 1960s was the perceived hegemony of Protestant thought. The rise of Catholic and Jewish intellectuals challenged the accepted narrative creating the first step in undermining the cultural consensus. Will Herberg’s Protestant, Catholic, Jew argued for three occasionally overlapping spheres of religious experience in American culture. Their combined efforts against the perception of an anti-religious communism brought the three independent groupings together in a unified American ideal.1
Robert Bellah saw the consensus ideology as a unique phenomenon informed by these three spheres and called it “American Civil Religion” with its worship of its own saints and martyrs, religious sites and pilgrimages, and its own religious rituals. Civil religion remains a site of scholarly debate today as to exactly what it entails, where it best applies, and how it works. The debates regarding Civil Religion opened up the scholarship to a consciousness of America’s Protestant hegemony.
The second shift in the historiography was the incorporation of sociological, anthropological, and ethnographic methods to the study of American religion. As scholars began to view American history through new lenses, pluralism emerged throughout American history – pluralism noticeably absent from the grand narrative. Americans had always been pluralistic, and the nation was founded in part on the disestablishment of religion. Continual immigration and religious innovation had created widely variegated religious ideas and practice. When combined with economic opportunities and seemingly infinite space, the country inevitably fertilized a massive plurality of religious expression. The Immigration Act of 1965 opened the United States to massive immigration, particularly from East and South Asia and South and Central America, bringing a variety of ancient religious practices and ideas with it.
The countercultural ideas regarding extreme freedom, personal authenticity and something I call “religious realism” inoculated the American experience with openness to alternative religious experiences beyond the dominant traditions. Americans experienced these expanding religious options in a very American ahistorical syncretic manner. Using a variety of new sociological tools scholars uncovered a great deal of variety in American history at the same time as they themselves experienced an expanding pluralism. Scholars at the end of the millennium began to recognize that religion and culture were inseparable and intermingling. New more provisional narratives emerged creating meaning and logic from religious experience.
As a direct result of the cultural upheavals of the 1960s a new force in American politics emerged in the Christian Right. As a synthetic political collaboration between social conservatives, Evangelicals, Fundamentalists, and Pentecostals, the force came to dominate the Republican Party by the early 1980s, supporting the presidencies of Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush.
The ascendancy of the Religious Right caught the mostly secular and mainline left off guard. Having undergone a movement away from national politics in the late 1920s, Fundamentalists in America had been largely ignored, yet fostered significant growth during that period. Some Evangelical leaders like Billy Graham gained national fame and political influence, but a great deal more occurred away from the spotlight as Evangelicals developed their own countercultural views inculcated through TV, radio and their own publication circles. The move back to political power in the late 1970s came as a surprise to many and demonstrated a shift in Evangelicalism away from isolationism and personal experience to a concerted effort to regain cultural dominance in America. This movement called for the dissolution of denominationalism and the ascension of a particular (but understood as a universal and traditional) Born Again Christianity.2
In total, these three shifts in the last half of the twentieth century drastically altered America in its variety of religious experiences and its recognition of difference. The descent of Protestantism in American culture opened up the view of our past as pluralistic and awakened a recognition of difference as having had direct contributive impact on the American experiment. The rise of pluralism challenged our understandings of the past and the question of who we were as a people – if even there has ever really been a “we” to begin with. The emergence of the Christian Right in one sense represents a very particular type of religious experience, but it too stems from recognition that choice, pluralism, and syncretism have always been a part of the American experience.
Theological shifts since 1950 have also had great effect on American culture. Theology followed the religious shift from the hegemonic to pluralistic with a slight delay. But at times the emergence of new theological options had immediate effects on the culture immediately as well. The first shift in the 1950s were the great ecumenical accomplishments such as the formation of the National Council of Churches and the corresponding World Council of Churches. Ecumenism followed theologically from a concept of the universal church and the idea that disparate traditions should in fact work together to create world peace and justice. Denominationalism was considered sinful. In a few short years ecumenical work also became interreligious work, first between Christians and Jews, then between Christians, Jews and Muslims, and soon extending to the religions of the world. Interreligious experience brought with it both experiences of self pride but also of religious humility in the face of alternative equally viable religious traditions. Theologies of pluralism, soon emerged to help describe this new religious reality.3
In the so-called third world, one such theology developed. The forces of decolonization fostered the growth of theologies of liberation. As immigration expanded in the 1960s theologies of justice and the preferential option for the poor entered the American scene, and undermined the Protestant cultural authorities and created space for alternative views of America as a destructive world power. These largely Roman Catholic theologies inspired the creation of a Black Liberation Theology as an authentic black religious expression.4
Other oppressed cultural groups in America fashioned their own culturally informed theologies resulting in a grouping of peopled theologies. The Civil Rights movement, the New Left and the Counterculture inspired white and black American women to begin to think of the theological implications of misogyny, resulting in new theological strains of Feminist and later Womanist theologies. Feminist and Womanist theories drew from traditional theological sources, but also from non-traditional (even non-Christian) sources.5 The trend continued through the following decade and extended to a peopled theology of Queer theory – a re-creation of theology for Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, Transgendered people and their allies. More importantly, Queer Theology is an effort at recognizing difference as a theological value at the core of the religious experience.
Historical narratives from the nineteenth and early twentieth century attempted to draw American life into a single unified stream of history. Puritan values such as hard work, universal education, family centered society, and capitalism have been argued as such organizing principles. Other ideas such as a the idea of Progress, of American exceptionalism, chosen status, and of America as world savior still infiltrate our society today, but without the power of unity and the determinism that made these hegemonic in the 1950s.
Unified meta-narratives simply could not stand against the pressure of America’s past that continually defies amalgamation. This is not to say that there is no longer intrinsic value for narrative in the American experience; that would be far too naïve and limited. But the expansion of narrative to include the diversity and pluralism of the American experience challenges the notion of a single unified theory. Monolithic historical narratives create a kind of purified uniform past that never was. So while useful in organizing some aspects of society into understandable chunks, the hegemony of meta-narratives has rightly gone extinct. The summation of the religious changes in the United States over the past half century has been an extreme expansion of the recognition of pluralism and the value of cultural contact. Unified cultural ideology is continually being eroded by experiences of difference and new forms of historical narratives expressed through it.
 Will Herberg, Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1955.
 Robert Bellah, “Civil Religion in America”, Dædalus, Journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences 96, no. 1 (Winter 1967).
 Preston Shires, Hippies of the Religious Right, Waco: Baylor University Press, 2007.
 See as an example of pluralistic theology John B. Cobb, Varieties of Protestantism, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960.
 James Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation, Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1970.
 See as an example of early Feminist Liberation Theology, Rosemary Radford Ruether, The Church against Itself: An Inquiry into the Conditions of Historical Existence for the Eschatological Community, New York : Herder and Herder, 1967.