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Plus Ca Change: Has American Religion Changed during the Past Century?

American religious life is not only content, it is also a continuous process.

In the year 1900, the United States had without question become a pluralistic society, at least in the minimal sense of possessing a population that had originated in a wide variety of places and was characterized by a wide variety of cultural and religious practices. Virtually unrestricted immigration had for the previous quarter of a century brought tens of millions of newcomers to American soil, and would continue to do so until the Great War prohibited extensive ocean travel. The impact of this immigration was uneven geographically. Entire regions of the country, such as the South, experienced very little impact, since its decentralized, economically underdeveloped, and socially closed character did not invite a new peopling. The most direct effect was rather in the urban Northeast, both in the already established population centers of the Atlantic seaboard, and even more dramatically in the maturing cities of the Great Lakes region, where the processing of livestock and iron ore as well as the incipient manufacture of automobiles and other heavy industrial goods throve on this influx of unskilled and unorganized labor.

The result in religious terms was the de facto pluralization of the population in general and of the religious landscape in particular. German and Irish immigration during the middle decades of the century had already created in the United States a substantial Roman Catholic population; the New Immigration, as the massive demographic upheavals of the century's later decades became known, both increased Catholic numbers dramatically and challenged the primacy of Irish-American leadership within that community. Germans and Poles especially had begun to demand equality of representation within the hierarchy by the turn of the century, and many Italians expressed alienation by following folk practices and generally ignoring the official cult. Catholics had not yet begun to influence politics significantly beyond promoting ethnic interests on the urban scene, but the seeds of an original Catholic voice on social issues had been laid in Pope Leo's 1893 encyclical, Rerum Novarum, on issues of labor and the just wage .

Jews were experiencing similar expansion and confusion through the massive influx of coreligionists from Central and Eastern Europe. Where many American Jews of Iberian and German descent were well-assimilated and even prosperous, the newcomers, usually poor and unwesternized, were likely either to follow the religious paths of Orthodoxy or to throw off religion altogether in favor of radical, secular political ideologies. The program of modernization and Americanization aggressively promoted by leaders of the Reform movement precipitated a polarization and fragmentation, resulting in the emergence of three major, distinct communities -- Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative -- by the early years of the twentieth century.

Within the Protestant community, if such an entity can be postulated, the "center" could probably be found in the cluster of denominations -- Northern Baptist, Congregational, Disciples, Episcopal (other than Anglo-Catholic), "English" Lutheran, Methodist, and Presbyterian -- which during the previous century were generally self-described as "Evangelical." Although membership in one of these English-speaking white Protestant groups was more or less de rigueur for full social acceptability and political influence in many parts of the nation, by the turn of the century they could hardly be counted on as a homogeneous religious force. Class lines were apparent in the privileged status of Episcopalians and Presbyterians, and regional differences in the prevalence of Lutherans in the Midwest and of Baptists and Methodists in the South. In the latter region, intradenominational splits over slavery had not yet healed, and the former Confederacy at this time constituted a cultural province with an alternate and paral lel set of denominational institutions. Most members of these denominations probably shared a moderate version of Evangelical theology, as exemplified in the ecumenical support that the campaigns of revivalist Dwight L. Moody regularly mustered. Theological lines were also beginning to be drawn, not only among these different groups on confessional and liturgical lines going back to the Reformation era, but increasingly now within denominations, especially Baptists and Presbyterians, as the impact of Darwinism and the historical criticism of the Bible began to polarize traditionalists (soon to be self-described as "Fundamentalists") and "Modernists."

What did distinguish this cluster of denominations from all other religious communities at the time was a shared sense among its members of constituting a distinctively American religious and cultural identity, and the possession of sufficient political and economic influence to impose that identity upon reluctant others. Anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism, genteel and otherwise, barred most nonwhite Protestants from the elite levels of social and educational institutions in an era when access to country clubs and Ivy League colleges was a growing prerequisite for acceptance and success. Alarm over the social consequences of unrestricted immigration would culminate in the 1920s in severe limitations upon the process, which would remain in place until the 1960s. Even more drastic restriction was already at work against Asians, then represented primarily in small enclaves in California and a few adjacent western states. African Americans, although formally free in the North, were nevertheless largely barred fr om even middle-class status by social and economic pressures, and in the South, where the majority still dwelt, were largely relegated to a politically powerless and economically subjugated caste status. Although some murmurs of separatism could be found among church leaders, for the most part the black church concerned itself with the spiritual and material welfare of its own community rather than raising audible voices of protest.

The power of the "Protestant establishment," internally diverse as it may have been in many ways, was most dramatically manifested during this era in the growing potency of the movement to ban the manufacture and sale of alcohol. What had begun early in the nineteenth century as a campaign among Protestants (and, later, many Irish Catholics) to promote voluntary abstinence from strong drink had metamorphosed by the century's latter decades into a drive to prohibit the use of such beverages entirely. This Prohibition movement, which briefly and unsuccessfully became the law of the land during the 1920s, was clearly aimed not only at "booze" itself but at its purveyors and consumers, many of whom were the immigrants who patronized the burgeoning cities' saloons. The eventual collapse of Prohibition during Franklin Roosevelt's first administration coincided with the emergence into political influence of Catholics, Jews, and others (including many Brahmin Episcopalians such as FDR himself) who had opposed it. Ho wever, the ability of what now seems an impossibly restrictive cause to gather support from many who at the time thought of themselves as progressives indicates the cultural unity that underlay much of the Protestant community of the era and its ability to translate those cultural predispositions into effective political action.

In addition to the Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish communities, the forerunners of movements that would later play a significant role in shaping the American religious landscape also could be found in the United States of 1900. In various middle-class urban Victorian circles, a fascination with what historian Sydney Ahlstrom has called "harmonialism" -- that is, a belief in the existence of metaphysical forces with which our own psychic powers must be correctly aligned if we are to achieve spiritual and physical wholeness -- manifested itself in such forms as spiritualism, Christian Science, New Thought, and Theosophy, and had a special appeal for urban women. These alternatives to conventional religiosity, which foreshadowed the New Age movement of the late 1900s, overlapped with a new interest in Asian religions, particularly Hinduism and Buddhism, which was fostered by the appearance of articulate representatives of those traditions at the 1893 World's Parliament of Religions in Chicago. Since ethnic Asi an practitioners of these faiths were few and isolated in the America of the time, a small but influential group of Euro-American converts began to emerge, abetted by visiting Asian teachers, as well as by the emergent disciplines of the comparative, historical, and behavioral study of religion, promoted by scholars such as James Freeman Clarke and William James. In addition, agnosticism by this time had become a socially acceptable intellectual position, especially within the elite circles exemplified by Clarke and James.

In short, most of the religious positions that can be found in the United States in the year 2000 had antecedents in the America of 1900. (Mormons, Eastern Orthodox, and other smaller groups could be added to the mix as well.) The difference lay in their relative configuration, their impact on the broader social order, and their changing perception by students of American religious history. Underlying all of these changes, however, has been a significant transformation in the legal and social ground rules which have governed intergroup relations. The most dramatic and visible transformation, of course, has been the dismantling of the legal segregation of African Americans, and the migration of vast numbers of blacks from the rural South to the urban North. The downfall of Jim Crow also brought about major changes in the position of the South vis-[grave{a}]-vis the nation as a whole. During the crucial decade of the 1960s, the South became simultaneously desegregated, suburbanized, and Republican. Its prior c oexistence with the rest of the nation as a virtual alternative state was transformed into its status as something of a cultural paradigm, as its legislators took control of the apparatus of government in the 1990s and its distinctive forms of Protestant religion, morality, and even music became nationally "mainstreamed." As part of the broader "Sunbelt" but retaining a cultural distinctiveness, the South displaced the Northeast as the originator of imperialistic social movements that had ramifications for the entire nation, especially in an era in which transportation was rapid and communication instantaneous.

Although the South has served since the 1970s as the fountainhead of a national conservative insurgency, the power of its politicized brand of Evangelicalism to transform the national ethos has been seriously limited by the counterforces previously unleashed during the 1950s and 1960s against which this insurgency originally took aim. The Civil Rights movement, legally successful but socially not entirely fulfilled, was the first of a number of similar movements, in which other ethnic minorities, women, and gays and lesbians publicly asserted claims to civil and social rights, all with a significant degree of success. College-level education, the privilege of a small minority prior to the GI Bill of the 1940s, was now functionally available to half of the population. The technology of contraception and abortion was now legally available to women everywhere, and the former was employed by most, dramatically undermining the notion of marriage as the normative arena for sexual activity, especially among the you ng. Easy-access divorce and the prevalence of working women also helped reconfigure the traditional family. A nation that at the turn of the previous century had still been predominantly rural had changed to a majority of urban dwellers and then suburbanites. Economic and geographical mobility, combined with revolutions in communications technology, undercut the hold of ethnos and region on the word views and commitments of millions, as did the ceaseless barrage of mass media stimuli available to the financially enfranchised young.

In the midst of this seemingly epic clash of secular cosmopolitanism and tribal religiosity stood the vast number of Americans whose relations to the sacred were dominated completely by neither. As in 1900, a large majority of Americans were Christians, a plurality of whom were Roman Catholics. Being Catholic, however, no longer signified membership in a discriminated-against and partially self-isolated minority community with strong Democratic tendencies, but rather in an inclusive, middleclass, well-educated, deghettoized, and largely postethnic denomination whose leaders combined economic liberalism and sexual conservatism and whose Republican-leaning laity seemed doubtful of both. The exception to the "postethnic" designation lay largely in the rapidly growing Latino community, which was linguistically unified but ethnically diverse and no longer uniformly Catholic in the wake of strong Evangelical inroads. The tensions between the impact of the reforms of Vatican II and the tradition-mindedness of the l ong-reigning Pope John Paul II underscored dramatic changes and divisions within the American Catholic community of 2000.

The same divisions within American Protestantism that were visible in 1900 still existed a century later, although the relative public influence of its various components had changed significantly. The social prestige and cultural power possessed by the cluster of Northern denominations that had once shared the self-descriptor "Evangelical" had yielded that designation and much of that power to a new configuration of Southern-based groups. Further, they had themselves first expanded, in part through mergers with their Southern counterparts, and then, beginning in the 1960s, begun to decline in membership and influence. Moderate to liberal in theology and social policies, inclusive and postethnic (although largely still white and middle-class in membership), these newly designated "Mainline" or "Oldline" denominations nevertheless continued to share with Roman Catholics a central position in American religious culture. The power which they had at one time exerted arose largely from their noncontroversial stan ces vis-[acute{a}]-vis the mainstream of public opinion. Although their espousal of the Social Gospel had positioned them as a significant force for change at the turn of the previous century, the secular cooptation of such concerns by the New Deal largely displaced them from political leadership. An embracing of the Civil Rights cause and its more radical successors in the 1960s led in part to the Evangelical reaction of the 1970s, alienating a significant segment of their membership. Although seldom visibly in the vanguard, though, these denominations continue to function as a testing-ground in which hotly contested social issues -- from racial equality through women's empowerment to gay rights -- are continually arbitrated. The "feminization" of the clergy in many of these denominations and the slow but seemingly inexorable struggle for the recognition of gay clergy indicates that these groups may in fact occupy a position of social centrality in the broader religious community.

Although a highly visible and influential left is not currently a presence in the Protestant spectrum, a right wing certainly is. The theological wars of the 1920s and the dramatic rise of Pentecostalism from its beginnings in a small Kansas Bible college at the turn of the century have given rise first to a (Southern and Midwestern) regional and then a national counterforce to the comprehensive Mainline groups. A major change in Evangelical ethos took place in the 1970s, when the Moral Majority and its successors and rivals broke with the traditional apoliticality of the Baptist tradition in particular and sought actively to influence the course of national politics, culture, and morality in a conservative direction. Its successes, though initially dramatic, were in fact partial and fragmented, since the combined force of judicial decisions, growing pluralism and secularism, and a widespread distaste for governmental interference in personal morality was too great to overcome in any but scattered and tempor ary ways. The rising economic and educational levels of these communities also had begun to militate in the direction of routinization toward the inclusive denominational norm.

Evangelicalism has been dramatically successful at an institutional level, less so at the political, and also highly influential in a more diffuse cultural sense. Across the land now, especially in suburban malls, are countless "Christian book stores," as well as radio stations, television shows, popular music, and independently produced films, all of which cater to a clientele that crosses denominational lines and convey a content in strong symbiotic tension with the dominant secular fare emanating from Hollywood and Manhattan. In like manner, New Age bookstores dot the landscape, purveying in an even more radically deinstitutionalized form a melange of religious options that are available to the adherents of any or no organized religious community. Where Christian Science and various New Thought groups have, even more dramatically than the Protestant mainline, suffered from institutional desertion, their "harmonial" heirs -- often independent authors, lecturers, "channelers," and the like -- have helped to create an alternative religious ethos which does not so much overtly challenge but rather supplement or discreetly undermine the hold of traditional forms of belief and worship in a highly individualized fashion. The emergence of "spirituality" -- that is, individual forms of religious belief, expression, and experience -- as an alternative to (organized denominational) religion is consistent with both of these forms of diffuse religiosity.

In addition to the organized or diffuse manifestations of Christianity, other religious traditions register visibly on the contemporary map, although their impact on the broader culture is ambiguous. The Jewish community holds steady at about 3 percent of the population, although only about half of that number can be identified as "religious" in a meaningful sense. Although Jews have not achieved quite the degree of social acceptance as Catholics -- a Jewish equivalent of John Kennedy has yet to arise on the political scene -- their influence on the cultural, intellectual, and professional arena has been vastly disproportionate to their numbers in the twentieth century. Jewish leaders, however, continue to bemoan the dilution of their collective strength through high rates of exogamy, and a significant number of Jews have opted for ideological and religious alternatives outside the mainstream, especially in Buddhism.

The role of Judaism as the major alternative to Christianity on the American religious map has also been challenged in recent years by the dramatic increase among other non-Christian communities by force of the greatly enhanced immigration from Asia and the Middle East made possible by liberalized governmental policies since 1965. By the millennium, Muslims had approached and possibly surpassed Jews in sheer numbers, though hardly in cultural impact. Both Muslims and Hindus share many social characteristics with Jews, however, especially an orientation toward education and success in the professions. And, more like Catholics than Jews, both of these groups have had to adjust to the fact that religion, ethnicity, and the social order no longer coincide for them, and that new approaches to exercising their traditional faiths in urban complexes where their coreligionists might come from significantly different linguistic and cultural origins have had to be devised. Buddhists are still largely confined to smalle r ethnic communities, especially along the West Coast, supplemented by burgeoning numbers of Euro-American converts attracted by the meditative and metaphysical emphases of the tradition.

Finally, the African American churches of 2000 have had to adjust to a world in which the Civil Rights revolution, profound as it may have been in altering irrevocably the legal ground rules of race in this country, has been unable to make a significant impact on the entrenched culture of poverty and dysfunction that is the lot of many urban blacks who seem beyond the reach of either church or government. The traditional black churches -- Baptist, Methodist, and "Sanctified" (Holiness-Pentecostal) -- have held their own in social power, especially among the middle classes; although Sunday morning is still sometimes referred to as the most segregated time in the American week, that segregation may be a voluntary affirmation by African Americans of institutions that are uniquely their own, even though they are actively welcomed at many predominantly white churches. However, the fall of racial barriers may have had the ironic effect of driving a greater distance between prosperous and disadvantaged blacks now t hat the former are no longer compelled to live in proximity to the latter. The collapse of late 1960s radical movements, backlash against affirmative action, and the intractability of the social problems of the ghetto have taken the edge off the momentum of the Civil Rights movement, whose immediate goals were dramatically realized but whose longer-run aims, as exemplified in the rhetoric of Jesse Jackson, have not proven susceptible either to governmental or religiously sponsored initiatives. The net result has been the recession of the black churches into a holding action, serving a positive force within the community but stalled in efforts to take again a proactive role in national policy-setting.

Has, then, very much changed on the American religious scene during the past century? Of course it has. Perhaps the most important changes can be summarized in the schematic of the "three disestablishments" proposed by sociologist Philip Hammond. [1] The first was the First Amendment's forbidding of any "establishment of religion" by the federal government in 1791, a prohibition universally adopted by the states by 1833. During the twentieth century, a second, and less formal, disestablishment was signaled by the failure of Prohibition, a distinct indication that the power of a Protestant "establishment" to translate its morality into legislation had come under serious challenge. Will Herberg's "triple melting pot" hypothesis of the 1950s translated this into positive terms: by mid-century, being Jewish or Roman Catholic had joined Protestant identity as a marker of "Americanism." [2] By the 1970s, however, Hammond argues that the challenges to authority of the 1960s and a growing secularism had obviated the need for any public religious identity as a prerequisite for social acceptance. The concomitant collapse of what Robert Bellah had identified as the American "civil religion" in the aftermath of the Vietnam debacle further helped dissociate public religious observance from personal and even civic identity. [3] The prevalence of the term "spirituality" by the end of the century was an indication that religion for many Americans had become privatized, a phenomenon epitomized in Bellah's popularization of the term "Sheilaism" as a synonym for a personally constructed, eclectic system of beliefs and practices independent of established traditions and movements. [4] Some have argued, in fact, that an emphasis on private experience and judgment has been a feature of American religiosity from its colonial beginnings, and that the current manifestations of privatization are simply the logical outcome of a long process. [5]

But much also remains the same, or at least similar. In the first place, the constitutional guarantees of the First Amendment, though continually challenged, tested, and refined in the courts, remain in place, assuring at least a formally protected status for diversity of belief and practice. What has shifted in this regard is that challenges are no longer likely to come from small sectarian groups, such as Quakers, Amish, and Jehovah's Witnesses, seeking acknowledgment of their rights to defy widely held norms of behavior. Instead, they are most likely to come from the religious right, which has systematically fought to maintain what had once seemed normative behavior such as praying and teaching the divine origins of humanity in the public schools. In any case, legal guarantees of liberty of belief and practice within broad limits, and the concomitant prohibition of governmentally sanctioned particularistic worship, set the boundaries of religious activity in the public sphere.

Secondly, the formal disestablishment of the churches that had held power in several of the colonies and the de facto pluralism that had resulted from the steady stream of diverse immigration into the colonies produced the phenomenon of denominationalism, by which a wide variety of religious groups attained equal status in the eyes of the law and found themselves thus in a competitive situation with one another. Evangelism -- the active recruitment of new members -- for the voluntary support of individual groups has been not only a necessary consequence but a positive theological desideratum, not only for self-styled Evangelicals but as well for many other groups eager for the time, energy, enthusiasm, and money of new members. Evangelicals have been especially adept at harnessing new technologies and techniques of merchandising to the enterprise. Denominationalism is also manifested in the tendency of new religious groups to routinize -- that is, adopt formal bureaucratic structures of organization -- if the y are to survive the transition to a second generation. (The Mormons or Latter-day Saints are a dramatic example of this process of routinization and cultural accommodation.)

Thirdly, a major consequence of the First Amendment as well as the continually unsettled social circumstances of the new nation has been the ongoing introduction of novelty into the religious scene. The early Republic was a particularly fertile time for new religions such as the Mormons and Shakers to originate or take hold in a society where anything seemed possible. Continuing immigration, whether from Europe, the Afro-Caribbean world, or, more recently, Latin America, the Middle East, and Asia, has ensured a continual stream of religious novelty, whether imported intact or, more usually, adapted in various ways to the American scene.

Fourthly, a powerful drive by the same religious right, based in the agencies of Protestant Evangelicalism, to maintain America as a de facto Christian nation remains unabated from the time of Prohibition, although its particular goals have shifted to the prohibition of allegedly deviant sexual behavior rather than alcohol, as well as the legal initiatives mentioned earlier. In addition to these initiatives now coming from the South rather than the Northeast, their rhetoric has shifted from that of progressive reform to one of restoration of the more integral norms of an earlier period, whether the time of the Founding Fathers or simply that of the 1950s before Roe v. Wade, feminism, and the sexual revolution. To be sure, such rhetoric can be traced back to second-generation New England Puritanism in the form of the jeremiad. In another twist, Roman Catholics have for decades become active in the drive for collective moral purification, beginning with their active role in promoting a code for the film indust ry in the 1930s. In any case, religion as an impetus to social and moral reform is an enduring motif.

Fifthly, and related to the second, many Americans remain in the habit of projecting social ills onto an other, often conceived in religious and ethnic terms. The prerequisite for this perception of otherness in the United States has been continuing immigration, forced or voluntary, which has brought to these shores an unending stream of perceptibly different newcomers. Nativism has been a continuing theme in American life from Lyman Beecher to Pat Buchanan, and its objects today range from Spanish-speaking illegal immigrants to prosperous Muslims suspected, however bizarrely, of nationalistic terrorism. What has changed is that the nativists now include many Catholics whose ancestors were once the targets of such suspicion themselves. It is perhaps unnecessary to note that racism, a close kin of nativism, also endures in many, now extra-legal manifestations.

The list could go on. The point is, I think, that while the content of American religion is in a continual flux as new groups arrive or arise and shifts of influence continue, the underlying processes that have made the religious life of the United States distinctive since its national origins also persist. The more the content changes, one might say, the more the process remains the same.

PETER W. WILLIAMS is Distinguished Professor of Comparative Religion and American Studies at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. His most recent book is Houses of Cod: Region, Religion, and Architecture in United States (University of Illinois Press, 1997).


(1.) Phillip E. Hammond, Religion and Personal Autonomy: The Third Disestablishment in America (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1992).

(2.) Will Herberg, Protestant, Catholic, Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1955).

(3.) Robert N. Bellah, "Civil Religion in America," in The Religious Situation: 1968, ed. Donald R. Cutler (Boston: Beacon, 1968), 331-55.

(4.) Robert N. Bellah, et al., Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1985), 221, 235.

(5.) See, for example, Amanda Porterfield, "The Puritan Legacy in American Religion and Culture," in Perspectives on American Religion and Culture, ed. Peter W. Williams (Maiden, Mass., and Oxford, 1999), 80-91.
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Publication:Cross Currents
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Date:Mar 22, 2000
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